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Conservatively speaking, WMAL radio host Chris Plante is on the rise

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; C01

And on the morning after, Chris Plante didn't rest. There was no time for that. Not when there was so much crowing to do.

"We're singing and a-singing!" trilled Plante, starting off his daily talk show on WMAL-AM on Wednesday to the strains of the gospel-pop tune "Oh Happy Day." "The citizens of our great land, the taxpayers, the voters have spoken. And now the question: What is the message they just delivered?"

Never shy with an opinion, Plante quickly offered his own answer: "Solid results in the House. Some mixed results in the Senate. Huge gains in the governors' mansions." Later, he added, "Yeah, the Democrats got their butts kicked."

Tuesday was a good day for Republicans, which meant it was an excellent day for WMAL, a news-talk station stacked top to bottom with conservative talkers and the listeners who love them. Plante occupies the mid-morning slot, following former House Republican (and onetime "Love Boat" star) Fred Grandy in morning drive; Plante's show precedes the mightiest righty of them all, Rush Limbaugh, whose syndicated show is broadcast in midday.

Plante, 50, isn't too far, ideologically, from Grandy and Limbaugh, but he's got his own style. He's quick and snappy, with an arsenal of signature digs and japes (the president is the imperial "Barackus Obamus," cable network MSNBC is "MSLSD," etc.) and a gift for prodding and provoking his audience. Each segment is set off with a thumping rock beat, which enhances Plante's bad-boy vibe.

On Wednesday, the host ran a victory lap. As audio engineer Mike McKay cued up sound bites and musical intros, Plante stood at his microphone for nearly three hours and brought the snark. "Here is the dust-covered Harry Reid," he said, speaking of the battered Senate majority leader, who barely survived reelection, "speaking as forcefully as he could through his iron lung."

Of California's electorate, he quips, "They vote for Barbara Boxer as their senator and Jerry Brown as their governor. And pot is illegal? That's like sticking your head in the oven and calling for help. California just reaffirmed its nuttiness."

At another point, he launches into a broadside against the media, a favorite target. "One thing this election was, was a referendum on the news media," he says. "We've growing disgusted with the inherent corruption in our political system, and one part of that is the corruption in the news media." He calls liberal foils like Chris Matthews "an award-winning journalist." He doesn't mean it kindly.

During commercial breaks, Plante makes it clear that he isn't just doing shtick. As he flips through the morning's Washington Post, he mutters darkly about all the "liberal" editorials and op-eds.

Other the other hand, there is another hand. Although he doesn't talk about it on the air much, Plante is essentially a social moderate. He favors decriminalizing (but not legalizing) marijuana and preserving the right to abortion, and lines up with Obama on gay rights (civil unions, though not marriage). "I'm not a big fan of the heavy hand of government," he says.

Plante calls himself a "third-generation media person" because media is practically the family business. His grandfather Pat Barnes was a radio and TV newsman and host for more than 40 years. Plante's late mother, Barbara Barnes Orteig Plante, was on Mutual radio and hosted a morning show on a Milwaukee TV station while Plante and his five brothers were growing up. His father, Jules Orteig, was on the business side at U.S. News & World Report. Plante's stepfather is Bill Plante, the esteemed CBS correspondent and anchor. One of Chris's brothers, Mike, is a senior producer at Fox News; another, Dan, is a TV anchor in San Diego.

The radio gig, however, was a bit of an accident. Chris Plante spent 17 years at CNN as a researcher, assignment editor and field producer on the military and national security beats. He left the network twice, the last time intending to get out of the news business for good. But a chance encounter with Chris Berry, then WMAL's general manager, at a party in 2005 gave him another idea. Berry liked Plante's punchy style and ever-ready opinions so much that he asked whether Plante was interested in coming over to the station for a tryout.

A week after his tryout, Plante was on the air. "He was not only glib and well-informed, but like any talk-show host, he could offer an opinion within 60 seconds," says Berry, now a radio-station consultant in Los Angeles. "I saw he had potential because he was passionate about what he believed in and he wasn't afraid to challenge someone on their beliefs."

Five years later, Plante seems to have hit his stride. He regularly finishes as the third most popular program in his time slot (behind all-news WTOP and soft-rock WASH); his ratings have even exceeded Limbaugh's for the past two months. Overall, Plante's share of the audience has almost doubled since a year ago. His surge has helped WMAL -- a powerhouse that fell on hard times -- regain its footing as one of the region's 10 most popular stations (it was ranked eighth last week). "He's leading the charge," says Bill Hess, the station's program director.

Plante occasionally takes things too far, as he did on his Tuesday morning show. After a caller who described himself as a Vietnam veteran said he would have been in prison if he'd met Jane Fonda on the street because he would have attempted to kill her, Plante egged him on, saying, "Yeah, but you'd be a national hero. Your name would be on T-shirts." Thinking better of it, he quickly added, "I kid! I kid!"

By Wednesday, flush with a series of conservative electoral victories, many of Plante's callers were in a celebratory mood, dancing on the Democrats' losses.

"If you're voting for [Democratic candidates] you're an idiot," a caller tells Plante in the third hour. "You're a bunch of idiots." Standing at his microphone, Chris Plante for once doesn't have a comeback. He just chuckles.

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