Shtick, no stones. That was the plan. Mutual radio host Larry King brought his all-night national talk show to Atlantic City last Friday for a little fun. Some humorous interviews, a little light chatter, and then to the phones.
"Down with Khomeini," said the first caller. Cut off the food supply, said Kansas City. If Israel can do it at Entebbe, the United States can certainly swoop down on Tehran, said Philadelphia. Cut off the oil, said Chicago. Down with the shah. Attack. Negotiate. Nuke 'em.
"It has been amazing," says King, whose Crystal City-based call-in-show is heard daily on 160 stations (and whose callers pay for their calls). "Every night since the hostage situation began -- as soon as the guests leave, all the calls are on Iran."
At WRC-AM (980), the Washington NBC outlet programmed almost entirely with listener call-in shows, the average number of calls to the station in one hour is about 100. On Monday, 3,200 calls were attempted during one hour of the Bernie McCain morning show, the station says. Some 2,400 came in during an hour of Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan's afternoon show last week. The topic in both cases was Iran.
"I've been discussing Iran for seven nights now, three hours a night," said WRC all-night host Sheldon Tromberg. "All the lines have been lit up at all times.
"I feel like the guy at the pump during the time of the gas lines. And everybody wants a five-minute minimum."
The siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, according to several Washington radio talk-show hosts interviewed yesterday, has sparked more total phone calls -- and more overt patriotism, both militant and mild -- than many say they've received on any one issue in recent memory.
The callers -- by and large described as "frustrated but reasonable" -- range from retired diplomats who think complying with the Iranians' demands for the shah's return is "unthinkable" to Iranian students in American who oppose Ayatollah Khomeini but are afraid to go to work for fear of reprisals.
"One man who identified himself as a retired foreign service officer and one-time colonel who fought in Korea called to say that any suggestions of military action were totally wrong-headed," says WRC's Pat Buchanan, who described the calls on his show as "a very good reflection of the level of emotion in the country, the intensity of feeling going on at the moment."
"Another caller seriously suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons on Iran," Buchanan said, "and another said, 'send them the shah'. But these are the extremes. Most people have been angry, yes, frustrated. But most have also spoken out for moderation, for a peaceful resolution.
King says he's gotten calls from eight people who identified themselves as Iranian students. Of the eight, he says six expressed support for the American position, agreeing that the takeover of the embassy was wrong. Two were in support of Iran. All of them sounded scared, King says.
"There've been surprisingly few of what I call crackpots," King says, "and the anger has been generally below the surface. When one of those Iranian students who supported Khomeini hung up, in fact, the next call was from a guy who said, "The previous caller made some very good points. Now he should go home to Iran.'"
Foreign students in general, says King appear to be big fans of American radio talk shows: "I think it gives them a pretty good ear as to what's happening in the collective American mind."
The collective American mind (or at least a local version thereof) is what the programmers at middle-of-the-road WMAL-AM (630) hoped to tap when they opened the phone lines for a few hours last Thursday and Friday. If patriotism is what WMLA was looking for, the station struck it rich as caller after caller decried the Iranian takeover. Midday announcer Tom Gauger was sufficiently moved to play a couple of patriotic marches.
"Maybe Three Mile Island produced a similar reaction," says Buchanan. "But Iran to a lot of people is a much less complex issue than the nuclear problem."
Most talk-show hosts described the majority of callers as "unanimously patriotic." Buchanan says every call is "without exception indignant." Tromberg says his late-night callers seem to have "more considered, reflective comments about the day's events."
And King has been actively recordkeeping: "The overwhelming feeling on Carter is that he's indecisive. They're willing to support him, but not necessarily confident that he's doing the right thing. Ten percent of the callers want some kind of military action. About half favor cutting off everything we can to Iran. And last night, the unanimous feeling was that the shah should get out of America -- "though not necessarily be sent back to Iran."
Picking up the phone during a situation such as the Iranian siege, says WRC's Karen Shanor, a psychologist who is host of a daily afternoon call-in show, is a fairly natural thing to do.
"Most people are feeling helpless, they don't know what to do," says Shanor. "Part of this great outpouring of calls is that this is a way to act, to do something that will be heard. This is an excellent way to be heard."
"A lot of crises can be prevented just by telling people vent their emotions,' Shanor says, "and by letting others with similar feelings listen in."