After WMAL suspended talk show host Michael Graham last month for calling Islam a "terrorist organization," the Washington station needed another aural flamethrower -- quicker than you can say "provocative talk radio." One phone call to California took care of the problem.
Without leaving home, Mark Williams, whose evening talk show on Sacramento's KFBK focuses heavily on the scourge of illegal immigration, was able to take over Graham's time slot on 630 AM and produce a program about the hottest political issues in the Washington area.
Williams jumped right into the debate over how to deal with day laborers in Herndon, where hundreds of immigrants gather each morning outside a 7-Eleven, hoping to be hired for lawn or construction work.
Though he has never set foot in Herndon, Williams instantly became a major factor in the local controversy, especially after he urged listeners opposed to day laborers to "melt the switchboard" at the town clerk's office. WMAL's loyal listeners responded by flooding Herndon's offices with calls, leading the town manager to unplug the lines for four days.
Mission accomplished, at least in the view of a station that lives or dies on how much buzz it generates. All in a day's work for Williams, who, like a number of other talk hosts around the country, regularly does substitute and vacation relief work for stations in cities thousands of miles away.
The phenomenon of phantom talk hosts -- who are generally mum on the air about their physical whereabouts -- is largely a product of the Internet age. "I can immerse myself totally in the local issues in a couple of hours," Williams says. For his WMAL gig, he simply went online each day and read The Washington Post, Washington Times, the news pages of local TV stations and a few local blogs. Presto, local talk host, Williams says: "Change the names and the issues are essentially the same as in other cities -- taxes, growth, dissatisfaction with politics, illegal immigration."
Before the Web, Williams and other talk hosts called on to do substitute work needed a couple of weeks' notice so they could send for hard copies of local newspapers. Alternatively, stations would fly in fill-in announcers for short stints.
Williams and other talk hosts say there are stylistic differences between markets, and that they can adapt their on-air manner to fit local tastes. "I do me wherever I'm on the air, but I kind of have to tone me down in a new market," Williams says. "I haven't laid the foundation in a new city that I have with my listeners in Sacramento. Here I'm on TV a lot, I run public demonstrations on immigration and other issues. I kind of throttle back in a place like Washington."
In the industry, Washington listeners are regarded as less tolerant of red-meat political talk than audiences in most other cities. "They're not accustomed to the kind of gloves-off radio talk that's common elsewhere," Williams says. And true enough, even his throttled-down act was denounced as "hate radio" by many involved in the Herndon debate.
"Talk radio is 'Meet the Press' meets WWF," Williams says. "But in Washington, people think talk radio is Diane Rehm," the WAMU public radio host whose serious discussions Williams derides as being "as boring as watching paint dry; she'll do 90 minutes on the economic indicators for Micronesia."
Which Williams would be happy to address, too -- if he gets the call from a Micronesian talk station.