Battle Line

Battle Lines Drawn
by Mike Kinosian
from 'Inside Radio'

Take your pick: Left wing or right wing.

Contrary to popular belief, not all talk hosts fall neatly into one of those two categories. Since June 2000, Radio America's Alan Nathan has proudly carried the centrist torch. According to Nathan, his daily three-hour "Battle Line" is the only talk radio show featured on both "Sirius Talk Left" and "Sirius Talk Right."

Bedroom & Money Mantra
The upstate New York native likes to strike a balance with his show. "Most [other] centrists are ameliorating, consensus-building; my show is aggressively centrist," he remarks. "When people tune in, they [know] that we want the Republicans out of our bedroom and the Democrats out of our wallet and both out of our First and Second Amendment rights."

People hearing that interesting show mantra for the first time generally get a big kick out of it; however, neither Democrats nor Republicans feel threatened.

In fact, Nathan, remarks, "Each feels emboldened. You hopefully get the sense there's an aggressive centrism here. But while aggressive, we're still about fair play. I've been convinced for a long time that this has been missing from radio."

Radio And Television Biases
A former television correspondent, Nathan left that medium after becoming "fed up" with what he believed was a left-leaning bias. "It's just as we can honestly admit there's genuinely a disproportionate amount of conservatives in commercial radio," he comments. "There's no two ways about it - in popular, commercial talk radio, there's a far more conservative [slant] than anything else."

Television reporters have clear boundaries. "You are to immerse yourself in the `who,' `what,' `where,' `when' and `why,'" notes Nathan, who attended the University of Wales College of Swansea. "You shouldn't bring any bias, but clearly, all of us have our biases. Even your attempt to understand objectivity is acquired through subjective means. Still, you're getting a lot closer than if you didn't bother trying at all. As a correspondent, you really need to be mindful of that, if you're really going to be properly serving your viewing audience."

The Fun Ends
Formerly on the Financial News Network's "The Insiders With Jack Anderson," Nathan was with the show until FNN was sold to NBC. As he recounts, "It was made part of CNBC and a couple thousand of us lost our jobs."

Suddenly out of work, Nathan put together a PBS pilot. "The checks were slow and my bills were not," he jests. "Unfortunately, I didn't have time to hold out for that [show to be picked up]."

Reminded of exactly why he felt an aggressive centrist voice might be the very thing that was needed on the airwaves, Nathan notes, "I find myself agreeing and disagreeing, embracing and rejecting perspectives held on both sides of the aisle. I'm convinced that Republicans and Democrats take our freedoms by empowering the government to bully individuals with intrusive legislation."

At the same time, however, he says, "Libertarians will take those same freedoms by empowering the wealthy to bully individuals with fiscal tyranny. I don't care if you marginalize folks by governmental edict or by corporate fiat, you're no less a thief of their independence and I wanted to bring that into the fray and get down and dirty."

All Alone
One distinct downside is that centrists like Nathan don't tend to have support groups. "When you look at any issue long enough, it's the centrists who bring home some semblance of order," he maintains. "The left and right keep each other in check, but I like to prove that a centrist can dish the dirt with the best of them; be just as provocative; and - dare I say - be logical. It's a different world, but I'm having fun."

Disenfranchised Independents
When it comes to a patient's bill of rights or augmenting veterans' benefits, Nathan is side-by-side with the Democrats, but embraces Republicans, when it comes to Second Amendment rights and reforming Social Security. "There are genuinely credible properties that each side brings to the table; most Americans get that," he remarks. "Many Americans aren't at the mercy of boilerplate rhetoric coming from one extreme or the other. They'll usually find something of merit from both sides and make their final decision on a person who best represents those traits in the aggregate."

Centrists aren't to be confused with independents, who Nathan claims, "can falsely give the impression that they're in the middle - often, however, they're not. An independent is usually a disenfranchised leftie who feels the Democrats deserted them or a disenfranchised right-winger who feels the same about the Republicans. They're usually to the greater extreme of their party, feeling as if their party has lost its way. A centrist is generally someone who believes there's something of credit from both sides, but clearly neither side has the market cornered when it comes to convictions, ideas and policies."

Jack Of All Trades
Predating Nathan's weekday Radio America show was a weekend show. The leap to syndicated host was made from his stint as a weekend personality on WZHF/Alexandria, VA. "I was self-produced and generated my own dollars," he states. "People backed up this little local show. I was doing fine and making money with this thing I created."

The experience he gained in radio and hosting a public access, cable television show helped lead to a big break. "I adapted my radio show to that public access show," Nathan says. "I wanted to be part of Jack Anderson's show. I thought I'd have him on my show and he'd be so impressed that he'd invite me to work with him."

As it turns out, that's exactly what happened. "I had him on my little radio show a number of times. I went from being a small town talk host to national TV correspondent in very quick order. I did that for seven months, until the [FNN sale] fiasco happened."

On the air at WZHF for several months, Nathan fired off a tape to Radio America President Jim Roberts. "He liked the centrist angle and brought me in; it worked out very quickly. They brought me in to do the weekend show."

The only condition was that the title of Nathan's show be "Battling The Left And Right." When Nathan transitioned to weekdays, the title of his show was further reduced to "Battle Line" and it's been that way since June 2000. "When I first started [on weekends], I had zero stations - I didn't get to inherit anything," he says. "It grew pretty quickly and it was based on that growth that Radio America rewarded me with the [weekday] show."

More Time - More Interaction
Discussion on the show centers on just about everything that relates to social, cultural and political issues. "We'll [deal with subjects like] the uselessness of the United Nations; gay marriages; what kind of television we let our children watch, and if we're going overboard; as well as some funny things."

Since its inception, "Battle Line" has aired Monday-Friday between 10am-12 Noon (ET).

But two significant developments occurred this past President's Day (Monday, February 16th).

The show expanded to 1pm (ET) and, for the first time in its nearly four-year-history, the program began airing listener calls. "The show has always been guest-generated, panel-driven, dialogue and debate with no callers," Nathan points out. "The callers we allow to join us become temporary panelists. It will be a bit different for them. Instead of having `drive-by' callers, we give them a seat at the table for a few minutes. They have exchanges with the other guests."

Keeping Up With The Host
Reflective of the highly energetic host, it's quite common for the program to go at about 120 miles-per-hour. "The Friday show is unique, because we go through the weekly wrap-up," Nathan explains. "It's not the conventional callers. I have no time for `drive-by' callers. There are plenty of people out there who have some sharps. We let them join the panel over the phone; they have some back and forth with us; and then, we move to the next one. It's been the most dramatic shift in the show."

Some listeners had been frustrated because the show hadn't taken calls. The inclusion of that element has made the show a bit busier. "People now have a chance to yell at me," Nathan says jokingly. "In this business, you have to develop a thick skin, or you'll develop a thick skull. After going back and forth with these national leaders, it's a welcome change to include some callers who simply put forward what Americans go through every day. I just have to make sure that they keep pace with the show."

Call-driven shows usually entice a small percentage of their total listenership. It's therefore advisable, Nathan says, "to market your show with an appreciation to the [vast majority who don't call]. You don't want to just play to your callers - you have to play to your audience. Most of your audience is perfectly content to sit back and enjoy a dialogue that keeps them engaged. Most aren't interested in calling in. Those are the people I try to remember when I do my show."

Entertainment Value
One requirement a caller must satisfy before becoming a "Battle Line" participant is they must add something meaty to the show. "We want them to bring their anger and passion, but bring an opinion that's filled with conviction and can heighten the program's entertainment value," Nathan states. "While we're talking about many substantive issues, if we're not entertaining, we're not staying on the dial."

As someone who clearly loves rapid-fire dialogue and hardcore debate, Nathan was quite comfortable doing the show without callers. "I chose the right guests," remarks Nathan, who took a stand in favor of the war against Iraq. "If you get the right ones, you can have a blast. I've interviewed well over half of Congress and about 30 U.S. Senators. Mine is the only radio show that's had Cher on arguing politics for a full hour."

The lanky singer proved to be quite capable in that forum. "She was pretty darn good," Nathan says with conviction. "She was only going to be on for five minutes or so, but I got her so angry [that she decided to stay]. She was a big Al Gore supporter, but was open for her dislike of [former 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and Gore's 2000 running mate] Joseph Lieberman, based on his First Amendment issues. But she was having fun with the anger. That's the thing we try to do. We like it when people are spirited, but they're having fun with it."

Congressional Split
Most members of Congress Nathan has interviewed have come across quite well. Some others, however, have proven to be surprisingly disappointing. "Several of them didn't have the edge and zeal you'd expect and aren't as researched as you'd hoped," he explains. "It's incumbent upon the host to keep them entertaining in their presentation - not to protect the host, but to protect the audience's pleasure."

Always hoping that his audience gets to hear some spirited dialogue, Nathan states, "I love it when we get someone with a chip on his or her shoulder and a bit of a bite. It's not always about me being right - that would kill the audience. You want the opposition to land a few punches and to be humanized. I like it if I have a good strong guest who can engage in some rough and tumble rhetoric. What I find unfortunate is, more often than should be the case, you have representatives who are not all that swift of thought. Those are the ones who are whittled out. The ones I have on [regularly] don't fall into that category."

Primary Point
When Nathan covered the New Hampshire primary, he had the opportunity to meet with executives at Northeast Broadcasting's WKBR-AM/Manchester. "They take Bill O'Reilly's show and my show and I'm outselling O'Reilly," Nathan boasts. "It's doing very well there and at a number of other stations. It was a lot of fun being [with them]."

Syndicated hosts sometimes overlook that their show is only as strong as their affiliates. "They forget that you need to touch base with these GMs and PDs to [tell them] you appreciate the fact that they're carrying your program," Nathan says. "They're allocating hours of their clock to do that and you can't forget about them. It's a professional courtesy and, in the case of WKBR, they've actually become friends. It was a lot of fun seeing them during the primaries."

Different Take
Someone who could combine Johnny Carson's humor alongside David Frost's seriousness would, in Nathan's estimation, make a great radio host. "It would have to be someone who the audience sees as having a good strong grasp of the issues, but also doesn't mind sharing a lot of laughs along the way."

With respect and high regard for people who've done very well in this business, he remarks, "Maybe they've attained a degree of legendary texture to their status and I'm not taking anything away from them. But I've essentially believed that, looking at what I'm trying to do, there's really no one I'm going to emulate. I can't think of anyone [else] who's done this before. There aren't many angry centrists on the air, who want to completely privatize social security, but perhaps socializing medicine. For the most part, I want smaller government and really see how sensible it is, while at the same time, I'll fight passionately for social safety issues. This is a very different kind of tack to take."

TV Still In His Sights
Regarding the future, Nathan states, "I love radio and will always do it. Radio is more layered and allows you to be more in-depth. It's theater of the mind. You have to keep the cadence and pace going a little bit more. People in television don't always have to keep the rhetoric going. When they do, they have the teleprompter for assistance. But I'd like to look at television again, but not as a reporter. It would be in the capacity as a commentator or hosting a talk program."

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