- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Donning their headsets and jumping right into the day’s schedule, some 50 radio talk-show hosts sat around a downtown Washington hotel’s suite of conference rooms last week at makeshift radio stations, laptops and microphones propped up on tables in front of them.

There were few fans of President Obama and his policies in the Phoenix Park Hotel gathering for the “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” conference sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform., but the professional talkers reject the idea they will be marginalized as Mr. Obama revs up the fight for a second term next year.

“I think it’s a perception that’s trying to be painted,” said Bill LuMaye of WPTF-AM from Raleigh, N.C., “Talk radio wouldn’t be as popular unless there was a real need it was filling. It’s entertainment but also I think it’s a real source of information.”

Mr. LuMaye said that talk radio listeners also develop a certain level of trust toward the radio hosts.

“I think there’s a real unique relationship between the listener and the talk-show host,” he said. “I know that sounds really weird, but they have a stake in the show as much as the host does.”

The gathering was centered on the topic of illegal immigration, an issue the attendees said they plan to keep at the center of the 2012 political debate, whatever the preferences of the two major parties.

The format and face of talk radio may be changing, said John McJunkin, producer and on-air sidekick for Jim Sharpe’s show on KFYI-AM in Phoenix, but radio’s top talkers aren’t going away.

“Television stations are now online, newspapers are online, radio stations are online; everybody’s online,” Mr. McJunkin said.

The industry was rattled by a Daily Beast report in February speculating on the decline of conservative talk radio as a format, citing declining ratings and dropped stations even for such superstars of the format as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. In addition, talk radio’s audience “skews old,” while struggling to attract a generation of younger listeners.

The radio hosts welcomed guests onto their shows for the event, including Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber” from the 2008 campaign season. Mr. Wurzelbacher recently started his own Web-based show, called “Whaddya Know Joe,” but declined an offer of a traditional radio talk show.

“In an area where you use different interviews, people can see them. Body language tells a lot about people,” he said in an interview. “Just hearing a radio voice and hearing someone being interviewed, it’s hard to tell if they’re being genuine or true.”

Scot Bertram and Riley O’Neil of WROK-AM in Rockford, Ill. said that one recent trend they have seen for the industry is more female involvement in a male-dominated medium.

“I think politics in general, talk radio specifically, has become more and more appealing to women over the years,” said Mr. Bertram. “I think it’s spreading its wings so to speak, inviting more female hosts and more female listeners.”

Martha Zoller of WXKT-FM said that talk radio can be difficult for female hosts to succeed in because people assume she is just talking about “women’s issues.”

“I really don’t know what women’s issues are,” said Ms. Zoller whose station broadcasts from Gainesville, Ga.. “I think that women have lots of things they talk about. I think I do a little different show because it’s more conversational; I try to just do the best show I can, and sell to everybody.”

Helen Glover, who hosts a talk show on WHJJ-AM in Providence, R.I., acknowledged that people often connect the image of talk radio with “the old retired white guy sitting in his house with the AM radio.”

“That is not true,” she said, adding that she is encouraged by the growing number of women listening to conservative talk radio as well as union members who have no other say in the political activities of their labor leaders.

“Talk radio gives them that outlet,” said Ms. Glover. “Now they won’t call my show, but they’ll email me and tell me they’re listening.”