PROVIDENCE — His job was to listen to Rhode Island talk radio all day.
Graham Vyse had a variety of duties as a communications aide for then-Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. But tuning in to talk radio was central to his daily routine. He’d arrive early at the State House, order a toasted bran muffin from the West Wing Cafe, and click on WPRO to begin monitoring the daylong dose of politics and policy, rants and rage, longtime listeners and first-time callers.
While talk radio crackles on airwaves across the country, few places of its size have the kind of intensive morning-to-night all-local talk programs that have long been a fixture in Rhode Island, observers say.
“Part of it has to do with the fact that Rhode Island is so small and we know those state legislators and the governor — we see them in the restaurants,” said Valerie A. Endress, associate professor of political communication at Rhode Island College. “So in some ways, it’s tuning into talk radio with your neighbor.”
It’s a tradition built up over the years by high-profile hosts such as the late Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. — the longtime Providence mayor and twice-convicted felon who used the WPRO airwaves as both a springboard for political comebacks and a cudgel for pounding political foes — and Arlene Violet, a former nun who became the nation’s first female attorney general before joining WHJJ.
Other politicians, including then-Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey and former Republican state representative John J. Loughlin II, both Republicans, have taken turns behind the talk show mic over the years. And last week, Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, a two-time Republican candidate for governor, sought and received permission from the state Ethics Commission to fill in as a WPRO talk show host.
While Boston and other major cities have their share of radio chatter, Fung’s interest in the talk show mic underscores how closely intertwined Rhode Island radio is with Rhode Island politics.
According to Nielsen, the weekly listening audience for “some form of talk radio” in this state came to 253,300 individual listeners as of fall 2018. That’s approximately a quarter of the entire state population. The ratings include a broad swath of talk radio formats, both on commercial stations, such as WPRO, and noncommercial stations, including The Public’s Radio, which is adding staff.
Of that total, WPRO accounted for 127,400 of the weekly listeners, according to Nielsen, but hosts also talk about politics and the news on stations from WNRI in Woonsocket to WADK in Newport.
The role of radio in Rhode Island politics was evident Thursday when House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, announced on Tara Granahan’s WPRO show he was bowing to pressure to pull $1 million budgeted for a Cranston chiropractor’s experimental therapy program.
Vyse, now a staff writer at Governing magazine in Washington, D.C., said talk radio, with its conservative bent, is not broadly representative of Rhode Island. After all, this is a blue state that sends liberals like David Cicilline and Sheldon Whitehouse to Congress — a state that backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.
But Vyse can attest to the fact that talk radio is part of the soundtrack of Rhode Island politics, a medium monitored closely in the marble halls of the State House. At City Hall, staffers used to record talk show segments to document what Cianci said. Insiders tune in to hear the hot takes, the newsmaker appearances, and the daily drama in a small state where politics is up close and personal.
“Talk radio has an outsized influence on the news cycle and, as a result, on political actors at the State House,” Vyse said.
On a national level, Democrats tend to disdain talk radio for its right-leaning bent, but local hosts such as Dan Yorke provide a fair hearing for a variety of viewpoints, and many State House leaders, despite their Democratic labels, are fairly conservative, he said.
Brian Rosenwald, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who has a book coming out in August titled “Talk Radio’s America,” said many cities mix local talk radio with nationally syndicated shows such as those featuring Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It’s striking, he said, that Rhode Island does not. At WPRO, the day begins with Gene Valicenti, followed by three-hour talk show blocks from longtime hosts Granahan, Yorke, and Matt Allen.
“If you look at the big picture of how talk radio works in medium to large markets, Rhode Island is one of the special ones in that WPRO is very, very live and local,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a national trade publication based in Springfield, Mass.
“In some places, you have a unique heritage,” Rosenwald said. “If hosts have been on a long time and make the company money, they may not want to rock the boat.”
WPRO program director Neil Larrimore declined to comment.
Some warn that talk radio presents a “skewed view” reflecting older, more conservative voters. “It’s as if office holders only were listening to Fox News or MSNBC,” Endress said. If you listened to talk radio in the last governor’s race, you might assume that Democrat Gina M. Raimondo was going to get crushed, she said. But Raimondo trounced Fung.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Ethics Commission said the state Code of Ethics does not prohibit Fung from filling in as a talk show host, so long as he does not declare himself as a candidate for any future office.
After the hearing, Fung was coy about a third run for governor. “I’m not ruling anything in or out, but as of right now I am not a declared candidate,” he said. “Who knows what the future may hold?”
Ken Block, who lost to Fung in the 2014 GOP gubernatorial primary, said, “It doesn’t surprise me that someone who’s made it pretty clear he’s going to run for governor again wants to be on the radio.”
On Thursday night, Fung held a fundraiser at Chapel Grille in Cranston, The Public’s Radio reported.
Rosenwald said there are a host of reasons why a Republican politician would want to be a talk show host. “Republicans love talk radio — it’s where their base is,” he said. “If he’s host, he doesn’t have to worry about a host asking him questions. He can say whatever he wants to his base for three hours.”
Fung, who’ll make $50 for each three-hour segment he hosts, said, “Rhode Island is very parochial. People listen in, and there is never a shortage of issues.” He plans to talk not only about politics but also about food and fantasy football.
Rosenwald said talk radio lets politicians humanize themselves. “If he can get a political message out and talk fantasy football and local restaurants, he can convey that he shares your values and this is a guy you’d like to have a beer with,” he said.
If he does declare a candidacy, Fung said he would get input from the Ethics Commission and the state Board of Elections, which tried to stop his predecessor, Laffey, from hosting a talk radio show while Laffey was Cranston mayor.
In 2005, the Board of Elections said the free airtime for Laffey violated laws on campaign contributions. Laffey, who had been mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate or lieutenant governor, challenged the decision in federal court on First Amendment grounds. An appeals court eventually let Laffey go back on the air.
So what did Vyse learn from all those hours listening to Rhode Island talk radio?
He said he grew to admire Yorke and found Cianci “nothing if not entertaining.” Still, “WPRO hosts weren’t exactly Linc Chafee’s biggest boosters,” he said of his former boss.
And he was left with one lingering after-effect: “I can still hear the Burger King regional traffic update in my sleep.”