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Monday, July 28, 2008

Black Radio on Obama Is Left’s Answer to Limbaugh

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

Warren Ballentine conducting a nationally syndicated radio show at Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta.


ATLANTA — Warren Ballentine, one of black talk radio’s new stars, was on a tear against Senator John McCain as he broadcast from the Greenbriar Mall here last week, blithely dismissing Mr. McCain’s kind words about Senator Barack Obama at the recent N.A.A.C.P. national convention.

“He came out talking about how good of a race Barack Obama was running, and how proud he was of Barack,” Mr. Ballentine said. “You know he went back home and said, ‘I can’t believe I spoke in front of all those Negroes today!’ ”

“He was pandering to the crowd, talking about how he felt when Martin Luther King Jr. died,” Mr. Ballentine went on. “However, he didn’t vote for the holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Rush Limbaugh, meet your black liberal counterprogramming. Mr. Ballentine is one of the many African-American radio hosts and commentators who are aggressively advocating for Mr. Obama’s election on black-oriented radio stations daily.

Since Mr. Limbaugh first flexed his tonsils two decades ago, Democrats have publicly worried about their lack of an answer to him and his imitators, who have proven so adept at motivating conservative Republicans to go to the polls, especially for President Bush.

Now it is Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who has a harmonious chorus of broadcast supporters addressing a vital part of his coalition, feeding and reflecting the excitement blacks have for his candidacy in general. Mr. Obama is getting support from white liberal talk radio hosts as well, but the backing he is getting from black radio hosts could be especially helpful to his campaign’s efforts to increase black turnout and raise historically low voter registration enough to change the math of presidential elections in battlegrounds and traditionally Republican states like this one.

“Urban stations can be in ’08 what Rush Limbaugh delivered for conservatives a generation ago,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has a two-year-old radio program that is now syndicated on stations throughout the country, including in states like Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina. “If you look at the political map of where our shows are, it matches the gap of unregistered voters.”

Mr. Limbaugh and other conservative hosts generally support Mr. McCain, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than they displayed for the man he hopes to replace.

When it comes to criticism from black radio hosts like Mr. Ballentine, Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said, “John McCain believes every person is entitled to their opinion, no matter how outrageous.”

“But John McCain is an inclusive candidate,” Mr. Bounds added, “and he will be the president of all Americans.” (Mr. Ballentine was correct that Mr. McCain voted against the Martin Luther King holiday, in 1983 — but Mr. McCain later expressed regret and supported the holiday in his home state.)

While debate may continue over whether Mr. Obama is drawing an inordinate share of attention from mainstream news and entertainment outlets, there is generally little pretense of balance in major African-American media outlets. More often than not, the Obama campaign is discussed as the home team.

Mr. Obama conducted frequent interviews with black radio personalities during the primary season, appearing on programs like “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” where his swing through the Middle East was referred to as a “pre-victory tour” on Friday; the “Michael Baisden Show,” where the host has joked that the savings from the gasoline tax suspension Mr. McCain supports would help him buy a pack of “Now & Laters” candy, and “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.”

Those three shows report reaching a combined audience of nearly 20 million, though industry analysts say exact, national numbers are hard to peg and programs generally are known to exaggerate their audiences.

The favoritism extends beyond talk radio.

This month’s Ebony magazine lists Mr. Obama first among the “25 Coolest Brothers of All Time,” alongside Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Caribbean stations play songs about him, like “Barack Obama” by Cocoa Tea and “Barack the Magnificent” by the calypso star Mighty Sparrow. “We spin them three, four times a day,” said Sir Rockwell, the morning D.J. at WDJA in Delray Beach, Fla.

Earlier this year, attendees of the Black Entertainment Television network’s annual awards program, including the stars Alicia Keys and P. Diddy, turned it into an impromptu rally for the candidate (“Obama, y’all!,” Ms. Keys shouted upon receiving an award before a television audience of nearly six million people).

The network is planning to show Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention live, but not Mr. McCain’s. “This is an historic occasion, so that demands some special treatment from us,” Debra L. Lee, the BET chairman, said of the Democratic convention. Her smaller rival, TV One, said it would not cover the Republican convention at all.

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