Most Americans are angry about illegal immigration. For radio hosts, that means vilification is a no-lose path to popularity.
Radio personality Roger Hedgecock made his way to the front of the Holiday Inn conference room, surveyed the standing-room-only crowd and smiled broadly. Among the 400 people attending the first organizational meeting of the "Hold Their Feet to the Fire" anti-immigration gathering held in Washington, D.C., last April were 250 Hedgecock fans who had purchased tour packages and flown together from San Diego for the week-long lobbying blitz.
"I didn't particularly want to come to Washington and talk about the border," Hedgecock told a reporter. "But the fact is, the listeners were absolutely adamant we do this."
A former San Diego mayor, Hedgecock has brought tour groups to lobby Washington lawmakers on other issues before. But he has never had as many participants as on this trip.
"The thing is just mushrooming out of control at the moment," Hedgecock said. "There is no bigger issue ... than the continuing frustration and the mounting concern after Sept. 11 on the homeland security issues associated with illegal immigration."
The rapidly burgeoning anti-immigration movement has presented right-wing talk radio hosts with a popular topic that's made to order for those looking for an easy target to blame for a variety of ills. "Talk show hosts are businessmen; they have to sell soap," Rick Oltman, Western Field Director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, explained in July. "If immigration reform didn't resonate with their audience, they wouldn't be talking about it."
And they are talking about it. On shows small and large across the country, hosts are eagerly tapping into the anti-immigration movement. The portrait they paint of illegal immigrants is not a pretty one.
In a study conducted in Oregon in 2004, sociologists José Padin and Shelley Smith examined 50 hours of talk radio, monitoring the programs of the three most popular nationally broadcast hosts (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage), as well as the two top Oregon hosts. Their study revealed that immigrants were routinely stereotyped and broke down how the hosts and callers made their points. Padin and Smith found that immigrants were described by the hosts they studied as "a group that should be controlled by the government (39% of immigration segments), terrorists (32%), a cultural threat (27%), receiving special rights (20%), an economic drain (18%), and a crime threat (16%)."
Hedgecock was not the only radio personality who saw a good thing and attended the Washington, D.C., meeting. Nineteen other radio hosts brought their shows to "Hold Their Feet to the Fire," broadcasting live reports to listeners in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.
Similarly, other radio personalities are doing more than just talking. Some key examples:
MARK EDWARDS KDWN-AM, LAS VEGAS One month after Hedgecock's event, Mark Edwards, a former sportscaster and radio host organized and served as master of ceremonies for the "Unite to Fight" immigration summit held over Memorial Day in Las Vegas. The event brought together a veritable Who's Who of anti-immigration leaders before a crowd of some 400 people. Edwards' Wake Up America foundation, whose board of directors includes Madeleine Cosman, Jim Gilchrist and Luca Zanna, continues to hold monthly meetings and a second "Unite to Fight" conference is planned for 2006.
RUSS AND DEE FINE WYDE-FM, BIRMINGHAM, ALA. Russ and Dee Fine are married radio hosts who have been on the air for nearly two decades. The Fines regularly host community forums they call "Alabama Tea Parties" that have drawn crowds of well over 1,000 on two separate occasions in the last year. Introducing prominent anti-immigration speakers such as Erin Anderson, D.A. King and white nationalist author and former Forbes editor Peter Brimelow, the Fines whip the crowd into a frenzy, energetically inviting their audience to join them in declaring war on illegal immigration.
JOHN KOBYLT AND KEN CHIAMPOU KFI-AM, LOS ANGELES John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou are immensely popular rabble-rousers whose take on immigration has caused the Mexican American Political Association to call for a boycott of "The John and Ken Show" and its sponsors. Kobylt and Chiampou frequently use immigration to attack politicians such as U.S. Rep. David Dreier, the Republican chair of the House Rules Committee. The pair hounded Dreier relentlessly, held "Fire Dreier" rallies, and named him a "political human sacrifice" for his unwillingness to close down the border.
Their tactics appear to have worked. Dreier spent 30 times more than his Democratic challenger and won with only 54% of the vote, his lowest percentage in 24 years. Dreier returned to Washington, D.C., and almost immediately introduced legislation to make it more difficult to obtain false Social Security numbers.
"Mr. Kobylt says talk radio has tasted blood on the immigration issue," The Wall Street Journal reported last January, "and he expects other hosts around the country to pick up on this issue."
TERRY ANDERSON KRLA-AM, LOS ANGELES Also in Los Angeles, Terry Anderson, the self-proclaimed "Prisoner of South Central," hosts a nationally syndicated show that is focused exclusively on the topic of immigration. Anderson's rhetoric is similar to that of his mentor and fellow radio host, George Putnam, who told listeners, among other things, that "the Mexican government plans a takeover of America," and "venereal disease is rampant among illegals."
"Illegal immigrants bring the worst of their culture to my neighborhood," Anderson said in a typical rant. "They bring poopy diapers and grow corn that's three feet high. They bring chickens and ducks and goats tied up in their yards."
Immigration has taken the black former auto mechanic all the way to Capitol Hill, where he has testified twice before House Judiciary Subcommittee. "Illegal immigration is killing the work force. Legal immigration is killing the work force," Anderson told lawmakers.
Anderson is also a popular speaker at anti-immigration conferences around the country. "They say illegal immigrants are just good people coming here to make a better life for themselves," Anderson told the audience at a Chicago anti-immigration conference in October. "But I tell you what, anybody who invades my country is the enemy, and enemies are not good people."
Anderson, who was the first to broadcast a show from Washington, D.C., at Hedgecock's event, understands the power of an issue that has become his bread and butter and that of uncounted other hosts as well.
"People listen to this show and they're angry. I've never seen them this angry before," Anderson told a reporter. "It's big business now. It's fashionable to be against illegal immigration."
"There is no bigger issue than the continuing frustration and the mounting concern after Sept. 11 on the homeland security issues associated with illegal immigration."