The Electric Commentary

Friday, November 12, 2004


(Note: The following post is about two cases of insanely bad judgment by two different Milwaukee talk radio personalities. If you think that it will bore you, know that there will be a football post around 2.)

I must briefly discuss Milwaukee talk radio, as there are currently two related talk radio events taking place. Individually they are not that interesting, but together they are quite revealing.

The first concerns Mark Belling. He is the host of a conservative talk show on AM 1130 WISN, and can (usually, but not right now) be heard from 3-6 every weekday. In my college days I had a summer job as a painter, and all painters listen to talk radio, hence I listened to Belling every day for a summer (the reason that painters do this is that if you actually listen to music on the radio for 8 straight hours you go insane, whereas if you listen to talk radio you merely acquire a warped world view). I am well acquainted with his show.

Belling has built up his show into a fairly powerful venue. He has won a Marconi Award (the radio equivalent of an Oscar) and frequently fills in for Rush Limbaugh when he's vacationing or at the Betty Ford Clinic or getting a divorce. Talk radio is big business in Milwaukee and the competition between Belling and Charlie Sykes (and to a lesser extent Jeff Wagner - the poor man's Charlie Sykes) has boosted both men to the level of "prominent local celebrities." Both have talking-head style TV shows, both do annual cruises with listeners, and both have managed to be very influential in local politics (particularly the ascension of Republican Scott Walker to Milwaukee County Executive, and the defeat of moderate Republican and State Senate Majority leader Mary Panzer).

Some time around November 1st, Belling referred to illegal Mexican immigrants who voted in the presidential election as "wetbacks."

This has caused quite a stir as several Hispanic groups in the area have been protesting for the last two weeks. Belling has been suspended from radio and television, and the groups are still trying to get him fired. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has run no fewer than 10 articles on this (see the "recent coverage" box on the right side). Now Belling should be condemned for this, as he has been. It is an offensive term (especially when applied to legal immigrants or American citizens, as it implies that they are law breakers). I think that there are more offensive terms, and that it doesn't approach the level of the infamous n-word, but it's still not a smart thing to say, to say the least. His apology was also lackluster, and a took a long time to deliver. He might be fired, and maybe he should be.

It is not surprising that Belling did this. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't have such a slip-up sooner. Belling is interesting to listen to, but he's interesting because he's nuts. Completely nuts.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say, Page 2. Speaking of people who are completely nuts...

Another prominent Milwaukee personality has his own radio show. His name is Michael McGee. He used to be a city alderman, but ended up losing his position in the wake of some controversial (to put it lightly) remarks that he made on "60 Minutes in the early 90's:"

"(W)hen I say I want to wage urban guerrilla warfare, I ain't talking about Saudi Arabia. I'm talking about right here in our home court."

When interviewer Mike Wallace inquired, "What kind of violence does the Black Militia have in mind?" McGee elaborated: "Sniping at tires going on the freeway, sabotage, tearing down electrical wires. You know, complete chaos and confusion outside of our community."

By the way, if you're wondering why Ald. McGee wanted urban guerilla warfare on the streets of Milwaukee, in his own words:

"(I)f conditions for the black community...don't change...I will support such actions as [terrorism], as well as bombings, sniper attacks, assassinations, etc."

Lest you think McGee a total racist...

"there are whites that are involved in the militia, too, so don't anyone get that wrong, either. We have white members as well."

McGee has remained a leading figure in Milwaukee despite all of this, and his radio program, while not as influential as Belling's or Syke's, is still influential. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the former alderman was using money that was supposed to go to welfare recipients to fund his show:

A Milwaukee social services agency came under fire Tuesday in a new state audit for its spending of millions of dollars in welfare reform money on its own subsidiaries and executives and on radio personality and former Ald. Mike McGee.
The audit faults Opportunities Industrialization Center of Greater Milwaukee for some $275,000 in payments to local radio station WNOV-AM (860) and McGee from 1997 through 2003.

The radio show was theoretically supposed to be a forum to discuss issues relating to Milwaukee's W-2 welfare program, but:

Auditors said, however, that they reviewed McGee's daily show and others and found little difference in topics covered.
"We question whether the financial support provided by OIC-GM actually resulted in programming substantially different from what the radio station would have broadcast in the absence of funding," the report said.

It seems that the topic of the show was, more often than not, a defense of the organization that had been funneling those hundreds of thousands of dollars to McGee., the aforementioned Opportunities Industrialization Center of Greater Milwaukee, or OIC. The OIC, you see, was having its own problems.

McGee, who is the father of current Ald. Michael McGee (Note: current Ald. McGee has not promoted the idea of shooting out the tires of random cars like his father did. At least not yet.), has frequently defended OIC on the air since the agency's troubles multiplied earlier this year with disclosure of a kickback scheme involving OIC and W-2 money.

So what do we make of Belling and McGee?

Both have committed bad acts to be sure. In stark contrast to the 10 articles on Belling, the Journal-Sentinel has only two on McGee. I hope that both are punished accordingly (it looks like Belling is getting his due) but I'll leave you to decide which warrants more coverage; the use of a racial slur by an extremely right-wing talk show host, or the actual theft of money from welfare recipients from a left wing talk show host.


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