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Spencer Hughes, Pat Thurston's replacement on KSRO, is right-wing, loudmouthed, and not particularly local
When local newstalk station KSRO-1350 AM--the self-titled "voice of Sonoma County"--was forced to find a pregnancy-leave replacement for North Bay icon and afternoon drive-time host Pat Thurston, who gave birth to triplets in July, a lot of people just assumed that her new pinch hitter would be much like herself--Liberal with a capital L, heavily dependent on in-studio interviews, and deeply rooted in Sonoma County.
What listeners got instead was Spencer Hughes.
A product of San Francisco's radio station KSFO, where he worked as an intern and fill-in host for the likes of Michael Savage and Tom Cam, Hughes held his own weekend show on KSFO in the mid '90s and has practiced his act on several stations in Sacramento, including KFBK, Rush Limbaugh's old alma mater. Over the years, Hughes has developed a highly entertaining radio style, blending on-air comedy routines with paranormal gossip (UFOs, Bigfoot sightings, ghost stories) and archly conservative, liberal-bashing tirades against everything from the "liberal media" to the recent law granting drivers licenses to illegal aliens.
Hughes has publicly refuted government statistics showing a national decline in violent crime ("It's not that we're killing less but that medical advances are making it harder to keep them dead!") and has proposed that convicted criminals be stranded on an island of rabid dogs, surrounded by sharks, and fed with stale bread dropped from passing helicopters. After a successful stint espousing such views at KFBK, he hopped over to startup station KTKZ, owned by the Salem Radio Network, a conglomerate so far to the right that Hughes, ironically, was immediately labeled NCE: not conservative enough. "They were so far right," Hughes has said, "they made me look like a moderate." He was let go after a year despite impressive ratings.
When KSRO station manager Brian Hudson, who originally hired Pat Thurston, began casting about for part-time fill-in hosts for the afternoon show, he remembered once hearing Hughes in Sacramento. "I remember thinking, 'This guy is pretty entertaining. His mix of pop culture and politics is fun, he's a witty guy, and he's insightful,'" says Hudson. Not long after, Hudson added Hughes to his stable of part-time substitutes.
Last spring, when Thurston announced her pregnancy, Hudson picked Hughes to become Thurston's regular Monday through Friday replacement. This, to put it mildly, sparked an immediate shit-storm of opposition from the county's left-leaning radio-listening population. Hughes admits he expected some resistance from Thurston's faithful followers but insists he was unprepared for the hostility he encountered during his first months on the air.
"I think I had three things working against me," says Hughes. "I wasn't left of center; I wasn't female; and I wasn't Pat." For the record, Spencer Hughes is still none of those things, and his audience--or rather, Pat's audience--is still numb from the shock of the left-right transplant.
"All I can say about Spencer Hughes," states longtime KSRO listener Carolyn McLeese of Bodega, "is that he does not even come close to the work of Pat Thurston, whom I hope will come back quickly. I don't know where Spencer came from, but I hope he will fade into the woodwork soon."
Hughes argues that anyone stepping into Thurston's shoes would have faced a similar response, regardless of his or her politics.
"People weren't giving me a chance, and a lot still aren't," he says. "It's a backlash. I'm still facing it. People were saying, 'Hey, you're not the person I've been listening to for the last few years, and . . . you know, I resent you for that.' But listen: I'm not Pat Thurston. Nobody can be Pat Thurston except for Pat Thurston. I'm Spencer Hughes. Just give me shot, man. Just give me a chance."
One person who strongly supports Hughes is Gene Burns of San Francisco's KGO-AM 810, whom Spencer views as an early mentor. Nighttime radio's resident Libertarian, Burns admits to being at odds with some of Hughes political views, but he encourages KSRO listeners to look beyond that to the new host's many other qualities.
"Well, with Spencer Hughes, what you hear is what you get," posits Burns. "You are not listening to someone who has become a bomb thrower of either ideology just to cause a reaction or to get attention. He believes what he says." Asked to speculate why KSRO, a station serving a largely left-of-center county, would replace a popular liberal talk-show host with a fiercely conservative one, Burns laughs. "Leaving aside his ideology, he comes with a great work ethic. He's very responsible, and he's a serious student of his craft. Either [KSRO] wanted to throw the audience a changeup pitch, or they were sold on his work habits and personal qualities--regardless of his political opinion.
"Of course, there's nothing wrong with shocking the audience a little bit if they get too comfortable with whoever they're listening to," Burns adds. "Agreement is boring. A couple of people on the radio telling one another how right they each are is snoozeville. When somebody comes out of the box and comes at you, yelling, fighting, and challenging your every word, if you are up for the fight--and Spencer is up for the fight--that's when you get exciting radio."
For some listeners, it's not Hughes' politics, exciting or not, that bothers them. Faithful KSRO listener and talk-radio aficionado Keith Thompson explains, "Agree or disagree with Pat Thurston's politics, she was decidedly interested in local issues and local personalities. Even when she did a show on foreign policy, she tended to use local experts. Spencer Hughes almost never has local guests."
This brings us to a particularly odd piece of the Spencer Hughes controversy. Hughes freely admits that he resides in Sacramento and phones his show in from home two or three times a week. (Well, he freely admits it during this interview, anyway. He's been known to hang up on callers who make that assertion). According to Hughes, he commutes to Santa Rosa and performs the show in-studio at least twice a week.
To be fair, there are many radio hosts who do this in the Bay Area, from KGO's Len Tillem and Dean Edell to KSFO's David Gold and now-retired Jim Eason (who used to phone his show in from North Carolina). Pat Thurston her self lives in Marin County. According to Hughes, should his position at KSRO become permanent, he'll be happy to relocate his family from Sacramento to Sonoma County. Till then though, his ties to Sacramento will probably remain a focal point for a group of callers who've been making a game of pointing out the Sacramento connection on air, to Hughes' smoldering annoyance.
"It's such a dumb thing to make a big deal about," Hughes says. "I live in Sacramento. I commute to Santa Rosa all the time. I appear at breakfast club meetings and public events in Sonoma County. I'm working to familiarize myself with Sonoma County issues, and I'll do more of that in the future. People who have a problem with that are just embarrassing themselves."
Thompson supports Hughes and affirms that at least twice a week, Hughes does the show from the KSRO studios in Santa Rosa.
"If you hear Spencer saying he's in the studio," he says, "then he's in the studio. But there are these people who are convinced that he never sets foot in Sonoma County. That's just not true."
As for why he hired a right-winger to occupy what is arguably the highest profile spot on the North Bay radio dial, Thompson insists it was not to "kick the beehive," so to speak, but to draw new listeners to the station. Clearly though, he knew the move would be controversial.
"People are wildly, extremely loyal to their talk-show hosts," Thompson says. "Changing someone's radio show routine is not something any station programmer wants to do. That said, Pat got pregnant with triplets. She was going away. We had to bring in someone, and we picked Spencer." While admitting that Hughes has attracted a lot of conservatives and alienated what Thompson calls "the left-wing fringe," Thompson points out that some of the most vocal opponents of the new guy are listeners who can recite, point by point, every offensive remark Hughes has made every day for the last several months.
Says Hughes, with a laugh, "Some of my most loyal listeners are people who hate me."
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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.