The Conservative Rap
The air is thick and weird as I follow conservative talk radio personality Bruce St. James down the hallway past KTAR-AM 620's studio toward his office. When we reach the lair of the white worm, we settle in across his desk from one another, exchanging small talk until I ask the question I've come to ask: What the hell is a right-wing cracker doing running Power 92, the number one bitches-and-blunts Top 40 hip-hop station in town? (Full disclosure: I, too, am a cracker, although on the other end of the political spectrum, with an immense fondness for bitches and blunts.)
Let me rewind for a moment. When I'm not listening to the piles of CDs that come in the mail, I'm a talk radio junkie -- 620 AM specifically. Around mid-August, Bruce St. James was added as the early afternoon host, and he quickly staked his ground as the most conservative of KTAR's weekday personalities -- from my view, a total apologist for the Bush administration. I listened, enraptured and disgusted by his vehement right wingery for a couple of weeks, entranced by his squeaky eruptions of rhetoric (he even admits on a radio promo that his voice soars into the upper reaches when he's excited -- "I've gotta work on that," he says in the ad).
Then I learned that St. James already had a job down the hall, having been program director of Power 92, KTAR's sister station, for the past six years, a post he continues to hold.
Hip-hop is inherently political music. St. James says it himself: "Many of these artists, they're speaking for a group that doesn't have a venue themselves. Hip-hop is their 60 Minutes." However, hip-hop rarely, if at all, leans to the right politically. In general, I share hip-hop's values. Having been raised in an apolitical but socially conservative household, I veered to the opposite socially, believing profoundly in civil liberties, diplomacy over preemptive war, and the notion that there's no such thing as consensual crime.
Hell, that's why I listen to conservative talk radio, and watch programs like The O'Reilly Factor. I need to know what the enemy's thinking. I tried listening to Air America when it arrived recently in the 'Nix, but found it dull -- they don't need to convince me with their lefty propaganda.
St. James, though not much older than me at 34, is just as passionate about his conservatism as I am about my liberalism (yeah, I know, "progressive" is the P.C. thing to call it, but fuck it, I'm a liberal). He chalks up his stance to growing older and his values maturing, but you get the feeling the guy's never bled anything but Republican red in his life. "I'm not a nuance person," he told me. "I'm a little more knock-you-over-the-head. I believe in what I believe in, and I believe I'm right."
When I realized the dichotomy of St. James' jobs, I had to find out how such an oxymoron comes to pass.
After a few e-mail exchanges (in the first I wondered if he had to pay Matt Drudge of the conservative Web site The Drudge Report residuals for biting his content daily), I asked St. James if he would be willing to sit down and bullshit with me. He admitted he bit ideas not just from Drudge but from a variety of media sources, and graciously agreed to meet up with me, so I threw on a graffiti tee shirt with a painting of a scowling spray paint can -- to show him I represent the streets -- and ventured to the Emmis Communications building on Central Avenue, which houses KTAR, Power 92, KMVP and KKLT.
St. James toured me through the facility, past the various studios upstairs, including Power 92's where the Nuts were holding down their afternoon slot, before we ended up squaring off in his corner office. Shortly after we sat down, I noticed the time on a clock on his desk. "Hey, it's 4:20. Doesn't Power 92 have to stop for a blunt break?" I asked. St. James laughed, and I pulled out the gift I'd brought for him, a paper sticker with a picture of Bush and the caption "NEWKILLER," a reference to the Prez's pronunciation of "nuclear," given to me by a graf writer friend. He said he loved it, but I doubt I'll see it on the back of his truck anytime soon.
We talked about the second presidential debate for a few minutes, agreeing that it was nothing more than a Mr. America pageant, as St. James has referred to the matches on his radio program, appropriately named Bruce St. James Has Issues. He told me that he didn't agree completely with the president on everything, but came a hell of a lot closer to siding with Bush than he did with John Kerry.
That just wasn't confrontational enough, so I explained that I was on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him, and I'd come to play Al Franken to his Ann Coulter. But first I wanted to hear how, with his emphatically conservative philosophy, he'd ended up running Power 92, where only the night before I'd been bumping "Me So Horny."
"The white man -- I get that a lot," he said, laughing. He explained he'd always worked in rhythmic radio, and had been a fan of hip-hop since he was a young man in Tucson. His radio career took him from Tucson to a weekend slot at Power 92 years ago, then to L.A. where he worked at Power 106, the major hip-hop station there, then to an urban adult contemporary station in San Diego, and finally back to Power 92 as program director.
"My passion's always been for the music, and to me the music doesn't have to be political," he explained. "Plus, I'd like to think, and I hope this comes across on KTAR, I have respect for other opinions even if I don't agree with them. I assume the majority of people don't believe like I do.
"The managing of radio stations these days is much less about the music you play, and I say that kind of woefully. Because years ago, you had to eat, sleep and breathe it. You had to be all about it. I'd have to have my hat on backwards right now and be wearing a Roc-A-Wear jersey and be saying 'yo' a lot.
"It comes down to the people you surround yourself with. I'm not 19 anymore. Our target audience is 18 to 24 years old; over half of them are Latino -- that's not what I am. You don't have to look far to realize that, and I don't pretend to be. But if you walk around and look at the staff, guess what -- the staff fits the demographic. So I surround myself with people who can give me that information so I can make decisions, but I'm getting it from people who are the most like the audience."
Fair enough, but how do you reconcile conservative values with running a station that thrives off playing Eminem and plays tracks like Jadakiss' "Why," where he raps, "Why did Bush knock down the towers?"
"If Eminem wants to make fun of George Bush, it doesn't bother me at all, go ahead. I dare somebody to say we don't play or we do play a song because of some sort of political stand to the song."
Our conversation soon turned to our divergent political views, and we argued about embryonic stem cell research, the war on terror, and importing Canadian prescription drugs. "Boy, look at you -- we're gonna discuss these things," he said. It was, as I expected, a stalemate.
On stem cell research, he predictably said he agreed with the president, that "I'm not willing to sacrifice one life to save another."
"Isn't that exactly what [President Bush] is doing with the soldiers in Iraq? Sacrificing their lives to save others?" I retorted.
"You're funny. . . . We've suffered far greater losses at the hands of the terrorists. I don't believe the 1,000 GIs have died in vain. They died to protect even the people who don't believe in what they're doing."
"Have any of us lefties been able to straighten out your thought processes?" I asked, hopeful.
"No, you've just galvanized me. You prove my point half the time," he replied. Not me, buddy, not me.
At some point, I warily had to ask him if he had any political aspirations. "I couldn't afford the pay cut to be a senator," he replied. "I worry I'm too outspoken and too clear-cut on the issues. Politics is about anything but taking stands on issues. I can give yes or no answers, and I don't think you can get elected doing that. I don't think either [Bush or Kerry] say things they truly believe. They say what the research says swing voters want to hear, and that drives me nuts. I'm not gonna pander to you. I doubt I could ever hold my tongue."
I was surprised that I found Bruce St. James to be personable, friendly, even. The sort of guy I'd like to argue politics over a beer with, except he doesn't drink. Doesn't even take aspirin, he told me. So much for sharing a blunt after the interview.
He does have a passion outside radio and politics, though -- racing sprint cars at Manzanita Speedway on the weekends. It's another world where he's a dichotomy. "The people in the hip-hop world think I'm a redneck because I go to the races," he explained. "The people at the races think I'm a metrosexual, and that I'm a gangster because I play that rap music on the radio, or I put light colors in my hair, or because I don't have chewing tobacco and a tattoo of the rebel flag. So I can't win for losing. I get it from both directions."
Soon, though, St. James will have to choose between his two contradictory roles. It was recently announced that KTAR and the two sister stations besides Power 92 would be acquired by Bonneville International Corporation, and Power 92 would be the only Emmis Communications radio station in town. It's a good thing Bonneville didn't snap up Power 92 also, or there likely would have been some serious changes -- Bonneville is a Utah-based firm owned by Deseret Management Corporation, which manages the for-profit businesses for the Mormon church. Not exactly a bitches-and-blunts sort of outfit.
"I'm at a crossroads, and I'll have to make some tough decisions soon," St. James told me. "I'm not ready to make that decision today. I love both of [the jobs]; the sale disappoints me from a selfish point of view."
After consideration, it disappoints me as well. St. James' divergent positions represent one of those only-in-the-'Nix singularities that make this desert metropolis such a stimulatingly weird place to live. I came away from the bull session feeling like New York Democratic Senator Charlie Rangel after a round with Sean Hannity -- the cracker's just plain wrong, but I'm not bummed he's around. Hell, if I had my way, I would put Bruce St. James Has Issues on Power 92 in the afternoon, and stick the Nuts on KTAR for a few hours each day, and broaden everyone's perspectives.
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