True Believer

It's not easy being a liberal in Arizona, much less broadcasting your progressive beliefs via radio from Tucson to Yuma to Prescott each day. It comes as no surprise that in the two months On Second Thought has been on the air, host Dr. Mike Newcomb says irate conservative listeners have called him every name in the book.

"I've been called a socialist, a communist, even the antichrist," Newcomb says with a rather angelic smile. He's been able to shrug off the angry callers by applying a unique philosophy: When callers get abusive, Newcomb pictures them as sperm.

"Think about it," he says, "out of all the millions of sperm that are released, only one makes it in to fertilize the egg. Each and every one of us won that race. All of us are gold medal winners."

With that in mind, Newcomb simply thanks them for their comments.

Sappy as that may sound, it's typical of Newcomb, whose optimism even translates to On Second Thought's theme music. It's almost enough to make you want to shake some cynicism into him. Newcomb sends listeners to commercial with the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again," chosen because, he explains, "if we all talked to each other like lovers do, the world would be a better place." He closes the show with a song that he hopes defines the show's mission to listeners, Tears for Fears' "Sowing the Seeds of Love." He's serious. However disgusted Newcomb might be with the current state of American politics, his hope for a better, Bushless future is genuine and his energy infectious.

When his bid for governor proved unsuccessful last year, the 38-year-old Newcomb found himself yearning to maintain and increase his public presence. During the campaign, he says, "People responded to the message, and I thought this was the best way to continue the fight for social and economic justice."

In May, Newcomb approached Francis Battaglia, owner of 1100 KFNX, an independent AM station struggling to combat KTAR and KFYI by providing alternative, innovative programming. "We wanted to give a voice to progressive, more liberal thinkers that may have been neglected," Battaglia says.

To make things easier, Newcomb was a progressive, more liberal thinker with enough cash to pay for start-up costs and airtime. Newcomb funded the first month of programming on his own. "[Conservative critics] say I'm a rich doctor buying airtime and I'm destined to fail. I am buying airtime, but they are buying elections," says Newcomb. "It's all about what you do with your money."

Newcomb earns his money in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities treating the elderly, the poor, veterans, addicts, and the mentally ill. As Newcomb makes his rounds on a recent morning at Desert Sky, a residential, geriatric and rehabilitation center in Glendale, he is reminded of what conservatives have done to, and haven't done for, this country with each patient he sees.

Newcomb says the conservatives have a distorted view of the Constitution. "We the people in order to form a more perfect union" becomes twisted, he says, and "conservatives interpret it as I the individual in order to form a more perfect me.'"

Newcomb walks through a secure door brightly painted with a woodland scene and the legend "Welcome to Memory Lane." It's the Alzheimer's wing, where ancient patients sprawl in wheelchairs dozing open-mouthed in the hallways. It's not a particularly cheery place, wandering the front lines of the country's failing medical system, treating patients who in many cases will never heal.

Newcomb seems oblivious to the gloom, and is consumed with a desire to make the system better. As he visits patients, he sounds just as he does with a mike in front of him, discussing Arizona's nursing shortage, the Medicare crisis, the need to shore up veterans' benefits, and explaining how he holds conservative policies accountable.

Newcomb opens a blue binder and flips through a patient's chart, shaking his head. "Medical error is responsible for 100,000 deaths each year in this country," he says as he rifles through page after page of scrawled notes, some more legible than others. "It's so easy to make a mistake this way."

Electronic medical records would save lives, he argues, but the cost of adopting such a system is prohibitive for private institutions. The government should step in, Newcomb argues. "We're losing 30 times as many people each year as we lost on September 11. Half or all of those deaths could be prevented with electronic records. Bush is asking for another $60 billion for Iraq. Why not spend $6 billion and save lives here?"

Newcomb's critical, articulate approach and his quick wit have helped make the show a tentative success. Within a month, Battaglia says, it was clear that On Second Thought was catching on. Calls and e-mails were pouring in, and financially the show began to carry itself. Sponsors popped up, such as attorney David Eagle, Hospice of Arizona and Desert Surprise Church of Christ.

Local support is indicative of a larger movement to reclaim the airwaves from the conservative right. On Second Thought is an early, independent version of progressive political talk radio, which should become more prevalent by January of 2004 when a nationwide network of liberal talk radio is set to launch.

The format for the show is simple and caller-driven. Newcomb spends a few hours the night before surfing the Internet for pertinent news stories, which he dutifully prints out and highlights, and uses as notes for his opening monologue.

"The show is thriving," says Battaglia. "It's not only surviving, it's expanding." Newcomb says he's looking into syndication, and the show will grow to two hours on September 15, moving from its 8 to 9 a.m. time slot to evening drive time from 5 to 7 p.m.

To help ease the burden of a two-hour show, Newcomb will hold a meeting Thursday, September 11, to recruit listeners interested in volunteering, whether it be researching, booking guests, or selling advertising. (The meeting is at La Madeleine, 31st Street and Camelback.) As one listener put it: "This isn't just a show, it's a movement."

Newcomb is pleased with listener response and has talked of eventually adding a third hour. "The bottom line is this is a successful liberal talk show in the land of Barry Goldwater," Newcomb says. "If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere."

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Susy Buchanan