The sad passing of an early star of right wing talk radio highlights some of the profound changes in news broadcasting and the conservative movement in general. Those transformations may seem lamentable in this season of Republican self-flagellation but actually demonstrate an improved ability for right-of-center arguments to play a significant role in the national dialogue.
I knew and liked the late Ray Briem, who succumbed to cancer at age 82 on December 11th. His last radio gig before his final 1997retirement placed him on KIEV AM 870 in Los Angeles, the station (and dial position) that soon thereafter became KRLA “The Answer,” and my own Los Angeles affiliate for nearly fifteen years. I worked with Ray on several occasions as a guest on his show and counted myself as a frequent listener to the wildly popular late night program he hosted in South California between 1967 and 1994 on KABC.
Ray always came across as a kindly conservative but never pushed his ideology or partisan agenda with the same aggressive fervor popularized by Rush Limbaugh in the late ‘80s. Together with Michael Jackson—his long-time liberal counterpart on KABC—he represented an earlier stage of the news-talk format, when avuncular hosts generally kept their distance from political candidates or major office-holders and mixed their political posturing with a host of life-style and local issues that fit into no predictable philosophical grid.
Sure, Ray pushed for citizen initiatives like the Proposition 13 tax limitation measure in 1978 or Proposition 187 in 1994, meant to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the Golden State. But the Fairness Doctrine (enforced by the FCC until Reagan era changes in 1985) kept him from the open and impassioned partisanship that has always characterized “El Rushbo” and his many imitators and followers who now clearly dominate the talk radio industry. On his late-night show, airing from midnight to five a.m. for an amazing span of 27 years, Briem often discussed his passion for nostalgic Big Band music, or flying small planes, or ham radio. His resonant, mellifluous voice and patient, artful delivery perfectly suited the “graveyard shift” hours and gave him amazing traction among Southern California night owls: when he left his well-established perch on KABC, he drew an impressive 15.7 percent of the available listening audience.