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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Ready for the Rahm Radio Show?

Here’s what you should expect, and what you almost definitely won’t hear, during tonight’s radio town hall.

The mayor will be on all Chicago-area radio stations tonight talking about "pressing issues."  Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be on radio tonight at 6 p.m., and yes, it sounds a bit retro—the 2016 version of Rahm’s 2015 soft sweater ad released when he was running for his life for reelection.

It’s an opening salvo, perhaps, in his 2019 run for a third term. The point is to assure constituents, “I hear you; I’m listening; tell me what’s on your minds and what I can do to help.”

Sound phony? Well, yes.

Media blogger Rob Feder, who broke the story of Rahm’s radio debut, calls it, in an email to me, “a stunt.”

Feder, who was the long-time Sun-Times radio and TV columnist, has a point: Chicagoans won’t be calling into one of 40-plus participating radio stations and getting connected directly to the mayor. Instead, they’ve been instructed to submit their questions in advance through a website. The screened and selected questions will be posed to Rahm in the gorgeous voice of Chicago celebrity Bill Kurtis, former WBBM-TV anchorman and current announcer/scorekeeper for NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”

And, it turns out, the conversation will not be only between Rahm and Bill; also present in the studio will be unnamed members of his cabinet, or as the press release for the show calls them, “other guests from the Mayor’s Office.”

The promo materials have a whiff of the old-fashioned: as I read, I kept hearing a dad’s voice in my head saying, “C’mon kids, let’s all gather ‘round the kitchen radio tonight!” It’s live and our mayor promises to answer (some) questions on “pressing issues facing the city” for 30 minutes. And we won’t even have to spin the dial looking for Rahm, because the show will be “broadcast simultaneously on every radio station in Chicagoland.”

Wow! Easy, fun, informative, commercial free, and carrying a hint of mystery because the location of the studio from which Rahm and Bill Kurtis and “guests” will be holding forth is not disclosed.

The housebound or retired might be raring to tune in, but probably not many others. Even baby boomers on the go might be wracking their brains this very minute trying to remember, “Where the hell did I put my Walkman and does it take AAA or AA batteries?”

It’s not as if there aren’t lots of questions to ask at a time of particular turmoil in Chicago—the 50-plus shootings a weekend, unrest and racial epithets after a police shooting of a black man in the nearly all-white Mount Greenwood neighborhood, the mystery of who pays for 970 additional cops, the hidden costs of the contract just signed with the teachers union, the long-term effects of closing 50 schools, mostly in poor neighborhoods, the taxes on all kinds of everyday items from airport parking fees to plastic bags. Not to mention Rahm’s use of a personal email address and domain, whether he used the accounts to conduct government business, and if it’s a violation of the state’s open records law—sound familiar?

Then there are the questions that have arisen since Hillary’s stunning loss. What does Trump’s ascension and his stated view of Chicago as a hell-hole “war zone” mean for federal dollars flowing to the city, especially in wake of the City Council’s pre-election vote to remove his honorary street sign? What about those “Not Our President” protests starting at the Trump Tower and fanning out all over downtown?

So, Mr. Mayor, why not announce a weekly “Ask the Mayor” program and allow citizens to call in, with minimum screening, and tell you directly what worries them?

New York mayors have a long history, starting with Fiorello LaGuardia, of doing just that. Given the technology of his day, LaGuardia only delivered monologues about city issues and anything else on his mind. But regular “Ask the Mayor” shows came later—starting with Rudy Giuliani, who sat for both a weekly and a monthly call-the-mayor show. Mike Bloomberg also took regular questions from constituents via his weekly radio show. And New York’s current mayor, Bill deBlasio, takes calls from listeners on “Ask the Mayor: The People’s Policy Press Conference,” a weekly WNYC public radio show hosted by Brian Lehrer.

These count as unscripted, informative, and sometimes hugely entertaining shows.

Take this 1999 exchange, aired on Giuliani’s weekly WABC “Live from City Hall” show, between Mayor Rudy and caller “David from Oceanside.” David had ferrets on his mind, and he was calling to beseech the mayor to change the law to legalize ferret ownership. “There’s something deranged about you,” Giuliani told David. “This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness… You should go consult a psychologist.”

(Giuliani also appeared on a second radio show, the monthly WCBS “Ask the Mayor.” )

But back to Rahm Radio. Writing in the Sun-Times, Fran Spielman described the “simulcast by dozens of radio stations” as “an opportunity to blanket the airwaves with a discussion of the police hiring surge and other programs tied to his 2017 budget,” which is up for a final vote in the City Council two days later. She also describes it as “an opportunity to talk about the new contract that averted Chicago’s second teachers strike in four years and about Emanuel’s efforts to restore public trust shattered by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.”

Via email, I asked a few friends with experience in radio and TV what they thought of the Monday night show. Kurtis’s former Channel 2 anchorman partner Walter Jacobson wrote: “How ridiculous is that 30 minutes? With all the complex issues on the city’s plate, how can 30 minutes even begin to get in to anything?”

Bruce DuMont, moderator of the syndicated “Beyond the Beltway” and founder of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, calls Kurtis “an administration-friendly journalist” and also says the interview should allow real-time unfiltered questions. He points out, “[Rahm] spent 18 months defending Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so he knows how to handle curveballs. But he sees how Hillary Clinton has managed her presidential campaign—hiding from the press and fearing direct communication with the public.”

Feder, as mentioned above, is not impressed: “Radio Broadcasters of Chicagoland wanted to come up with a big stunt to call attention to radio and to demonstrate reach and power of their medium. Ideally, President Obama or Michelle Obama would have been perfect subjects to kick it off, in my opinion. But they chose to approach the mayor instead. So Rahm gets to be the beneficiary.”

As for me, I love Bill Kurtis’s soothing baritone and it’ll be fun to hear it contrasted with the mayor’s staccato, but I’d prefer a Rahm-buster moderator such as the Reader’s Ben Joravsky. That would be not only entertaining, but perhaps even informative.

I submitted a question late last Wednesday night via the aforementioned website. (One can also use the hashtag #ChicagoRadio if social media is preferred.) I asked the Mayor why not engage directly with callers instead of having questions submitted in advance and screened and selected. I also asked why not make it a weekly event. (A radio executive involved in the Rahm town hall told Feder, “This probably has potential to be a quarterly or biannual effort.”)

I’ll report back here if I receive a response or if my question is used on air.

Given the opportunity, I’d also ask Rahm if Hillary’s defeat puts the kibosh on speculation that he’ll be decamping for D.C. As a follow-up, I’d ask him if he has resumed his friendship with Trump, and if brother Ari will once again be repping the President-elect—perhaps a reality show from the White House private quarters, or a “You’re fired” scenario in which the cabinet would be divided into teams, given a project, and ordered to compete.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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