February 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Neal Rubin

WJR: No vast right-wing conspiracy

Gov. Jennifer Granholm's husband Daniel Mulhern believes WJR-AM is giving Republicans preferential treatment. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

It's not that WJR-AM (760) leans so far to the right it almost topples over, even though you wonder sometimes how the Golden Tower stays vertical.

The reason the station will broadcast Republican L. Brooks Patterson live tonight and air Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm on tape two hours later is that the Oakland County Executive asked first -- so far in advance, in fact, that WJR's operations manager says he laughed.

Steve Stewart, who handles programming for the Great Voice of the Great Lakes, also says he can't believe people are still testy about the scheduling conflict. Many are, however, and one of them is married to the governor.

From Stewart's standpoint, "This should be a nonissue in the big picture," the big picture being that thing with all the budget cuts and layoffs in it.

From First Gentleman Dan Mulhern's standpoint, however, it's a sign of what WJR (760) has become.

Interviewed on Michael Shiels' morning show on WJIM-AM (1240) in Lansing, Mulhern said WJR "used to be a pretty balanced station that really gave people a sense of what is going on. But now, with their national and local programming, there is such a Republican tilt to everything."

"I think there's a real void in Detroit left behind," he went on, especially after the station lost the late J.P. McCarthy and the rights to the Detroit Tigers. "That station is just not what it used to be."

Conservatives are hot

Whether it's better is a decision left to the people with their hands on the radio knobs. It's definitely not the place where one of the hosts who followed McCarthy would ask listeners to guess what was in his pocket.

Paul W. Smith, Frank Beckmann, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Laura Schlessinger ... with the exception of centrist Mitch Albom from 5-7 p.m., it's a lineup that gets more conservative by the hour.

Nationally, it's the sort of programming that makes money. Liberal equivalents have historically struggled, and even in Washington, D.C. -- where Democrats are not difficult to locate -- a station calling itself OBAMA 1240 just dumped its format and switched to financial news.

Stewart says it's a good question why conservatism works so much better on the radio, but not one he cares to ponder. And where his station is concerned, he rejects the label. "I look at these as very strong personalities with strong opinions," he says, even if it's probably not coincidence that the opinions are so similar.

He says he was "surprised and disappointed" by Mulhern's comments. He also says "it's ridiculous" to suggest that the station is picking on the governor or her State of the State address, and he has the moldy e-mails to prove it.

Patterson was first

Patterson's office contacted WJR on June 18, suggesting Feb. 3 or 4 for his speech. In radio, that's like booking a hall for a wedding in 2036.

On Nov. 5 -- after Stewart received Michigan State University's basketball schedule and saw that tonight was open -- he and Patterson locked in the date for his State of the County presentation. It's not only a speech for WJR, Stewart says, it's a show, with reporter Lloyd Jackson introducing Patterson to the listeners at 7 p.m., then filling out the hour after Patterson wraps up at the MSU Management Education Center in Troy.

WJR uses the same approach with the annual address from Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, a Democrat. The commitment will bump Granholm to 9 p.m., after a monthly special called "The Voices of Michigan Education," though her speech will air live at 7 p.m. on WDET-FM (101.9) and WTVS-TV (Channel 56).

As Stewart points out, WJR's delay won't make the governor's speech any less valid. And while Patterson is pondering a run for governor, a two-hour head start at this point probably won't make a big difference, especially since Granholm won't be on the ballot.

Patterson, a hard man to top in a one-liner contest, told The Detroit News last week that he assumed the scheduling of dueling speeches was an accident.

"We'll have our coverage," he said, "they'll have theirs, and we'll both be regretting we picked the day Kwame Kilpatrick is released."

Reach Neal Rubin at (313) 222-1874 or nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com.

Republican L. Brooks Patterson
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