When Dave Congalton began his talk radio career 12 years ago, there was only one other radio talk show host on the air in SLO County.
Betsey Nash hosted a two-hour morning show during the week on KVEC. That was it.
But thanks to nationally recognized blabbermouths like Rush Limbaugh, that’s all changed. Local talk radio, with its focus on the pressing issues of the day and call-in listeners, has blossomed.
“There’s more talk radio on the Central Coast than ever before,” said Congalton. “I attribute that to Rush [Limbaugh]. He reinvented talk radio.”
These days, SLO County radio listeners can tune into any number of colorful conversations for almost seven hours a day every weekday from three popular garrulous talk show hosts: Bill Benica, Joe Benson, and Congalton.
They are the three biggest talkers in the county, and they each have their own sculpted niches on the airwaves.
And there’s been plenty to talk about lately.
From KSBY meteorologist Sharon Graves’ sudden departure last winter to the law enforcement controversies this summer, the phone lines have been lighting up across the dial and the boys behind the mike have enjoyed record listenership.
Benson, on KPRL-AM 1230, said SLO County has the most radio stations, per capita, in the entire country. There are 27 stations available to SLO County listeners, and talk radio’s foothold in the top 10 demonstrates the Central Coast’s penchant for sounding off.
The listening audience in SLO ranks 170th out of 287 markets in the nation, according to Arbitron, the industry ratings company.
Country station KKJG-FM 98.1 is the overall county leader with a 9.4 percent market share. Benson’s station, KPRL, has the highest ranking of the three with an overall ranking of No. 4, KVEC (Congalton) is second at No. 7, and KKAL (Benica) is third at No. 16.
Benson, on the air every weekday from 12:30 to 2 p.m., takes the approach of the right-wing journalist. He’ll dig and dig and dig until he finds that nugget of information that his conservative North County listeners are craving. Then he’ll serve it up.
“My job is not just to stir up controversy, my job is a responsibility. It’s an educational process for me because I feel the listeners impart information to me and I get to impart information back to them.”
Benica, on KKAL-FM 99.7 every weekday from 2-4 p.m., takes the mellow approach of discussing the issues in an amicable way that his listeners—who all sound like old friends when they call in—seem to enjoy.
“I make opinions, but I don’t make a big point about it. I don’t argue my point against someone else’s.”
Then there’s Dave Congalton. Featured weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on KVEC-AM 920, he stirs the pot in a way that will get a rise out of somebody, or better yet, everybody. He’ll take anybody on—conservatives, liberals, hell, if you’re middle of the road, he’ll take you on, too.
“I go after controversy. I try to provide my point of view and I try to do it in good faith, not manipulate people.”
Congalton said it’s the smart people who are listening to talk.
“People who listen to talk radio tend to be better educated, have more income. They’re looking for something beyond the jukebox. They want to learn something; they want to be engaged. They want something to listen to while they’re sitting on the Grade.”
If you’re on the Grade, you can probably get all three shows on your radio. But as soon as you pass the Grade going south, you’ll lose Benson. His 1000-watt blowtorch can’t blast his signal over the hill. Let’s start with him.
“Sound-off” with Joe Benson
Benson started his radio career as a junior in high school in 1968 Wilmington, Del. He has been the host of “Sound-off,” the county’s longest-running talk radio show, for three years. Six months ago the show was bumped up by 30 minutes to a 90-minute program running from 12:30-2 p.m.
Benson says he prefers the North County over anywhere else.
“There’s such a divergence between what goes on at the south end of the Grade and what goes on here. We’re like on a different planet. I think the North County has an education level and is informed, and really wants to stay on top of topics. We tend to explore the issues and come up with decisions,” he said.
Benson is also the news director for KPRL, a position that lends itself to some long hours. He said he usually arrives at work at 3:30 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m.
He is single.
As news director, Benson said, he is first and foremost a journalist. He also knows talk radio has to be entertaining and opinionated, so he keeps his show extremely local and gives the people what he thinks they want.
“We super-serve this community. We pick people up and we piss people off, but these people are extremely loyal. We’re not worried about being fair and balanced; we’re being unfair and tainted. We don’t care.”
Benson is a big supporter of gubernatorial candidate Tom McClintock, and has had him on the show seven times. He has had a continuing relationship with former candidate Bill Simon—and that relationship has led to Simon’s political consultant position on the show.
Benson’s position on local issues is one that his listeners would expect from a conservative host. For instance, his view regarding the recent death of Jay Anthony Vestal:
“On our show, people tend to support the sheriff’s department. Headlines like ‘Sheriff’s deputies kill Templeton man’—personally, I think it was a rush to judgment. I couldn’t afford to do the story from just one side.”
He said he did approach the sheriff’s department with some questions about the matter, but he understood why they didn’t want to answer.
“They’re leery of answering questions from the media because there’s so much litigation. They’re trying to play their cards close to the chest because they know the media, under the First Amendment, are going to come out and say whatever they think. They don’t trust the media because they tend to speculate.”
However, he doesn’t necessarily think the public has a problem with the media.
“People are becoming more media aware these days. They need to have an opportunity to vent. That’s why they need Dave Congalton. That’s why they need, hopefully, Joe Benson.”
“The Dave Congalton Show”
Anyone who listens to Congalton’s show knows he likes to throw his opinion out there, stir up the pot a bit, and see what happens. He’ll make fun of the Tribune, he’ll make fun of County Supervisor Mike Ryan for not knowing his own e-mail address, and he’ll generally try to get people riled up. That’s why it’s funny to hear him say things like, “It’s not about what I think. It’s about me being a moderator. I’m trying to provide a forum for people to talk about the issues of the day.”
He’s actually an equal opportunity people-pisser-offer. After loosening up a little bit, something closer to the truth comes out.
“I’ll give my opinions about a decision, but I also encourage opinion. What makes my show different is I go after liberals and conservatives. Sometimes I take a position I don’t really believe in just to screw with people.”
In the recall race, he explained, he’s pushing for McClintock on the air. But he said there’s no way he’d vote for McClintock, even though he respects him. He just can’t stand Arnold Schwarzenegger and will push his own agenda “so Schwarzenegger won’t win.”
He said the recall race itself is the bread and butter of talk radio right now.
“The recall is the number-one story on talk radio right now. That’s what the hard-core talk radio people want to discuss. If you go off the recall [subject] you’re going to lose calls.” But of course, Congalton points out, there’s a very scientific way to deal with listeners when they’re not calling: yell at them. He’ll give the listeners an “I guess nobody cares about this issue” speech, and that usually gets them going.
Congalton does his show with sidekick Tom Madson. They have a good working relationship and they keep it fun in the booth.
“When he falls asleep I just throw things at him,” Congalton said.
“Hey, I’m 71 years old and I just became a great-grandfather for the second time, so up yours,” Madson answered.
Congalton on his competition: “[Benson] is the conscience of the North County; that’s his deal and he does it fine. He’s a typical Paso Roblan—anything south of the grade he doesn’t trust. He calls us ‘The People’s Republic of San Luis.’ Conservatives go to that station because it’s preaching to the choir.”
The two consider themselves friends and e-mail often, although they’ve never met.
On Benica: “We miss Benica here. I wish he’d come back.”
“Talk is Cheap, your Friends and Neighbor’s Network”
Benica is the only local talk radio host who is an independent contractor. While his show is on KKAL-FM 99.7, the station doesn’t pay him; his sponsors pay him. That’s why you might hear him mentioning SLO Roasted Coffee every once in a while; he and his wife Nancy do marketing for the company. That also might be why he’s a little mellower in his subject matter.
“I make opinions, but I don’t argue my point against someone else’s. People say, ‘Are you conservative? Are you liberal?’ I’m just a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.
“I try to be entertaining. I find goofy stories, I write bad jokes.”
Benica said if there’s a local issue that he wants to know more about, he’ll call an official and ask them some questions. He said his approach to radio works well in those situations because he can usually get the answers he’s looking for.
Everybody knows his style and that he’s not out to attack them.
One local issue that hit Benica close to home was the recent price scandal at Albertson’s. Through his coffee contract he knows almost all of Albertson’s managers from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara, but he said that didn’t make him back off the issue at all.
“If you decide you never want to walk into an Albertson’s again, that’s your business. Are these people willing to sacrifice their business for that amount of money? I would say you’re nuts. There are Albertson’s stores that in three weeks make as much money as they were fined.”
He said he thinks when the business changed from Lucky’s to Albertson’s they came up with a “really crappy” system, and “somebody’s head should roll” at their headquarters.
What does Benica think about the Kenneth Freitas issue?
“Most of the people say this is horse pucky, letting this guy get away with everything. … But let’s get down to the meat of the matter: Does it matter if you’re important? Can you get away with things if you’re important?” He said it does, and it happens all over the country.
These three radio men impose their voices, thoughts, and influences on the citizens of the Central Coast. What they say matters. People listen, form an opinion either for or against the hosts, and most likely spread that opinion to their friends. That’s what talk radio does, it creates the collective consciousness of a community.
But it’s also entertainment. Congalton thinks it’s the best job ever.
“There’s no better job than this, because I get to come on and say whatever I want. All I’m doing is mouthing off and giving my opinion. I will do this for as long as I can.” ³
Staff Writer Matt McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.