For better or for worse, talk radio is a primary means of political engagement in Alabama.
At any given time when 80 percent of the public is tuned out of politics, a lot of that other 20 percent flock to the radio dial to get a fix on the blow-by-blow news of the day.
Many of the elite figures turn up their noses to it, but when a congressman or state legislator wants to get a message out, they know their bread-and-butter audience for that message resides on the radio dial.
That’s especially true in Alabama, given it is a state dominated by conservative politics, and political talk radio is home for much of the conservative philosophy in America.
Another area in which the spoken word excels in this format is the morning drive time slot — those few hours, usually 7-10 a.m. — when people are in their car commuting to work. They’re in the car, and they want to know the news, last night’s sports scores, the weather or where traffic is snarled.
For that reason on morning drive talk radio, frequently a “shock jock” or the “morning zoo” variety dominate those time slots.
Where these two seem to intersect is the Birmingham-based “Rick & Bubba” radio show. For well over two decades, Rick Burgess and Bill “Bubba” Bussey have been the gold standard for morning drive radio in Alabama.
They’ve been hit-or-miss in the Mobile market over the years, but no one outside of perhaps Paul Finebaum has had a statewide appeal similar to this duo.
My experience with the “Rick & Bubba” show has been just that — an off-and-on encounter when flipping through the dial. As a guy that grew up in Birmingham, went to Auburn and settled in Mobile for a time, I was aware of them. But the reputation of the show was more culture and less political, and therefore not something on my radar.
They’re a household name in Alabama, but when it comes to relevance in the overall political discussion, they only seemed to show up sporadically.
I assumed it was a place to go if I was in the mood to hear about food, sports with some proselytizing and maybe occasionally politics.
But that was the perception and not the reality.
Last year, the two championed then-Sen. Luther Strange’s effort to get elected to the U.S. Senate. Although Strange came up short, from that point forward Burgess and Bussey are at least part of the discussion when it comes to politics.
Earlier this year, they decided to support Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson’s bid for this year’s Republican gubernatorial nomination. Arguably, without their show many people in Alabama would have no idea who Dawson is.
Given this new set of assumptions I was operating under about their relevance, I committed myself to listen to all three hours of their entire show for 10 days.
The appeal was immediately apparent — a couple of good ol’ boys with Southern accents there weren’t too wonky, but with opinions that were within the mainstream of politics in Alabama. The running joke was how much they like to eat but that was just the shtick.
Conservative politics, sports, talk of day-to-day situations such as car repairs or buying new household appliances, and the occasional interjection of Christian theology were more the grist for the mill. Sing-a-longs and contest giveaways, such as the “Wheel of Meat,” are part of the theatrics.
If you want to know the culture in suburban Alabama in such places as Shelby, Baldwin and Madison counties, which in recent elections have been where the state has been decided, whatever is on “Rick & Bubba” that day is an excellent place to start.
Another one of the running jokes on the show is about the political ambitions of co-host Burgess. Last year there was speculation he might run for governor. He approaches the topic with a little bit self-deprecation when it comes up.
Last summer, Burgess dismissed the possibility of a gubernatorial run in this election cycle and decided to back Dawson instead.
If things don’t work out for Dawson — who has a lot of ground to make up, according to polling, in next week’s primary — then why not Burgess or Bussey in the future?
Either one would be formidable out of the gate. Burgess and Bussey have the name recognition and an immediate appreciation for and understanding of a vital constituency in Alabama politics.
One of their most valuable assets would be media experience. In politics, you can’t underestimate the ability to connect with a voter and handle tough and combative media appearances.
Case in point: Donald Trump. There’s a guy that understood how to talk to people and could connect with voters in a way the average run-of-the-mill politician can’t.
Also, would you want to be the guy that has to run against Rick or Bubba and be presented with the task of having to question their character?
Sure, they might have some catching up to do on policy and understanding the antiquated nuance of the state budget, the Alabama Constitution, prison reform or whatever challenge du jour the state is facing.
We’re at a time in politics when celebrity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so again, why not?
But would they do it? Probably not. Would you want to take a pay cut to deal with the cesspool of Montgomery?