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photo:Joe Putrock

Next Caller, Please
By Rick Marshall

Albany native Mike Stark has received national accolades, and on-air threats, for his relentless pursuit of dialogue on the right-wing airwaves

In the ideological battle to win the hearts and minds of American voters, Mike Stark is a political sniper. Armed only with a telephone, enough facts to support his positions, and the patience to wait as long as it takes to get on the air, the self-described “Albany gadfly” has become a frequent caller on right-wing radio and television shows around the nation. So much so, in fact, that the best measure of his success might not be the number of calls he’s made, but the type of enemies he’s making along the way.

“We should go to his house. We should all go,” threatened Fox News right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly during an October 2005 show, just moments after hanging up on a call from Stark. The local stay-at-home dad, who plans to begin law school in the fall, had tried to address some inaccuracies in O’Reilly’s discussion of the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, but O’Reilly disconnected the call after only a few seconds.

“I can get the address when he calls in and we can trace it back,” continued O’Reilly with a sinister inflection. “We should all go over and surprise him.”

Sitting in a local café, Stark laughs about the incident as he rolls his daughter’s stroller back and forth on the floor.

“I sent Bill my address, but nobody’s shown up yet,” he grins. “I’m still waiting.”

Dressed in a worn T-shirt, with his 4-month-old daughter happily gurgling on his knee, the 37-year-old Stark hardly seems capable of eliciting such attention—let alone such a venomous response—from a major media figure. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what he’s done over the last few years, causing politicians and pundits at all levels of influence to roll their eyes, bristle defensively or, in the case of some local and national media figures, issue absurd threats at the mere mention of “Mike from Albany.”

“When they talk bullshit to millions of people, I feel like it’s my job to dilute it with facts,” he says of his reasons for spending hours every day cycling through the talk-radio schedule for a few seconds of on-air time.

The need to “air out the airwaves” (as he puts it) is the reason Stark first started calling, and the reason he continues to do so. In an age where the line between media and government has become increasingly blurred, he argues, it takes far too long for the truth to find its way past all of the propaganda artists, pundits and paid advertisements and into the public eye—so people need to go out and find it themselves.

“These days, it feels like the media’s been neutered,” he says. “They’re not asking the questions people really want to know the answers to.”

“I take the role of an adversarial press very seriously,” continues Stark. “But in its absence, we need to fill that role.”

Stark says he placed his first call back in 2002, to a University at Albany professor’s radio show. The professor was discussing the impending war in Iraq, and Stark believed he had a fact the professor didn’t seem aware of. Despite an initial feeling of “He’s a professor, he probably knows more than I do,” he picked up the phone and placed the call. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the following years, Stark’s voice began peppering call-in shows on both the local and national airwaves. In addition to chronicling his call-in experiences on national progressive Web sites like DailyKos, Stark became a regular contributor on those sites’ local equivalent, Democracy in Albany. During the run-up to the 2005 city elections, “Mike the Friday Caller” quickly became a regular fixture on DIA, one of the city’s most active political Web sites.

Whether questioning Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings about police corruption on his weekly show or pushing right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh to back up his positions, Stark wasted no time in making a name for himself as exactly the sort of caller hosts of political programs dread: educated, stubborn and armed with supporting facts.

“Sure, there are a lot of times when I spend all day trying to get on the air, only to be hung up on when they either recognize my voice, decide they don’t want to address a certain topic, or I get fooled into going off-topic [a standard cause for disconnection on many programs],” says Stark. “But when I do manage to get the message out, I consider that a success—and it’s an even sweeter success when you have the host fumbling over their own words, too.”

In an effort to give those rare moments of success their own platform, Stark recently set up Calling All Wingnuts (www.callingallwingnuts. com), a Web site that collects the recordings of all his calls. By engaging talk radio hosts on their own shows and then posting the results, he says, there’s not only the potential for reaching millions of people with a progressive message, but also the chance to set an example for anyone else who’s tired of hearing the same old propaganda.

While the opportunities to get on the air are few and the chances to insert a proper counterpoint are even fewer, on those rare occasions when Stark does manage to get a call answered, move past the call screeners, get on the air and deliver his point, the results speak for themselves.

For instance, last month, Stark posed a question to local radio host Andrew Wilkow of 810 WGY, asking Wilkow, as a professed anti-choice advocate who believes that life begins at conception, whether he would rescue a 2-year-old girl or a petri dish full of five fertilized eggs if forced to make a choice in a burning building. On one hand, Stark argued, there’s a single life, and on the other, if Wilkow truly believed in the definition of “life” he had been trumpeting, there were five lives. Which would he choose to save?

The stammering non-response this question elicited from Wilkow caused Stark’s recording of the program to spread like wildfire on the Internet, garnering not only a mention in the online news site, but also overloading Stark’s new Web site with massive levels of traffic. After being online for only a month, he was forced to upgrade the site and increase his bandwidth to accommodate the 5,000 visitors his site was receiving, and continues to receive, each day.

“All I did was to pose a question,” says Stark. “After that, the recording just exploded on the Internet.”

According to Stark, the hubbub surrounding the call quickly gave rise to talk of impending cease-and-desist orders and harassment complaints from Wilkow, but no action was ever taken.

“People try to paint me as a crazed lunatic, saying I take it personally when I don’t get on their shows,” says Stark. “They complain when I post the clips, saying I’m taking their comments out of context and they complain about me using fake names. The truth is, I have to use the fake names or they wouldn’t take my calls, and I never swear on the air or do anything to jeopardize their licenses.”

“They just don’t want anyone to make them sound like asses on the air, and they don’t want any voice to get familiar to their listeners except their own,” he shrugs. “That’s fair, because it’s their show. But there’s no law against what I’m doing, so I’m going to continue to confront them with the liberal perspective and the facts that back my case up.”

While Stark says he can’t take credit for the question he posed to Wilkow because it was initially posed on a popular left-wing blog, he hopes the flustered response it received is proof that anyone can stand up to right-wing radio’s bullies. Along with the archive of recordings Stark maintains on his site, he also provides a schedule of many programs’ call-in times and phone numbers with the hope of encouraging his readers to also test the intellectual mettle of any pundit or politician using the airwaves as a political soapbox.

“Use a fake name, disguise your voice, do whatever it takes to get on the air and force them to defend their positions,” he says. “There aren’t any laws against that.”

That doesn’t mean those same hosts won’t try and convince you otherwise, as Stark recently discovered.

After urging his readers to flood Bill O’Reilly with calls mentioning the pundit’s left-wing rival, Keith Olbermann, Stark witnessed the effects of his weeklong campaign on March 2.

“[O’Reilly] was being peppered all week by these calls, and he kept having to answer a call, cut it off when the caller mentioned Olbermann and go on to the next one over and over again,” laughs Stark, who devised the campaign in response to O’Reilly posting a petition on his Web site to get Olbermann fired.

Stark says he was on hold during that day’s broadcast when the right-wing host—fed up, perhaps, by all of the calls he had been hanging up on all day—threatened to send “Fox security” after a caller from Orlando who mentioned Olbermann’s name.

“We have your phone numbers, by the way,” said O’Reilly after dropping the call, “and we’re going to turn it over to Fox security, and you’ll be getting a little visit.”

“Just so you know, we do have your phone number,” continued O’Reilly. “And if you say anything untoward, obscene, or anything like that, Fox security then will contact your local authorities, and you will be held accountable.”

The bizarre threat made headlines on media watchdog sites, television and radio programs around the nation, and soon Stark found himself in the spotlight once again as many of his readers began reporting that they had received strange phone calls from a mysterious “Fox security” officer. Several even provided Stark with recordings of the messages left on their voice mail. Soon Olbermann was joined by Air America pundit Al Franken and Sirius digital radio shock-jock Howard Stern in ridiculing not only the threat, but O’Reilly’s belief that he could enforce it.

“The fact of the matter is, you are allowed to call into a radio show and say whatever you want,” remarked Stern during a recent broadcast. “Just because the host doesn’t like what the caller is saying, you can’t alert the authorities.”

“Harassment? There’s no harassment in what I’m doing,” says Stark. “No one is doing anything to make anyone feel threatened—that’s harassment.”

In fact, the callers who received the messages from “Fox security” might be the only individuals involved who have legitimate cause for a harassment suit. Stark has in fact encouraged his readers not to file such a suit.

“If you have a call-in show and people call in to offer an opinion different from your own you shouldn’t be crying about it,” shrugs Stark. “But I don’t want to be the first one to run to court over this.”

It was this series of events, combined with the recent news that a Washington, D.C., group raised more than $1,000 last month to support maintenance of Stark’s site and the acquisition of better recording equipment for him, that he says convinced him that his unique form of activism might be even more successful as a group effort. By the time he enters law school this fall, Stark says he hopes to have a legion of callers to provide content for the site.

“If these radio hosts are going to put themselves out there, I don’t see why people don’t take advantage of that,” shrugs Stark, still calmly rolling his daughter’s stroller back and forth next to him. “I’d like to think I’m empowering people to do that.”

With all of the drama and conflict he’s creating, Stark acknowledges that what he’s doing—and what he’s encouraging other people to do as well—falls short of journalism. But he says it should be considered a way to bring the issues to an audience that might not otherwise hear them. While media watchdog sites like Media and chronicle the on-air inaccuracies of politicians and pundits on a daily basis, Stark says, their soft, for-history’s-sake approach to the spread of misinformation often preaches to the choir. By engaging the right-wing propagandists on their own turf, you not only provide a more entertaining debate, but gain a larger audience.

As for who might be hearing from Stark in the future, he says he likes to consider himself an equal-opportunity pest. Much like the way he measures his own success, he gauges the value of targets not by the political friends they keep but by the enemies they’ve made.

“If you’re the sort of person politicians don’t like, you probably won’t hear from me,” he laughs, “because you’re probably a fair person.”

“But if you’re the sort of person who all the politicians like, you can expect to get a call from me.”

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