Conservative voice will broadcast, host GOP debate Tuesday

It's one thing to speak your mind, another to speak it while 200,000 people listen in and still another to induce the audience to come back for more.

Portland talk-show host Lars Larson has become a daily fixture for Northwest radio listeners from Jackson County to Spokane - nearly doubling his reach within the past year, growing from seven to 12 stations.

His four-hour program is the top-rated talk show in Portland, No. — in any format in the Eugene-Springfield market and commands a statewide audience unlike any other in Oregon.

Larson, heard locally on KCMX (880-AM), will be in Medford Tuesday. He will broadcast from Rogue Federal Credit Union, 1370 Center Dr., then moderate a 6 p.m. Republican gubernatorial debate at the Red Lion Inn.

"What we saw in Lars was a lot of coverage of regional issues," says Mike Donovan, market manager for Cumulus Broadcasting in Eugene, including KUGN. "I think the town hall analogy is very apt. It's the feeling you get hearing from people in places that perhaps you wouldn't hear from in other ventures."

Larson's show originates on KXL (750-AM), a station owned by Portland Trail Blazers boss and Charter Communications Chairman Paul Allen. The noon-4 p.m. program is generally done at the Rose Garden complex, but Larson also hits the road, appearing in Eugene and Klamath Falls when local debates turned into regional or national issues.

Politics is Larson's bread and better and when political performance comes under public scrutiny it makes for captivating dialogue.

Larson says the world of talk radio changed 17 years ago with the advent of the cell phone.

No longer were call-in shows dominated by retirees or those kept home by medical ailments, whose primary interests might have been Social Security or veterans' affairs.

"Sales reps and people driving things around to their customers are now able to participate in talk radio," Larson says.

"As a result, it's become a community meeting place."

Half of Larson's listeners are in the Portland-Salem-Vancouver market, where his listenership climbed 14 percent in the fall ratings period. But his following has grown dramatically since syndication began two years ago. Since KUGN put Larson on the air last March, the station's afternoon ratings have gone up 120 percent and listenership in Lane County is 21,300.

Fall-ratings figures weren't available, but KCMX's overall rating rose by one point during the fall and Larson likely had something to do with it.

KXL's local sales manager Mike Maloney, who oversees advertising on Larson's network feed says politically tense times up the ratings and sales.

"The inordinate number of ballot measures in this state make local politics more important," Maloney said. "So many of measures impact so many pockets and the process puts issues in front of people. Lars' show has become a platform for political debate, first in Portland, and more and more the rest of the state."

That platform has come under fire from some quarters, including Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has refused to appear on his show, saying "you never accept invitations to a lynching."

In this year's State of the State speech, Kitzhaber criticized the "mindless ideology of the talk show host," and his spokesman said pressure from talk shows was making it more difficult to find middle ground in the current budget crisis.

Larson is on the conservative side of the fence, but says he invites "people of all stripes" to air their views.

That invitation may reach an even wider audience if Larson's influence grows as he hopes.

"I'd be lying if I told you that I haven't lobbied all over the state to add stations to the show," Larson says.

Larson was born in Taiwan and moved about the Northwest after his father left the Navy to pursue a career in forestry. A couple of stops in Montana were followed by stays in Happy Camp, Somes Bar and Dorris in California and Klamath Falls before attending junior high and high school in Tillamook.

He began his radio career in Tillamook when he was 16 and worked for several radio stations in Eugene during an abbreviated stint at the University of Oregon. From there he took a job in Spokane and continued his schooling at Gonzaga University.

In the '80s and '90s, Larson appeared on both radio and television, including an anchor job with the independent TV station KPTV in Portland and work with KXL radio and KOIN-TV.

Larson has a direct connection with the Rogue Valley as a weekend host for Central Point-based Talk Radio Network.

He teams up with "Rogue Warrior" author Dick Marcinko of Virginia, a former U.S. Navy Seal, terrorism and military expert in a show called America on Watch. KCMX airs the three-hour show at 9 p.m. Saturday nights.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail .