It was a quiet Thursday evening in Billings and on the far left side of the radio dial, a half-hour talk show began with its usual greeting.
"Share your thoughts with your neighbors about whatever is on your mind," said the velvety-voiced host, Marvin Granger.
The first caller to Yellowstone Public Radio's twice-weekly "Your Opinion, Please!" program was a Billings man. On his mind: Philip Morris' recent bankruptcy concerns because of the tobacco settlement.
Granger let the caller finish, then quipped how the company's subsidiary, Kraft Foods, ought to help with the payments by selling more macaroni and cheese.
Each episode of KEMC's free-form program seems to develop into a theme, where one caller's words prompts reaction from others. The topics often include the governor, the war in Iraq, coalbed methane, identity theft or upcoming elections. Many callers simply want to point out a good book or an interesting article. This time, the focus took shape after Granger's mac and cheese comment.
"I've had some untoward experiences with artificial food," the third caller to the show said, then explaining how he once opened a sealed tin of instant iced tea and accidentally inhaled a cloud of brown tea powder. "As a poet it would be a great way to die — 'The man was found with instant tea in his lungs,'" the caller said.
Granger laughed softly into the microphone. "This is a strange program," he told listeners.
* * * Newspapers have a page with letters to the editor. Montana radio has "Your Opinion, Please!"
It's radio in the raw and bears little resemblance to most talk shows. Instead of testy exchanges, "Your Opinion, Please!" callers are rarely interrupted and are always thanked by the host. If the ideas have any political bent, it's not by design, Granger said. Calls are completely unscreened and divergent viewpoints are encouraged.
"I'm very proud that we have no screening and no delays," he said. "In all the years I've been here, we've had to take one person off the air."
This happened during a call-in session with a current Montana senator, when the caller asked if the senator was an alcoholic.
"Your Opinion, Please!" was started as an experiment nearly four years ago. "We just thought we'd try it as a listener-driven program. We'd let the listeners determine the topics," Granger said.
The show airs every Thursday and Friday at 6:30 p.m. at 91.7 FM in Billings. It usually has no lack of callers, but inaugural programs included some awkward silences, Granger said. Listeners weren't accustomed to the idea of such free-wheeling talk. Granger would try to fuel the discussion by talking about recent articles from Harper's magazine, The New York Times or Scientific American.
The show now has no problem attracting callers, but Granger admits to sometimes having a hard time giving up the microphone.
"People send me e-mails, 'Would you just shut up!' and 'It isn't My Opinion, Please', " Granger said. "I confess, I'm so interested in the subject matter I get carried away."
The job of unplugging Granger often goes to his sidekick, Ken Siebert, who also serves as the show's engineer.
"Marvin tends to go on," Siebert said.
Phone calls to the show are handled by Guy Moody and Dan Eichlin.
* * * The show's gentle presence has created loyal followers, many of whom consider themselves refugees from the bombast of other talk radio offerings today. Many of the regular callers come from small towns across the state. One of the regulars spent a good portion of his life touring the world on a freighter. He calls in when geographical questions arise.
Perhaps the most frequent caller is retired Billings resident Ivon White, a self-described hermit and "nihilistic Zen Baptist." His thought-provoking comments have earned him the nickname "The Professor."
When White discusses the program and its callers he frequently uses the word "we." The show has evolved into a self-regulating system in which loyal listeners, such as White, try to counterbalance callers with overly partisan or mean-spirited opinions.
"We've opened up a rare opportunity for reasoned debate," White said. "This show has brought some courage to people who tend to run against the usual conservative politics typical to rural communities. We've got here an opportunity for people in those small towns to express opinions that, by and large, they are not always going to feel free to articulate."
Granger and Siebert say the show's opinions tend to run left-of-center. White disagrees. If the program seems liberal, he said, that's only because most voices on the radio today are so conservative.
"With the constant bombardment of right-wing radio, it would seem that way," White said. "But I'd debate anywhere anytime with anyone who says it's a left-wing program."
* * * Even in the eclectic world of public radio, "Your Opinion Please!" is a rarity, Granger said. At national radio conventions, other station managers often react with some degree of horror to the idea of a show during the 6:30 p.m. drive time with no themes and no caller screening.
This isn't Granger's first free-form public radio show. In the early 1960s, after dropping out of graduate school for a job in public radio — he originally planned on a career in academia as a philosopher — Granger helped create "Radio Free Saturday" for University of Minnesota station KUOM. Granger worked on the show with a young man he had recently hired: Garrison Keillor.
Granger and Keillor, who is now the closest thing to a public radio superstar, used the show to broadcast voices and ideas not heard on commercial radio. Keillor once angered the high-brow station manager by playing the entire recently released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
"Your Opinion Please!" was born out of the same idea, Granger said. Listeners want to hear something new and unpredictable. They want a radio talk show where opinions aren't always black or white.
"I have terribly mixed feelings on things like abortion. I think a lot of people do," Granger said. "That's just normal."
Over the course of a week, about 35,000 people from Montana and northern Wyoming tune into Yellowstone Public Radio, Granger said. Many listen to public radio powerhouse programs, such as "Car Talk" and "Morning Edition." Granger has no idea of the size of the audience of "Your Opinion, Please!"
"We're not talking very big," he said.
Those who do listen tend to be part of that "interesting underground" in every town, Granger said, comprised of "people who read strange things and listen to strange things."
"Your Opinion, Please!" will probably never draw the listenership of AM talk radio and Granger doesn't mind. Most of those programs, he said, attract audiences through "hatred and tearing people to shreds."
James Hagengruber can be reached at 657-1232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.