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Catching up with radio veteran and political junkie Bruce DuMont

By Elaine Richardson

JUNE 26, 2000:  In the days before all-talk radio, megachannel cable television, Bill Maher-style political chitchat and Chris Matthews' hardball, there was Bruce DuMont.

You may not know his face, but chances are, if you're into politics, you've heard his voice. DuMont's weekly gathering of pundits and power brokers, insiders and average Joes, the nationally syndicated "Beyond the Beltway" has been described as "the show that started the trend toward aggressive political debate on the radio."

And that suits DuMont, who this week celebrates twenty years of political talk. It's a major milestone for a show that began on public radio WBEZ-FM as a thirteen-week experiment in June 1980. "I'm a political junkie myself and Chicago was then, less so now, such a political town -- you had Jane Byrne and the Reagan revolution. There was major turmoil nationally, in the city and, to a lesser degree, at the state level," says DuMont, who's also the founder, president and CEO of the Museum of Broadcast Communications. In the political climate of the early eighties, the airwaves were ripe for the show's original incarnation, "Inside Politics," which filled a niche because it was "by, for and about political junkies," he says.

But then everything changed. By 1991 the show had attained a cult following with its insider look at politics, but with the election of new Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Republican takeover of Congress and the emergence of cable, it seemed time to shift gears. "It lasted for a long time," DuMont says. "When cable came along and made itself an important part of people's lives, it did so by filling a niche. And then Daley came along and you didn't dare fight with him in public." In 1991 the show went into national syndication, and in 1992 the newly renamed "Beyond the Beltway" changed focus, shifting away from Chicago and the political inside.

"If you watch the Sunday morning shows, the same twenty-five people jump from show to show, all the shows are Washington based," DuMont says, noting that the cable shows follow the same pattern. "We're a singular voice because we're as diverse as possible in the opinions on the panel as we are with the people who are calling in. We're talking to real people about real issues affecting them. And I'm not always trying to change someone's opinion -- Rush [Limbaugh] is always trying to change your opinion."

So what happens when someone compares him to other political talkies? "The only thing that really makes me bristle is when people say 'You're just like the McLaughlin Group.' I just say, 'No, we were on a year and a half before they were. They're just like us,'" says DuMont. "But it's somewhat flattering to see a concept you've come up with has been successful." And, if nothing else, DuMont is now a cultural icon: In February "Beyond the Beltway" turned up as an answer on "Jeopardy!"

"Beyond the Beltway" can be heard Sundays, 6-8pm, on WLS, 890-AM and seen Sundays at 10:30pm on WYCC-TV Channel 20, and streams live on the Internet at www.beyondthebeltway.com.


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