ATLANTA — Warren Ballentine, one of black talk radio’s new stars, was on a tear against Senator John McCain as he broadcast from the Greenbriar Mall here last week, blithely dismissing Mr. McCain’s kind words about Senator Barack Obama at the recent N.A.A.C.P. national convention.
“He came out talking about how good of a race Barack Obama was running, and how proud he was of Barack,” Mr. Ballentine said. “You know he went back home and said, ‘I can’t believe I spoke in front of all those Negroes today!’ ”
“He was pandering to the crowd, talking about how he felt when Martin Luther King Jr. died,” Mr. Ballentine went on. “However, he didn’t vote for the holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Rush Limbaugh, meet your black liberal counterprogramming. Mr. Ballentine is one of the many African-American radio hosts and commentators who are aggressively advocating for Mr. Obama’s election on black-oriented radio stations daily.
Since Mr. Limbaugh first flexed his tonsils two decades ago, Democrats have publicly worried about their lack of an answer to him and his imitators, who have proven so adept at motivating conservative Republicans to go to the polls, especially for President Bush.
Now it is Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who has a harmonious chorus of broadcast supporters addressing a vital part of his coalition, feeding and reflecting the excitement blacks have for his candidacy in general. Mr. Obama is getting support from white liberal talk radio hosts as well, but the backing he is getting from black radio hosts could be especially helpful to his campaign’s efforts to increase black turnout and raise historically low voter registration enough to change the math of presidential elections in battlegrounds and traditionally Republican states like this one.
“Urban stations can be in ’08 what Rush Limbaugh delivered for conservatives a generation ago,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has a two-year-old radio program that is now syndicated on stations throughout the country, including in states like Georgia, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina. “If you look at the political map of where our shows are, it matches the gap of unregistered voters.”
Mr. Limbaugh and other conservative hosts generally support Mr. McCain, though perhaps with less enthusiasm than they displayed for the man he hopes to replace.
When it comes to criticism from black radio hosts like Mr. Ballentine, Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said, “John McCain believes every person is entitled to their opinion, no matter how outrageous.”
“But John McCain is an inclusive candidate,” Mr. Bounds added, “and he will be the president of all Americans.” (Mr. Ballentine was correct that Mr. McCain voted against the Martin Luther King holiday, in 1983 — but Mr. McCain later expressed regret and supported the holiday in his home state.)
While debate may continue over whether Mr. Obama is drawing an inordinate share of attention from mainstream news and entertainment outlets, there is generally little pretense of balance in major African-American media outlets. More often than not, the Obama campaign is discussed as the home team.
Mr. Obama conducted frequent interviews with black radio personalities during the primary season, appearing on programs like “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” where his swing through the Middle East was referred to as a “pre-victory tour” on Friday; the “Michael Baisden Show,” where the host has joked that the savings from the gasoline tax suspension Mr. McCain supports would help him buy a pack of “Now & Laters” candy, and “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.”
Those three shows report reaching a combined audience of nearly 20 million, though industry analysts say exact, national numbers are hard to peg and programs generally are known to exaggerate their audiences.
The favoritism extends beyond talk radio.
This month’s Ebony magazine lists Mr. Obama first among the “25 Coolest Brothers of All Time,” alongside Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Caribbean stations play songs about him, like “Barack Obama” by Cocoa Tea and “Barack the Magnificent” by the calypso star Mighty Sparrow. “We spin them three, four times a day,” said Sir Rockwell, the morning D.J. at WDJA in Delray Beach, Fla.
Earlier this year, attendees of the Black Entertainment Television network’s annual awards program, including the stars Alicia Keys and P. Diddy, turned it into an impromptu rally for the candidate (“Obama, y’all!,” Ms. Keys shouted upon receiving an award before a television audience of nearly six million people).
The network is planning to show Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention live, but not Mr. McCain’s. “This is an historic occasion, so that demands some special treatment from us,” Debra L. Lee, the BET chairman, said of the Democratic convention. Her smaller rival, TV One, said it would not cover the Republican convention at all.
Within the black media, there have been questions about whether Mr. Obama is keeping his distance from them and their audiences to avoid being too identified by race. Some black radio hosts now complain that he is avoiding them at worst and taking them for granted at best as he courts white voters through more mainstream outlets.
“There is the appearance he will go to a Larry King before he will go on black radio in, say, Arkansas,” said Bev Smith, a black talk radio pioneer based in Pittsburgh. She placed the blame on Mr. Obama’s staff, not the candidate, who has occasionally visited her program. The Obama campaign has come under similar criticism from some members of the major trade group for black newspaper owners, the National News Publishers Association, after Mr. Obama declined invitations to appear at the group’s events.
Aides to Mr. Obama said he has been busy transitioning to a general election footing, part of which has included outreach to other voter groups less familiar with Mr. Obama. But, earlier this week the campaign hired a new communications strategist, Corey Ealons, to focus exclusively on black media and help with an intensified effort to take advantage of their excitement about Mr. Obama’s candidacy.
“As Senator Obama expands his outreach to voters during the general election, African-American media will continue to be a very important part of expressing his priorities for the community,” Mr. Ealons said. Mr. Obama is to appear Sunday at a gathering of minority journalists in Chicago called the Unity ’08 Convention. Mr. McCain declined an invitation to speak to the group.
Whatever criticism the black media has of the Obama campaign, it has generally not shown up heavily on the air or in print. Earlier this year, the PBS and public radio host Tavis Smiley, one of the best known black radio and television voices, resigned as a regular commentator on Mr. Joyner’s show after receiving a hail of angry e-mail messages and phone calls for questioning Mr. Obama’s commitment to black issues.
One caller to Mr. Ballentine’s show last week laid out some boundaries for him, as well: “All of us coming down on him and criticizing him before we give him a chance, you know, that might hurt his campaign — let’s get him in there first,” the caller said. Mr. Ballentine responded, “Brother, I would never criticize him — until he’s in the White House.”
Mr. Ballentine, who says he has an audience of three million people nationally, usually broadcasts from his home town of Durham, N.C. His special appearance at the mall here — with a predominantly black clientele — provided a vivid example of just how helpful hosts like him can be.
“Even if you are a convicted felon, you can go and vote,” he told his listeners, although the laws vary from state to state. “We need to be registering people with tremendous numbers.”
At each commercial break, he invited his local audience to come to the mall to register; he did not mention that the man signing up voters was an Obama staff member.
Mr. Ballentine has plenty of company in the registration drive. “I really push to get out the vote,” Ms. Smith, the host from Pittsburgh, said. Ms. Smith said Mr. Obama could turbo-charge the efforts by appearing on black radio more, though she understood the complexities.
“Barack Obama is walking a thin line because whites will accuse him of being too black and blacks will accuse him of being too white,” she said. “I think he’s a godsend — whether he’s on my show or not, I’m going to talk about him every day.”