SOUTH PORTLAND — Like so many political pundits these days, Matt Gagnon and Ken Altshuler were talking about President Trump’s tweets – one in particular, about Hillary Clinton.

But before the hosts of the popular WGAN morning talk show could debate the substance of the president’s message, the liberal Altshuler called Trump “an ass” and asked the conservative Gagnon whether that word was permissible on radio – and the political debate between the men quickly devolved into a conversation about curse words and pop culture.

The hosts of the WGAN “Morning News” in South Portland, a long-running talk-radio show that has built an audience of newshounds and political junkies drawn by sparring on the issues, broke for a commercial without ever discussing or explaining Trump’s comment.

The pairing of Gagnon and Altshuler, which began a year ago, has upset some of the show’s loyal listeners. Gagnon joined the show last June, and some listeners complain that the two hosts lack chemistry and focus, talk too much about their favorite movies, TV and music, and too often revert to sound effects, recorded clips from movies and dramatic hyperbole. On occasion, the talk veers toward the offensive.

When talking about a proposed pesticide ban in Portland recently, Gagnon said that environmentalist Rachel Carson, because of her work that led to the banning of many pesticides, caused more deaths than Adolf Hitler since pesticides could be used in developing countries to stop disease. He said later the comparison was “in jest” to make a point.

Some listeners and advertisers like the new team, praising Gagnon, who is head of a conservative think tank called The Maine Heritage Policy Center, for his insider’s knowledge of what’s going on in Augusta. Station management is also happy with the hosts.

Whether the complaints about the show since Gagnon joined it will translate to a loss of audience or advertising dollars is hard to gauge, as the station doesn’t release listener numbers and doesn’t subscribe to a ratings service. But for now it means some longtime WGAN listeners aren’t waking up as happily as they used to.

“It’s almost unlistenable for me. They can start on Trump, then it’s ‘Star Trek,’ then it’s Ken getting doughnuts in Freeport,” said Matt Tompkins, an owner of Digby’s convenience store in Westbrook, who has listened and called the show regularly for about five years. “It’s impossible to call in. They’ll announce the topics they’re going to discuss, then they argue so much they don’t get through them all.”

Mathews Brothers Co., a window maker in Belfast, pulled its ads from the show last December after about seven years, said Bob Maynes, marketing director for the company. The company stopped advertising partly because Maynes doesn’t like the show now and partly because, without the ratings service data, he was unsure about the size of WGAN’s audience. Maynes thinks Gagnon’s analytical approach to some issues makes him less “relatable” than his conservative predecessor on the show, Mike Violette. But his main gripe against the show now is that Altshuler and Gagnon don’t have good on-air chemistry.

“With Ken and Mike, the jabs felt good-natured and at the end of the day you knew they were friends,” said Maynes. “Ken and Matt sound like two people arguing in the corner at a cocktail party. I don’t think it reaches our customers.”

On a recent show, when discussing the Republican proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act, Gagnon referred to the argument that the bill would leave many people with pre-existing conditions without coverage as one made by “morons.”

THE MAKINGS OF AN ODD COUPLE

On WGAN’s morning talk show, Ken Altshuler advocates for the left … Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Radio talk shows pairing conservatives and liberals have long been a staple of the genre. Right now, at a time when political discourse seems more divisive than ever, the format is neither declining nor growing, says Matthew Harrison, executive editor of Talkers, a trade publication covering talk radio. But he thinks left-versus-right talk shows are more complex today, since there are divisions on each side, between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters, and between old-line Democrats and those who want the party to change, for example.

The differences between Altshuler and Gagnon are striking and easy to spot. These include their nearly 30-year age difference, their political philosophies and the fact that one of them (Gagnon) makes his living off politics while the other does not.

… and the right is represented by Matt Gagnon. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

But there are similarities, too. Both seem to have short attention spans on air, both are boisterous and outgoing and can be quick with a flip comment or insult. Around the same time Altshuler called President Trump “an ass,” Gagnon called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “fat.”

Altshuler, 64, is a proud liberal originally from Oklahoma who talks glowingly of college protests in the 1960s and ’70s. He’s a divorce lawyer who had little professional radio experience when he was offered his current morning spot on WGAN in 2002. He was paired with Mike McCardell, who had been a salesman before he attracted the attention of WGAN managers when he called the morning news show to make a point about gun control.

Growing up in Oklahoma City, Altshuler was drawn to radio and politics early on. As a middle schooler he was the mascot for a local radio show, and his duties involved appearing at local car dealerships with the hosts. At 16 in 1968, he boarded buses and traveled much of the country campaigning for Eugene McCarthy, a liberal Democrat who was seeking the presidential nomination that year on an anti-war platform. But as an adult, his career path veered to owning a bookstore in Keene, New Hampshire, before he went to law school and began practicing in Portland.

He said he turned to divorce law because, by the time he graduated from law school, he was 33 and didn’t feel he had time to work his way up in a firm. He opened his office and took what cases he could, which turned out to be mostly divorce cases. Divorce law allows him to “get my hands muddy dealing with people and solving problems,” he said.

He first came to the attention of WGAN officials when he proposed doing a law show. One of the managers there at the time had seen him on Portland’s public access cable channel and was impressed. Altshuler was then offered the job, on a trial basis, of hosting the WGAN morning show. While he could make more money just practicing law, Altshuler said he wants to stay on radio so that liberals like him have a voice.

“Successful talk radio is usually angry-guy radio, so liberals don’t do well on talk radio because they want to teach the world to sing and things like that,” said Altshuler. “I’m not an absolute liberal. I’m fiscally conservative. But I hate the idea of liberals feeling they have to apologize for being liberal.”

‘TWO SMART GUYS WHO DISAGREE’

Depending on whom you talk to, Altshuler is either a strong voice for liberals or an example of why liberals don’t know what they’re talking about. Phil Cormier, 56, a commercial filmmaker from Portland, generally agrees with Altshuler and thinks he “holds his ground well” against Gagnon. Cormier is also one of the listeners who like the addition of Gagnon. He thinks the hosts are “two smart guys who disagree but seem to get along.”

But Paul Mattson, 60 and a gun instructor from Harrison, says Altshuler “tends to hyperventilate and express his utopian view without any factual basis.” He likes that Gagnon can base his opinions on professional experience.

Gagnon, 36, is a Maine native who has been involved in state and national politics his entire working career. He was offered the job at WGAN after being a fill-in host. As chief executive of The Maine Heritage Policy Center, he works to promote conservative policies and laws. Often the topics he comments on are issues he’s worked on directly, including a new state law that provides legal protection for primary care physicians who bypass insurance companies by charging their patients a regular, flat fee for routine health care services.

Growing up in Hampden, near Bangor, with a father who was an “old-school conservative,” Gagnon remembers being about 9 or 10 years old when the news show “20/20” on ABC became must-see TV for him each week. He was fascinated by news and politics but in high school did well in physics and chemistry. He enrolled at the University of Maine and thought he’d major in engineering.

He saw a poster asking for people to join student government. He did and felt like he had an impact on the school and the students. He joined the university’s Republican club when it had only three members and became one of its leaders while membership grew to 250. He changed his major to political science and after college had a variety of related jobs in and around Washington, D.C., including working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, formed to help Republicans get elected, and briefly working on communications for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

He became chief executive of The Maine Heritage Policy Center in 2014 and spends much of his time now working on Maine policy. That includes attending State House hearings and meetings with legislators.

When Gagnon was recently talking on air about the health care initiative that his group has been promoting, Altshuler said it was “boring” and soon loud snoring sound effects could be heard on the airwaves.

Gagnon thinks being on the radio helps him in his day job.

“It forces me to be up on everything and gives me the opportunity to interact with decision makers. We have the governor on every week,” he said.

PUNCTUATING WITH SOUND EFFECTS

Like Altshuler, some listeners find some of Gagnon’s insider talk boring. Some don’t like his flip or dramatic comments or the fact that, since he’s joined the show, both he and Altshuler punctuate some of their remarks with sound effects or recorded quotes from movies and TV.

Whether John Travolta might be gay was a topic the two men discussed recently.

Jeff Cole, 63, an insurance broker from Kennebunk who listens daily, said that while he thinks Gagnon’s comments can be “dramatic,” he likes his approach on issues. What he doesn’t like is how much pop culture talk the show now has.

“I think Matt is a very solid conservative, but what frustrates me is that they waste so much time on ridiculous sound effects and their favorite TV shows,” Cole said.

But for Steve Huss, owner of Batteries Plus Bulbs in Portland, the pairing of Gagnon and Altshuler has been a boon for business. Last year, shortly after Gagnon came on the show, Huss said, he had customers suggest he advertise on it. He had never listened to the show before but says, in the 10 months or so he’s been advertising with the show, the results have been “fantastic.”

“We ask when they come in who recommended us, and they say they heard our ads (on WGAN). Then I ask them if they’re a Ken fan or a Matt fan,” said Huss, 61, who sells batteries for anything from hearing aids to cars, plus a variety of light bulbs and fixtures.

Bob Adams, who manages WGAN and other Saga Communications stations in Portland, said he’s heard positive things about the host pairing from advertisers and he likes the addition of Gagnon. The balance between heavy politics and lighter fare makes for a better show, he said.

“Listeners thinking one host or the other is arrogant is to be expected, by the nature of what kind of show it is,” said Adams. “You never want people with opposing views to get so thick in the weeds they alienate each other and the listeners. The show is dominated by politics still, but there’s entertainment, too. It has more of a magazine feel.”

‘IT CAN SOUND MORE COMBATIVE THAN IT IS’

Altshuler and Gagnon say it’s taken some time to get used to each other on air, which may account for the talking over each other and the perceived combativeness.

Altshuler said that, in the first few months of Trump’s presidency, he got tired of Gagnon responding to every criticism of Trump with a criticism of Barack Obama, who is no longer president. A couple of times, he had to walk out of the studio and down the hall to get a cup of coffee, to cool off.

“The perception (of combativeness) has a little bit to do with our personalities,” Gagnon said. “We’re both very similar, both lean toward ADD and very boisterous and outgoing. When we hit a hot topic, it can sound more combative than it is.”

They both say the sound effects and pop culture talk are just reflections of who they are and how they interact with each other. Stored on laptop computers, their sound effects include the ringing of a bell and someone with a high voice intoning “shame,” often used when talking about a politician’s vote they disagreed with. Other times they summon a popular movie sound clip, like the character of Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride” stating plainly, “You killed my father, prepare to die.”

“I can’t be fake on the radio,” Gagnon said. “I like coaching Little League and music and movies, so I talk about that on the radio.”

Altshuler thinks he has fewer confrontations on air with Gagnon than he did with Violette. He says Gagnon, because of his work experience, comes at political topics from a more analytical standpoint than Violette, whose arguments were more “emotional.”

WGAN is part of a six-station group with studios on Western Avenue in South Portland and is owned by Saga Communications, which owns stations around the country in two dozen markets. Saga does not subscribe to ratings services, so its audience sizes are not documented by a third party, said Harrison at Talkers. Other radio stations that do subscribe to the primary radio ratings service, Nielsen, say Saga stations do not and they do not know what those stations’ ratings are.

WGAN, on two AM signals and on FM, can be heard all over Greater Portland. It’s by far the best-known commercial news radio station in the area. And it’s the only choice for people in the area who want a left-versus-right talk format.

Maine Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” which features reporting on local and national stories, has a large audience of news listeners. The public network says in Greater Portland “Morning Edition” has about 91,000 listeners each workweek from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. WLOB in Portland has a politics-heavy morning show hosted by conservative Ray Richardson, with various guests.

Stability often helps attract listeners, and Altshuler and Violette had been together on the WGAN “Morning News” for 12 years when Violette announced he was leaving, of his own accord, last June. Violette was the show’s conservative voice, but listeners like Maynes say he was more of an “everyman” than Gagnon and therefore more relatable.

Violette says he doesn’t listen to the WGAN “Morning News” now, so he offered no opinion of his replacement. When told they use sound effects, Violette said he had wanted to do more sound effects, but it was difficult. Altshuler said push-button access to a vast array of sound effects is new in the past year.

Unlike Gagnon or Altshuler, Violette was a longtime radio professional. He spent more than 20 years doing talk radio in Maine. When he left last year, he said talk radio can “burn you out a little.”

“Mike was a radio guy and he gave that show some structure,” said Tompkins, the convenience store owner from Westbrook. “Now the show is like sitting down at a bar and you find yourself between two people, at each end of the bar, talking loud and arguing back and forth. You just want to drink your beer fast and get out.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

Twitter: RayRouthier