Smart Talk

Barnes holds court on The Open Line.
Colby Katz

As Winston Barnes takes phone calls from listeners tuning into The Open Line, the midday program he hosts each weekday on WAVS-AM (1170), he flips through the pages of Tuesday's Miami Herald, looking for the hot topics of the day. Though based in a downtown Davie building that looks like it should be selling bridle bits and horse feed, The Open Line is a sounding board, discussion forum, and information outlet for the massive Caribbean population in South Florida.

The current caller is lamenting the Homeland Security headaches at airports -- a frequent tangent of the immigration issues that are a big part of The Open Line's tableau. The call begins the way nearly every one does this afternoon: "Hello, Mr. Barnes; how are you?"

"I'm good." Here's a man who wants to get right down to it. After letting the caller ramble a bit about the indignity of removing his shoes, Barnes issues a stern lecture directed at Those Who Do Not Listen.

"Some people still do not know the difference between immigration documents and travel documents," he says, his brow furrowing into a deep, V-shaped arrowhead, with an exhale of displeasure. "Take it out and read it, OK? A. Green. Card. Is. Not. A. Travel. Document. OK? It belongs to the government. Read your passport too. It is not yours! The government lends it to you for a fee. If you haven't traveled lately, be forewarned and forearmed."

After a moment's pause comes a moment of disconnect as his voice booms out of the monitor in the broadcast studio, but his lips aren't moving. "You think you can't afford your own home? Think again!" But Barnes -- the flesh-and-blood radio personality, if not the disembodied voice -- has already removed his earpiece and is on his way out of the studio.

Much of Barnes' appeal lies in his robust, stentorian voice. Imagine Geoffrey Holder from the old 7-Up commercials playing John Houseman in The Paper Chase. It's a stiff-starched, pinstriped voice that makes you want to stand up and salute. Authoritative and convincing, it's no wonder that at WAVS, where everyone multitasks, he's called upon to lend that smooth baritone to a variety of product pitches, station IDs, and public service announcements.

Despite the big voice, he's tall and thin, a rangy bantamweight. Back in his broom-closet-sized office down the hall, Barnes -- who has worked at WAVS since 1987 -- chats at his desk. Phones ring constantly.

There's nothing else on the dial with the flavor of The Open Line, and Barnes is proud of his role. "We've done some pioneering work. We provide a safety valve for people to vent, a safe haven, so that they feel something familiar even in a strange place."

As if to prove the station isn't Jamaica-centrist, on one wall hangs a map of Trinidad and another of Barbados. Perhaps most astonishing to seasoned American talk-show patrons is The Open Line's nondenominational, Pan-Caribbean focus. When people call WAVS a Jamaican station, Barnes is quick to correct them. Whereas most sports and political talk borders on xenophobic or at least appears uninterested in the affairs of the globe, Barnes' program is all about looking out at the world, trying to understand how it affects us at home -- whether that's Miramar or Montego Bay. This unique point of view offers listeners views on the war in Iraq or China's role as a world power, for instance, from a well-traveled perspective rarely encountered in mainstream American media.

Barnes lets his callers do most of the talking but always deploys a small arsenal of linguistic devices that gauge his level of interest in the discussion:

Something mundane: "Mmm-hmmm."

Something unexpected: "Uh-oh!"

Something fairly exciting: "Oh bwoy!"

Something rather surprising and incredible: "Ai-yi-yi!"

Something truly astonishing: A two-syllable "Woww-wwww."

It was the war of the wows when the globally informed "Mr. Caribbean Man" called in a few weeks ago and began, "I'm going to call you Dr. Barnes because you're so knowledgeable." The topic: petro-chemical dynamics of the Caribbean. True to form, Barnes displayed his able grasp of Alaska's Permanent Fund reserves, which delighted Mr. Caribbean Man, who then launched into a treatise on Surinamese politics and Venezuelan pipelines as well as the petroleum output of various Caribbean oil-producing states.

"Not a day that goes by that I don't learn an important new fact," Barnes says.

Barnes, 56, is aware that a segment of the community views him as stuffy and overeducated. He bristles recalling a cheap shot taken by a fellow media man, Rovan Locke, publisher of Caribbean American Commentary, who told the Miami Herald he considers Barnes "a highly British-cultured man. He's a bit elitist."

"Elitist?" he repeats. "No. Far from it. The closest you could come to calling me elitist is I demand people educate themselves. There are people who have that notion about me because they don't know my background. I come from Spanish Town roots; I grew up in Kingston 13."

Today, Locke admits he sometimes holds his friend to an impossibly high standard. "He's highly loved by the people who call him, and I respect him very much," he says. "He's a spokesman for every person in the Caribbean community in South Florida." Locke also feels that Barnes would be a perfect fit for the U.S. House of Representatives seat. "He has the intellect, and he knows the issues. And he knows the music!"

But Barnes does cop to writing only with a black-ink fountain pen (though today he ran out of ink and was forced to take notes with a mere ballpoint). "I like fountain pens," he says. "I like black ink. I like writing and making bold strokes. Yes, I'm the product of a colonial past in Jamaica -- that cannot be denied."

Barnes went to Kingston College, considered one of the finest high schools on the island. After moving to the U.S. in 1986, he received a bachelor's degree at the New York Institute of Technology and his mass communications master's from Florida International University. He also finds time to teach communications classes at local colleges two days a week.

In the late 1960s, he worked for Jamaican television stations as a cameraman, did film production, wrote and reported for magazines and newspapers, and moved to radio in 1970. As a disc jockey playing R&B, reggae, oldies, disco, calypso, and soca, he learned that "the good thing about broadcasting in a Jamaican situation is you had to do a little of everything." After he was handed news briefs to read, he began gravitating in that direction.

Clearly, what Barnes yearns for in the interplay with his audience is intelligent response. "It's a trait I share with Nelson Mandela," he says laughing. "He does not suffer fools well." If people come on spouting foolishness or with their facts wrong, just wait for Barnes to school them. Or if they're prattling on about personal health or legal problems, as if Barnes is a West Indian Help Me Howard, listen as he adroitly cuts the calls off quickly.

"Yes, yes, yes," he'll say, his voice like a cane, pulling the caller off-stage. "Allllll-righty."

Still, it's a testament to Barnes' stature in the community that callers are liable to hit him up for information on anything from African geopolitics to advice on how to get rid of stubborn warts.

When Barnes' Miramar City Commission seat was up for reelection earlier this year, his opponent, Tom Neckel, complained loudly that Barnes' radio exposure gave him an unfair advantage. To avert legal trouble, Barnes left his show for three weeks. "That backfired," Barnes remarks of Neckel's efforts. His absence from the airwaves had people asking where he was -- many learning about an election that hadn't been well-publicized. Barnes handily defeated Neckel.

Another indignity he will not endure is shilling for every product that comes along. It's odd enough to hear the magic Barnes' voice tout the merits of Tri-Oxy-Metatonic Botanicals, but he draws the line at dabbling in the station's ads for spiritual healers, advisers, and the like. "My desk is full of requests for things I will not do, some I won't ever touch. I just refuse to do them." Many of these commercials, he maintains, represent "sheer exploitation, playing on suspicions and fears."

Barnes doesn't have much patience for partisan rants either; when a spate of callers engaged in some flagrant Bush-bashing the other day, he sat on the sidelines. "Alllll-righty. Good-good," he said, hastening them along. Despite his airtime at the station, frequent commentaries, editorials, and observations, it's impossible to get a read on his personal politics.

He smacks his thigh. "That's the idea! To force people to think, to force them to see some of their conclusions from a different perspective." When folks seek his validation or opinion on a certain position, he invariably answers, "You tell me! I want you to think about it, and then tell me what you think."

Barnes will not align with a party. "I'm as apolitical as they come, because I do not think of it as politics -- I see it as public service. For example, if I had to declare a party, I wouldn't get involved."

He folds his arms across his chest and shakes his head, as if that clinches his argument. "That would contradict everything I do here."

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