If you had tuned in to "The Michael Baisden Show" early last year, you would probably have heard the host talking mostly about urgent issues such as "how to please your man in the bedroom" or "pimps in the pulpit." That's now changed. The new star of Baisden's four-hour syndicated radio program is Barack Obama. "It was a no-brainer," says Baisden, 45, whose freewheeling show reaches millions, primarily African-American listeners in urban markets. "The conversation had to change to 'How do we change our futures now that we have someone who might actually care about us in the race?' What amazed me was that the number of listeners for my show kept increasing even as the conversation became more serious."
In the African-American community, the thinking on Obama's candidacy has gone something like this: In the beginning, there was disbelief that a black man could become president. Then, when Obama became the Democratic nominee and soared in the polls, listeners were concerned for his safety. Now that the race with John McCain is as tight as Sarah Palin's smile, Baisden's audience has started to worry about Election Day itself. There is still a fair amount of optimism in the black community, but it's being tempered by two words: what if. What if Obama loses? How should people respond? What should they feel? It's a common election-season concern, but it's all the more acute in the African-American community, where more people are paying attention to the campaign—and planning to vote—than ever. Managing expectations and reactions has become Topic A in many black homes and on blogs such as Bossip, Stereohyped and Angry Black Male. "People that I know that have never cared about politics are registering to vote this time: gang members, ex-cons, you name it," says rapper Snoop Dogg. "I hate to see a lot of that hope go down the drain, and if he loses, it will."
Racism, naturally, plays a part in the conversation. "I've never forgotten that he is a smart, articulate black man with a smart, articulate black wife," says Linda Wright, 34, a nurse's assistant from Houston. "You think white people were just going to turn over the keys to the most important job in the land without a fight?" The overriding feeling is apprehension, a vague fear of losing something people thought was theirs to keep. "My kids love Obama and they think it's so obvious he should be the president," says actor D. L. Hughley. "I was just honest in saying life isn't always fair and certainly isn't always fair for African-Americans. But Obama has overcome so many obstacles, it's easy to forget reality."
There's not a lot of anger—yet—but you can start to sense the potential for it. "I'm going to be mad, real mad, if he doesn't win," says Daetwon Fisher, 21, a construction worker from Long Beach, Calif. "Because for him to come this far and lose will be just shady and a slap in black people's faces. I know there is already talk about protests and stuff if he loses, and I'm down for that." Baisden hears a lot of that incipient resentment on his show, but he tries to soothe people rather than incite them. "Look, if he loses we have no one to blame but ourselves because that meant we all didn't go out and vote in the numbers we should have," says Baisden. "Yes, people will be upset, but it will be in a productive way. There will be a rational reaction if things are fair."
There's that word again—if. As much as blacks are sorting through what they'll feel if Obama loses, they are also trying to figure out how to stop that from happening. Fisher's comment about something vaguely "shady" echoes a common concern that the election will somehow be stolen rather than won. "I know a lot of things can stop Obama from winning, and it's not just lack of votes," says Marilyn Higgins, 36, a mail carrier from Detroit. One caller to Baisden's show wanted to know how he could vote if he didn't have a permanent address. Another asked if someone could legally be turned away from the polls for wearing saggy pants or cornrows in your hair. Nothing is being taken for granted. Baisden is asking black lawyers to volunteer to patrol polling stations on Nov. 4. Several black talk-show hosts have started advising listeners with police records to double-check state laws to see if they are eligible to vote.
Jacon Richmond is one of those men. Richmond, 32, spent two years in prison for possession of marijuana and has never voted before. "I thought, 'What's the point?' But my mom started talking about Obama last year and getting so excited about him, I started paying attention." Now Richmond reads the paper and is talking to his buddies about the importance of the election. But since this is his first time voting, he has no idea what it feels like to lose, and he's not sure what he's going to feel. "I know it's crazy to go from not thinking a black man counts to thinking one should win the president of the United States for sure, but I'm not sure how I'll handle that if it doesn't happen."