SEVERAL hundred of us gathered to pay respects to the self-proclaimed "Evil one" on Sunday.

Irv Homer wasn't buried alone. With him, he took the era when personality ruled the talk-radio airwaves. Homer was the last local vestige of that era. Like Dominic Quinn and Frank Ford before him, he ruled the dial when personality mattered.

Irv was neither a clear-cut conservative nor a by-the-book liberal. He didn't paint by numbers with his politics. He was often a libertarian whose views were appropriately mixed.

City Councilman Frank Rizzo, a co-host with Irv in the 1990s, got it right when he said: "Some people thought he was liberal, and in the next breath people thought he was conservative. Irv was what he needed to be at the moment . . . He could be very streetwise, and at the same time you'd think he went to Harvard."

Indeed, Irv built his ratings on the breadth of his intelligence and the force of his irascible personality. He was typical of his time. Quinn was one of the smartest guys in radio anywhere. Ford was a passionate liberal. Hosts like Paul W. Smith and Susan Bray made an impression on listeners that went beyond establishing a political clubhouse in which bashing the other side was par for the course.

IN THOSE days, talk radio wasn't dominated by ideologically "pure" conservatives.

Rush Limbaugh had yet to build his radio empire. The age of media conglomerates and syndicated hosts hadn't overwhelmed the medium.

Today, it's all about the labels.

Conservative. Liberal. Republican. Democrat. There's no leeway. No middle ground. You're either with us, or you aren't.

And there's always a media willing to cater to whatever side you choose. Seeking a critical view of the Obama administration? Flip to Fox News. Support the presidency? Watch MSNBC. Fair and balanced? Mythical in today's media climate in which balancing opposing views means you're uncommitted or waffling.

The day before Homer passed, I had a fitting conversation with veteran journalist and author Bernard Goldberg. Intending to discuss Goldberg's update piece on the financial troubles of former Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra, we drifted instead into a conversation about the state of the media today. The prognosis? Not good.

"What we have in this country is we have people who hang on every word" that people like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann say, Goldberg told me. The problem with that, he continued, is that "regular folks have now confused cable television with real life." They think America really is as divided as a split-screen TV - far from the truth, Goldberg noted.

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listeners and viewers become so dependent on the labels and ideology that they block out any personality or any show that doesn't fit neatly into one box or the other. Politicians and candidates for office play the game to get their name in the paper or on the on-screen graphic.

The shame of it is that these 24/7 split-screen kerfuffles serve only to shut down the important debates the country could be having on the important issues of the day. The end result is the snuffing out of nonpartisanship in this country.

"Here's the bulletin: When it comes to media, when it comes to buying books, when it comes to a culture war, people don't want any of that middle stuff," Goldberg said.

"Most Americans aren't political junkies," he continued.

"Most Americans are trying to pay the bills and live a normal life, and they go to a ballgame and they have a good time. Most Americans aren't like Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity.

"Television isn't a reflection - neither is talk radio - of real America."

What a departure from the days of Homer, who earned the moniker "Evil Irv" because of his penchant for playing devil's advocate.

Unfortunately, nobody plays that game on the radio or cable TV today. Probably because the mere exercise of such intellectual flexibility would turn off listeners or viewers conditioned to pick a side and stick with it.

Irv's gone. And he's taken with him the only talking points he ever followed: His own.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.smerconish.com.