Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Some Thoughts on Talk Radio

Anyone who thinks broadcasting is easy has never tried to do it professionally. Radio is particularly difficult because you're working without visual aids, and if you can't draw an audience through the strength of your own voice and personality, you've got nothing. Outside of pole dancing, it's about the most naked form of entertainment around. I once considered a career in radio, but opted instead for a profession (college teaching) where the audience is more or less captive and you can recycle your material year after year.

As a result, I have a great deal of respect for those who achieve success over the airwaves. Whenever I visit a new town, I try to take a quick spin across the AM and FM dials. Too often, unfortunately, media consolidation and syndication result in the same talk and music programs playing in both Bakersfield and Biloxi, Ft. Wayne and Ft. Lauderdale. Most of them are pretty good, but there's no surprise, no sense of discovery.

Still, local broadcasting does persist in many places, and there is invariably a wealth of talent to be found even in the remotest corners of the republic. I'm not especially picky about formats. Despite my own politics, I can appreciate a good right-wing talk show if the host is entertaining and the more self-indulgent callers are kept on a tight leash.

Back in the early 1990s, I used to tune in fairly regularly to Rush Limbaugh's program. In his early days, Limbaugh was fresh and funny and he even maintained a small, but loyal, liberal following. Over the years, however, he has come to sound more and more like his ditto-head callers, shallow, angry, and bitter, and whatever crossover appeal he once enjoyed expired well before the end of the Clinton presidency. These days, he's pretty much unbearable unless you're a member of his cult of loners and shut-ins. Maybe it was the pills or the failed marriages. More likely it was the tendency of successful entertainers to fall hostage to their most devoted fans, too dependent on their support to risk alienating them and too fat and lazy to retool. Nevertheless, the guy really is a major talent, even if he has spent most of the last decade in decline, coasting on his earlier success.

Other famous right-wing yakkers don't offend so much as they bore. Bill O'Reilly is strictly a TV guy; without the visuals, when it's just Bill and his microphone, his act is both shrill and tedious. Sean Hannity, although he came up through the talk radio circuit (and maybe a bit too quickly), is simply not very bright. You have to be smart to do good radio, and, well, there's a reason Fox News teamed him up with Alan Colmes. Rachel Maddow or Randi Rhodes would have Hannity curled up in the fetal position, whimpering uncontrollably by the first commercial break. Even Ed Schultz would reduce him to tears long before the hour elapsed.

Anyway, my point is that I know the difference between entertainers and policy makers, and I recognize that Dick Cheney, fully asleep, does far more damage to the country than Rush Limbaugh on his best and most persuasive afternoon. Thus, I rarely find myself outraged by the excesses of broadcasters, even the morning shock jocks who traffic in smutty repartee and adolescent fart jokes. I was once a big Howard Stern fan, until he, like Limbaugh, started playing to his lowest common denominator, in Stern's case sex-starved fifteen-year-old boys.

In addition, I have a great deal of sympathy for the tightrope act that is live radio. Part of my job is to speak extemporaneously before a few hundred undergraduates each year, and there have been plenty of instances where words came out of my mouth that I immediately wished I could recall. Sometimes you're on a roll, your students are laughing, you allow the momentum to carry you forward, and suddenly you take it just a bit too far, and you hope that your next professional experience will not be a corrective visit with the Dean of Faculty. So I know how easy it is to cross a line without realizing it. In general, it should not be the sort of thing that ends a career, either in higher education or in radio (though I'm not sure that I would extend this general dispensation to Don Imus).

There is, however, one broadcaster who strikes me as consistently beyond the pale. You probably know Glenn Beck from his execrable, low rated program on CNN Headline News. Even on television, Beck is a meathead, and I presume that his sole purpose is to make Nancy Grace seem likeable by comparison. But the TV version of Beck is downright cuddly next to the vicious and vile man who inhabits the radio airwaves each morning.

There's the normal liberal bashing, dime store McCarthyism, and post 9/11 bigotry. Beck is the one who demanded that America's first Muslin Congressman "prove to me that you are not working with our enemies". But the thing that really sets me off, that makes me want to rip out my car radio and toss it in the ocean, is a segment Beck calls "Moron Trivia".

Each Friday (or so he says; I could only endure his show twice), Beck tries to predict the winner of one forthcoming NFL football game by calling up convenience store clerks in the two cities whose teams are competing. He then asks them a series of what would be, for the politically attentive, relatively easy questions (e.g., what is the name of one of the Republican candidates running for president in 2008?). Should the cashier, often an immigrant, respond incorrectly, Beck proceeds to ridicule him or her by providing a "right" answer that is absurd and insulting. Naturally, only Beck and his audience are in on the joke, so the clerk is usually left perplexed and embarrassed.

As I say, I can forgive a lot from professional entertainers. Comics from Lenny Bruce to Howard Stern have worked the boundaries of decency and good taste and have often evoked wincing rather than laughter. Right-wing talk radio hosts (and their relatively smaller band of liberal counterparts) taunt, jeer, and demean in their quest for higher ratings. Without their efforts, radio would still sound the way it did in 1955, and nobody wants that.

But it turns out that even my tolerance has limits. I draw the line at ambushing vulnerable men and women whose only offense against society is lacking an education and having to sell Slurpees and lottery tickets for a living. They didn't ask Beck to call them; very few have ever heard of him. They are not celebrities who force themselves into the limelight and have to live with the consequences. They are innocent people singled out for humiliation to satisfy the ambition of a talentless schmuck and his loser audience.

I guess I'm not as open minded as I thought I was.

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