Talk radio. How exciting! A place on the commercial broadcast airwaves where people ruminate and opine on the important issues of our era. Everyone from academic experts to traveling salesmen sharing a forum to air their views.
This is how I viewed talk radio for many years. Only recently have I realized that talk radio is no place to discuss serious ideas.
As mentioned in my recent post "How Can a Tank Stop an Idea
?," an Atlanta talk radio host posted on Facebook that America's answer to the Charlie Hebdo attack in France should be to put boots on the ground. "You are so on point, man!," one reader wrote, and overall his sentiment drew 36 likes.
I joined the conversation and said, as I did on my blog, that the radical Islamic threat is more complicated than that, and we already had intelligence agencies with data bases full of info who've been doing all they could do since the 1970's. I got three likes.
That's when I realized I would not have done very well in talk radio. Although the host used a lot of words to say it, his message was, "Let's kick their ass!" It was a simple sentiment that captured the mood of the moment and got the blood pumping. Now imagine a host saying, "This is a complex situation which requires a nuanced response. We're already doing the best we can. This may just be the new normal. Now, stay tuned for a message from our sponsors, folks!" A third of the audience would have hung themselves before the bumper music even started.
Over 10 years ago I was a guest a few times on an Atlanta talk radio show. On my first appearance, we discussed a local news story where a woman had started a new job, couldn't find a babysitter, and so left her child in a car in a parking deck, checking it during her breaks. The child died of heat stroke. Talk radio hosts and callers had been calling for her head, but I argued in her favor, saying she was exhibiting the "personal responsibility" that Republicans were always calling for, it had just turned out badly. The host told his audience, "This man is in favor of leaving children in hot cars!" But when the mic was off he said actually his personal feeling was that the woman had been through enough, which was my point. If he felt that way, why not say so?, I naively thought.
On my next appearance the topic was the Iraq invasion. I was introduced as a "liberal loser" who was against the fine efforts America was making to free the Iraqi people. After that intro, whatever I had to say was pointless, because the water had been chummed and the callers came fast and furious like sharks for their chance to slap a "liberal loser" anonymously over the phone. It started occurring to me that at least this particular show had more in common with professional wrestling than a real discussion.
I think it was Alison Rosen
who once wrote an essay about her appearances as a talking head on TV, which I can't find now. In any event, she said the producers and directors will tell you to take on a more extreme viewpoint than you may actually have, and the counterpoint person will do the same. This way your positions can easily be told apart. Remove the details of your argument so that it can be quickly grasped by a channel flipper. And now -- be loud!
Simple viewpoints, served as emotional red meat to the listener. Cartoonishly simplistic viewpoints that no reasonable person would have. Volume and invective designed to entertain the masses.
So we turn on talk radio, or a "news" program on TV, and watch and watch, vainly hoping some sort of real enlightenment will emerge. We may as well turn on WCW and look for the meaning of life. Talk radio is no place to discuss serious ideas.