The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


March 12, 1998
10:30 PM

Radio 1

It is now time, at last and alas, to follow our first foray into one of the Forbidden Realms: Talk Radio. If this is a topic of no interest, or even familiarity, to you, consider yourself fortunate, or maybe elitist.

For those of us who commute by car, who work with a radio on, or who have otherwise found ourselves sucked into the decadent world of radio talk-shows at one time or another, you uninitiated bumpkins are a little bit enviable, and a little bit clueless.  Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and you listen to "All Things Considered" or Classic Rock, while America is flushing itself down the toilet.

Talk Radio is not the same as TV talk shows, although they are genetically related.  The TV shows rely on "real" people, and audience reaction, and visual images of sex and violence.  Talk Radio is only words, and in this respect it demands, and pretends, greater intelligence than television.  In fact, it's the pseudo-intellectualism of Talk Radio that is its greatest commercial asset, but also what makes it so unnerving.

There are essentially three levels of Talk Radio.  There are your nationally syndicated superstars: Howard Stern, Imus in the Morning, Rush Limbaugh, maybe Dr. Laura Schlesinger and a few others. Then there is a large second tier of other syndicated programs and networks, mostly advice shows.  Finally there is the near saturation of the AM dial with all manner of local talk shows, emulating the success formulas of the national stars, and of the major market local shows.  (By the way, Sports Radio is a category unto itself, which increasingly mirrors the trends of Talk Radio generally).

Here is the most important thing you need to understand about Talk Radio: it is a BUSINESS!  The sole purpose of any commercial radio talk program is to attract listeners, to achieve good ratings, thereby to earn advertising profits. If the little Nielsen booklets that measure listening audiences somehow discovered that people had become interested in hearing monotone humming sounds on their drive home from work, or recitations of the Periodic Table, or Shakespeare read in Pig-Latin ("Omeo-Ray, Omeo-Ray, Erefore-Way art ou-thay Omeo-Ray?"), then you can be sure that this would be the programming you would find across the dial.

What radio programmers and audience researchers have discovered, in recent years, is that, for some very significant segment of the listening population, anger and controversy are very appealing.  Anger at what?  Well, at "Them".  Whoever's not you, and seems to think they know more than you, and can tell you how to do things, and has set up the rules of modern life in such a way that somehow you have gotten the short end of the stick.

In many cases, it's the Government, most often the "Liberals", and most obviously President Clinton. But there can be numerous other culprits.  For Howard Stern's audience, the object of ire might be anyone who's too uptight to handle his brand of (usually sexual) sensationalism, or it may be Stern or his guests themselves. Depending on the show and the topic, there are plenty of international villains: Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, the Japanese, the Mexicans, etc.  For a lot of programs, audience anger is meant to be directed at a more general crowd of societal elitists, who don't accept the "simple truths," or who are morally deficient.  (I think this group is meant to include most people who don't listen to Talk Radio.)  It doesn't really matter, as long as you're angry, and stay that way until tomorrow's show.

This is a crucial piece of understanding.  Rush Limbaugh does not really believe all of the things he says; not that he's lying, he just doesn't have the intellectual foundation to believe in anything!  He is what we might call the ultimate Contrarian.  He has set himself up as the Opponent of Liberals, of Clinton, of Government in general.  He is reasonably articulate at shooting holes in virtually any statement, action, policy, or suggestion that his sworn enemies might put forth, deliberately creating the impression that there is literally not a single thought or deed that these people could undertake that is not corrupt, foolhardy, or ignorant.  But he pursues this line of attack not out of some deeply held convictions, or some highly evolved political philosophy: he simply creates and sustains controversy, because it causes people to listen to his radio program (and buy his books, etc.).  It makes him wealthy.

There was a good example a few days ago.  Rush decided to attack the fact that a Congressional committee held hearings on Microsoft's market power, and called in Bill Gates to testify.  One of Rush's callers, speaking very sensibly, first established rapport with Limbaugh by comparing cigar preferences, and admitting that he abhorred Government regulation.  But he then went on to describe the near-total domination of Microsoft in the software market, and how thoroughly dependent other software developers are on Microsoft's Windows interface (and underlying code).

Limbaugh stuttered and backtracked, saying "I don't really know enough about the intricacies of the software industry," and "It may be that Microsoft has to be reigned in somewhat."  He appeared to be hedging his bets, perhaps recalling that Gates is a Democrat-leaning deep-pockets contributor.  But then he switched gears, and got back to his basic theme: "What galls me is, here's a man who has created more jobs than anyone, but because he's made so much money, the Government has to haul him before a committee and say 'Oh, we don't like the idea that you're so successful, and you haven't greased our palms enough, you haven't played the game, so we're going to nail you . . .'"  All with the characteristic Limbaugh dramatic irony and sarcasm.

That's what his audience wants to hear.  They don't want to deal with the notion that issues have shades of gray, that political and economic matters are complicated, without easy answers.  They want to be told, over and over, that the stupid, power-mad, greedy, elitist Them of the Government are at it again, trying to tell you and me (and Bill Gates) how to run our lives.  I don't know, maybe that daily burst of righteous indignation gives his listeners a pheromone jolt that helps get them through the day.  I don't doubt that most of them, after listening, walk around with a real chip on their shoulder for all of the Thems that they may encounter in person: other drivers, police officers, the Boss, pedestrians, store clerks.

Apparently the fastest rising challenger to Limbaugh's dominance among the angry dispossessed is Dr. Laura.  Her schtick isn't politics, and it's not really even Them: it's You.  She's cornered the market on the new philosophy of self-help, in the form of 30-second radio psychology.  Dr. Laura readily criticizes and insults her callers, who frequently seem to be asking her to do so. A woman caller's young husband isn't living up to her expectations: "So why did you marry the loser?"  A mother's teenage daughter is about to move in with her boyfriend: "So, she's throwing away her life, in other words.  Get over it!"

How does Dr. Laura sum up her most basic theme?  Well, she gives away T-Shirts that say "I am my kids' mother".  This is supposed to be a profound revelation that her callers achieve only with Dr. Laura's harsh prodding.  I think it's supposed to have something to do with taking responsibility for being a parent.  She apparently advocates, among other things, that new mothers should quit their jobs to stay home with the baby, which may or may not be good advice: it's too general to be meaningful, but arrogant enough to be upsetting to a lot of women in an era of two-income families.

Again, however, the real point has nothing to do with the "advice" Dr. Laura gives.  It has only to do with ratings (and, by extension, book sales).  She has managed to create an image in the vein of that special child-rearing concept from a few years back, "Tough Love".  And for whatever reason, a lot of people like to listen to her berating young and troubled callers (mostly women) over their stupid choices in life.  She always interrupts them, asks probing questions and then jumps on them when they fumble for an answer. (In terms of raw entertainment value, it's really very little different from your typical Steven Seagal movie.)

Of course this woman doesn't have the slightest idea what you should do to fix your life; she's only been speaking to you for two minutes, for crying out loud!  And what's more, she couldn't care less about you or your problems; she cares only that your problem sounds pathetic enough, and that she has an opportunity to respond aggressively to you.  I doubt that her producers would allow someone on the air who was simply in legitimate personal pain ("My husband was a wonderful man, and he was killed rescuing a family from a flood ..."), because she would have no basis to attack the caller or her family, and her audience would have no reason to vicariously join in the bashing.  Dr. Laura is the anti-Dear Abby (I'm probably not the first to say that).

Finally, I want to mention briefly my personal favorite form of Talk Radio, my dirty little secret: hard-core evangelical religious programming.  I'm not talking about Catholic Mass broadcasts, or even Billy Graham sermons.  I mean the real, deeply afflicted, or should we say obsessed, proselytizers.  If you've never heard some of these people on the radio, I don't know if I can begin to do them justice.  They're not exactly in the same category as the anger-mongers (do you like that term?), because they're not always simply after money.  Actually, I suppose many of them are, and religion is just their own schtick for getting listeners and donations, and also selling books and the like.  But the scary part is that, unlike Rush and Dr. Laura, you get the sense that these people have truly parted company with their marbles, and really believe the stuff they talk about.

What stuff?  Well, you know, the Judgment Day and Armageddon and all that.  If you search a little, you can find any number of dead-serious predictions about the imminent arrival of the End of the World.  I once heard a caller who quoted some biblical passage that supposedly proved the End is near, because President Clinton was fornicating with children in the White House (this was long before Monica Lewinsky, by the way . . .hey, maybe he was onto something after all).

Besides the Apocalypse, there is a wide range of other preachings and messages, much of it astonishing for its aggressive ignorance. You know, of course, that Evolution is all hogwash, don't you?  In fact, virtually all modern moral degradation can be traced to Charles Darwin.  This one preacher ended his anti-Evolution diatribe by saying, "The most scientific statement ever written was, 'In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.'  Let us pray." (Forgive me, but I burst out laughing.)

Then there are the Bible-obsessives, who can quote virtually any verse from any book, and can combine phrases from all over both Testaments in support of whatever point they wish to make, frequently about what's wrong with homosexuality, why Christianity is the only valid religion, etc.  Another guy went on for 20 minutes describing how he studied all the prophesies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, then calculated the probability that Jesus could have fulfilled them all by accident, and it was 1019 to 1. This, of course "proves" that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.  

In fact, a lot of these radio Christians seem hung up on proving to their audience, or to each other, that their beliefs are really valid, and it really bothers them that some people might not agree with them.  They're not content just to practice their religion, they have to pound it into everyone else, too.  Well, I guess that's not exactly a new development, is it?  But to me, these people are really not "religious" at all, any more than the abortion-clinic terrorists and their kind. They're just more angry people, with a crying inner need to blame their sense of inadequacy or fear on others, and in this case Them becomes anyone who's not a member of the Bible Club.  It doesn't seem that their faith gives them a lot of comfort or serenity, just an obsessive hobby to practice, and a wide target for their animosity.

I'm not really sure why the evangelicals fascinate me so much. Actually, I'm just as interested in their more modern counterparts, the New Age believers.  I'll write some more on these types later: I've heard some wonderful interviews concerning new modes of consciousness and the End of the World as they anticipate it, and there's gobs of that stuff on the Internet, too.

Wasn't it the Prophet Edison who said, "The End of the World will be upon us when too many good, smart, worthy people waste their time listening to little talking boxes, and staring at little electronic pictures and words, and getting all worked up over it, when they'd be better off weeding the garden, or shooting some hoops in the driveway. . ."


1998 David N. Townsend

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