Talk Radio’s Funny Secret

Pub date May 24, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

Most folks do one thing for a living and are happy that way. I’m not. I need a lot of challenges that change all the time. I have a lot of different occupations, acting, playing music, writing and talk radio host on an LA station.Of the latter, I knew nothing about the genre at all when I got into it 10 1/2 years ago. Never listened to it and still don’t. News stations occasionally, but generally, the sound in the car is music.I found that there are a lot of people that just love talk radio and in all walks of life. Most remarkably, lots of fellow musicians. They’re addicted to it, the raving and the story-telling, the “painting a picture with words”. And many talk show hosts are “lifers” that dread being “on the beach“. It’s a massive rush to keep spieling, as Mike Watt would say and it is a rare skill. As I have never had a problem freely offering an opinion (asked for or not) or at a loss for words, it was a natural fit.Thing is, talk radio is really not at all what it appears to be. On the surface, it is the voice of outrage, the sound of angry people, villagers rising up with pitchforks to the sound of their leader’s voice, pure populism. And that’s what many successful hosts do. They represent for the little person–or so it seems.

In reality, no. If one listens closely to what 95% of talk hosts actually say, it’s fairly clear that they are not challenging the audience’s ideas, but bolstering them for the most part. Picking a common enemy and railing on same for hours–the voices inside the heads of the listener are congruent with what the show host is saying–he or she isn’t even articulating it half the time but spitting out time worn cliches.Ask yourself–when was the last time you heard a talk show host take a completely unexpected turn? As almost all news/talk is rightist, when was the last time you heard a private entity (not owned by a liberal) railed on? The government is fair game, but as right-wing Americans have been trained since diapers to hate the government (while mooching off same), who cares? Or suggested that nationalism (ours and the Muslims) is the root cause of terrorism. Or that the NRA are conmen. Or…….Also, the hatred of the government seems to abate on the airwaves five minutes after a Republican is elected. Which makes sense as a lot of talk shows hosts see themselves as indispensable parts of the GOP’s machine.This isn’t news to anyone, really. But the idea that the talk show host is the valiant bearer of the torch of freedom is pure fantasy. When was the last time a talk host was hauled off the air by the government for saying anything? Yes, profanity brings high fines. But all action against talk hosts comes from the public, generally in the form of embargoes or from stations afraid of a backlash fomented by the same public.

That the genre is getting beaten up on badly of late has a few proximate causes. An aging base of fans is one reason. Another is the sheer tedium of predictability–a road trip from Portland Me to Portland OR would be about 4 days long and there is almost no chance you’d ever hear anything on AM that’s different one city from another. That means dullness and laziness and copycatting, 

The irony is that when AM talk stations–supposedly moribund–go back to their roots and go local and social and personal, they thrive. In California, KMJ in Fresno and KFI in Los Angeles are the prime examples. Limited national babble and lots of local means the hosts can’t lean on talking points or be completely predictable (as the audience is right there in the center of the topics, not distant from DC). It helps that in the latter station’s case, their morning and afternoon shows have hosts whose politics are wildly unpredictable. KFI is the nation’s #1 talk station and since KMJ became privately owned, its ratings have soared. What does that tell you?

Yes, saying shit on the air to piss people off on purpose sounds like it would work, but it never does. Conversely, kissing the audience’s ass for three hours at a time is just as bad. If talk really were the voice of the people, it would be impossible to suss what it would do, just as it’s impossible to figure out what people (us) do. Simple, huh?