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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005


My Take on Talk Radio: Part I

posted by Charles Bird at Wednesday, January 05, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
I have a job that puts me in the car several times a week. The radio is usually on and it's frequently tuned in to talk radio. How did I get started? Back in the late 1980s, after several hours out in the field and getting bored with music stations, I switched over to the AM band and heard Rush Limbaugh for the first time. Quite frankly, I was hooked because outside the Wall Street Journal and a few low-circulation magazines, there was no real outlet that represented and articulated my conservative views. The alternative was to fume at the obvious bias of CNN and network news coverage. Judging by the growth of Rush’s listenership and the number of subsequent offshoots, I wasn’t the only one was frustrated with TV news. So began my journey as a talk radio listener...

Today where I live there are at least five talk radio stations, three of which are wall-to-wall conservative. My opinions have evolved since that time I first heard Limbaugh, cruising the flat stretch of freeway in the San Joaquin Valley, and so has the talk radio landscape. Although bloggery (that sounds a little nasty) has risen to prominence and gotten lots of press this year, I'm convinced that talk radio has had a tremendous impact on national politics. The best radio shows have adopted and taken advantage of the blogosphere, weaving blogs into their radio programs. I believe its influence has affected the outcomes of elections and has steered the country to the right. To counter its influence, Al Franken and Air America tried to add a liberal voice to the talk radio palette, but so far their efforts have been wanting, to put it mildly.

Print and TV media don't cover talk radio that much (perhaps because of the competition?), so if liberals don't actually listen to talk radio, they may not get a full measure of its impact. It still remains that, except for FoxNews, cable and network news lean left-of-center. Try as they might to beat FoxNews, they can’t because national media remains dominated by liberals and Democrats. It’s not in their natures to move their editorial judgments to the right, which is why FoxNews will continue to wax the other cable news channels. The news segments at FoxNews are pretty close to the middle but the opinion shows have a decided right-of-center twist. Not that I have a problem with it. Special Report with Brit Hume is one of the very best. The growth of weblogs have been a compensating factor to the continued left-leaning bias of TV news, but for the last dozen years, talk radio has been the alternative news source for conservatives. Rush Limbaugh claims 20 million listeners a week, and that's just one show for example.

One other thing. While talk radio has been criticized for shallowness, combativeness, one-sidedness and a raft of other nesses--all of which are true--it can also be incredibly informative, moving, persuasive and enlightening. It beats television in that regard because TV works best on an emotional level, showing images that evoke. With radio, the focus is on listening and using your imagination; it is a less passive exercise than television. Radio simply involves a higher level of thought than TV. Of course, reading and writing involve higher intellectual powers than talk radio, which is why I've been an Internet news junkie since the mid-1990s, not to mention a bloghead for the past 15 months. But when driving around western Washington, I’m stuck with the airwaves.

Anyhow, I thought I'd get a few thoughts out on the matter, and make some observations on the slate of the more famous and infamous talk radio guys that I know about. After 15 years of listening, I consider myself sort of a connoisseur, so what I've done is developed a Ten List. Not top ten or bottom ten. Just ten. From worst to first. So, without any more lily-gilding (has any reader here ever literally gilded a lily?), let's jump in.

Number 10. Michael Savage and Michael Reagan.

I put Savage and Reagan in a tie because they’re essentially the same personas. The difference is that Savage has more charisma and more personality on radio, not to mention a much bigger audience. Both are serious as heart attacks, both are independents who have distanced themselves from the Republican Party, both share the common theme of "borders, language, culture", and both are not very entertaining. Their appeal is a little confounding.

Although Savage can say some pretty smart things at times, and I agree with some of his "borders, language, culture" schtick, the man has numerous quirks and traits that are supremely irritating and are ultimately counter-productive for the conservative movement. First, he's too excitable and he too easily loses any real perspective on things. I remember an episode involving a minor news story where Savage was demanding that Bush cut short his vacation and return to the White House to deal with the matter post-haste. Puh-leaze. For a man who talks about politics for a living, there are so many incidences where he shows such little understanding.

When Savage does say a few reasonable things, he'll start congratulating himself on how smart and educated he is. It's even worse when he says something that he thinks is funny (and, believe me, it really, really is not), then start talking about how funny he is. Ugh. There's nothing worse than listening to a guy with no sense of humor who thinks he really has one. Another annoying quirk is his constantly saying "in my opinion". Well duh, Michael! Of course it's your opinion. It's a freaking opinion show. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the phrase is probably one of those "fillers" that talk show guys use, but it's still annoying. As an aside, another grating filler is when a radio guy says "it’s fifteen minutes after seven, 45 minutes before the hour". Do we really need to know, after we've been told the time, how many minutes before the hour it is?

Savage has been singularly harsh against the gay community, veering into the realm of bigotry, which makes me cringe at times. While there may be a few snippets of agreement, I can’t accept them coming from him because of the rest of his package of views. When he talks about immigration, he's long on griping and short on real and practical solutions. Other than kicking all the illegals out, he has articulated few coherent ideas or complete thoughts on the issue. I agree with him that the United States works best with English as a common language, but that’s about as far as it goes. Overall, the manner in which he spiels is off-putting, too easily making generalized statements and too easily creating liberal bogeymen and too easily making angry tirades.

I ranked Savage number 10 because his show is the worst form of conservative talk radio. He's too angry, too serious, too negative, too whiny and too screechy. This is not what conservatives or the conservative movement are about. His views are too close to those of Pat Buchanan, a paleo retro reactionary. Thankfully, Savage (a Jew) does not border on the anti-Semitism that Buchanan often steers toward.

I don't have that much to say about Michael Reagan. He's a little less serious than Savage and a lot less influential. Here in the local market, he was pushed off in favor of other programs (such as Savage's) and basically haunts the tape-delayed world of late night talk. I'd rather not bash a guy who's already been in decline.

Number 9. Sean Hannity.

If he wasn’t on FoxNews with Alan Colmes, he’d be a struggling local talk jock. He’s a lucky man, because television is what really launched his radio career and helped with him get a bevy of A-list of guests on his program. Hannity issues standard boilerplate Republicanism, seldom if ever straying from the party line. Not that that’s a bad thing, but he’s heavy on sloganeering and light on offering any real depth or real thought about the issues. He’ll kick out the same two reasons on a topic, never truly embellishing on them and hardly ever adding more complete explanations. When a caller or guest effectively challenges Hannity, taking him to the limit of Reason No. 2, he turns bull-headed and starts going into attack mode.

Where Hannity really lost me was his unyielding defense of Trent Lott after the onetime Senate Majority Leader made his infamous remarks at Strom Thurmond’s birthday. The vast majority of thinking conservatives came to the realization that Lott could no longer be an effective leader, yet Hannity clung desperately to the Lott bandwagon, believing old Trent when he said that he supported Strom's positions on defense. Never mind that the sole reason for the Dixiecrats existence was overt racism. Hannity thought he was holding onto principle, but it was really misguided and one-sided partisanship.

Hannity is obviously influential because of his ratings and his TV show, but in my view he’s Number 9 because he has this wonderful vehicle but, ultimately, he has rarely stepped out of the wading pool of conservative thought. He's also the worst filler abuser on talk radio. He spends way too much air time talking about upcoming guests on TV/radio, and way too much time on what's going to happen instead of what's actually happening. If I were to advise Hannity on how to improve his show, it would be for him to read more and study more (like maybe find Reasons No. 3 and 4) and to hector less.

Hannity also has plenty of personal charisma, and you can best see it when he's in front of live audiences. Crowds respond favorably to him, and Hannity feeds off the crowd’s energy. He’s a natural cheerleader out there, and he’s at his most entertaining and gregarious in those venues. If he wanted to prolong his career, he would add a live studio audience to both his TV and radio programs.

I'll be addressing the next eight of the Ten List in various chunks whenever the mood strikes.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.