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Sunday, January 09, 2005


My Take on Talk Radio: Part II

posted by Charles Bird at Sunday, January 09, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
As noted in Part I of this series, long hours of driving around listening to talk radio has--if I say so myself--made me a connoisseur of this medium (or, for the French-averse, aficionado). For purposes of s***s and giggles, I developed a Ten List of talk radio programs, ranking them from worst to first. My criteria for judgment is the total package: content, presentation and entertainment value. Talk shows compete with the other stations on the dial, both against music and other talk formats. If the program doesn’t get your attention or if the presentation puts you to sleep (not a good thing for commuters), then content quality of the show is wasted.

The worst talk show fellas were covered in Part I, and this one will hit the Middle of the Pack. Another thing. If I haven’t listened to it, I can’t comment on it. I literally heard Air America for the first time just a few days ago. Al Franken was on and he was grousing about the Democratic Party not being liberal enough, and lobbying for Howard Dean as DNC chair. The next day Janeane Garofolo, in the absurdly named "Majority Report", was trying to rally the progressive troops in calling the Ohio presidential results illegitimate. While I’m sorely tempted to rank Fringe Radio No. 11, fifteen minutes of painfully listening to these harangues is not enough time to pass judgment. Other guys I haven’t listened to much or at all are Neal Boortz, Glenn Beck, Oliver North, Mike Gallagher, Gordon Liddy, etc. So, without any more ado, drumroll please...

Number 8. Dennis Prager/Bill Bennett.

One is a conservative Jew and the other is a conservative Christian. Sadly, both are equally boring. While I agree with many of their positions, most of which are well thought out and well reasoned, there’s something in their voice modulation or delivery that renders me unable to pay attention to what they’re saying for more than about five minutes. With Bill Bennett, it’s worse because he’s on during commuting hours, endangering more drivers. What also bothers me about Bennett is that the royalties he earned from the Book of Virtues were used to subsidize his gambling vice.

Number 7. Bill O’Reilly.

He may have been born in New York but his ego hails from Texas. He’s actually not too terrible as a talk show host, but this massive and disturbing alien presence known as "O’Reilly’s Opinion of Himself" fatally detracts from his program. Some of his banter with gal cohort Edie is okay but much of it makes me cringe. I have a high tolerance level for sexism but O’Reilly hits my limit consistently. In retrospect, it should have of come as no surprise that he was slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit.

His show doesn’t get too ideological and he does deal fairly straight on the facts. He has a good voice for radio and his punchy style works well for the medium. I’ll also give him credit to him for making me think twice about some issues, in particular the death penalty. He’s pretty much against it and I can see the value of putting a murderer in prison for life, provided that there is a requirement for hard labor. But then again, there are some crimes and some criminals where, to me, the death penalty is just fine. The hard left really hates O’Reilly, which for me is mark in plus column for him. Soros-financed Media Matters, edited by self-admitted liar David Brock, has some sort of jones against O’Reilly, which can only but help the show.

Number 6. Rush Limbaugh.

He is still the godfather of talk radio, but he is in decline. I used to listen to him quite a bit in the 1990s, but I found myself listening less and less in the 21st century and I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because I already know his positions so well. Maybe his show stagnated. Maybe the oxycontin and other drugs affected show quality. Maybe it’s the emergence of newer high-quality shows which have lessened his influence and uniqueness. It used to be Rush and a passel of dwarfs on talk radio, but that has changed. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t evolved very much since coming onto the scene. Maybe it’s because he seldom takes callers who really challenge his points of view; that’s unfortunate, because his show sparkles when he gets into a good debate. Maybe the blogosphere has cut into his domain.

Anyhow, I listen to him quite a bit less now but he remains a force. Sometimes his analysis is as good as anyone’s out there and sometimes he misses the mark, but with 20 million listeners a week he’s tough to ignore. He has the best voice in talk radio, and he has a flair for clearly articulating issues. But to me, I can’t help feel a little betrayed in the wake of the drug flap and his third divorce. I remember back in the 1992 debates when George H.W. Bush was trying to expose Bill Clinton’s character, saying "you can’t be one kind of man and another kind of president". That phrase stuck with me because I believe there’s a lot of truth to it. Compartmentalizing is a myth. Character is an issue, whether you’re president or a radio talk show host or a janitor. I can’t but help question the character of a man who’s a three-time loser at marriage and who became a drug addict. When I listen to him now, those niggling thoughts remain.

Is Rush a credible news source? To the extent that he is conveying news from credible sources, the answer is yes. Does Rush play up facts that enforce his point of view and minimize facts that don’t? Yes. Does he get his facts wrong? At times, yes, but when you’re cranking out 35,000 to 40,000 words per show, it happens. Does Rush make corrections? Yes, which is something his critics seldom point out. By the way, the sheer volume of words and the fact that hosts can later amend, correct and clarify in subsequent shows makes criticism difficult. Also, those who just read transcripts miss important inflections that don’t translate to the written page. Does Rush lie? He may, but it’s hard to know. Does Rush engage in uncivil discourse? Yes, at times, but his usual targets in this regard are the hardcore partisans and those near the margins of the political spectrum. Incidentally, a huge chunk of Rush’s content is pointing out the incivility of the Left, and the examples are legion. Can Rush be polarizing and bullying? Polarizing, yes, but bullying only to the thin-skinned who have a hard time accepting criticism.

Number 5. National Public Radio.

I was questioning whether I should include NPR, but what the heck. They’re on radio, they’re talking and I listen to them, so they’re in. While they rate high on content, they’re low on the other criteria. I’ve only listened to the Travis Smiley Show twice but I liked his program and regret that he quit. Oft times NPR has informative and enlightening segments, and other times they’ll have some obscure issue or second-rate poet or writer or musician and the time just flat drags. Their bias ranges from subtle to blatant. I remember a segment that fawned over Pablo Neruda, never mind that he was an enthusiast of Joseph Stalin. The reporters on NPR have that same distinct delivery: slow, professorial monotones that give us unwashed listeners the feeling we’re being talked down to. Some may be surprised that I rate NPR higher than Limbaugh, but that should tell you how far Rush has fallen. But if I had to choose between Limbaugh and NPR, it’s NPR because it’s helpful to know where the Left is getting its news and I already pretty much know Rush is going to say.

Part III will cover my top four.


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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.