Growing up in the sixties and early seventies, it was my preferred form of media, and the source of most of the music I listened to. I must have been about nine years old when I got a portable radio in a blue plastic casing for Christmas. It could pick up both AM and FM stations, but in the small town in the part of Southern Arizona where I lived, we were too far away to pick up any FM signals. It did pick up the stronger stations from Tucson, including a couple of them that played “rock” and a few stations in some of the surrounding towns, mostly country music. The night air carried signals from more powerful stations on the West Coast, and from the Midwest. In the daytime, I’d switch back and forth between AM stations in Tucson, but at night, I could go from KOMA in Oklahoma City, to WOAI in San Antonio, to KFI in Los Angeles, with a swift twist of the fingers.
But it wasn’t long before FM radio began taking over the airwaves. By the time I went off to college, there were several FM stations in nearby towns, and even one in my hometown. AM had strong signals, but they couldn’t duplicate the sharp sound of an FM signal, and a lot of people, including in the radio business itself, thought that the day of AM radio was over. But while the FM signals could carry music with a much sharper, clearer sound than an AM signal could, change came to the radio business that would allow at least some of the more valuable and powerful AM stations to remain viable. The change became known as talk radio. And while there were a few all-news stations in existence during the era of AM radio, a lot of stations found ways to convert their formats successfully, and maintain a large enough audience to survive, and in some cases, thrive.
Talk radio provides a great service, and a lot of valuable information. However, a lot of station owners realized that even in some of the larger cities, providing traffic reports, a fifteen minute news cycle, the weather, and a sports report every hour on the hour, only required one station. But radio is a creative business, and over time, the radio stations developed programs that attracted listeners, a sort of “tabloid” approach, or “Jerry Springer meets the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.” Incorporating entertainment with topics drawn from the news, and building on a foundation of some earlier, similar programming, plus technological advances that allow dozens, and even hundreds of stations to pick up and broadcast a satellite signal, the radio talk show evolved.
Some of the programs have been pure entertainment, like Phil Hendry. I picked up his broadcast one night while driving home to Texas from a meeting in Nashville. It was being carried on one of the old AM stations I used to listen to at night when I was a kid, and I picked it up right around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and listened to it all the way to Laurel, Mississippi where I stopped for the night. I was delighted when I found out I could pick up the same station in Houston, at night, and even more so when I found out he was carried on a local station. And of course, there was Larry King. If you ever had insomnia, Larry, in his earlier years, was a great companion at two in the morning.
Of course, now, in the daytime, and early evening, we have plenty of four hour programs that blend entertainment, of a different sort, with politics and commentary. We have the leaders in the business, and we have plenty of wannabees. There are some excellent, local hosts on some stations, who have the job of more or less following up locally with the direction the “big boys” have gone during the day, and then there are others (one in particular that I can think of on one of Houston’s AM talk shows) who have no tact, and very little respect for the intelligence or integrity of their audience. But this is America, and we do have protected free speech. The relatively low overhead cost of radio makes it possible for one individual behind a mic to reach a large enough niche audience to pay quite well, and provide station owners with the means for expanding their business. The lack of tact, and the “nasty little man behind the mic” approach, is actually a means of attracting an audience that would otherwise probably be listening to old ZZ Top or George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
You don’t have to listen very long, daytime or evening, to understand what really drives the business. Just delivering political commentary would be boring. And with the number of local and nationally syndicated programs sharing what is really a relatively small audience compared to other media, particularly television, and limited by both time, and geography, talk radio has become tabloid sensationalism. And mixed in with all of that is an approach that appeals to people’s prejudices and biases, tendencies to believe the worst about others, and permission to be intolerant. Yeah, I know we are all accountable for our own actions, but when a radio personality can help us vent frustration by name calling those who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and using disrespectful terms to characterize “the other side,” they are pushing our buttons. They are also encouraging the same kind of behavior, in some cases perhaps even prompting it. But while we are most definitely responsible for our own behavior, don’t think for a minute that one of the radio personalities after whom you’ve modeled your behavior will either accept the responsibility for leading you where you’ve gone, or for something you may have done at their urging.
Because most of these radio hosts function under the self-proclaimed category of “entertainment,” (loosely interpreted) they have determined that they can take liberties with facts. To maintain some credibility, they do, at times, put a few of those forward, but not before setting the context in a completely different direction on both sides of the issue. But there’s also an element of deception and sensationalism woven into the presentation. In most cases, at least among those that are nationally syndicated, they are careful to avoid actually being completely exact, or clear, in the wording of something they want to communicate. It’s sort of like saying “Betty White dyed in Hollywood today…” Unless you were reading the message, and saw the spelling of the word, you might draw a completely different conclusion. Such is the art of talk radio.
And it doesn’t take much to convince this particular niche audience. Usually, the distortion of facts and truth, the deceptive tactics, the sometimes outright lies and then later denials of “I didn’t say that, exactly,” and the belittling and name calling makes me change stations pretty quickly. When I have listened to most of a particular program, I’m appalled at the thought that there is anyone in the world who could not only listen, but actually believe such twisted, inaccurate garbage. But there are a lot of people who are unable to discern the world as they see it, from the way their favorite radio deejay wants them to see it, and they’re pretty much already on board. If the guy says the sky is pink with purple polka dots, they agree, and then avoid looking at it because even though they know it’s not, they don’t want to see the evidence that their favorite radio commentator is wrong.
After having listened to several of these guys on a fairly regular basis, as much as I can stand, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. 1. These guys have a high level of contempt for the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. They are bottom feeders who are treating the soldiers who fought and died to keep that right protected with the utmost contempt and disrespect, and are selling their integrity for money. If that’s harsh, so be it. 2. They have bottomless disrespect and contempt for the intelligence of their listeners. They must get a lot of laughs when they discover that their fact twisting, and in some cases outright falsehoods, are treated as inerrant and infallible scripture.
I still listen to AM radio. I’ve found, in Pittsburgh, a great station, in fact, the oldest broadcast station in the US, that carries all local talk hosts. No national syndicates. And even though they sometimes get into politics, local, state or national, there’s no contempt, no disrespect for those who hold other views, and their tone of voice is reasonable. It is also pleasing to note that their ratings exceed the FM talk station that carries some of the more popular national syndicates, as does the local ESPN station, and several of the music stations. You don’t have to turn your radio off, just switch it over. It’s radio. You can listen to whatever you want to. Get your politics by thinking for yourself, and leave your radio for music,