Talk Radio: The Last Refuge of the People

TALK radio today is the voice of the people. It has its screamers and its soothsayers - on both sides of the microphone. For years, talk hosts have helped people through the night just by being there, patiently responding to caller questions and leading them toward some general standard of public reason. Turn on your car radio any time of day or night around the country and you can often hear advice and counsel of one kind or another being dished out with no trace of self-doubt. Money, the law, personal relations - they're all big topics.

But the most fascinating form of this old genre - and probably the most popular - has got to be the political talk show. It's probably the only forum left where personal outrage about public affairs still gets a real hearing. Psychologists often say it's all right for people to cry. On many talk shows it's all right to fume and rant. It's the place where callers who see through the emperor's new clothes of governmental policy can tell the simple truth - and bellow about it if they wish.

The format is ideal: Like a secret ballot, it's anonymous (you don't give your last name), yet has an impact. Listeners can hear the tone of voice but not see who you are. It's a way of going public without putting on a show. Where else can inarticulate types sound off? Not with political representatives - who'd much rather deal with well-behaved organized interests. Not with institutions that people deal with daily - have you tried asserting yourself in a bank or motor vehicle registry? Those places wa nt you to fall into place, speak quietly, and move on please. Even on TV it's not quite the same - the talk panels are more organized, more controlled, less direct and unguarded.

One of the best of radio's political talk shows is hosted by a master of the art named Jerry Williams. Some call his program Radio Free Boston because they feel it's the last refuge of the recalcitrant individual - you know, the person the Constitution was written for. The program offers some reasoned political discussion, but its true function is to register the inward screams of frustration shared by callers who can't find any other platform. Even if they're not all geniuses, they know a bureaucratic con job when they see one, and there's a limit to how many they can stomach. When indignation finally wells up, the Williams show is there to validate it - even when the host tells callers they're crazy.

And Mr. Williams does that a lot. He gets upset. He insults people. He can be a boor - or a bore (and that's the cardinal sin in this business). Sometimes he counters an absurd statement with an equally absurd answer. But that's better than saying ``Thank you - next,'' because people phone in hoping someone will hear them - maybe yell back at them. Bureaucracies don't yell back.

The Williams show had much - some would say everything - to do with galvanizing public opinion against a Massachusetts seat-belt law that was repealed a few years ago. A lot of Bay state politicians were incensed. The people were getting into the act! Shows like this do have a way of inconveniencing officialdom as no medium can, because they give voice to that fly-in-the-ointment of so many official master plans: the individual's personal experience of what actually happens. Talk radio is wh ere you can state how things work where it counts: at the consumer level. The informed, eloquent callers are not the heart of the Williams show - they have other outlets. The crowning moments are a crass mix of common sense and gut insight that contradicts official guidelines and refutes statistics.

Radio personalities like Williams represent a lost link in the broken of chain of realistic public policymaking. It also doesn't hurt that he's an extremely skillful veteran who usually manages not to show the pressure of always having to be a high-octane, attention-getting personality.

How much of a radio host's patter is an act? I suspect many of them no longer really know. Sometimes they probably have to turn their feelings on, like an actor who each night has to repeat emotionally charged stage performances. Talk hosts may not go home and speak that way to their families, but that doesn't mean they don't experience emotions on the air.

At points of semicomic stress, Willams keeps quipping ``I'm definitely getting out of the business,'' but maybe that's just part of the act. Let's hope so.

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