Talk radio's price: a culture of complaint

How the political equation is skewed by dittoheads and Dr. Laura lackeys

The election of pro-wrestler-turned-talk radio-host Jesse Ventura and the current controversy surrounding the Internet photos of pop-adviser Laura Schlessinger remind us that talk radio is now firmly ingrained in American culture.

Talk radio has sustained a discourse of anger, cynicism, and confrontation for almost a decade.

What is the attraction of a medium that highlights conflict and discontent, shows little respect for societal institutions, leaders, and processes, and thrives on humiliating the very audience members it depends upon for its existence?

The talk radio phenomenon is a microcosm of wider social trends.

It simulates meaningful connection in a world where people increasingly feel isolated and adrift from any real community. Talk show hosts offer simple rules, directions, and shortcuts for negotiating complex political, psychological, and social terrain to listeners who feel frustrated and overwhelmed.

Talk radio's populist foundations leave ordinary citizens with the impression that this is their medium, especially as alienation from elites has grown.

Audience members establish a pseudo-comradery with hosts and listeners like themselves to whom they can make public pronouncements, share intimacies, or just listen. Yet, to be a part of talk radio's communities means buying into its culture, language, rules of engagement, and its ways of relating.

Sensational, vitriolic public discourse is not a new phenomenon in the US. It might even be considered an American tradition. Colonial broadsheets printed gossip and scandal. The Founding Fathers even used them for personal attacks. During the penny press era in the 1800s, "yellow journalism," "muckraking," and tabloid-style reporting were commonplace. For more than 200 years, citizens have sounded off in letters to the editor, many of which resemble print versions of talk-radio rant-ings.

Yet, the intense edge and unbridled incivility of today's communication environment sets it apart from the past.

Talk radio facilitates an intriguing dynamic: Audience members can feel a part of a community, participate in it, and yet do so anonymously and without obligation.

Callers can divulge their most confidential secrets, vent their frustrations, and launch venomous personal attacks without the responsibility of owning up to them. A similar anonymity encourages the mean-spirited messages that pervade Internet discussion forums, where participants are routinely "flamed."

But talk radio's communities simulate greater intimacy with the human voice than the typed word of Internet chat rooms and e-mail.

The anonymity coupled with the desire to participate in the talk-radio community may explain why callers tolerate abusive treatment by hosts.

Ultimately the personality of the host makes or breaks a show because talk radio is essentially an entertainment genre. Hosts control content and tone of programs, carefully screening callers.

Lacking real expertise on many issues, these new-style opinion leaders assert their authority by denigrating their followers.

The most successful hosts, such as personal-advice host Schlessinger and conservative political host Rush Limbaugh, choose callers who'll allow them to react in often infuriating and insulting ways. Limbaugh, in fact, asserts that "the primary purpose of callers on my show is to make me look good, not to allow a forum for the public to make speeches."

To become part of a show, callers need to follow the requirements of the script. Yet, even if "Paul from Cleveland" is publically berated, his identity is protected. The caller gets to be part of the play without suffering any direct consequences of the humiliation.

This month's elections underscore the fact that talk radio is an established feature of US politics. Candidates' strategies now routinely include courting talk-show hosts cum opinion leaders, like Don Imus and Howard Stern, hoping to convert loyal listeners into decided voters.

Mainstream media regularly report excerpts from talk radio programs as campaign events.

The terminology employed by talk-show hosts to describe political phenomena frequently enters the public lexicon - witness Limbaugh's nicknames for Bill Clinton, which alternate between "Slick Willie" and "Sick Willie."

In addition, the door between careers in talk radio and politics continues to revolve, as illustrated by former mayors of New York and San Diego - Mario Cuomo and Roger Hedgecock - who both have talk radio shows.

The profile of a typical political talk-radio listener is an older, white, college-educated male who earns a good income - a likely voter.

For this audience, talk radio offers political entertainment.

It is, in some sense, a Jerry Springer phenomenon for political junkies.

With some exceptions, particularly public radio offerings, political talk thrives on controversy and scandal. When ratings slip, it is the lure of a juicy topic, such as the release of the Starr report on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and not the problems of the world economy, that revitalizes audience interest.

Talk radio maintains its place in the communications structure because loyal listeners have come to expect, and even to enjoy, the nastiness that dominates the airwaves.

We can anticipate that the level of incivility will only increase, as hosts employ tried-and-true formulas to draw in listeners.

So, talk radio will continue to play a role in creating an angrier, more alienated citizenry that complains more than it acts, and which fails to take meaningful steps to change society for the better.

* Diana Owen is a professor of government at Georgetown University. in Washington. She co-authored 'New Media in American Politics' (Oxford University Press).

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