The truth behind AM talk radio 2

If you love Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk, then don’t read the article I’m linking to here. It might demolish your faith in their sincerity and/or expertise. On the other hand, if you hate Limbaugh, et alia, then you can read to your heart’s content.

Dan Shelley is a former news and program director of WTMJ, an AM talk outlet in Milwaukee and home of local rightwing radio mouth Charlie Sykes. In a revealing, almost confessional essay for Milwaukee Magazine, Shelley exposes the dirty underside of wingnut talk radio.

[Read the comments, too. There’s some gems from the readers.]

Above all, Shelley says, talk radio is not journalism; it’s entertainment. The hosts carefully choose their topics and their reactions to those topics specifically to draw huge audiences. There is no pretense to be, as Fox News says, “fair and balanced.” Rather, radio talkers are like rabid pit bulls, who attack the “enemy” with a savageness bordering on demagoguery.

To support their whackjob arguments, the hosts carefully weed out facts and data that contradict their theses, while denying callers with different opinions a chance to get any decent airtime. Each host, Sykes included, is like a petty dictator once he (or she) sits in the broadcast booth.

And where do they get their ideas? Why, from “talking points” emails sent by the Bush White House, the Republican Party and various rightwing organizations. Local hosts will also check up on Limbaugh, to see what he’s spouting off about, and other national talkers. So, it’s no wonder they all sound like they’re reading from the same book. For the last eight years, all they’ve done is praise the Bush admininistration, while attacking “liberals” and the “liberal” mainstream media — the “drive-by media,” to use Limbaugh’s catchphrase.

Rightwing talkers carve out their own little niche in the airspace, appealing to disaffected listeners who feel they have no power to change anything. The talkers (like some political leaders we know) deliberately couch all their arguments in black/white, either/or dichotomies, making for entertaining, if oversimplified invective.

Since I used to be a print journalist, these revelations do not surprise me at all. Broadcast TV and radio, with a few exceptions (NPR and PBS, for example), specialize in the superficial. Complex arguments and issues are difficult to present in ways for the typical viewer/listener to understand, much less sit through for longer than a few minutes. TV and radio broadcasts are typically “rip and read” reports off the wire services. Talk radio just fills up more airtime with the hosts’ own oral diarrhea, without really informing anyone of anything substantive.

More illuminating is Shelley’s insights into the psyches of the hosts. They are basically insecure little children, unable to accept constructive criticism without going ballistic. Here’s an example of Sykes’ behavior.

One day during a very bad snowstorm, I walked into the studio during a commercial break and suggested to Charlie that he start talking about it rather than whatever conservative topic he’d been discussing. Charlie assumed, as he usually did in such situations, that I was being critical of his topic. In reaction, he unplugged his head phones, stood up and told me that I might as well take over the show because he wasn’t going to change his topic. I was able to quickly strike a bargain before the end of the break. He agreed to take a few calls about the storm, but if it didn’t a strike a nerve with callers, he could return to his original topic.

The snowstorm was the topic of the rest of his show that day. And afterward, Charlie came to my office and admitted I’d been right. But we would go through scenarios such as this many times through the years.

Back in the day, there was a broadcast media Fairness Doctrine in place, which required all broadcast media outlets to present real “fair and balanced” programming. Trouble is, those talk programs were incredibly dull, unless the participants really got into heated arguments, which was pretty rare. Civil debates on the air just don’t provide gripping drama.

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine 20 years ago led to an explosion of rightwing broadcasters, who by and large all work for stations owned by just a few media conglomerates. (Quite a few of those conglomerates are Christian broadcast outlets, I might add.) The talkers’ popularity, as reprehensible as it is, has meant big money for them and their bosses. Like moths drawn to a flame, even leftwingers listen to Limbaugh and his co-habitants of the rightwing airwaves. The left’s sputtering denials of everything Rush Windbag, et alia, say just adds to the talkers’ popularity, in an unending feedback loop.

Some policy wonks have proposed bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, now that the “liberals” are in power. It won’t happen. There’s too much money involved for the rightwing media to acquiesce to any regulation, no matter how much they deserve it. So, for the next four years, we will have to put up with these nutjobs filling the airwaves with their fairy tales of President Barack Obama the liberal, marxist, socialist, terrorist, Muslim fifth columnist, and Sarah Palin the savior of the Republican Party.

Or rather, you readers in the States will. No one listens to American rightwing radio here in China, least of all me.

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2 thoughts on “The truth behind AM talk radio

  1. Reply sanford sklansky Nov 14,2008 2:58 am

    The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.[3]

    I found the above on Wikipedia. I do think that there are even progressive hosts that don’t believe in the Fairness doctrine. It was interesting that Shelley did not mention another talk show host in Milwaukee, Mark Belling. He has certainly been around as long as Sykes and probably has better ratings. Even though these talkers massage the facts or take talking points from the Bush administration, I think that they really believe in what they are talking about. Belling is on 3 to 6 central time on WISN. You should take a listen sometime or go to his site and you can listen to the podcast of his show. There is no doubt that the guy is quite smart, but like Shelley said he would never take after a republican unless he felt he was not a real republican. Like the other shows you will very rarely hear a liberal call in and if you do the screeners seem to take the guy who makes the least sense or can not really challenge the host. They also don’t seem to have a conversation with their callers either.

    I am trying to enjoy the outcome of the election so I haven’t listened to Belling or the morning convervative host on the same station. I know that they will be killing Obama from now until his inaugerationg and after.

    It is interesting that Limbaugh is already calling this the Obama recession. I am sure that if McCain had won he would not be saying the same thing.

  2. Reply wheatdogg Nov 14,2008 11:44 am

    Sometimes I wonder they actually believe what they’re saying, or if they’re pretending to believe, just to make money. Shelley’s piece suggests it’s a little of both. They had tons of fun when Bush Jr. was in office. I can only imagine what bullshit they will dish out now. Certainly everything Obama and his administration does, down to what kind of dog the girls get, will provide fodder for their daily spoutings. They’ve already created their audience. I figure all this pre-election drivel about Obama-the-Muslim, Obama-the-socialist, etc., was designed to keep their audiences in a state of victimhood. Maybe, just maybe the wingnuts knew Obama would win, so they pulled out the stops to avoid being obsolete.

    All we can hope is that eventually their audiences will catch on to how stupid these maggots are, once Obama turns out to be a regular guy with no sinister agenda to overthrow America as we know it.

    Of course, the audience are idiots, too. So maybe not.

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