I dipped an ear into syndicated radio talk the other day, and almost lost a lobe. Bill O’Reilly, then Michael Savage. I knew I’d find it toxic. Should have known better. But I feel responsible to say something rational about it. Talk radio, I mean. See, most of the well-known talkers outside the big-big cities are people like Rush Limbaugh, Daddy of ‘Em All, Sean Hannity, and other Rush clones. Yes, they’re mostly hard-right ideologues. That’s the “format” Rush pioneered when he “saved” AM radio.

Commercial radio in the US is all about formats. You find what works and do it 24 hours a day. Rock. Country. Smooth Jazz. Right-wing talk. In the 80s and 90s, AM radio stations from coast to coast and metro to hamlet embraced Limbaugh-style talk and thrived again for the first time in years. It was cheap to produce — especially if the programs were arriving via satellite–and it drew enough adult listeners to compete for ratings on a par with music FMs. You must understand that Number One doesn’t mean everybody in town listens. It means somewhere around four (4) to six (6) percent of the people using radio listen to that station at least fifteen minutes each week. Talk radio listeners tend to be over 40, and male.

So, by my reckoning, Mr. Limbaugh has been influential beyond his actual reach, an importance dealt him by news media and politicians’ attention. Yes, he’s a radio star. I wonder what would happen if, like Howard Stern’s, his audience were required to pay to listen, and buy a new radio or two, to boot. Howard’s loyalists can now be counted around three million paying Sirius customers, though the radio ratings system gave him credit for many more. How many Dittoheads would pay for the privilege?

Whatever. Limbaugh, et al, and I include Al Franken and his flip-side menagerie, have established the default format for handling issues on the radio — and TV, for that matter. Everything and everybody must be categorized as extreme practitioners of right or left ideology, if they so much as display a slight tendency toward one side or the other. This is not good for us. Hasn’t been. Won’t be. We need to stop. We’ll get no help from the political parties, candidates, and their tutors, the marketers. It’s the format, and it draws unbalanced crowds.

Passionate Bystanders, arise! You have nothing to lose but your uncertainty clarity. Or, as the poet John Ciardi suggested, have the courage of your confusions.

Update: A little rewrite in the last paragraph, there. I was, uh, unclear at the time, what you’d have to lose by arising. Uh huh, now I’m being, in the fashion of our time, “transparent.” DN

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Talk. Who’s listening?


Heinrich Hertz's experiments proved the existence of electromagnetic radiation. Cycles-per-second, the standard measure of radio wave frequency, was named for him. He died in 1894, at 37. Wikipedia: Hertz


What do you do with a problem like Howard? After decades of profits and FCC indecency fines as routine budget items, Howard Stern, king of all pottymouth radio guys, followed his enabler Mel Karmazin to Sirius Satellite Radio, leaving CBS to make up a hundred million in revenue (They sold stations) and fill the void for the half of Howard's loyal audience who didn't choose to buy a new radio and pay fifteen bucks a month for a few more, ranker epithets.
Wikipedia: Stern


CBS might have become the Cigar Broadcasting System. William S. Paley was the scion of the family business. In 1927, his cigar tycoon dad, Samuel, bought the struggling network of early radio stations from a group of poor schlumps who were trying to – would you believe: sell programming to radio stations! Every syndicator since has had to relearn that this doesn't work. Bill and his dad figured out the right business model -- you sell commercials to advertisers, and give the programs to stations. Got it?
Wikipedia: Paley