Talk radio: not a community builder

April 11, 1995|By Kevin Berger

SAN FRANCISCO — SOME MEDIA watchers see talk radio's rise in popularity as the desire of an alienated populace to come together. They see talk radio as an aural town hall meeting where the lively exchange of ideas sows a fruitful community life.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While the desire for social communion is certainly real, talk radio only exploits, and in fact exacerbates, alienation.

In plain physical terms, talk radio means an isolated person in a studio talking at an isolated person in an automobile.

Radio audiences are the largest during rush hours, when up to 60 percent of commuters are whiling away traffic by listening to their favorite station. In cities across the country, up to 90 percent of commuters drive alone.

So talk radio has flourished not because it unites people in a community of ideas, but because it allows people -- both hosts and listeners -- to indulge their private fantasies.

Howard Stern, for instance, could boast that he hoped Cindy Crawford "gets into a disfiguring car accident and Richard Gere has to live out his years staring at a legless, toothless" Cindy Crawford -- because, like a king in his fortress, he speaks without fear of instant reprisal.

Likewise, one need not quote sociologists and traffic-safety experts to know that people become rude and self-centered while sitting inside a two-ton steel device that quickly reaches a getaway speed.

The invective that is the vernacular of talk radio plays so well in the car because, being alone, commuters can revel in their own inviolability.

Defenders of Rush Limbaugh and Mr. Stern love to taunt liberals who complain about the hosts' reactionary rhetoric. If you want to challenge their popularity, they say, put your own hosts on the air to talk up progressive issues.

But of course, it's not that simple.

Progressive issues of community and ecology, issues that transcend self-interest, simply do not lend themselves to talk radio. Feeling connected with others, and with the environment, is the antithesis of sitting alone in a car on a congested freeway. Rush Limbaugh's and Howard Stern's revenge fantasies -- aimed at liberals and celebrities -- are what keep the commuters satisfied.

The late novelist and essayist Walker Percy wrote that language "is the stuff of which our knowledge and awareness of the world are made."

Through our use of language, Mr. Percy maintained, we become "co-conceivers and co-celebrants" of the world. Language is what delivers us from alienation.

Yet language uttered without regard for listeners, without responsibility -- as it is uttered in isolated radio studios -- degrades its celebrative powers and leaves us, as Mr. Percy wrote, "much nearer total despair."

True, "total despair" may sound a little melodramatic. But just wait. The General Accounting Office predicts that by 2005 traffic congestion will have increased 452 percent. Let's see if, by then, total despair isn't the precise term for the sound of talk radio.

Kevin Berger is co-author (with his brother Todd Berger) of "Where the Road and the Sky Collide: America Through the Eyes of Its Drivers." He wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

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