Talk radio ignores its own ignorance

THE ARGUMENT

July 02, 1995|By Theo Lippman Jr.

Talk radio is dangerous. Why? Because audiences believe what they hear, and much of it is false.

I've been listening to a lot of talk shows since 1992. Lying isn't the problem. I believe these guys just feel the need to have an opinion about everything. The ones I have been listening to are way out of their depths on most - yes, most - topics they take on. They don't know what they don't know.

So much of it, most of it taken as a whole, is trashy.

Why? In "Inside Talk Radio" (Birch Lane Press. 270 pages. $19.95), Peter Laufer says it is because it is entertainment pretending to be journalism. "Radio talk shows," he writes, "usually play the same role as the supermarket tabloids. They offer frivolous entertainment, not credible news. The comparison breaks down, however, because while the tabloids clearly refuse to take themselves too seriously (witness the plethora of Elvis and alien sightings in their pages), more and more radio talk show hosts are believing their own harangues."

Mr. Laufer has been there.

The day after he was fired as news and program director of Washington radio station WRC, he says in the book's epilogue, Andy Bloom, the national program director of parent Greater Media lectured the staff:

"I don't care if you take the high road or the low road. I don't care about educating people. I want to get rich and I will do whatever it takes to win. If that means getting down and rolling around in the mud, then I will get down in the mud."

Robert Longwell, the new general manager of WRC explained further. "We don't give a [expletive] about Bosnia. We want to hear more about Lorena Bobbitt."

Tom Milewski, the chief operating officer of Greater Media, put a slightly different spin on it. "The formula for a successful talk show these days is to find out what your audience's bigotry is and play to it."

Since the main theme of Laufer's book is that talk radio is dangerous trash, some might decide the book is getting even. He says the book was almost completed when he was fired. So I prefer to conclude that it was Greater Media that did the getting even. The corporation decided it had a malcontent if not traitor in its bosom and got rid of him.

This book comes along at an interesting time. In the past 10 days, (1) Mario Cuomo has been welcomed to the talk radio scene as the Great Liberal Hope to offset the right-wing tilt of talkers; (2) Gordon Liddy has received the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts' "Freedom of Speech Award," and (3) Baltimore's WJHU has gone from mostly classical music to practically all talk.

Hot, hot, hot. Liddy got the award as a response to criticism of his telling listeners how to shoot law enforcement officers who might be wearing bullet-proof vests. Some think the award was an attempt to silence critics. I think it transparently was an attempt to provoke them. Part of the explanation for talk radio's growth is that traditional journalists have criticized it so often in - yes - pieces like this one.

Laufer quotes Carl Jensen, a journalism professor, to the effect that talk radio has "a built-in credibility" from the days when only news, not opinion, came over the air. "Now that trust is being violated by talk show hosts running fast and loose with the facts," says Jensen, "and the audience believes the words just because they come from an authoritative voice on the radio. I think the public cannot distinguish between Edward R. Murrow and Rush Limbaugh. The public thinks that Rush Limbaugh is the successor to the Edward R. Murrows of radio."

Limbaugh is a recurrent character in this book, as he is in other literature on talk radio. There is even a journal devoted to criticizing just him, The Flush Rush Quarterly. Sample editorial content: "What is the difference between Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenburg? One is a flaming Nazi gasbag and the other is a dirigible."

Those readers old enough to remember the Hindenburg disaster probably remember the man who made talk radio a popular and effective element in journalism and public affairs in the first place. Will Rogers, the Broadway star turned lecturer turned newspaper columnist, began a radio series in 1929 in which he commented on governmental and social issues.

He was as popular as Limbaugh, and

as entertaining. Of course, there are some enormous differences. Rogers was self-effacing. "All I know is what I read in the newspapers," he said. And he was gentle in his criticisms, poking fun at Democrats, such as himself, as well as Republicans. Limbaugh is a partisan braggart with a mean streak.

It's All Entertainment

Laufer quotes Limbaugh as saying talk radio is not journalism. "I really believe radio is turned on for three reasons: People turn it on to be entertained, to be entertained, and to be entertained."

If only that were true.

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