Echo Chamber Radio

I spend twenty to thirty minutes each weekday listening to political talk radio.  Satellite radio, in particular, airs programs bisecting a swath of ideology from right to left.

Talk radio's purpose is not to open or change minds.

I'd like to better understand successful talk radio, why it succeeds, and whether or not it's making a difference in the national dialog or perpetuating an echo chamber.

Two hours of listening time a week isn't enough to form a fully realized analysis of the talk radio phenomenon, but it's enough to conclude that it exists to validate the views of of its listeners. It exists, and create media icons around which a media organization can make money and around whom listeners can band and project their views onto. Apart from that, its purpose, if anything, exists somewhere in the echo chamber.

What is particularly accurate is the portrayal of talk radio hosts as alternatively apathetic and egotistical. I've found that most hosts fit one or both descriptions, often at the same time. Established hosts of political talk radio - Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Mike Malloy, Thom Hartmann and Stephanie Miller, to name just a few - never seem to be working to improve their respective formats, but rather coasting on established formulas.

Talk radio is a place where the sponsors and the affiliates and station managers avoid any shift to the format they deem too risky. On the most successful shows, the format is fixed to the listeners' expectations.  Unfortunately, one's expectations, over the course of listening to any one of these programs, slide steadily downward.

If you listen to any of these programs enough, your expectations will make this downward slide. At first, the talk radio format comes across as curiously stagnant. The hosts always seem to be running down various non-sequiturs and tangents, never coming to a point. They often sound either strangely detached or manically possessed.

One political host whose program is advertised as a discussion of politics and policy, ends up discussing Charlie Sheen - complete with funny sound effects - for more than fifteen minutes. This is normal. Each morning is a celebrity dish, with a few jabs at Republicans, followed by another gossip rag piece, followed by making fun of a politician's name. This sort of meandering social comedy doesn't even circle the wagons of discussion. It's meandering entertainment from personalities who are known for having beliefs, but who are in the business of entertainment. In an attempt to make entertainment out of discussion of the issues, the substance gets thrown out. The hosts I have heard rarely make attempts to articulate their views, which is helpful for new listeners. Instead I get the sense they are pandering to an existing fan base that they take for granted.

Another example is the host who promises to delve into the debate over gun control. He says that he has figured out this complex issue. He asks, won't you please stay tuned? After the break, we are subjected to a long rant against Hollywood liberals, with an emphasis on attacking the physical appearance of the celebrities being targeted. I don't once hear the words 'gun control.'

Another particularly respected liberal icon on America Left falls flat every time I listen to him. His PR promises a dynamic exchange of ideas, and perhaps, an enlightened articulation and discussion. Instead, I happen upon a dull, snooze-inducing parade of unformed opinions and rants. Callers' views are not articulated or challenged and rarely shaped or commented on by the host. He instead steps in every twenty second to grunt 'uh huh,' affirming their views and not even pausing for an extended comment. What surprises me most is that the host is well known and respected activist. He's organized marches, drafted legislation and papers clearly proving his worth as a thinker and crafter of ideas. But, for whatever reason, those ideas fall by the wayside on his program. It reminds me of college professors I had who let the one loud, opinionated person in the back of the room pontificate for lengths of time, dragging the lecture or discussion off course.

Callers rarely disagree with the host, and when they do, there is a deliberate attempt to avoid real discussion.  The hosts, rather than moderating discussion - descriptions of their programs claim that they moderate - act as surrogates for their angry listeners instead. The purpose of the sort of AM-style talk radio should be to inform and to challenge, but it will never be that way.

While he's not a radio personality and arguably always goes for the cheap laugh, I'm still a huge fan of Jon Stewart. He goes straight for the stupid joke, but from time to time he shows a commandment of the issues and a willingness to discuss the details that many other hosts lack. This is most apparent in his interviews, where he presses with intelligent, thoughtful questions without attacking or demurring too heavily. What I like most about Stewart is his belief that all punch lines must be earned, and a recognition that not everything is an inside joke for existing fans but every interview, every analysis must contain some degree of substance in order to be seen in the broader context for which it is meant.

NPR's 'Talk of the Nation' is another great call-in show. The subject are always varied, and there is always context being provided to listeners who may not be familiar with the subject(s) being discussed. This is yet another example of how you should do it. The moderator, Neal Conan, keeps the callers on point and always tries to steer the discussion in interesting directions.  Unfortunately, none of the hosts on AM or XM appear to understand this, and if there are any that do, I've completely missed their programs.

I'm of the mind that a political program needn't be dry or boring to be informative.  I applaud programming that goes for entertainment or a cheap laugh as long as its earned. I think everyone should be working to further their perspective on issues they think they understand well, but it takes a good program to expand the mind. NPR, for its analytical myopia, gets it right in terms of educating its listeners, but the landscape of AM style talk radio will likely remain a wasteland of unexamined beliefs and shallow, pandering programming. It's a shame about this, because our divisive political landscape could benefit from substantial discussion on all sides of the spectrum, anywhere we can get it.


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