Thursday, May 12, 2005

Radio Nation
From the time I was 11 years old, the only thing I ever seriously wanted to be was a radio guy. And for about 15 years, I was. Unfortunately, the industry I got into beginning in the late 70s was not the thing I'd fallen in love with a few years before. Although I had some fun, did some good work, and possessed a wee bit of talent, my radio career ended up a terrible disappointment to me. My last fulltime job ended on the first working day of 1994; my last part-time gig ended in the fall of 1997. So it's been over seven years since I did my last DJ show, yet I haven't missed it all that much.

Since 1994, the industry has been transformed into a giant slot machine for a few corporate ownership groups--they put in their money and even more comes out. For the industry giants, radio continues to be staggeringly profitable despite the fact that corporatization has led to homogenization, and not in a good way. In almost every city of any size at all, 90 percent of the radio stations are mostly unlistenable. I haven't even bothered to set all the buttons on my car radio, and I've owned it since 2001. Now, I listen to sports talk when I'm getting dressed in the morning, NPR occasionally, our local public radio station on weekend nights for jazz, and our local progressive talker now and then. But most of the time, it's CDs at home and tapes or CDs in the car, the Weather Channel for the forecast, and to hell with the rest of it.

The Nation
's latest issue deals with the state of American radio. First, Nicholas Von Hoffman writes about Air America's rocky start and the future of lefty radio. Von Hoffman observes that progressive radio has yet to find its Rush Limbaugh--a guy people know about even if they don't listen to him. Until it does, it will always be at a disadvantage.

One of my radio jobs required me to push buttons during the local broadcast of Limbaugh's show, so I heard him day in and day out for a year or so. I said then that Rush Limbaugh was the greatest radio personality to emerge since the golden days of Top 40 radio--his in-your-face egotism was straight out of the boss-jock playbook, and he was drop-dead funny in a way lots of radio people try to be and fail. Then Bill Clinton came to town. While Limbaugh's act had always been a little mean-spirited, it became far more so during the Clinton years. Today, he's almost entirely a propagandist. In the old days, I suspected he didn't really believe everything he said, and that the joke was on the dittoheads who did. Now I tend to think he really does believe it all--including the part about his talent being on loan from God.

The current progressive talk talent pool has no one in Limbaugh's league. Al Franken certainly isn't--the open secret about Franken's Air America show is that it's really quite dull a lot of the time. Randi Rhodes has the comedic chops, but her outsized Noo Yawk personality won't play in the heartland, and she lets her exasperation with the wingnuts drive her to shrillness. Fargo-based Ed Schultz, a Democracy Radio host carried on many Air America stations--but also on stations not exclusively lefty--is getting some big buzz, too. He sounds a little like Limbaugh, if you're not paying attention, but his show lacks the indefinable something that brings a listener (this one, anyhow) back every day.

Progressive talk's salvation is likely to come from the hosts Democracy Radio is placing in individual markets around the country, building an audience from the ground up. The money to build on and the audience for progressive talk seems to be there, but it will take a long time to build anything remotely capable of competing with the right-wing noise machine. Time, alas, we may not have before the right-wingers get done burning the country down.

Also in The Nation, Garrison Keillor provides a personal reflection on the lost art of real people saying real things on the radio. I'd like to think such a thing could become fashionable again, even if I don't share the opinion that Terry Gross and Ira Glass are exemplars of it. I don't believe we need any more of the narcissism that mars the concept behind This American Life, but I'd settle for radio that doesn't treat the audience like babies who need shiny things waved in their faces every two minutes to maintain their attention. That, and a couple more good jazz stations.

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