Guided By Voices

Driving under the influence of talk radio

click to enlarge Guided By Voices - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
Guided By Voices

I put a lot of miles on the Jeep over the last couple of weeks. South to Miami, back home for a weekend and then all the way up to the peeling family getaway compound on Alabama's easternmost Gulf Coast. It doesn't bother me a bit; outside the city, I like to drive.

There's no CD player in my truck. In fact, when I'm alone and driving, the truck is one of the very few places where I'm not inundated with music on a fairly ceaseless basis. I don't listen to the radio regularly for tunes, because most of it's crap, and I do some of my most coherent thinking on the road. The trip from St. Pete to Orange Beach, Ala., is not unlike a seven-hour morning bowel movement.

On my way down to Miami, however, I wanted a heads-up on the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests I was going to cover, so I turned on the radio and scanned both bands continuously while barreling down I-75. But once I left WMNF's broadcast range, I found no local news coverage, and very little national news besides the world-renowned voices of the right, until I picked up an NPR station just outside Dade County.

There used to be local news on the radio, right? I can remember it growing up, not just in metropolises like Washington D.C., but also in the vast spaces between, information leaking out from the nearest place populated enough to call itself a city. You just don't hear it much anymore, though, except perhaps for brief bytes at the top of the hour or when you run into a station that still runs ABC World News Tonight for an hour in the evening. You've got your provocative conservative barn burners, fundamentalist Christians and sports freaks of every stripe at the low end of the FM band and all the way across the AM frequencies, and precious little else.

Thanks, Clear Channel. Thanks, FCC.

I'd never paid much attention to Rush or Bill in the past, so as I kept running into their shows on various stations again and again (four hours? Seriously?), I started listening for longer and longer stretches. And on my marathon drive to Alabama a few days later, I again scanned the bands for local or national news on the airwaves. The results were about the same (save for college-affiliated stations in Gainesville and Tallahassee), and I again spent several quality hours with mssrs. Limbaugh and O'Reilly.

I had a blast. Other motorists probably did too, watching me laughing at and arguing vehemently with my dashboard. To hear such obviously intelligent men so artfully manipulate context, juxtaposing the patently reasonable with the madly hyperbolic, is truly a joy. Marvel as Limbaugh segues from railing against the new Medicare prescription legislation (and against the Democrats for pretending to dislike it just 'cause they didn't bring it up first) to explaining how pushing for tougher drug-crime punishment while romanticizing his own painkiller addiction doesn't make him a hypocrite! Thrill to O'Reilly's conviction that the ACLU is "the most dangerous organization in America," and his fears that a New York Times columnist and Mel Gibson's forthcoming film The Passion of The Christ might spark a theological Cold War between Christians and Jews!

As entertainment goes, it makes foxy boxing seem like a will reading.

As the dissemination of information goes, however, it's more than a bit disconcerting that these are, by and large, the only voices heard. O'Reilly likes to refer dismissively to the "mall zombies," comfortably implying that there are none among his listeners, that his audience is more enlightened than that. It's a clever touch, but the odds say a sizable portion of them know little more about the issues than what he and Limbaugh tell them while they're running errands, and form their views accordingly. These gentlemen carp endlessly about the "liberal media," conveniently ignoring the fact that plenty of American news outlets are owned by companies that benefit mightily from the current administration's practices, but it's indisputable that the right owns radio. (Don't even get me started on FM music-station DJs, their insistence on airing dangerously uninformed opinions, and the political acumen of their average listener — show me a jock who spouts anything other than the right's party line, and I'll show you the exception that proves the rule.)

I'm not saying Limbaugh, O'Reilly and their ilk are irresponsible. It's a free country, they've got their beliefs and benefactors, and, short of hate speech, they can say what they want. I find it informative and thought provoking almost as often as I find it amusing and/or irritating. I am saying, though, that there's a conspicuous dearth of perspective diversity to their medium.

A company called Progress Media, it would seem, is out to change that. Funded largely by Chicago venture capitalist/Democratic fundraiser Sheldon Drobny (whom Fox News went out of its way to portray as a nutjob in a late-October report) before he sold out to New York counterpart Evan Cohen, the concern aims to put "liberal radio" in as many major American markets as possible. Former AOL chairman Mark Walsh heads up the corporation, which, at last report, was this close to buying stations in New York, San Francisco, L.A., Boston and Philadelphia, and is wooing O'Reilly's favorite best-selling author, Al Franken, for a lefty talk show. Progress Media makes no bones about its chief aim — providing a counterpoint to radio's big conservative names.

OK, fine. But one can't help but wonder if the result will be less an avenue for disseminating a wider spectrum of information than more catcalls, dismissals, rhetoric and rebuttals, this time from the opposite end of the playground. And what to do with the other 16 hours of broadcast time? List all of the uses for hemp? Secular humanist rock blocks?

At the very least, the idea will put alternate viewpoints in the public's ear, a laudable endeavor. There is, however, the danger of putting only one alternate viewpoint out there, which might be better than none, but not much. And by publicly positioning the enterprise as liberal, such assumptions will naturally follow.

Which could be seriously debilitating if the goal is reaching the mall zombies, rather than preaching to the choir.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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