I was summoned to a meeting with Clear Channel Communications “talk radio guru”/consultant, Gabe Hobbs, after only a couple weeks on the job. Having just spent a chunk of the previous 15 years covering radio consultants, or more accurately, the inanity and chaos they left behind, I was prepared to sit across from a complete cartoon. (OK, not every radio consultant I had met or interviewed was a “complete” cartoon. But that’s a little like saying “some cigarettes are good for you”, to which you reply, “yeah, the ones you don’t smoke.”)
In their wisdom the local Clear Channel group had decided that “a WCCO for the 21st century” was the way to go for the FM talk experiment they were starting up. By this they meant, I think, (I guessed), something just a bit hipper than Roger Strom’s farm reports and 37 minutes of commercials, teases, promos and traffic reports per hour. (And I LIKED Strom’s farm reports … at least then I knew I wasn’t in AnyMetro, USA.) My partner, Sarah Janecek (of Politics in Minnesota), and I were told that the new station, KTLK, wanted to prove that a lefty and a righty could co-exist with civility and humor. (I mean two scorpions in a bottle is pretty funny, right?)
So there we were meeting with Hobbs, just in from Florida on a brutally cold, grey, miserable January day. I struggled to ignore his orange hair and tamp down the siren in my brain shrieking, “CARTOON!”
After saying that he wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of dogs and cats playing together, Hobbs conceded he was intrigued by the righty-gal vs. the lefty-guy dynamic. And then he got to the nut of modern (conservative) talk radio.
(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but I swear the essentials are accurate.) “Try to keep in mind,” said Hobbs, “that the average listener for a show like yours is a 42 year-old guy who doesn’t follow the news all that close but is listening because he doesn’t want to be left out of the discussion. What he wants from you is something he can bring to conversations at work and at home. Something that makes it appear he’s in touch with what’s going on. You’re not here to educate him so much as you are to give him a few ideas he can throw out to feel like he’s part of the conversation.” Since this image so thoroughly gelled with the image I’d had for years of the Limbaugh Dittoheads and the rest, my Austin Powers-like obsession (“mole-y. mole-y, mole-y, mole-y”) with Hobbs’ tan, sports sweater and terra cotta-tinted hairdo subsided.
A radio audience of middle-aged guys who, for whatever the reason — distraction, indifference, laziness and/or stupidity — haven’t done their own homework on the big events of the day but want to pretend they have among their workmates, pals and spouses, by staying up to date with the bumper sticker slogan du jour. Hmmm, and I guessed “Make Love Not War” wasn’t exactly what these guys wanted to repeat down at the office, across forklifts in the warehouse, or over dinner, to impress the wife and kids with how tough it is out in there in a real man’s world. Beyond Hobbs’ carefully parsed point, is this: The “pretense” of thoughtful consideration, at least in terms of a commercially successful narrative delivered via mass media, requires much … much … heavier doses of simplicity and indignant finger-pointing than scholarly nuance.
The show that followed was, by any objective assessment, a disaster. Rabid scorpions were more civil … and a lot funnier. (A classic moment: The Tom Tancredo “illegal immigrant” hysteria was raging on every other radio show. But our producer had put together a funny montage of sound bites and told me, “After the open, get to this as fast as possible.” For some reason Sarah hadn’t got the heads-up on that one. She wanted to brawl out of the gate. So as I’m yabbering about a weird piece of nonsense I heard, trying to set up the bit, she’s coming at me with both barrels. “The Democrats … ” were playing politics with immigration!!! Yadda yadda. Loud and furious. A minute into the show. There’s no hope of getting to the taped bit. But the first scheduled break is still six or seven minutes off. Which means our producer is not expecting me to say, “OK, we’ll be right back … ” when I do. Which also means he’s slow to cut my mike as I, thinking we’ve gone to commercial, turn to Sarah and shout, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Apparently the commercial largely obscured the bad word, although not enough to prevent a head from popping open the studio door and asking, “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?” )
Sarah and I have remained friends, but within a month of launching the show, Clear Channel ordered a “hard right turn” — playing to where the audience already was (screw that experimenting with a “21st century ‘CCO” crap) — and the negotiating to bring Jason Lewis back to town ramped up in earnest.
This is all a lot of set-up for a couple thoughts on the little-lamented demise of Air America, the “liberal alternative” to the monolithic presence of conservative-radio. There are roughly 12,500 radio stations in the U.S., 22% fall under “news/talk” and “religious”. The former describes a few, like WCCO, and WBBM in Chicago, but mostly its conservative talk, and the vast majority of the “religious” are conservative-driven. Moreover, a significant of those conservative stations are full-power licenses, broadcasting across the entirety of all of the biggest metro areas in the country. By … stark … contrast, from its inception in 2004 Air America was confined to much lower-power AM stations that only barely blanketed the entirety of the few metro markets they could buy in to.
But the bigger problem — by far — is the mindset of your average liberal, who, in my unscientific survey is a somewhat different animal than Gabe Hobbs’ mythical under-informed 42 year-old male. For one thing, if the gender breakout of national delegates is any indication, the average liberal is more likely to be a woman than a man. But, in my experience, there’s also the very familiar liberal quality of believing you already are the smartest guy/gal in the room, which means you hardly need some cartoonish radio bloviator spoon-feeding you your “fact of the day”. More likely — if you’re a liberal in the media — the liberal audience with whom you think you are simpatico will rear up and quarrel with every interpretation of statistics, trends and historical reference you dare make. They know better and if just given the chance could do better.
Where conservative media audiences display a startling affinity for what I’ve called “The Big Daddy Guru Complex”, pompous-to-preposterous all-knowing father figures, liberals, more often than not, maintain the attitude that “big daddy” is a bit of a ponce, and needs to be brought down a peg.
The relevancy here is the current context of Obama/liberals trying to restart … oh hell, invent … a narrative as compelling and digestible and easily transferable as the one the conservative opposition has going.
To illuminate the problem, three dead-on quotes from the past week:
From Joe Klein at TIME:
“Absolutely amazing poll results from CNN today about the $787 stimulus package: nearly three out of four Americans think the money has been wasted. On second thought, they may be right: it’s been wasted on them. Indeed, the largest single item in the package–$288 billion–is tax relief for 95% of the American public. This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you’ve been finding in your paycheck since last spring. Not a life changing amount, but helpful in paying the bills.
“The next highest amount was $275 billion in grants and loans to states. This is why your child’s teacher wasn’t laid off…and why the fire station has remained open, and why you’re not paying even higher state and local taxes to close the local budget hole.
“It turns out that what people are really upset about is all that wasteful money that has gone to political public works projects…except that the overwhelming portion of that money hasn’t been spent yet. Remember all those “shovel-ready” projects? Well, they didn’t exist. The big jobs-creating projects like the rebuilt “smart” electric grid, major highways and fast trains will come on line during the next year.
“So, two thoughts:
“1. The Obama Administration has done a terrible job explaining the stimulus package to the American people…especially since there have been very few documented cases of waste so far.
“2. This is yet further evidence that Americans are flagrantly ill-informed…and, for those watching Fox News, misinformed.
“It is very difficult to have a democracy without citizens. It is impossible to be a citizen if you don’t make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government. It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.”
And E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post:
“The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.
“Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the very conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics than it ought to be.”
And Drew Westen via The Huffington Post:
“We have competing ideas in a democracy — and hence competing parties — for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.
“What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone — particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to “brand” what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover’s Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you’re going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?
“The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn’t create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what’s happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.”
The takeaway is this: The Conservative narrative dominates this country because it is simple, asks (and requires) nothing of its audience other than that they accept it and express a kind of rote indignation … at others. It is as relentless as all good advertising in asserting a course of action through incessant repetition, (destroy all liberals.) And it is wholly unapologetic about any fallacies it has propagated or mistakes it has made.
Given the lack of 2000-plus radio stations to amplify a counter-narrative, as well as liberal resistance to paternalistic “guru-ism”, Obama and the few bona fide liberals in D.C. are at a profound disadvantage when it comes to a very real battle of relentless accusation and sloganized consensus-building , which, sadly, is what works quite effectively on largely apolitical 42 year-olds who just want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.
Bottom line: The burden to deliver such a message of constant attack — utterly justified in the case of how this economic disaster started — falls to a guy, Obama, who finds shamelessly demagogic rhetoric and divisive-ness-baiting beneath him and his idealistic standards of statesmanship.
Obama has to get over his “statesman”-like idealism and find his inner Huey Long. The rabble like to be roused.