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Rabid Radio
July 16, 2002
By George H. Beres

Radio, Illinois style, was my constant companion during a mid-June visit I made to my native state. I'd flown to Madison, Wis., to see a new granddaughter, then headed southward for a 700-mile roundtrip drive into Illinois in a rental car. It gave me a chance to monitor a wide range of radio stations in a variety of markets.

I found the sound I had hoped to not hear. It was unavoidable. What dominated the AM airwaves was the cacophony of a variety of talk show hosts who went into attack gear to sometimes motivate, sometimes berate, their listeners. Their voices were familiar because I'd heard them before in Portland and Eugene, spouting rightwing extremist views that sometimes border on the violent. They are syndicated yellers planted by ideologues who have discovered saturation of radio signals nationwide is an effective way to brainwash a people.

The format -- negative, but sometimes exciting because of its extremism -- got rolling in the '90s during the Clinton administration, when the president's policies and personal life became a redundant subject of talk show tirades. Conservatives with big bankrolls began building what has become a monopoly of talk radio. Its first voice to gain nationwide attention was that of Rush Limbaugh. Since then, uncreative clones have sprung up to push their extremist views -- carbon copies of each other -- coast-to-coast. Former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, called the 1994 Congressional elections the first "talk show" campaign.

Some listeners tune in regularly because their anti-government, conservative viewpoints match the views of the program host. Others listen because the high-powered, virulent commentaries add spice to otherwise boring daily lives. Listening can be dangerous. Tuning in daily can become a habit. Constant exposure -- while working at home, in farm fields or in a car or a truck cab on the road -- can make one addicted to philosophies couched in overt patriotism, but grounded in bigotry.

In April, I encountered one of the stars of rabid radio based in Portland. Lars Larson's producer called to ask if I would be interviewed about the selection by my Wayne Morse committee of Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) as Integrity in Government Award winner for 2002. In early afternoon, I was introduced on KXL as a guest of the Larson show. After early amenities, the courteous host became a stalking tiger:

"How could you bleeding heart louses in Eugene stoop so low as to give your integrity award to a traitor to the United States?!" He continued in that vein a couple minutes. When he paused, I interrupted with a question of my own. He went ballistic, perhaps unaccustomed to anyone having the temerity to ask something of him.

"You louse!" he shouted. "That's the end of this conversation," and he hung up on his guest.

I went from phone to the radio to tune in the local station that carries Larson. I heard him tell a caller: "Did you hear what that louse did? Well, we can get back at him. I'm going to give you listeners his home phone number, and you can tie up his line the rest of the day."

That Larson experience verifies how radio's AM signal has deteriorated to a bottom level that would not have been possible if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had not quit on its responsibilities to the public. It was created to protect the public interest when commercial radio took shape in the 1930s. Unlike printing, radio stations (and TV, later) use frequencies that belong to the public. As the FCC assigned those valuable spots on the radio dial, it also monitored broadcasters to assure a fair hearing for opposing political views, and to guarantee a measure of programming "in the public interest."

During my years in radio (1960s), I worked for a station in Chicago. One of my assignments was to go to annual FCC hearings and report -- as did all other stations -- on how my station fulfilled the FCC mandate for operating in the public interest. If those hearings continue today, they are meaningless, as the mandate fell apart soon after the Reagan administration of the 1980s began its crusade of business deregulation.

Nowhere was this invitation for corporate exploitation of the public more evident than in radio and its expanding big brother, TV. It made a joke of the fairness doctrine. In the process, protections against monopoly ownership of the mass media were dismantled. Administrations looked away as individual stations (and newspapers) were absorbed by monolithic mass media operations. Today, most broadcasters and newspapers are owned by fewer than a dozen of the super-rich.

I've heard from two former FCC commisioners who seem dumbfounded over the failure of their successors to maintain earlier standards of fairness and balance in broadcasting. One, Newton Minow, a Chicago lawyer today, coined the phrase, "vast wasteland," for the low standards of early TV programming.

The other, Nicholas Johnson, today on the University of Iowa law faculty, shares Minow's concerns about the deterioration of broadcasting fairness. Listeners have begun to react with anger in Oregon. The target is a San Francisco-based "shock jock," Michael Savage, whose hate-based broadcasts are heard in much of the nation. His monologues are filled with hate toward women, people of color, liberals and immigrants, especially those of the Muslim faith. A coalition of Portland civic and religious groups hopes to embarrass sponsors of the local network feed into leaving the program.

Here, too, money is the bottom line. Manager of the Portland outlet, KXL, owned by millionaire, Paul Allen, says listener support of Savage's savagery is 100 to 1 over critics. Maybe the problem goes deeper than a group of talk show sociopaths. If many listen to and support them, we may -- as in the people we elect -- get what we deserve.


George Beres, a Eugene writer, was a Chicago sportscaster in the 1960s. He later was Sports Information Director of the University of Oregon. He hosts a weekly public access TV program, "In the Public Interest."

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