July 16, 2002
By George H. Beres
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
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"
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
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
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."