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August 5, 2008

Shock Jocks: A Liberal Look at Talk Radio


The surprising thing and probably the best thing about Rory O'Connor's new book, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio, is that the book is much more fair and analytical than its title suggests. The name, in addition to the subtitle America's Ten Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives, implies that the book is just one long screed against right-wing talk radio, possibly even calling for its curtailment or outright banishment.


Instead, the book, which O'Connor co-wrote with Aaron Cutler under the AlterNet Books imprint, provides a fair look at the top conservative talkers and actually seems to understand why people like and listen to them.


While undeniably coming from a left-wing perspective, Shock Jocks actually holds up quite well as an overview of the political talk radio industry and how it came to be. Too many on the left constantly rail against talk radio when it's clear that they have spent very little time actually listening to it, which O'Connor and Cutler clearly have.


Sure, there's quite a bit of the recitation of each talker's most controversial statements, the sort well-known to readers of Media Matters and other left-leaning watchdog sights. But the authors also get into other, fascinating aspects of the subject, such as the history of right-wing talk radio, why liberals have never been as good at the medium as conservatives and an excellent analysis of the Fairness Doctrine.


The authors' take on that last subject is probably the book's most valuable. Essentially, conservatives are attempting to scare up fear about liberal attempts to reinstate the 1970s-era FCC rule, which mandated equal time for all ideologies on the public airwaves. O'Connor and Cutler point out that there's very little political will to do so. Liberals likely couldn't pass such legislation even if they tried, and the radio landscape is so different now than 25 years ago that such a doctrine would likely be unenforceable. Even when the original doctrine was in place, the FCC never ruled on a single case involving political talk shows.


O'Connor and Cutler also show they know what they're talking about in their analysis of the hosts themselves. For instance, they're not afraid to admit that Rush Limbaugh is in fact an extraordinarily talented broadcaster, which remains the primary reason for his success over the years. They also point out the nuances of the different hosts for instance, as they point out, Sean Hannity's show comes closer to pure propaganda than, say, Bill O'Reilly's, while some hosts (Michael Savage, Mark Levin) yell regularly, and others rarely raise their voices.


What the book largely leaves out are what I feel are two of the key factors behind right-wing talk radio's success: One is the use of outrage as a primary organizing point playing on the fears, anxieties and anger of the audience in order to advocate certain policies. And yes, the audience for conservative entertainment, for the most part, loves to be outraged. True, the authors touch on this, especially in a chapter about how conservative radio opposition killed President Bush's 2007 immigration reform effort, but the book largely leaves this out.


In addition, O'Connor and Cutler fail to mention just how many liberals listen to right-wing talk radio. Some do it for the entertainment value, others because they want to hear what the other side is saying that day and others still because they enjoy arguing with the radio as they drive home from work. Michael Savage, as the authors assert and I agree, is a complete nut. But his show is so ridiculous and over-the-top that I've never not been entertained by it. I haven't seen figures on the subject, but I'd bet a healthy portion of talk radio's audience is those who agree with nothing that's said.


The book also argues that "hate speech" of the kind regularly heard on the radio actually leads to real-life violence. True, there have been a handful of incidents, but if such a causation were actually a widespread social problem, conservatives would likely be assaulting liberals on the streets of American cities every single day.


Despite these imperfections, Shock Jocks is a valuable and illuminating look at this uniquely American medium.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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