Talk radio destructive but not deadly


Bill Clinton's right when he says the country's got to learn some speaking manners, but he's wrong if he thinks the radio talk show people prompted the bombing in Oklahoma City. Those shows are too stupid and boring to cause anyone to take up violence, except maybe to slam their radios into a wall. And I say this with great admiration.

Every day, the ones not only like the sellout Limbaugh, but the local guys like Ron Smith and Tom Marr and Les Kinsolving, go on the air and pretend to be experts on the state of the world. How they pull this off five days a week, without the entire populace crying fraud, is a tribute either to their cunning or to the listening public's gullibility.

In its earliest and purest form, talk radio was intended to be the sound of a community talking to itself, engaging in hearty dialogue instead of a duel. It was never intended to be some poseur sitting there for three hours a day, faking knowledge of all issues spontaneously tossed his way.

Listeners to the early years of Baltimore two-way radio talk may remember a fellow named John Sterling. He got a call one night in the late '60s from a listener who asked, "Do you know the history of China?"

"Somebody told it to me once," Sterling said, "but I forgot it."

To this day, nobody's certain if Sterling was dim enough to have made the remark straight-faced, or was sarcastically declaring, "You idiot, what do you think I am, an encyclopedia?"

But his caller was inadvertently sending a signal; he thought of people on the radio as authority figures, voices of great wisdom, instead of merely citizens who were there to moderate a discussion and lend an occasional opinion mainly as a way of assisting the dialogue.

Naturally, the executives who run radio stations being the brilliant souls that they are, it only took them about 20 years, during the long death rattle of AM radio, to realize the weapon at their disposal: Their announcers had this great stature, which came from the mere fact of sitting behind a microphone. They could profit from this weapon. And, most wondrous of all, they could draw increasing numbers of listeners by being increasingly outrageous and shrill and antagonistic.

In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, we now have payback time. Around here, some regular listeners of those such as Ron Smith and Tom Marr are calling to gently console them after President Clinton's veiled references to hate-filled public talk. (Gosh, yes, console these poor fellows. They say the vilest, crudest things about Clinton and his wife five days a week, but heaven forbid the president taking one generalized swipe back.)

But, here and there, as you punch your way across the dial, you can also hear the small, previously intimidated voice of middle-of-the-road people getting through, and casting blame on the talk show guys for the climate of public hate that's been created, for the constant support of guns, for the quick, instinctive blaming of foreigners with dark skin for the Oklahoma bombing.

Such calls are healthy -- not just because these guys are finally being shamed for the hate they stir up each day; and not just because, since they dish it out every day, they should also take it; but also, it's healthy because it's nice to hear a differing opinion on their shows once in a while.

That's the real problem with extremists of any sort. They tend to keep drawing the same voices, nodding their approval, gaining courage from hearing each other's amens, working each other into a frenzy, and having their frenzy take on a life of its own, but never breaking any new intellectual ground because they're shouting out any dissent.

Limbaugh, of course, long since sold his soul to the Republican Party. But the others, seeing the success he's had by being outlandish, are simply Limbaugh clones. There's no problem, for example, with Ron Smith being conservative. He's entitled. The problem is the change Limbaugh's success has caused in him: once a polite, reasonable fellow on the air, Smith's now mainly a guy reaching for buzz words -- can he get through a single crisis without reaching for a snarling reference to "liberals?" -- and sounding like a shill for the gun dealers.

As for poor Marr, he's always had the tendency to implode when confronted. He'll out-shout those who disagree, or simply cut them off. Les Kinsolving -- Les has been imagining conspiracies everywhere for years, so if there are people who still take him seriously, a pity on them all.

There's no problem with people airing opinions in public. Yes, yes, I do it myself, here and on television. Where's the difference? On TV, I don't do three hours a day on multiple issues from around the world; I do 90 seconds on a single local issue. In the newspaper, I write columns about which I've done actual reporting. Where's the reporting for this column? Listening to the bile these people have delivered over the airwaves day after day, and feeling frightened at the atmosphere being created. Did they cause the bombing in Oklahoma City? Nah. But they aim to antagonize and divide us, and that's destructive to the life of any community.

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