Mike Stark’s Tips For Calling Talk Radio
(By popular demand — Mike Stark has made a name for himself over at Kos for his successful calls into the heart of wingnuttia with the likes of Hannity and O’Reilly. As part of our Roots project, Mike has agreed to act as an advisor and to write about his tips for calling into local radio shows. You can find him documenting his adventures regularly at his blog Calling All Wingnuts and he will also be answering people’s questions in the comments section here.)
By guest poster Mike Stark
Before you call talk radio for the first time, it’s important to listen to the show. Get to know the host and identify their shtick. All of these folks have different ways of dealing with callers that challenge them, but there are some common MO’s… For instance, O’Reilly’s method is to keep you on a short leash and then bloviate – often distorting your initial statement… Hannity is more likely to engage you in debate, but he forces the debate onto his turf, i.e., “Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein in power?”
Unfortunately, none of those MO’s includes the host saying, “Hmm, you’ve got a point there. You know what, you’re right, George Bush is an incompetent and dangerous megalomaniac.”
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself, but the point is that you should study the terrain carefully before you join the battle.
Once you’ve decided that you know the host as well as you ever will, it’s time to take the plunge.
I divide the process of calling talk radio into three stages: talking point preparation, getting through, and the showdown.
Talking Point Preparation
First, be sure you know what you want to say and that you are prepared for any challenges. Unless you are confident in your ability to think quickly on your feet while speaking publicly to thousands of people, the easiest way to prepare is to develop one talking point to hammer over and over again. Rehearse it. Make it short and snappy (I’ll return to this crucial piece of advice later), and don’t stray from it – no matter how hard you are pushed.
The best way I’ve found to go about preparing talking points is to steal them wholesale from the blogs I read. I’m too busy and/or lazy to do original research on every issue I call about – instead, I read as much as I can about what other people are saying and then decide what I think. You don’t want to be caught espousing a weak point of view that the (invariably wingnut) host can assail. For me, there is nothing worse than knowing I’ve been out-argued, so I do everything I can to make sure I can defend what I’m calling about. That means A LOT of blog reading.
Almost as important as knowing what you want to say is anticipating what the host is likely to come back at you with. If you are a political junkie, you probably watch enough “debate” programs on CNN, MSNBC or Fox to have a general idea of common winger retorts. Other good sources are wingnut blogs and administration talking points.
Finally, you never know when the host will cut you off, so, like I said earlier, it’s important to make your statement short. Don’t go beyond five or six sentences. The purpose of the statement is to set the call up on terms that are favorable to you – so try not to be deliberately incendiary or controversial. Instead frame your argument in such a way as to make even the wingiest of the wingnuts sound unreasonable if they disagree with you.
So let’s see what I can come up with regards to NSA wiretapping Americans…
First, I want to remember to keep things in a frame favorable to me. So this isn’t going to be about wiretapping the terrorists (although I’m sure that’s what the host will say). Instead, I want to make sure that I end up talking about tapping the phones of Americans… I also know from tracking the Patriot Act that the government has unprecedented powers to spy on my library reading habits, listen in on my conversations with my lawyers, and bug my home… And I also know that I grew up in a time that the “Evil Empire” was an itchy trigger-finger away from blowing us all to smithereens… I’m going to weave all of the aforementioned threads into my introductory statement. I’ll write it out – either in bullet points, or, as I prefer, completely:
You know, Paul, you’re about my age. We both grew up at a time when the prospect of all out nuclear war and the end of the world was a real fear… Today, we worry about terrorism – that some cave-dwellers might blow themselves up and take a few of us with him. In order to keep that from happening we’ve passed the Patriot Act which allows the government to spy on our library records, bug our homes and even listen in on our conversations with our lawyers… But that wasn’t good enough for the President… He’s decided he wants to illegally bug our telephone conversations also… Well, if we didn’t put up with that when we were fighting Soviet spies, why should we put up with it when we’re fighting goat herders?
When you call DO NOT read your statement verbatim. People can tell. Instead, make sure you have it readily accessible in your short term memory… remember, we’ve kept it short, so you shouldn’t have any problem remembering your talking points. However… I know from experience that when you call, you can get nervous. Sometimes the anxiety causes a really bad case of mental diarrhea – everything in your mind just evacuates… If it happens to you, don’t get discouraged – just try again the next day. If you are worried it might happen to you, use a fake name – nobody will ever know.
Now that we’ve formulated our opening shot, we want to anticipate what the host might come back with. Like I said, if you are paying attention to politics, you will probably have a pretty good idea…
In this case, the host is likely to argue one of three points:
1. That the program is legal
2. That in a post 9/11 world…
3. If terrorists attack and the president hadn’t authorized such actions, we’d be asking for his head
I’m not going to go through each of the three points and rebut them because you can find all the info you need for that on blogs or news shows… But I will say this:
1. Be prepared – don’t get caught stammering because the host hit you with a talking point that you hadn’t seen or heard before. Wingers are on strict message control – they are automatons. It really isn’t that hard to know how they will go about defending whatever issue it is you are calling about
2. Remember your initial statement. An ideally crafted opening salvo will have your response contained within it…
If you are calling local radio, you most likely won’t have any trouble getting through. A screener will come on, ask your name and where you are calling from (feel free to lie) and what you want to talk about. Keep it pretty simple – don’t go into your whole statement… In this case, I’d say, “The NSA spying program”. Usually, that will be sufficient and you’ll be put on hold for anywhere between 0 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of callers in front of you. Other times, the screener may ask what your take is. I’d say, “I disagree with Paul – I don’t see why the program is necessary today when it wasn’t necessary when we were facing nuclear annihilation.” That should clinch it for you.
On the other hand, if you are calling national shows, there are some additional tips I can share. First of all, call early in the hour. The talk shows usually begin at eight minutes into the hour, so begin hitting the lines at about six after the top of the hour. You will probably get a busy signal at first – the screener has all the lines off the hook. You never know when he’ll start taking calls, so keep hitting redial. Usually by 10 to 15 past, the lines open up. Sometimes, especially if there is a guest, it takes a little longer. Be persistent.
When you do finally get through, you are only half-way home. These screeners are more likely to test you – to make sure you aren’t too nervous to maintain coherence and to make sure you have a decent, relevant argument. Just stay calm and talk…
Still, there is no guarantee. Just this morning, I called Laura Ingraham to talk about the Fightin’ Dems and the fact that so many Iraq/Afghanistan vets are running as Dems. The screener told me it was a “Good point” and hung up on me. That’s OK… next time I’ll get mine by pretending to be a sycophant…
You’d think that when you call talk radio, you might end up in a discussion, right? Ha. No way, kimosabi (or as my Chinese wife once put it, “Kawasaki”), this isn’t Kansas. Instead, you’ll – if you’re lucky – get through your statement and then find yourself standing in the middle of Bizarro World. As much as you’ve crafted your statement to be agreeable as sunshine, your wingnut host will find a way to disagree.
Relax. It’s, as you already knew from listening, part and parcel for the medium. Just remember these do’s and don’ts:
. Do stick to your topic: don’t let them change the subject on you. Whether or not you hate George Bush has got nothing to do with the rule of law. So blow the question off by asking your own: “Are we a nation of laws?”
. Do restate your most powerful premise as often as you can – and use right-wing frames as often as possible. For example: “Paul, I’m surprised at you. I thought you wanted limited government – I can’t think of a more powerful government than one headed by a president who thinks he can flout any law he wants and listen in on my personal phone conversations. Reagan didn’t do it, why is it OK for Bush?”
. Be prepared to be:
. Hung up on or muted – (short & snappy is important)
. Being herded into arguing an entirely different matter – (always return to the purpose of your call – one of my favorite statements is, “Paul, I’m a guest on your show and you took my call so that we could talk about XXX… can we get back to that?”)
. Attacked personally – (don’t take it personally, but stand up for yourself)
. Filibustered – (not much you can do – they control your mic and your connection – short and snappy is important)
. Don’t lose your cool. Think of this as a debate – the minute you begin to sweat, the other guy has won. Keep your voice calm and be ready to chuckle at the more ridiculous things the host is about to say. I’ve heard that if you force a smile while you are on the phone, there is a perceivable change in the tone of your voice – for the better. Try it.
This might be hard at first – the host does this job several hours a day… you are just getting started… So it’s only natural for a certain amount of nervousness to leak into your voice at first. Don’t worry, you get used to the platform and in no time at all, you’ll be laughing at the wingnuts because you know you’re scoring points. It’s a confidence game.
There is one exception to this rule: if the host calls you a liar or otherwise insults you, it is OK – even desirable – to stand up for yourself. There’s nothing worse than a squishy liberal.
. Don’t ever give an inch – don’t go week-kneed in an attempt to curry favor. If you are the type of person that would do this, do not call.
When all is said and done, make sure you have fun. Remember, you are calling a wingnut that has everything except the truth on their side. They control your volume, how long you can talk for and even how long you remain connected. They invariably get the last word. It’s a platform on which you really cannot expect to win – but somehow, with the miracle of truth on your side, you can sometimes change minds.
(photo: Daniela Vasconcelo)