shock-jocks-rory-oconnor.jpgRory O’Connor is not a conspiracy theorist. He knows the world is complicated, and there can be unintended consequences – but he also knows that there can indeed be plots. Shock Jocks traces the history of contemporary Talk Radio, which is almost invariably conservative.

The opening up of the public airwaves and the FCC’s abandonment of public service requirements, removal of restrictions on concentrated ownership and the disappearance of requirements for balance may have been the result of neoliberal pandering to sheer commercial greed as the motivating force for public good. However, since, for obvious reasons wealthy people want to stay that way and get richer, they are naturally conservative.

It may be objected that financial conservatism is not necessarily the same as social conservatism, which is a common characteristic of the right-talkers – except, as Rory points out, O’Reilly. However, it is difficult to mobilise masses for the right of a few very rich people to get even richer. Thomas Frank addressed how this works in Congress, but recently sentenced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s sidekick Scanlon gave a perfect battleplan for such campaigns.

“We plan to use three forms of communications to mobilize and win these battles. … Our mission is to get specifically selected groups of individuals to the polls to speak out AGAINST something. To that end, your money is best spent finding them and communicating with them on using the modes to which they are most likely to respond. Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them. The wackos get their information form [sic] the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet, and telephone trees."

Talk radio is an integral part of this mechanism for rallying the troops, and it ties closely in an incestuous loop with the conservative bloggers in a protected fact-checker free environment.

As “Shock Jocks” was published, Jim Adkisson, a Tennessee aficionado of conservative talk shows, took their hosts’ invective all too literally and shot up a "liberal" Unitarian Universalist congregation, killing two and wounding six congregants watching a children’s musical. Caught up in a world of conservative talk radio, he reportedly expected to be able to carry on shooting unimpeded by the spineless, gay-loving pacifists, and was surprised when they tackled him and brought him down.

In keeping with a more reality-based liberal stereotype, the Rev. William Sinkford, national president of the Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations, provocatively turned the other cheek. "This crime was the action of one man who clearly must have lost the battle with his personal demons," he said. "When I was asked if the shooter would go to hell, I replied that he must have been living in his own private hell for years."

Limbaugh has "remade American politics", according to Karl Rove, or is a "big fat liar" as Al Franken has called him, but as Rory points out, he is a consummate performer, convincing and funny.

The distilled essence of redneck prejudice is bound to appeal to an audience. Hell, if Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930s were around now, he would have an audience. And for many of the same reasons. There are indeed many people out there suffering financially who feel their plight is ignored and want to hit out at clear and identifiable targets.

Adkisson and other angry listeners are more often than not the victims of precisely those unregulated concentrations of capital that put Limbaugh on the air, Chinese goods on the shelves of Wal-Mart and them on welfare. With Democratic leaders too wary to bite the hands that write the contribution cheques, but also too residually honest to invent scapegoats, no wonder an incisive populism can win listeners.

Rory hints at some of the problems. “Liberal” or fact-based radio is always going to suffer from the big disadvantages of empathy and nuance. Remember Bush told his speechwriters he did not want them sneaking nuance into his speeches. It was taken as a sign of his low intellect, but in fact, it was politically very astute. There is a streak of Manichaeanism in American life that wants things in black and white, good and evil, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers.

One explanation for the relative lack of popularity of “liberal” talk radio is that it is all too often dourly earnest and humourless, inhibited by a fear offending one or other hues of the rainbow coalition. Evil-minded, fact-free and malicious as Limbaugh is, he is a good performer with sense of humour that is wicked in senses ancient and modern.

I have been on O’Reilly’s show, and quite enjoyed it. Like all these hosts, he has a monstrous ego – but so do I and was quite happy to butt heads. I was told that Fox had an inquest after my first performance to find out who had booked a wild leftist on the show – and they decided it made good television – and O’Reilly was guaranteed the last word. As Rory points out, most of the so-called balanced shows like Hannity & Colmes, or indeed cross-fire, are as fixed as the World Wrestling matches.

The solution to audience figures and commercial success is no-holds barred genuine gladiatorial combat, with cut and thrust “liberals” who, after all, actually have the majority in their favor on issue after issue. There is no need to set up conservative straw dogs, the real ones are out there, just waiting to have the stuffing knocked out of them.

Rory’s book is essential reading for those of whose stomachs are not strong enough to listen round the clock to this stuff.

Ian Williams

Ian Williams