Talk: A Novel

Michael A. Smerconish writes in his 2014 novel:

* “Fire, tits, and sharks are TV gold. But on radio you need to make ‘em hot the harder way. Through the ears.”

* 3 Cs: “ Conservative, consistent, and compelling,”

* “Remember Stan, you need red meat for the troops.”
That was another of his staples.
“And add an occasional slice-of-life segment. Sprinkle in some Seinfeld shit.”
For the latter, he was forever imploring me to look outside the normal mix of newspapers and cable TV shows for my program content. He believed that too many talk radio hosts didn’t balance the hard news of the day with whatever might command attention at workplace water coolers and coffee machines across the nation. Phil paused, maybe needing to catch his breath in the thin desert air of New Mexico. “If listeners aren’t using your stuff for stupid talk with people they barely know, then you didn’t nail it on air, Powers.”

* Phil told me that a good talk show host should be able to go the length of an entire program without taking a single call from a listener. He actually challenged me to do it on my next program. That tutorial was a keeper.
“But isn’t that the purpose of a talk radio program—for the host and the listeners to talk?” I’d naively asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Powers. The purpose of a talk program is the same as the guy talkin’ on a fucking CB—to get people to listen. It’s all entertainment.”
And then he said something I’ve never forgotten.
“Nobody is listening to your show, or any other talk radio show, because of the callers. They listen for the host. You will never meet a listener who tunes into your program because of your callers. They are listening to hear you, Stan. And if you don’t entertain them, they won’t listen at all. No matter who your callers are, or what horseshit they have to say.”
Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me, but he was right. Not once had anyone ever emailed my web site or spoken to me directly about something a caller said on the air. For better or worse, all the feedback was about me.

* “He said that you know how to play the hits and that is all talk will require of you. You’ll still be playing the hits, but instead of playing the usual songs, you’ll be offering the tried and tested sound bytes. Same formula, just different material.”

* The program is four hours long, with four six-minute breaks per hour for commercials, news and PSAs. During those commercial breaks I am usually obligated to read live spots, which leaves little time to even take a piss. So there is really no stopping once the “on air” light goes on, and by the time it turns off at 9 a.m., I’ve got very little to say.

* Phil. I often started the 5 a.m. hour with a soft story, sometimes pulled from the front page of the Wall Street Journal , below the fold with one of those pixilated photos. The Journal has a habit of printing terrific, slice-of-life kinda stuff in that spot, often having nothing to do with the world of finance. I remember one day they had a great piece analyzing the number of times college basketball players bounce the ball before they shoot foul shots in games in relation to successful attempts. (Four times seemed to bring the best success, 77 percent of them went in the hoop, as compared to say, 60 percent if you only dribbled once.) Or another day I pulled something from the New York Times about how only seven people in the company that owns Thomas’ English Muffins knew how the muffins got their distinctive air pockets, and how when one of the seven left for a competitor, his departure touched off a case of alleged corporate skullduggery. Phil thought these kinds of stories were a nice way to ease into the day before I got to the red meat.
After the soft stuff, I’d begin the process of running through the main headlines of the day, a combination of the local and national. For the entirety of the 6 a.m. hour, I would continue with the rundown of the news, offering some commentary with every headline.

Things changed at the stroke of 7 a.m., prime time for morning drive radio. Now I would take it up a notch and hit hard on the front-page items of the day. The lead political story commanded my attention and this was where I tried to pack a punch. In campaign season, it was always something political. National healthcare (bad), illegal immigration (worse), and the federal deficit (atrocious) had been my stock-in-trade for the last few years. I’d spell out an issue, cue Rod to run some sound bytes that corresponded to that news, then offer my take, and finally go to the phones.
“Ignore those blinking lines until they serve a purpose,” Phil would constantly drum in my ear. Still, it was hard not to be pleased by the instant feedback.
“Remember, those callers are your props. Nobody gives a fuck what that guy says except that guy. If his old lady cared, he’d be telling her not you. But she doesn’t give a shit. So you’re the only outlet he has. The only reason you let him on your air is that he gives you fodder to say more.”

Phil also timed my callers like they were running the 40 at an NFL combine. I swear he would sit on his ass in Taos with a stopwatch and shout whenever any caller was on the air for more than two minutes. No caller was ever worth two minutes of airtime according to him. At first I didn’t see any harm in letting someone ramble as long as I thought they were interesting.
“Isn’t it supposed to be a talk program?” I would sometimes counter.
“It is… and you are the one who is supposed to be talking.”
Over time, I saw his point.
“Callers are there to give you something to play off of, to give you material to say something and appear smart, or acerbic. And let me tell you something else—nobody wants to hear callers who say ‘Stan, you are so right about this.’ Booooring.”
In no time we were routinely flooded with callers regardless of the subject, and it took quite a skill set for Alex to juggle 12 ringing lines at once. Her job was to not only get some bare bones information about who was calling and why, but also to type that data on her computer, which in turn put it on a screen in front of me. At the same time she needed to ascertain whether the callers could put together sentences and were younger than Stonehenge. Nothing sucks more oxygen out of a program that an old-timer who dodders when you punch up his call.
Our focal point every morning was the 7:30 segment, during which I would often do interviews with hard news guests. Newsmakers, like elected officials, or nationally known politicians or pundits or authors of right-wing screeds would usually be heard then. Again, with a short call segment to follow.
“Welcome back to Morning Power , on the line, it is my privilege to be joined by former Governor Mike Huckabee. Huck, thanks for being here.”
“You’re welcome Stan, and good morning to all in the I-4 corridor….”
In the final hour, having already covered the hard news of the day, I tended to do more shits and giggles. You know, some pop culture, sound from American Idol , and the other water cooler stuff that gave the show balance.

* My listeners were concentrated in the I-4 corridor, the stretch between Tampa and Orlando, and they had been known to tip the scales in more than one presidential race. As the top-rated talk host in a mid-sized but hotly contested market, I could very well find myself at the political epicenter of the upcoming election. The stage was set for my career to really pop, and I didn’t want to blow my shot.

* our P1s—that’s radiospeak for our most ardent listeners—couldn’t get enough. They may comprise a relatively small segment of society, but there are no more faithful radio listeners than fans of conservative talk.

* “Talk radio is a clubhouse for conservatives,” Phil had explained. “It’s an intimate place where people on the right can go and be with likeminded folk while having their opinions reinforced. Without talk, they are homeless in the media.”

* Arizona passed a law to get tough on those crossing the border. Naturally that was big on my program.
“Our Mexican border is wide open because the feds have been derelict in their duty,” I’d said.
So far, so good.
But Phil didn’t like what came out of my mouth next.
“Arizona had to act, but by drafting their law so broadly, I think they have left their police vulnerable to claims of unconstitutional traffic stops.”
When he heard that, he pounced.
“You’re not teaching law school, Powers. Stop confusing the audience with your nuanced bullshit. Praise Arizona; condemn the fucking feds. Like everything else, make it the failure of the federal government.”
When it came to colorful opinions, Phil had no interest in shades of gray. Just black and white.
“The audience will think you’re a pussy, Powers. And pussies don’t get nationally syndicated.”

* “Stan, let me repeat for you a lesson from ‘Talk Radio and Cable TV 101’,” Phil often told me. “There is no political middle. It doesn’t exist on radio. You will never get anywhere saying anything moderate or mushy. Either you offer a consistent conservative view, or you’re not getting traction.”
My idiotic response: “Well, isn’t democracy based on an exchange of ideas, not just one point of view?”
“Fuck democracy, Stan. You’re not a Founding Father, you’re a talk show host. This business is all about ratings, not governing. And here is the secret. Ratings are driven by passion, not population. They are not controlled by general acceptance.”
“Three extremists are worth more than ten moderates,” was yet another favorite Phil-ism on this point.

* Gore Vidal once said, “You should never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” Well, Vidal only told part of the story. GOP dirty trickster and Vidal acolyte, Roger Stone was the one who correctly explained that doing the latter would facilitate the former. The more you appeared on television, the more opportunity you had to get laid.

* “Stan, the goal here is national syndication. The only thing cable TV can do for you professionally is gain you recognition with PDs across the country, so that when they get a call from a syndicator who wants to know if they’ll clear your show, they don’t say, ‘Never heard of him.’ Remember, there are more than fifty guys who are syndicated in this country, but only about five who have made it work. When I cut your deal, I want you to be one of the five, not one of the fifty.”

* “How far do you think you’d get in this business today if you walked into a radio station and told the program director you were the Gentleman of Broadcasting? Nowhere.
“It all changed in the ’90s and I know why. Before the Internet, before Fox, before Drudge, you conservatives didn’t have a clubhouse. The media consisted of the New York Times, Washington Post and the big three networks, and each was run by a bunch of liberals. I get that. I don’t fault the logic. Or the need for an alternative.
“So you established a beachhead in talk radio. And when, in the midst of the first Gulf War, a guy in Sacramento named Rush Limbaugh offered what you were looking for, you ate it up and you wanted more. And radio stations across the nation took note and they wanted Rush and a stable of his imitators. And it worked. And do you know why it worked? Not because Rush was a political expert. Hell, he didn’t even vote. And not because he was an election soothsayer. It worked because the man is a gifted entertainer. His worst political critics have never given him the credit he deserves for his ability to keep an audience entertained for three hours a day working with no more than a daily newspaper!
“Then Fox did the same thing on TV.
“And together with the Internet, conservatives now had places to call home.
“Then the predictable happened. Liberals took note and decided they should do the same thing. They tried and failed on radio with Air America. There was never the need for a liberal clubhouse in radio because their audience always had NPR! On cable TV, they succeeded with MSNBC. It took them a while before they got it right, but Keith Olbermann was the first to emulate from the left what Limbaugh and Fox did from the right.”

* Gone are the days when a successful career in Washington was dependent upon longevity in office, and the corresponding seniority that brought prestigious assignments. Today, the quickest path to success is to say something incendiary, get picked up in the cable TV news or talk radio world, and then become a fundraising magnet. Because you know who loves that sort of entertainment? The ideologically driven voters who vote in primaries in hyper-partisan districts within closed-primary states!

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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