David Foster Wallace: Deep into the mercenary world of take-no-prisoners political talk radio

From 2004 on John Ziegler:

* His eyes, which off-air are usually flat and unhappy, are alight now with passionate conviction.

* It’s near the end of his “churn,” which is the industry term for a host’s opening monologue, whose purpose is both to introduce a show’s nightly topics and to get listeners emotionally stimulated enough that they’re drawn into the program and don’t switch away. More than any other mass medium, radio enjoys a captive audience — if only because so many of the listeners are driving — but in a major market there are dozens of AM stations to listen to, plus of course FM and satellite radio, and even a very seductive and successful station rarely gets more than a 5 or 6 percent audience share.

* One reason why callers’ voices sound so much less rich and authoritative than hosts’ voices on talk radio is that it is harder to keep telephone voices from peaking. Another reason is mike processing, which evens and fills out the host’s voice, removing raspy or metallic tones, and occurs automatically in Airmix. There’s no such processing for callers’ voices.

* As is SOP in political talk radio, the emotions most readily accessed are anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of apocalyptic glee, all of which the Nick Berg thing’s got in spades. Mr. Ziegler, whose program is in only its fourth month at KFI, has been fortunate in that 2004 has already been chock-full of Monsters — Saddam’s capture, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Scott Peterson murder trial, the Greg Haidl gang-rape trial, and preliminary hearings in the rape trial of Kobe Bryant. But tonight is the most angry, indignant, disgusted, and impassioned that Mr. Z.’s gotten on-air so far, and the consensus in Airmix is that it’s resulting in some absolutely first-rate talk radio.

* Be advised that the intro’s stilted, term-paperish language, which looks kind of awful in print, is a great deal more effective when the spiel is delivered out loud — the stiffness gives it a slight air of self-mockery that keeps you from being totally sure just how seriously John Ziegler takes what he’s saying. Meaning he gets to have it both ways. This half-pretend pretension, which is ingenious in all sorts of ways, was pioneered in talk radio by Rush Limbaugh, although with Limbaugh the semi-self-mockery is more tonal than syntactic.

* It is true that no one on either side of the studio’s thick window expresses or even alludes to any of these objections. But this is not because Mr. Z.’s support staff is stupid, or hateful, or even necessarily on board with sweeping jingoistic claims. It is because they understand the particular codes and imperatives of large-market talk radio. The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible. That is not to say that the host would not defend his “We’re better” — strenuously — or that he does not believe it’s true. It is to say that he has exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating. An obvious point, but it’s one that’s often overlooked by people who complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility in commercial talk radio.

* One of the more plausible comprehensive theories is that political talk radio is one of several important “galvanizing venues” for the US right. This theory’s upshot is that talk radio functions as a kind of electronic town hall meeting where passions can be inflamed and arguments honed under the loquacious tutelage of the hosts. What’s compelling about this sort of explanation is not just its eschewal of simplistic paranoia about disinformation/agitprop (comparisons of Limbaugh and Hannity to Hitler and Goebbels are dumb, unhelpful, and easy for conservatives to make fun of), but the fact that it helps explain what is a deeper, much more vexing mystery for nonconservatives. This mystery is why the right is now where the real energy is in US political life, why the conservative message seems so much more straightforward and stimulating, why they’re all having so much more goddamn fun than the left of the Times and The Nation and NPR and the DNC. It seems reasonable to say that political talk radio is part of either a fortuitous set of circumstances or a wildly successful strategy for bringing a large group of like-minded citizens together, uniting them in a coherent set of simple ideas, energizing them, and inciting them to political action. That the US left enjoyed this sort of energized coalescence in the 1960s and ’70s but has (why not admit the truth?) nothing like it now is what lends many of the left’s complaints about talk radio a bitter, whiny edge …which edge the right has even more fun laughing at, and which the theory can also account for

* Why is conservatism so hot right now? What accounts for its populist draw? It can’t just be 9/11; it predates 9/11. But since just when has the right been so energized? Has there really been some reactionary Silent Majority out there for decades, frustrated but atomized, waiting for an inciting spark? If so, was Ronald Reagan that spark? But there wasn’t this kind of right-wing populist verve to the Reagan eighties. Did it start with Gingrich’s rise to Speaker, or with the intoxicating hatred of all things Clinton? Or has the country as a whole just somehow moved so far right that hard-core conservatism now feeds, stormlike, on the hot vortical energy of the mainstream? Or is it the opposite — that the US has moved so far and so fast toward cultural permissiveness that we’ve reached a kind of apsidal point? It might be instructive to try seeing things from the perspective of, say, a God-fearing hard-working rural-Midwestern military vet. It’s not that hard. Imagine gazing through his eyes at the world of MTV and the content of video games, at the gross sexualization of children’s fashions, at Janet Jackson flashing her aureole on what’s supposed to be a holy day. Imagine you’re him having to explain to your youngest what oral sex is and what it’s got to do with a US president. Ads for penis enlargers and Hot Wet Sluts are popping up out of nowhere on your family’s computer. Your kids’ school is teaching them WWII and Vietnam in terms of Japanese internment and the horrors of My Lai. Homosexuals are demanding holy matrimony; your doctor’s moving away because he can’t afford the lawsuit insurance; illegal aliens want driver’s licenses; Hollywood elites are bashing America and making millions from it; the president’s ridiculed for reading his Bible; priests are diddling kids left and right. Shit, the country’s been directly attacked, and people aren’t supporting our commander in chief.

* Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names. To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want — with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential — a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying — which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking. ) Plus ideally what you’re saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself — your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you’re discussing. And it gets trickier: You’re trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you’re communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech’s ticcy unconscious “umm”s or “you know”s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say. You’re also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English — the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: It can’t be too slow, since that’s low-energy and dull, but it can’t be too rushed or it’ll sound like babbling. And so you have somehow to keep all these different imperatives and strictures in mind at the same time, while also filling exactly, say, eleven minutes, with no dead air…

* It is, of course, much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation, and outrage in people than it is to induce joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et al. are more primal, universal, and easy to stimulate (as implied by expressions like “He really pushed my buttons”).

* “Why is talk radio so overwhelmingly right-wing? [It’s] because those on the left are prone to be inclusive, tolerant and reflective, qualities that make for a boring radio show.”

* But there is also the issue of persona, meaning the on-air personality that a host adopts in order to heighten the sense of a real person behind the mike. It is, after all, unlikely that Rush Limbaugh always feels as jaunty and confident as he seems on the air, or that Howard Stern really is deeply fascinated by porn starlets every waking minute of the day. But it’s not the same as outright acting. A host’s persona, for the most part, is probably more like the way we are all slightly different with some people than we are with others.

* National talk radio hosts like Limbaugh, Prager, Hendrie, Gallagher, et al. tend to have rich baritone radio voices that rarely peak, whereas today’s KFI has opted for a local-host sound that’s more like a slightly adenoidal second tenor. The voices of Kobylt, Bill Handel, Ken Chiampou, weekend host Wayne Resnick, and John Ziegler all share not only this tenor pitch but also a certain quality that is hard to describe except as sounding stressed, aggrieved, Type A: the Little Guy Who’s Had It Up To Here. Kobylt’s voice in particular has a snarling, dyspeptic, fed-up quality — a perfect aural analogue to the way drivers’ faces look in jammed traffic — whereas Mr. Ziegler’s tends to rise and fall more, often hitting extreme upper registers of outraged disbelief. Off-air, Mr. Z.’s speaking voice is nearly an octave lower than it sounds on his program, which is mysterious, since ’Mondo denies doing anything special to the on-air voice except maybe setting the default volume on the board’s channel 7 a bit low because “John sort of likes to yell a lot.” And Mr. Ziegler bristles at the suggestion that he, Kobylt, or Handel has anything like a high voice on the air: “It’s just that we’re passionate. Rush doesn’t get all that passionate. You try being passionate and having a low voice.”

* Kobylt and his sidekick Ken Chiampou have a hugely popular show based around finding stories and causes that will make white, middle-class Californians feel angry and disgusted, then hammering away at these stories/causes day after day. Their personas are what the LA Times calls “brash” and Chiampou him self calls “rabid dogs,” which latter KFI has developed into the promo line “The Junkyard Dogs of Talk Radio.” What John & Ken really are is professional oiks… The point being that Mr. John Kobylt broadcasts in an almost perpetual state of affronted rage; and, as more than one KFI staffer has ventured to observe off the record, it’s improbable that any middle aged man could really go around this upset all the time and not drop dead. It’s a persona, in other words, not exactly fabricated but certainly exaggerated . . . and of course it’s also demagoguery of the most classic and unabashed sort.

* It should be conceded that there is at least one real and refreshing journalistic advantage that bloggers, fringe-cable newsmen, and most talk radio hosts have over the mainstream media: They are neither the friends nor the peers of the public officials they cover.

* Robin Bertolucci wants the program to be mainly info-driven (according to KFI’s particular definition of info), but she wants the information heavily editorialized and infused with ’tude and in-your-face energy. Mr. Ziegler interprets this as the PD’s endorsing his talking a lot about himself, which Emiliano Limon views as an antiquated, small-market approach that is not going to interest people in Los Angeles, who tend to get more than their share of colorful personality and idiosyncratic opinion just in the course of their normal day. If Emiliano is right, then Mr. Z. may simply be too old-school and self-involved for KFI, or at least not yet aware of how different the appetites of a New York or LA market are from those of a Louisville or Raleigh.

* One of many intriguing things about Mr. Ziegler, though, is the contrast between his cynicism about backstabbing and the naked, seemingly self-destructive candor with which he’ll discuss his life and career. The best guess re Mr. Z.’s brutal on-record frankness is that either (a) the host’s onand off-air personas really are identical, or (b) he regards speaking to a magazine correspondent as just one more part of his job, which is to express himself in a maximally stimulating way (there was a tape recorder out, after all).

* His sense of grievance and loss seems genuine. But one should also keep in mind how vital, for political talk hosts in general, is this sense of embattled persecution — by the leftist mainstream press, by slick Democratic operatives, by liberal lunatics and identity politics and PC and rampant cynical pandering. All of which provides the constant conflict required for good narrative and stimulating radio. Not, in John Ziegler’s case, that any of his anger and self-pity is contrived — but they can be totally real and still function as parts of the skill set he brings to his job… A corollary possibility: The reason why the world as interpreted by many hosts is one of such thoroughgoing selfishness and cynicism and fear is that these are qualities of the talk radio industry they are part of, and they (like professionals everywhere) tend to see their industry as a reflection of the real world.

* Mr. Z. is consistently cruel, both on and off the air, in his remarks about women. He seems unaware of it. There’s no clear way to explain why, but one senses that his mother’s death hurt him very deeply.

* Ideology aside, this may be the most striking thing about talk radio personalities: They are the most media-saturated Americans of all. The prep these hosts do for every show consists largely of sitting there absorbing huge quantities of mass-media news and analysis and opinion… then of using the Internet to access still more media. Some of the results of this are less ironic than surreal. John Ziegler, for instance, is so steeped in news coverage of the Peterson trial that he appears to forget that the news is inevitably partial and skewed, that there might be crucial elements of the case that are not available for public consumption. He forgets that you simply can’t believe everything you see and hear and read in the press. Given the axioms of conservative talk radio and Mr. Z.’s own acuity as a media critic, this seems like a very strange thing to forget.

* Mr. Z. has an observable preference for female callers. Emiliano’s explanation: “Since political talk radio is so white male–driven, it’s good to get female voices in there.” It turns out that this is an industry convention — the roughly 50-50 gender mix of callers one hears on most talk radio is because screeners admit a much higher percentage of female callers to the system.

* The standard of professionalism in talk radio is one hour of prep for each hour on the air. But Mr. Ziegler, whose specialty in media criticism entails extra-massive daily consumption of Internet and cable news, professes to be “pretty much always prepping,” at least during the times he’s not asleep (3:00–10:00 am) or playing golf (which since he’s moved to LA he does just about every day, quite possibly by himself — all he’ll say about it is “I have no life here”).

* Nobody ever ribs Mr. Z. about the manual golf ball thing vis-à-vis, say, Captain Queeg’s famous ball bearings. It is not that he wouldn’t get the allusion; Mr. Z. is just not the sort of person one kids around with this way. After one mid-May appearance on Scarborough Country re some San Diego schoolteachers getting suspended for showing the Nick Berg decapitation video in class, a certain unnamed person tried joshing around with him, in an offhand and lighthearted way, about a supposed very small facial tic that had kept appearing unbeknownst to John Ziegler whenever he’d used the phrase “wussification of America” on-camera; and Mr. Z. was, let’s just say, unamused, and gave the person a look that chilled him to the marrow.

* He keeps saying he cannot believe they’re even giving Simpson airtime. No one points out that his shock seems a bit naive given the business realities of network TV news, realities about which John Ziegler is normally very savvy and cynical.

* “And to top it off,” Mr. Z. is telling [the intern] Kyra as her smile becomes brittle and she starts trying to edge away…

* Plus of course there’s the creepy question of why O.J. Simpson is doing a murder-anniversary TV interview at all. What does he possibly stand to gain from sitting there on-camera and letting tens of millions of people search his big face for guilt or remorse? Why subject himself to America’s ghoulish fascination? And make no mistake — it is fascinating. The interview and face are riveting television entertainment. It’s almost impossible to look away, or not to feel that special kind of guilty excitement in the worst, most greedy and indecent parts of yourself. You can really feel it: This is why drivers slow down to gape at accidents, why reporters put mikes in the faces of bereaved relatives, why the Haidl gang-rape trial is a hit single that merits heavy play, why the cruelest forms of reality TV and tabloid news and talk radio generate such numbers. But that doesn’t mean the fascination is good, or even feels good. Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed? If it’s true that there are, and that we sometimes choose what we wish we wouldn’t, then there is a very serious unanswered question at the heart of KFI’s sweeper: “More Stimulating” of what?

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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