A Political Scientist Rides the Talk Radio Circuit

Political scientist James G. Gimpel writes in 1996:

* Old geezers sitting around in barber shops listening to cattle market and farm commodity reports, grousing about community problems, and bragging about their latest hunting and fishing expeditions. That’s my talk radio producers began requesting interviews, my first thought was, “these folks don’t buy books, least of all books about Congress! They probably can’t even read.”

Maybe talk radio listeners don’t read-and I do have sincere doubts about whether the radio interviews I have done sold many books-but the requests for talk show interviews started flowing only a week after publication…

* But the key reason, I suspect, for the interest of the talk show hoards is that beleaguered hosts are desperate to fill air time. Imagine trying to fill 365 days a year, 12-24 hours a day, with talk. This is a tall order…

* Politics has great entertainment value and it only takes a few shows to learn that radio hosts are not serious journalists. They are entertainers. They often use ideological extremism on the left or right to provoke their audience. Left-wingers pushed me to give-in and admit that the Republicans were cruel and “out to starve” some people. Other hosts would have felt victorious had I admitted that the Republican revolution was dead. Since political ideology is an instrument of entertainment, guests that make controversial points are especially attractive. Many hosts were inevitably disappointed when I provided a straightforward political science-ish assessment of the Contract with America and its prospects for passage. On several stations, the hosts deliberately tried to pick a fight with me, no doubt to hold their audience with concocted controversies. When confronted by an argumentative host, one has two choices: either play along and argue or con- cede the host’s points. Usually, when I argued, I lost. Talk radio hosts are not hired because they can easily be defeated in an argument. Hosts de- light in pushing their guests to stray from the facts to editorialize and speculate. This contributes to talk radio’s tabloid quality: the wilder the speculation, the better. After awhile, the temptation to editorialize became so strong, I gave in on several occasions, often contradicting my remarks on shows the previous day.

* Trying to anticipate the ideological bent of the callers is helpful. After awhile, I learned to ask the producers of the shows about the ideological inclinations of their audience so I would know what to expect. My basic knowledge of Ameri- can political geography also served as a good predictor. Southern stations were by far the most conservative. With a few exceptions, north- eastern stations played to more liberal audiences. Midwestern stations seemed to play right down the middle. The book was treated most fairly by stations in Denver, Topeka, Grand Forks, Omaha, and Madison, WI. The callers and hosts on these shows were less interested in scoring political points. One midwestern caller actually thanked me for my objectivity. I was so shocked, I nearly choked on the air!

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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