Monday, July 5, 2010

A Depressing Peek Behind the Curtain

Over breakfast the other day in Sydney I read an article in the morning's Sydney Morning Herald about right-wing talk radio. The article made the case that radio must be right-wing to survive, and it talked about the simple recipe for success in this market.
According to former US talk-radio executive Dan Shelley, right-wing leanings are essential to be a success in commercial talk radio but the key ingredient is the ability to make us, the listener, angry.
It's no surprise to read that right-wing radio thrives because it appeals to an anger base. But it is surprising to hear someone from the right admit it.
Shelley worked closely with conservative Milwaukee talk-show host Charlie Sykes at WTMJ, one of the most successful news/talk-radio stations in the US. He says talk-show hosts are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised.
What he doesn't emphasize is the huge role radio (and TV) plays in making its target audience feel disenfranchised. Again I think of the guys I work with, guys who by any sensible measure have a good life on 2010 Planet Earth. And these guys are often nursing a deep-seated fury at life. I have been continually puzzled at this for 15 years. But this article makes me wonder if I'm not simply seeing the products of the right wing media machine. Take angry people and make them angrier and keep them that way. Help them to feel powerless and alienated, even when they--middle-aged white men--are the country 's very power center. This is why talk radio works. And it's why reductionism and demagoguery are such a characteristic part of the program.

This also appears to explain why there has been little success with left-wing radio. (I wonder whether, if these far right ideas make too many inroads to broader society, we will see a more unified left reaction, and that might constitute an anger base from which angry leftist radio might spring?)
"To succeed, a talk-show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered," Shelley says. "The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. The enemy can be a politician - either a Democrat or a Republican not deemed conservative enough. It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy but more often than not the enemy is the 'mainstream media'."
Jesus. Sounds just like a description of a Sarah Palin rally, doesn't it? This is no coincidence, of course. There's no requirement for the announcer to be correct or accurate, nor is there any responsibility on the part of the radio host or the listener that people be informed about the facts of any particular issue--what a stark contrast to Public Radio. The right wing playbook is not so much about issues as about manipulation and mass psychology.
Shelley says in the talk-radio business, this concept is called "differentiating" yourself from the rest of the media. "It is a brilliant marketing tactic that has also helped Fox News thrive. 'We report, you decide' and 'fair and balanced' are more than just savvy slogans. They are code words signalling that only Fox will report the news in a way conservatives see as objective and truthful." Shelley says programmers learnt long ago that benign conversations led by hosts who present all sides of an issue do not attract large audiences.
Note that he did NOT say the stations must actually BE 'objective and truthful.' They need only tap into their target audience's custom-tailored credulity, knowing that it's enough to simply throw the slogans out; none of the faithful is actually liable to do any fact-checking.
ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams wrote in his book Talkback: "Social democrats, pinkos, do-gooders - call them what you will - tend to be insufficiently aggressive for the electronic fray. We um and aah. We if and but. We admit to complexities and shades of grey. Whereas your right-winger is a political reductionist, a populist, a sloganiser.
"They have the ability to find somebody to blame. Certainty plays better than complexity. Anger is more entertaining than reasonableness and blame beats explanation hollow."
So the whole setup is about business strategy, about how to position yourself relative to other media. It's not about reporting the news or educating people, it's about manipulating the masses to make money.

How depressing. And lately, this mentality represents 50% +/- of the American voting public.


dbackdad said...

It is depressing. And even people like Glenn Beck and Rush have admitted that they are merely entertainers.

They have been effective and it has made them rich. The problem lies in that they don't feel any social responsibility. They know they are stirring up the pot and inciting for no positive good, but as long as they get that next big TV and radio and book contract, it's OK. They don't want a better world.

wunelle said...

Both Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have regular rants about how "people" are "out to get me," as if THEY are victims themselves. And both--especially Limbaugh--are by any measure among the wealthiest people in the world!

At what point does the savvy manipulation of people for personal gain become a mental illness? When they start believing their own lies? Or is THIS all just an act as well?

What a way to live. What a legacy.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant little essay on the sorry state of the right wing media.
david dunkle