squawk talk:
call-in talk shows and american culture
December 7, 1995


The proliferation of virulently partisan, often right-wing call-in talk shows on radio and TV has been a defining feature of American media in recent years. Hailed by some as a valuable expression of media democracy, these programs have also been excoriated as a racously uncivil, divisive, and "know-nothing" threat to our political process. This Forum will consider the political and cultural implications of the radio/TV talk show in its current intensely ideological, anti-establishment phase.

Edwin Diamond is Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at NYU. His latest book, published by MIT Press, is titled White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America. David Brudnoy is one of Boston's best known and most respected radio talk show hosts. Jane Shattuc teaches media at Emerson College and has written extensively on popular culture; she has just completed The Talking Cure, a study of TV talk shows.


Edwin Diamond
New York University
David Brudnoy
WBZ Radio
Jane Shattuc
Emerson College Research Program on Communications Policy, MIT


Edwin Diamond:

At one point in mid 1990s, the authors of the number one and number two best-selling books in America were talk shows divas Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. The President of the United States marked his first anniversary in office by taking calls from listeners on Larry King Live, the same show on which H. Ross Perot announced his candidacy for president. Though these men couldn't be more different, they share a common ability to use the new media formats which have become the electronic hearth around which millions of American now gather. Our political leaders have learned to entertain us and our entertainers know how to politicize us.

Politics, the enthusiasts say, can be made democratic, participatory, open, exuberant, in a word, enjoyable. The triumph of politics as entertainment, and entertainment as politics, speeds the transformation of the national landscape. We trace the emergence of a place that looks like a real democracy and a real country but is in fact a construct. Like reality but not real; it is virtual America. We argue that politics has been moving indoors from stump speeches at ballpark rallies to living rooms for the last fifty years. In 1992, the primary and the general elections took place mainly on these new soft formats: call-in shows, morning interview programs, and candidates' joint prime-time appearances. And the latter were more like the Donahue show than debates at the Oxford Union. They were performances, and therein lies much of their appeal. Of course, the emblematic figure of the 1990s, H. Ross Perot, received one in every five votes by conducting a campaign completely on the air. With no precinct workers and no party, he did little traditional campaigning and kept news conferences to a minimum. Clinton, and then later Bush, also used the soft formats. 1992 was just the beginning of the user friendly revolution: Clinton, Perot, and belatedly George Bush, and their running mates made thirty-nine appearances on the talk shows from September 1 to October 19, 1992.

Four questions are on my mind about this new media: 1) Are these new media effective, politically and culturally? The answer to how effective these techniques are depends on who is asked. The Clinton campaign, for example, credits the candidate's television appearances and call-in appearances in New Hampshire in 1992 with stopping his plunge in polls after Gennifer Flowers materialized with her story and her tapes. Perot and Clinton, and now Gingrich, all speak about "going over the heads of the professionals" (that is, the journalists for the main stream media) to reach the real people. The idea is to let the politicians' unfiltered message enter the hearts and minds of the American voters. 2) How good are these new media for increasing audience understanding? Reports show that voter turn out was higher in 1992. Is this attributable to the new media? 3) What about the old media? The traditional media is still important, but it now stands along side the electronic, cybermedia. Last, 4) what kind of country is this anyway?

You've all heard of the dumbing down of America. The fact is that politicians and cultural leaders have always played to the audience. Shakespeare wrote for the elite as well as the groundlings. But something was lost when the campaign migrated from the old hard news format to new media. "Larry King is not a journalist, as he is quick to admit, but an interviewer," the New York Times explained. But by choosing to appear on talk shows, and having their own home pages, the candidates and the political process circumvent the scrutiny of journalists. Journalists know what they want to ask, are up to date on the news, are rational. Talk shows are less timely, mawkish and more emotional. For example, on a recent radio talk show a caller from Salt Lake City, commenting on the US role in Bosnia asked, "well, what if there was trouble in Nevada would we want the UN coming in and dividing Nevada up in two?" That's the level of the dialog on talk shows.

Modern technology has created a know-nothing populism. Modern communications has placed a bizarre form of political power in the hands of talk show personalities. These talkers must fill long stretches of air time with a signature rhetoric: a distinct style of patter or attitude or else run the risk of becoming background sound that station mangers discard at the drop of a ratings point. In a wired nation, the call-in programs present themselves as facilitators of power to the people. I believe we should take heed of the dangers of factional politics feared by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay more than 200 years ago. Then again, in the new media, their message may have trouble being heard.

David Brudnoy:

Broadbased put-downs of what it is that I and my colleagues do are rather odd. The title of this discussion is Squawk Talk; and there is a presumption that all of us are at the level of Howard Stern. I prefer to use the term, attributed to a Boston College professor, " the schmoozeoisie" or the people who make a living by endlessly chattering on television and radio. What do we chatter about? Are we all simply interested in making grotesque remarks about people's size or color, their gender, their handicaps? Are we all that way? I don't think so. Not all talk programs are identical.

How does this dovetail into what Ed Diamond talked about? Talk shows have become one of the ways in which the political and entertainment factions of our society go around the orthodox media. Not that the orthodox media, specifically the newspaper, is beyond going around itself. You remember that the name of the woman who accused one of the Kennedy boys with rape was kept out of press until the New York Times published it - then The Enquirer published it. The differences between the tabloids and the great gray lady of New York are slight. The format is what is similar. A newspaper is like all other newspapers in being a series of pages that one turns. But within the format, the content is decidedly different. And the difference between a quality act and a opportunistic, scuzzy act, is obvious. Broadcast media, especially talk radio and talk television, is not any more vulgar than the endless reiteration of the same beliefs within the liberal power structure of the traditional media. I don't regard Rolanda as any worse than the Brinkley show, except of course that the Brinkley show has people who talk my language and yours. What is the difference between Sam Donaldson and George Will and Cokey Roberts except that of course Sam is a little more excitable, George quotes everybody, and Cokey takes $50,000 to give a speech and pretend that she is objective. Their differences are minor compared to their similarities. They are both members of the well-educated media elite with whom you and I would rather have cocktails than with the trailer park dwellers who are on Jerry and Sally and Jenny and all the other TV talk shows.

We ought not see the audiences for talk, both on television and radio, as identical. Listeners to my program are better educated, more affluent, slightly older, and more involved in the political process than others. If you want to find out what the brighter people in society think about, listen to certain talk programs. The people who never listen to talk radio and never read the editorial page think they will get from the ether what they need to know.

People believe the most remarkable things. In 1962, a man named John Kennedy ran for treasurer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He got elected. He got elected, though no one had ever heard of him before, because the voters, bright wits though they are, assumed that the President of the US was moonlighting as a candidate for treasurer. And he got re-elected because they still thought he was President Kennedy. A young man named John O'Brien some years ago ran for a school committee in Boston. He got elected because they thought he was Irish. He was black; during the campaign he didn't show his picture. Let us not praise the populace as if somehow we who do the talk programs degrade them and lower them down. I think we do not, and I think the best of us help the mass of people understand reality far more perhaps than the self-contained elitism, in the worst sense of the word, of The Group on Channel 2 and so on. I am not convinced that public television (WBUR) is any wit better than WBZ or Channel 4 or Channel 5 or even Channel 7. I really do not believe those who glorify only that which seems to appeal to their instinct for being a hoity-toity are really better than ordinary people.

Jane Shattuc:

Are daytime TV talk shows simply sensational commercialism or could they be a new form of political debate? Traditionally, democratic thought assumes that there must be an independent public arena where political opinion can be formed freely. This world should be separate from the taint of government control as well as that of corporate capitalism. For many Americans, the town meeting remains the central ideal of participatory democracy; the lone citizen takes part in the politics of her/his community by standing up and speaking up. But such direct communication is becoming less tenable in the age of information technology and global communications.

The concept of the public sphere--the place where public opinion can be formed--looms centrally over all analyses of talk shows. Our culture is hyper-conscious that talk shows are involved in the political arena. They are highly popular programs that depend on social topics and participation from average citizens. However, there is the fear that the programs may be trivializing "real" politics by promoting irrational, victimized, and anomalous individuals as representative of the citizenry.

The popularity of talk shows continually begs two questions: Can the content of talk shows be defined as "political"? And, more importantly, can talk shows be considered a public arena where the "people" form opinion freely?

American culture feels uncomfortable describing the content of talk shows as political. "Political" is derived from the Latin word politicus which means relating to a citizen. Citizens are defined by their allegiance to the state. Obviously, talk shows, with their dependence on spectacle, individualism, and sensation, deviate radically from traditional political discussions about social policy that define citizenship, such as Oxford debates, Congressional deliberations, union hall meetings and even the networks news which emphasizes established political institutions. Even though the practice of debate has shifted from the Aristotelian model of speaker and listener to the modern form of coordinated discussion, talk shows are still more personal and emotional in their content and vertiginous in their structure.

TV talk shows are not simply progressive or regressive. First, they do not represent the death of the public sphere. Although they do not discuss specific governmental institutions, they offer clear debates about/with the public sphere's growing intercession in the family, the home, and the regulation of the body. The genre most explicitly enters public sphere debate through its gesture toward participatory democracy with its town meeting structure. Finally, the programs maintain the structure of the social debate by always placing the private issue within a social matrix.

Talk shows continually move from personal identification to larger group identification in order to be popular in a broad commercial medium. The host of the TV talk show generalizes the particular experience of a guest into a larger social frame for the interest of the general audience. For all their individualized narratives, talk shows speak in social generalities. They do not speak about or advocate changing specific social and political institutions.

It is naive to assume that talk shows are a public sphere untainted by capitalism, the state, or even the bourgeois intellectual. Because of their base in commercialism, popular culture, and the identity politics of the 1970s, talk shows stage a contradictory set of tensions where groups which normally do not have a voice are allowed a powerful public platform. Not only do these programs question what constitutes politics, they challenge who is allowed to speak. As we move from the age of mechanically reproduced debates to the electronically reproduced, talk shows represent an uncomfortable public sphere. They reveal a profound political change: they assert the authority of everyday lived experience whether in its reactionary or progressive form. As talk shows manifest this change with programs on such topics as the militia, domestic violence, and black pride, this empowerment of the knowledge of people who are not formally educated can be seen as the failure or the triumph of liberal democratic thought.

-Compiled by Trudy Willcox