Confessions of a Listener
People like Tommy Mischke, a nighttime guy on a right-wing station in St. Paul and a free spirit who gets into wonderful stream-of-consciousness harangues and meditations that are a joy to listen to compared with the teeth-grinding that goes on around him. Not that teeth-grinders are to be disparaged: I enjoy, in small doses, the over-the-top right-wingers who have leaked into AM radio on all sides in the past twenty years. They are evil, lying, cynical bastards who are out to destroy the country I love and turn it into a banana republic, but hey, nobody's perfect. And now that their man is re-elected and they have nice majorities in the House and Senate, they are hunters in search of diminishing prey. There just aren't many of us liberals worth banging away at, but God bless them, they keep on coming. Just the other day, I heard one foaming and raging about the right to life and about liberals preying on the helpless--I realized he was talking about Terri Schiavo--and then he launched into the judiciary and how they had stood by and done nothing. He held their feet to the fire for a while and then he tore into George McGovern for about five minutes. George McGovern is a kindly, grandfatherly man who lives in Mitchell, South Dakota, and winters in Florida and every year attends his World War II bomber squadron reunion. He ran for President in 1972. His connection to the Florida case is tenuous at best. When you go ballistic over 1972, you are truly desperate to fill time.
The reason you find an army of right-wingers ratcheting on the radio and so few liberals is simple: Republicans are in need of affirmation, they don't feel comfortable in America and they crave listening to people who think like them. Liberals actually enjoy living in a free society; tuning in to hear an echo is not our idea of a good time. I go to church on Sunday morning to be among the like-minded, and we all say the Nicene Creed together and assume nobody has his fingers crossed, but when it comes to radio, I prefer oddity and crankiness. I don't need someone to tell me that George W. Bush is a deceitful, corrupt, clever and destructive man--that's pretty clear on the face of it. What I want is to be surprised and delighted and moved. Here at the low end of the FM dial is a show in which three college boys are sitting in a studio, whooping and laughing, sneering at singer-songwriters they despise, playing Eminem and a bunch of bands I've never heard of, and they're having so much fun they achieve weightlessness--utter unself-consciousness--and then one of them tosses out the f-word and suddenly they get scared, wondering if anybody heard. Wonderful. Or you find three women in a studio yakking rapid-fire about the Pitt-Aniston divorce and the Michael Jackson trial and the botoxing of various stars and who wore what to the Oscars. It's not my world, and I like peering into it. The sports talk station gives you a succession of men whose absorption in a fantasy world is, to me, borderline insane. You're grateful not to be related to any of them, and yet ten minutes of their ranting and wheezing is a real tonic that somehow makes this world, the world of trees and children and books and travel, positively tremble with vitality. And then you succumb to weakness and tune in to the geezer station and there's Roy Orbison singing "Dream Baby" and you join Roy on the chorus, one of the Roylettes.
I don't worry about the right-wingers on AM radio. They are talking to an audience that is stuck in rush-hour traffic, in whom road rage is mounting, and the talk shows divert their rage from the road to the liberal conspiracy against America. Instead of ramming your rear bumper, they get mad at Harry Reid. Yes, the wingers do harm, but the worst damage is done to their own followers, who are cheated of the sort of genuine experience that enables people to grow up. The best of what you find on public radio is authentic experience. It has little to do with politics. The US Marine just returned from Sudan with lots of firsthand impressions of the crisis there; the journalist just back from Falluja, where he spent three months; a firsthand documentary about life aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Middle East--that's what Edward R. Murrow did from London in 1940, and it's still golden today. It's the glorious past and it's the beautiful future. (Thanks to the Internet, the stuff doesn't vanish into thin air. You can go to thislife.org and get the story of the Houston woman or the aircraft carrier documentary. You can find the Sudan and Falluja interviews at whyy.org/freshair. More and more people are doing this. Nobody cares what Rush Limbaugh said two days ago; it's gone and forgotten, but the Internet has become an enormous extension of radio.) That's why public radio is growing by leaps and bounds. It is hospitable to scholars of all stripes and to travelers who have returned from the vast, unimaginable world with stories to tell. Out here in the heartland, we live for visitors like those. We will make the demented uncle shut up so we can listen to somebody who actually knows something.