Friday, February 29, 2008

Quincy's Predecessors Never Had 'Em

Amid all the fuss generated by syndicated radio newstalk host Bill Cunningham’s promiscuous employment of Barack Obama’s improbable middle name, a perfectly sensible suggestion I offered many times over KIRO last year has still, oddly enough, yet to gain any traction whatsoever this Leap Day.

Shakespeare famously asked “What’s in a name?”, but when that name happens to be Hussein, the answer clearly is “plenty”. There's much in the wake of all the outrage, both authentic and synthetic, over the Cincinnati-based Cunningham's provocative word choice while warming up the crowd at an Ohio Republican rally awaiting John McCain's arrival. And much analysis during the last few days has been devoted to hashing out guidelines by which reporters and pundits can refer to Obama while ensuring all the delicate political correctness considerations remain in balance.

But this idea would bypass all that: I say the junior Senator from Illinois should publicly, and dramatically, march down to the Cook County Superior Court in Chicago and get his middle name legally removed. And while he’s at it, he should also seriously consider petitioning the judge to change his first name to Barry, the nickname by which the young Obama was known for many years.

Obama could declare to the voters, “As I stand on here the threshold of history, asking your solemn endorsement to shoulder this most profound of all American duties, it’s important that the name of the nation’s future 44th President sound American. So Barack Hussein Obama is again, and henceforth, Barry Obama.”

He could also point out that we're dealing with the Presidency here, an institution where precedent always carries enormous weight, and that John Quincy Adams, our 6th President, was the first to even have a middle name anyway.

Of course, I know how Obama would be bitterly savaged from the left for supposedly selling out his heritage, but those critics wouldn’t represent votes lost to the GOP anyway. And in these unchartered political waters, it wouldn't be surprising to see him also body-slammed by the right for flip-flopping. And yes, I also fully realize that this just ain't a-gonna happen.

(In case your reaction is, Come on, Styble, why not change your name? Well, as a matter of fact, I did delete my middle name as soon as I entered show business, on the premise that for anyone with a surname as rare as mine, a third name is a superfluous identifier.)

Ideally, of course, names shouldn’t matter a whit in politics. But I’ve heard several newstalk radio callers supporting Mike Huckabee lament about the “funny” name which burdens the Arkansan . (Last year Obama often used that very term on the stump to poke fun at two of his own three names--but never that pesky one in the middle.)

And I'm quite confident Oklahoma football-star-turned-Congressman J.C. Watts, by always using only his initials, was squandering a natural electoral edge his parents had (presumably) unwittingly afforded the future U.S. Representative. It would have been worth a good extra ten percentage points every two years, had the ballots read “Julius Caesar Watts”.

But America was never at war with Rome, and anyway, the ancient general-turned-dictator was actually a rather benevolent leader compared to a certain executed modern despot after whom Obama definitely was not middle-named.

So, once the former First Lady is out of the way and he can concentrate on the big one, it’s in Obama’s serious political interest to formally jettison at least the “Hussein”…just in case McCain proves unexpectedly difficult to steamroll on the first Tuesday after the first Monday this November. And besides, isn't his trademark word "change"?


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Styble on the late Messrs. Buckley & Steibel

William F. Buckley, Jr. appeared on newstalk radio shows only rarely, and I know of no instance in which he ever took listener calls. And that's one of at least two reasons I was never lucky enough to speak with the National Review founder.

But oh how I longed to hear the iconic author and wit, who died at home in Connecticut this morning, available in a phone-in format. I'd have endeavored mightily to get through, and likely would have succeeded. (Few never-calling listeners realize how readily any articulate and determined caller can make air, even on the more popular issues-oriented national shows.) What a kick it would have been to pose Buckley a political or societal, of course, a literately-crafted plaudit or two for the man who did as much as anyone in the 20th Century to inspire the sophisticated and trenchant employment of English!

Notwithstanding conservatism's domination of the newstalk format, when it came to broadcasting, Buckley apparently favored television to radio. For whatever reasons, he declined the invitations of most newstalk radio hosts. (Except Rush Limbaugh, notably.) Yet the prolific publisher pundit can still be said nonetheless to have had a profound, if indirect, influence on the genre's success.

Without National Review and the ascendant modern American conservative movement the magazine had sparked almost singlehandedly within a decade of its 1955 founding, Ronald Reagan likely would never have become President. That point has been made hundreds if not thousands of times elsewhere, but less noted is how Buckley is thusly owed a debt of gratitude by Limbaugh and his newstalk throne's numerous pretenders, who would not in turn have had an invigorated conservative zeitgeist into which to tap for their core listenerships.

Ironically, just yesterday, a mere single posting ["The Apolitico"] ago, I reiterated my often-made case for a primarily non-ideological listening perspective on newstalk radio. But even those of us who downplay the political while on the air (as I generally did in my KIRO work) must still grant that serious policy advocacy has and surely always will have a major role in the arcane art known as commercial newstalk radio. Ergo, Buckley's quite indirect impact on the genre was nonetheless significant.

One question which came up in every city where I've hosted a call-in show is, "Hey Styble, are you any relation to Bill Buckley's Firing Line producer Warren Steibel?" The inquiring callers clearly were unaware my surname is spelled rather differently. But even as a suburban St. Louis youngster in the mid-60s, for the obvious reason that Steibel name, listed as both producer and director as the Firing Line credits rolled, would jump off the TV screen at me, as well as at my older brother, who had turned me onto the award-winning PBS series.

Many of the ideas I would explicate decades later in my newstalk radio work were outgrowths of analyses I first heard on Firing Line from Buckley and his studio guests, who might be booked from virtually any field of American life. Yet something quite surprising about Firing Line I'd learn only from its producer himself, during his telephonic appearance in 1998 on my midnight Detroit show, The Pontiac Insomniac with Bryan Styble. (I had earlier cold-called Warren Steibel, impishly asking, "Our families obviously aren't related, but if for no better reason than we both pronounce it the same, will Steibel do the Styble show?") Turns out that Firing Line was, content-wise at least, pretty much always just a two-man operation, and Buckley's off-air partner all those years was as liberal as the host was conservative!

Two years later I found myself invited by Steibel into his spacious production office inside the National Review editorial suite in New York on, as it happened, St. Patrick's Day. Firing Line had concluded its remarkable 33-year run only a few months prior, and I then happened to be putting together Open All Night with Bryan Styble, a new overnight newstalk program for a syndication company which wanted to take national the offbeat Styble style.

So after being regaled by Steibel's behind-the-scenes reminiscences of Firing Line (including learning how those two New Yorkers came to base their TV work in South Carolina, of all places), I hoped he'd play talent scout: I needed a recommendation of someone who'd be good as one of several regular contributors on my forthcoming program, adding commentary on the cultural and political matters I'd be yakking up for late-night listeners once the syndicator began making the show available to local stations.

Steibel, who would be dead of cancer only 22 months later but appeared hale that holiday, pondered my recruitment request only for a moment: "Bryan, I think you're in luck, and that luck happens to be right down the hall." Steibel excused himself but quickly returned, accompanied by an elegantly-attired woman named Fran Bronson. Within the hour, Bronson had agreed to join my team, confiding that she'd long been intrigued about sometime trying her hand at talk radio.

Steibel had introduced Bronson to me as the legendary publisher's "longtime right-hand lady", and sure enough, her name had been listed below Buckley's on the National Review masthead almost from the start. (Limbaugh's touching--and opening-hour-consuming--Buckley tribute this morning didn't merely disclose how Buckley had served as the broadcaster's surrogate father, but also included a bouquet for Bronson: "I once said, 'Frances, can you tell me where I might find myself another one of you?' ")

But Steibel the producer didn't anticipate how Styble the broadcaster's luck was changing: Bronson volunteered that it was unfortunate that Buckley was out of the office all day, else she would have taken me in to meet her boss. And Open All Night never, alas, got up on the satellite back in 2000. But at least for one memorable afternoon that year, I was in such close quarters with such extraordinary intellectual accomplishment.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Apolitico

The greatest myth about commercial newstalk talk radio here in the new millennium is that it's principally a political genre.

Actually, I began pointing this out long before my Open Lines for Open Minds work over KIRO commenced three years ago. This has been a central contention of mine since the previous century, when my San Francisco Bay Area audiences in the early 90s and then my Detroit listeners in the mid-90s heard me often argue that the most intellectually and aesthetically rewarding way to evaluate a newstalk radio broadcast is not on the positions expressed thereon, but rather on how well the host conducts the program.

Inclusive of that, of course, is how articulately the viewpoints are posited and defended, how effectively the guests are interviewed, and, sometimes most important, how the callers' ideas are treated. But I suspect even Styble fans were seldom persuaded of my arcane point; my hunch is, despite what they might insist to the contrary, in the end most listeners just instinctively enjoy the hosts they agree with and dislike those on the other side of their political fence.

One reason for that is probably the flourishing success of Rush Limbaugh and so many of his numerous and lesser competing firebrands. These days, ideology is in, throughout most of the commercial newstalk radio universe at least. And I expect that it shall remain so evermore, as long as the dreaded (and arguably unconstitutional) Fairness Doctrine isn't reinstated, Zeus (and FCC) forfend.

But I never realized how true I am to this newstalk-ain't-mainly-about-politics principle until I noticed something in the course of correcting an entry a couple postings below. Re-reading my critique of The Glenn Beck Program, one of the more contemptible listens in newstalk radio
["Glenn Beck's Ego Eclipses Fact", two entries below], I needed to adjust for a historical detail I'd learned only after publishing it on Wednesday. Delineating how profoundly Beck had bungled describing for his listeners a vignette about Columbus prompted me to then read a couple detailed accounts of the explorer's entire life. (That, incidentally, made me quickly regret never--despite possessing a Columbus Day birthday!--taking the trouble to learn just how remarkably dogged and triumphal a career was that of The Admiral of the Ocean Seas.) What I initially had incorrect involved Columbus's location: two years into his fourth and final voyage to the New World, he had been shipwrecked--rather than in port, as I had it--with his expedition for many months on Jamaica when he pulled, on some hostile natives, his inspired lunar eclipse ruse on Leap Year Day 1504.

But my posting was notable for what some readers might regard a much more glaring omission. As it happens, what many might consider a word vital to any review of Beck's show never once appeared in mine--and this, ironically enough, in the very essay which lambasted Beck for irresponsibly failing to include an absolutely indispensable word ("eclipse") for the benefit of his audience!

Thus my expose of Beck's sometimes staggering ignorance (too often on display in a second-tier national show on which KTTH/Seattle squanders the prominence and prestige of its morning-drive timeslot) may itself have seemed correspondingly lacking. It's true that I never employed that one particular term which surely first comes to many minds when thinking of Beck's work, whether on radio, or in his new medium, television. Yep, I never once mentioned that he's a conservative. (Actually, I doubt he'd quarrel even with his views being described as arch-conservative.)

Of course, as in nearly every aspect of life, in newstalk radio things are relative. So, sure, Beck (who's been increasingly influential nationally ever since his debut on CNN Headline a year ago) is seldom as reckless, self-righteous and unprincipled as, say, the self-described "independent conservative" Michael Savage routinely proves himself to be on his sorry syndicated Frisco-based production (carried weeknights, though never live, also by KTTH).

Still, Beck, the loudmouth political satirist, Mormon convert and (only incidentally, alas) newstalk host, nevertheless ranks, overall, as yet another talk radio embarrassment to the conservative movement. Now, I never mentioned Beck's politics in that piece despite the fact that Beck's show is every bit as ideological as Limbaugh's (though he inadvertently reveals daily he harbors but a tiny fraction of Rush's talent, either as a broadcaster or entertainer).

It's hard to remember this in 2008, but when JFK and LBJ were in office, Mort Sahl was far and away the most celebrated stand-up comedian in the nation. His politically-hip act sometimes included this one-liner: "A friend of mine is so liberal that he's never even noticed that Jesse Jackson is black!" While we await some successor funnyman to update Sahl's gag into a Barack Obama joke, I can take pride that in the course of excoriating his national newstalk radio work, I never even noticed that Glenn Beck is conservative.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Medved's Misrepresented Call of the Week

The Michael Medved Show
KTTH 770 kHz
Weekday afternoons 12-3

Near the outset of his program each Friday, Michael Medved runs his "Call of the Week". The feature culls for re-air invariably one of the goofiest phoned-in contributions from the previous four editions of his often superb nationally-syndicated broadcast, which originates at KTTH/Seattle.

Setting up the segment each time is a substantial example of what newstalk radio people call "production", in this case a montage, complete with sarcastic voice-over introduction, of outlandish called-in snippets from previous Medved shows. But at least one of them wasn't even contributed by a caller but rather in fact by an invited Medved guest. Her clip, which seems as wacky as all those others strung together by his longtime production guy Jeremy Steiner, has her opining that "Everyone goes to the bathroom on campus every day, unless they have some great powers..."

I was tuned in the afternoon a couple years back when that line was originally heard by Medheads, as his hardest-core fans among his national audience call themselves. (That wasn't just happenstance; I usually manage to catch all fifteen of Medved's weekly broadcast hours myself.) His guest (whose name and affiliation I don't recall and haven't been able to ascertain) was a campus newspaper columnist. She'd provocatively proposed, in the interests of both an enlightened collegiate community and budgetary savings, unisex restrooms for her school. (We actually had a few such facilities on the Back Bay campus at Boston University way back in the 70s--we called 'em "People's Pots"--yet my alma mater is still standing in 2008.)

But Medved's conservative and moralistic sensibilities naturally found the co-ed's serious-if-impractical proposal over the top, so he invited her for a telephonic interview. It was during their first segment that she uttered the line which has been living on in national newstalk infamy every Friday ever since. But I distinctly remember thinking upon initially hearing it, "Hey, at least this woman's witty..."

Sure, Medved readily demolished her simplistic arguments for phasing out gender-segregated bathrooms, but that's beside the point. Indeed, as I recall she said many ill-reasoned things that hour, but what ended up in the COTW montage wasn't one of them.

A newstalk host is obligated to never misquote or misrepresent the ideas of his previous guests. (That applies equally to his callers, of course, whom I also consider to be a host's guests, as reflected in my line often used over KIRO to "book yourself as a guest on the broadcast by calling in".) Accordingly, in the interests of fairness and intellectual honesty, Medved should instruct Steiner to delete her restroom quip from that aural assemblage.

But better yet, Medved might consider altering the entire focus of the COTW feature. I mean, just today he stated something which implies the COTW works at cross-purposes with this mostly solid program's overall thrust.

It happened during the daily minute live promo heard only by his Seattle listeners that Medved inserts upon Rush Limbaugh's sign-off from Florida or New York at 11:59:00. (Medved only adds this brief program preview on days when his ensuing show isn't on remote and therefore is originating from KTTH.) Limbaugh closed with a quick word praise for his screeners, for the calibre of calls they had cleared for him this morning, Medved then echoed that sentiment for his own national callers: "And we also have the best callers in talk radio on The Michael Medved Show, coming up right after the news."

So instead of putting the spotlight on the loonies, why not so designate and re-air one of the many literate and trenchant contributions of a Medved caller during the shows earlier that week? Medved would thus be highlighting what's terrific, rather than what's foolish, on a program that ranks (behind, of course, Limbaugh) as consistently the second-most-fulfilling listen in all of syndicated newstalk radio.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Glenn Beck's Ego Eclipses Fact

The Glenn Beck Program
KTTH 770 kHz
Weekday mornings 6-9 am

Beck (the widely respected recording artist) famously sang, "I'm a loser, Baby/So why don't you kill me?" When listening to Glenn Beck (the vastly overrated newstalk host) on his frequently self-indulgent and ignorant broadcasts, I sometimes feel like killing my radio.

In the first hour of this morning's edition of his daily syndicated show, New York City-based Beck was cross-talking with his producer/sidekick Stu. He then told of how Christopher Columbus was once saved by a late February total lunar eclipse, another of which shall occur, as it astronomically happens, tonight. It seems that the famed explorer was on his fourth and final visit to the New World in 1504, and his expedition was seriously down on its luck, shipwrecked and even facing starvation, not to mention hostile natives, in what is now northern Jamaica.

But the mariner hadn't earned the title Admiral of the Ocean Seas for nothing. While contemplating his limited options, Columbus's eyes surely widened when he noticed, in an almanac he'd salvaged from his crippled craft, that a German astronomer had calculated that a total lunar eclipse visible from the Western Hemisphere was imminent (on the evening of Leap Year Day, as it happened).

So Columbus approached the local chieftain on February 26th, warning him that if the explorer's entire party wasn't replenished with supplies, he'd destroy the moon three nights hence. Fortunately for Columbus and his men, the skies there were clear enough on the 29th, the terrified natives submitted as soon as the moon disappeared into the earth's shadow, and Columbus survived to return to Europe, where he would spend his remaining two years in retirement and obscurity.

Now Beck of course rather gratingly told this tale in typical Beck style--i.e., laiden with whimsical and unfunny gags on Sandals resorts, Rastafarians, etc. And he and Stu--who hopefully is nowhere near as young as his voice sounds--even described, in their fashion, the "blood-red" moon. That's a visual effect caused by the Earth's atmosphere which occurs during most total lunar eclipses, and therefore is something we may begin witnessing tonight when totality commences at 7:01 pm Pacific Time (assuming cloud cover above the Puget Sound region doesn't end up masking the whole shebang from us).

But so preoccupied was Beck with doing his "bit" (as such things are known in the radio biz) that he provided virtually none of the historical or scientific detail I related above. No, that might have elbowed aside some of his alleged comedy. So instead of seizing the opportunity to simultaneously inform his audience about something fascinating long ago while connecting it to an event tonight, Beck elected instead to make fun (if not funny) of an especially-inspired moment of a career so momentous that historian Michael Hart [see "Poll Faulting" archived herein July 2007] ranks it fully the ninth most influential in all of history. Beck never even bothered to mention that all this took place in 1504, leaving listeners to not unreasonably presume it happened three voyages prior during the more-celebrated Columbian year of 1492.

Such egregious factual lapses are because newstalk host Beck presents himself to his audience primarily as a funnyman. And man, it's funny how fundamentally he misunderstands the principal reason why most listeners might want to tune into a newstalk show like his. Most days, Beck's heavily-produced satirical takes on the news come off at best as forced and often even ill-informed, with the entire presentation usually emerging as little more than a low-rent pretender to the throne of the vastly-more-talented (and waaaaaaay funnier) Rush Limbaugh.

Like too many of his colleagues, Beck often fails to cite sources. So I wasn't surprised when he neglected to mention that many of us had read the details of this familiar (at least to historians) chapter in the Columbus story over the weekend, when it was featured prominently on The Drudge Report, widely considered to be the most-consulted website among newstalk radio hosts.

Throughout his bit, Beck referred to the "full moon". And that's technically correct, of course; every middle school science student is taught that lunar eclipses only happen with the moon in its full phase (just as a solar eclipse can only occur during a new moon).

But there was something truly breathtaking about this particular segment of Beck's show: despite riffing on (or, more precisely, just around) this remarkable historical vignette for over five minutes, neither Beck nor his yes-man ever once uttered this celestial phenomenon's lynchpin word.

That is, while each talked of the "full moon", the term "eclipse" was never used! (Needless to say, a garden-variety full moon never apparently disappears from the heavens.) Thus any listener who hadn't happened to have been aware of tonight's impending sky show must have been left totally mystified all along as to what in the heck Beck was talking about.

This constitutes nothing short of broadcasting malpractice.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rush Errs

The Rush Limbaugh Show
KTTH 770 kHz
Weekdays 9-noon
[plus overnight & Sunday afternoon replays]

Coming from a prominent southeastern Missouri family that is quite accomplished in the law, you'd expect that Rush Limbaugh would have a pretty thorough familiarity with the United States Constitution. And he does, as he demonstrates on his dominant national newstalk show pretty much daily. But just minutes ago over his Excellence in Broadcasting Network, he made a whopper of a constitutional error.

When railing against Barack Obama's apparent ignorance of civics in a Boston Globe interview from December, Limbaugh declared that the Senate isn't empowered to ratify treaties.

Well, sure it is, Rush! It's all right there in the second paragraph of Article II, Section II. True, that's the Article which delineates the powers of the Presidency, not the Senate, and the word "ratify" is never used, but it's unambiguous nonetheless. And given how prominent the Senate's ratification role traditionally has been, everywhere from the protracted SALT II debate to the plotline of Advise and Consent, this truly is a glaring factual mistake.

But maybe I should cut the undisputed king of talk radio some slack here for that uncorrected miscue, given what he's been through during the last fortnight. If you haven't noticed, his hugely influential program been at the center of extraordinary sequence of events that has emerged as one of the most interesting backstories of Campaign 2008.

As John McCain's various (and mostly hapless) rivals for the GOP nomination have fallen by the wayside over the last couple of weeks, the bombastic broadcaster's long-simmering distrust of the controversial Arizonan finally boiled over. And now, not merely the Limbaugh audience is paying attention.

Limbaugh's nasty vocal impression of an always-angry McCain has long been a daily feature of his program, along with periodic volleys of satirical brilliance against him from EIB musical parodist Paul Shanklin (scroll down for "EIB Parodies Creedence"). Now the McCain campaign is finally responding to these and all the other shots that newstalk radio's dominant program has long been firing his way.

So far this confrontation has only been through surrogates; neither the radio talk titan nor the candidate have admitted to any direct communication (though a number of GOP elders have reportedly been pushing for just such a private summit, in the interests of party unity). The most tangible evidence from McCain's end that Rush has been getting under his reputedly-thin skin may be the huge uptick recently in his mentions on the stump of the word "conservative". Of course, McCain's critics on the right suspect this promiscuous employment of the C-word just cloaks his generally centrist--or even downright liberal, if you ask Rush--legislative bent.

Despite his bitter suspicions of the former Keating Five legislator, Limbaugh remains scrupulously fair to him; he's always quite respectful of the former Navy pilot's decorated service in Vietnam, especially regarding his horrific captivity in Hanoi. But, as a Limbaugh caller pointedly pointed out last week, Benedict Arnold was also once known principally as a war hero.

The imbroglio has played out as McCain has tightened his presumptive grasp on the GOP nomination, with various cable news talking heads as bit players, and with op-ed writers from the New York Times on down second-guessing the stated motivations of both the Senator and the broadcaster. Yesterday, the affair culminated in the pair's faces landing on the Newsweek cover under the blurb, "There Will Be Blood: Why the Right Hates McCain".

The amazing ascension like the phoenix of this recently-left-for-political-dead man from Phoenix was widely seen as proof positive that Limbaugh's power has in turn waned. Rush was thus repeatedly dismissed last week as a has-been, since this all supposedly adds up to his losing the "McCain v. Limbaugh primary".

Yet now he's also finding himself portrayed as somehow still retaining enough clout to clandestinely tug the strings of the opposition party. The line of thinking here is a maneuvering that eases the Clintons' effort to by hook or by crook outlast Obama. Hillary then bests a Rush-weakened McCain in November, this preposterous theory goes, and Billary thus returns to the White House, all so as to serve as perfect foils for another four or eight years of Limbaugh lampoons.

But while he might be a bit loose with the occasional constitutional fact, Limbaugh's precisely correct when he contends that his broadcast's remarkable success is not now, nor ever has been, the least bit dependent upon who's in the White House. As he been saying for years into that EIB microphone, "No matter who's there, I'll be here." And for as long as he's able to fulfill that open-ended pledge, that's a beneficial thing-- both in general for the society, and in particular for commercial newstalk radio listeners.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Beyond Debate: Hillary Should Thank Rush

If you're heading out to an Evergreen State caucus later today, consider how newstalk radio may have helped you sharpen the debating skills you'll need to sway fellow Washingtonians from supporting Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Of the numerous advantages radio enjoys over its more ballyhooed sister-medium television, its primacy of caller discussion is one of the three greatest (stay tuned to Radioactive Seattle for essays soon delineating the other two).

Sure, a few TV shows have call-in segments, but they're always used only sparingly, and anyway seldom for anything more than giveaways or mere questions to guests. Non-commercial C-SPAN provides occasional open-line segments allowing viewers to make a case for whatever their passion, political or societal. And on the callers' end, the results there can be as unexpected and even trenchant as would occur from time to time during Open Lines for Open Minds on my KIRO broadcasts. But hosts at all C-SPAN networks never veer from Brian Lamb's apparent ironclad policy that they remain steadfastly neutral with callers, and debate by definition is never one-sided.

No, across the various broadcast news media, bona fide caller debate pretty much remains the exclusive domain of talk radio. And only in the commercial newstalk genre do callers routinely engage in rhetorical exchange with any real substance.

And while some newstalk shows have formats that exclude caller input, any good host will at least vigorously challenge guests on behalf of the listeners. But the best programs are usually ones that put callers in the center of the arena. Anyone who participates will find their debating skills inevitably honed, moreso if the host (like, say, KIRO's Dave Ross or KVI's John Carlson) is fair-minded and skilled at helping callers frame their arguments.

Alas, some shows have formats which stack things against callers in one way or another, almost guaranteeing that the host gets the upper hand on nearly every listener contribution (syndicated conservative firebrand Michael Savage may be the worst offender here). So call-in radio is anything but always a level playing field, but at least you're able to get into the game.

But probably few listeners notice how the newstalk format also even bolsters reasoning skills of those in the audience who never call in. That is, just hearing all manner of perspectives on various issues large and small inevitably nudges a mind into better fact organization and value sorting. A more thorough and nuanced command of political issues is but one of the beneficial consequential effects.

Like other radio yakkers, I lamented for many years to audiences the devolution of our presidential selection system since the 1950s. Maybe it's the same general old-school impulse that has made me emulate the Golden Age of Radio in my broadcasts (or perhaps it's just the arbitrariness and endlessness of our electoral process nowdays), but I actually long for the days of smoke-filled rooms at the national conventions. That's when the parties still controlled who would serve as their standardbearers toward the White House, and managed to finalize decisions on him, his running mate and a platform all in less than a single week, if not a single ballot.

But now we're stuck with Iowa and push-polling and tiers of handlers and round-the-clock press coverage and all the attenuated rest. Yet there's still at least one charm in this jumble, and it's in the caucus format. These unusual events require a lot of face-to-face talk (at least under the Democrats' rules), and much of it is substantive debate.

What people say about candidates is usually more interesting than anything the candidates say themselves on the hustings, and here's one place where actual ballot-box results ride on how effectively such talk is presented. Unlike a primary, where you represent but your own solitary vote (and you do so silently in the privacy of a booth anyway), in a caucus you can also add as many additional votes for your guy or gal as your argument persuades.

Vigorous debate, whether over our kitchen tables amongst our loved ones or amid strangers at a bus stop, always tones the mind, and that's always a good thing. But these caucus encounters also actually steer the society in their small way.

So go make your best case for Obama or Rodham Clinton today--but also thank newstalk radio. Not merely for the role it plays in our democracy, but also for enhancing, if just a bit, our collective reasoning.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ingraham Ingratiates...NOT

The Laura Ingraham Show
KKOL 1300 kHz
Morning drive 6-9 am

Shortly before Mitt Romney this morning announced the suspension of his occasionally surreal campaign, the onetime GOP frontrunner acknowledged Laura Ingraham's introduction of him moments prior, thanking her as "gorgeous and brilliant".

Few would dispute that the District of Columbia-based syndicated newstalker is each of those, but she'd be forgiven for being uncomfortable with Romney's description. The sassy rock-rib conservative has for several years now been increasingly successful in a genre where beauty's advantage is negated; one of the many aspects newstalk radio has over lesser media platforms is that "appearances" thereon are absolutely irrelevant. Romney's so sequencing his adjectives implies she'd be a less effective newstalker were she plain.

So Ingraham gets no points from me for her looks. And quite a few are deducted for an ideological smugness that is often off the chart. Her national program is heard by Seattle-Tacoma listeners during morning-drive over KKOL, directly opposite Glenn Beck's syndicated show carried by KTTH, and it usually annoys more than it enthralls. And not merely because the show's much-used tagline ("Radio's healthy addiction") is a blatent and cynical rip-off of one of Limbaugh's best slogans ("An airborne addiction spread by casual contact").

As she's a devout Catholic convert, it's not a total surprise that Ingraham is an absolutist on abortion. But she's also too rigid on most other conservative issues to avoid alienating would-be listeners of most centrist or liberal stripes. During early 2005, she may have been talk radio's most shrill voice debating Terry Schiavo's sad, final months. So determined Ingraham was to carry on that supposed crusade for "life" that, after the comatose patient's protracted death in Florida, she pledged, "On this show, we're never going to drop this!" And then, within less than a fortnight, she proceeded to do just that. (One of several reasons I've never engaged in activist broadcasting is that it's embarrassing after the status quo ends up remaining unbudged.)

Ingraham speaks quite rapidly on-air, which is fine, and is very inconsiderate of callers, which is not. Calls are solicited throughout her show, but almost never featured prominently or even early in an hour, instead typically serving merely as garnish for Ingraham and her guests' own pontifications. The handful which make air are often clumsily crammed into a minute or less up against a commercial, routinely prompting Ingraham to chide, "Real quick now--we gotta go to break!" And no open-line segments--ever, as far as I can determine, another indication of her general disregard for her callers' ideas.

She repeatedly rails against various "elites", when in fact the former Reagan speechwriter and current Washington pundit is an epitome of a Beltway insider. And given that she was one of the founders of the redoubtable Dartmouth Review, it's almost shocking how poorly written her 2007 call-to-action book, Power to the People, was. (The lyrics to John & Yoko's 1971 single under an identical title were also rather amateurishly composed, but at least that Top 10 hit offered a catchy tune and a terrific, plaintive Lennon vocal.)

Oh, and speaking of popular music: Years before radio--well, commercial radio, at least--I was an established Dylanologist, as many of my KIRO listeners were aware. So one might expect that I'd appreciate Ingraham's occasional on-air recognition of the rock icon's career as the unequalled artistic accomplishment it is, and indeed I do; some of his less-familiar songs are even in her bumper-music rotation. But the couple times I've heard her not merely citing him in near awe but actually discussing his work, she did so in terms surprisingly shallow for an intellectual of her background. Of course, ever since the early 60s, ideologues have misjudged (though not often from the right) the creative import of this recording artist, whose output has been almost purely apolitical since early 1964.

A onetime clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ingraham features her two production-guy sidekicks on the air far too often, a practice not uncommon in a commentator-first-broadcaster-second host. And by the time the recent breast-cancer survivor's bridal engagement had abruptly ended (with no on-air explanation) a couple years back, much such crosstalk had been devoted to her wedding-plan updates, self-indulgently squandering valuable national airtime. (Quality newstalk radio can assume a myriad of forms, but audio Oprah ain't one of the them.)

But the former Republican campaign strategist only came to this most interesting media genre of all after bouncing around law, politics and television. Her commentaries on The CBS Evening News, followed by Watch It! on MSNBC and then frequent talking-head guest duty all over the cable nets during the late 90s, paved the way to her national newstalk show, which launched in 2001.

I'm suspicious of anyone who seems to notice the tremendously versatile vehicle which call-in radio obviously is only after passions for other public endeavors may have faded. I mean, some of us figured out that talk radio is the ideal news-biz gig while we were still mere listeners, instead of ultimately settling on broadcast in general and radio in particular only as something of an afterthought to another career or two.

Few people in the audience realize how significantly a radio program can be bolstered, in various subtle ways, when stewarded with the skills a bona fide broadcaster brings to newstalk. For decades now, I've been what industry types call a "radio guy". So maybe I'm just always going to favor a radio gal whose listeners are respected as playgoers in the theatre of the mind (like, say, late-night syndicated talk doyenne Rollye James, whom Radioactive Seattle shall critique soon) over any Laura-come-lately who clearly regards her audience mainly as potentially-swayed votes.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shiers Shines (A Minor Tribute)

Frank Shiers
KIRO 710 kHz
Host (principal substitute talent)

[and former longtime late-night and weekend personality]

Whenever you're fortunate enough to be invited to guest-host on anyone's newstalk radio show, it's incumbent upon you to always be deferential to his name, of course. And I started subbing for Frank Shiers on only my second-ever KIRO broadcast. Consequently, I said a lot of very nice, sometimes even effusive things on-air about his broadcasting talent over the last three years. Again, as an on-air colleague heard on the same station, I was obligated to do that. (Within the reasonable bounds of professional courtesy, this would apply even had I never stewarded his show while he was away.)

But with The Bryan Styble Program being cancelled by KIRO's new ownership regime six days ago, that obligation has ended. So I'm here to tell you now: Shiers really is the first-rate broadcasting pro and genuine fellow I always said he is whenever his name came up on my show. And unlike myself and most other newstalkers, he's as equally skilled as an FM disc jockey as he is behind a newstalk microphone, where he continues doing fill-in work for daytime KIRO stalwarts Dave Ross, Dori Monson, et al. Plus, Shiers is what in the broadcast industry is known as "a radio guy". And that's a plus (especially to me).

Amid the copious internet chatter generated by
KIRO's pennywise-but-pound-foolish cancellation of Shiers's long-running weeknight program, one poster described his on-air personality as "kind to a fault". That's inaccurate: Shiers is in fact merely kind. (As it happens, I'm the sort of fellow who's properly termed kind to a fault, meaning that my good will often ends up working against my interests. But not Frank.)

As far as I know or could ever tell, Shiers's primary concern as a host is always the KIRO audience, which is precisely where any fine broadcaster's priority should lie, obviously. He understands that a good host does his show for his listeners, not merely for those tiny few who happen to make air with him. It's true that there's nothing cutting-edge about the Shiers approach to newstalk radio. But that just makes his work more widely appealing than a more original, edgy approach might be. And Shiers designed his format with that in mind.

Or that's my hunch, at least; I've never discussed it with him. One thing he did once tell me was that he was trained for his topic-oriented format by Allan Prell, KIRO mid-morning man 2004-2005. (Though Prell's show was cancelled only a few months after I joined KIRO, and I seldom agree with his quite liberal politics, he remains one of the funniest and most-talented hosts I've ever listened to, much less been privileged to work with.)

Though it's obvious why, say, my own unconventional on-air style seems so jarring to so many posters' ears, I remain mystified as to why the quite polished and stylistically-mainstream newstalk radio hosting work of Shiers also generated as many nasty postings as it did at some local internet hangouts. I hope that's not because Shiers's pragmatic conservatism annoys them.

Oh, and Frank is a nice guy off the air as well; he was professionally helpful to me more than a few times, particularly shortly after my arrival at KIRO in March 2005. In three years of substituting for and sometimes working closely with Shiers, the worst I can say about him is that I wish he'd resisted repeating on-air a well-intentioned nickname I had unfortunately picked up after a year at KIRO.

And I haven't even mentioned his clever and visually-appealing work as a local editorial cartoonist. That's because this blog is about listening to radio, and Frank Shiers is a consistently enjoyable listen, whether spinning oldies for aging rockers or tales for newstalk radio listeners.


Monday, February 4, 2008

EIB Parodies Creedence's "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

The Rush Limbaugh Show
KTTH 770 kHz
Weekdays 9-noon
[plus overnight & Sunday afternoon replays]

"Who Wants McCain?", the Excellence In Broadcasting Network's new song parody of a Creedence Clearwater Revival standard which Rush Limbaugh debuted this morning just minutes ago, is yet another demonstration that Paul Shanklin, EIB's Memphis-based musical mimic, is the best in the business.

Every time another of Shanklin's carefully-crafted creations is played in order to caricature one of Rush's ideological targets, I'm reminded of how head-and-shoulders Shanklin is above everyone else producing musical parodies for newstalk radio. (Weird Al Yankovic is the only creative and comedic equal of Shanklin's I've heard, but he's always avoided AM newstalk as an outlet for his hilarious work.) Lesser syndicated shows, like Imus's most notably, typically offer half-baked take-offs which are wincingly forced. These parodies from the various pretenders to Shanklin's throne, like Imus's guy Ron Barlett, may often approach amusing but almost never rise to the level of funny. Instead such recordings mostly just remind listeners that a familiar tune isn't being done any justice.

I may be harboring a couple biases here: Shanklin once agreed to be profiled by me for George, the defunct D.C.-based political magazine (though one of JFK Jr.'s editors eventually dropped the project). And I admit "Who'll Stop the Rain?" has long been my favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, given frontman John Fogerty's imagery-laiden lyrics over that terrific rhythm guitar track, each enhanced by the lovely melody Fogerty's vocal carries while drenched in resignation. But the best thing about the 1970 Top 10 anthem is how its anti-war undertone was clear to nearly everyone who heard the single--probably initially in an AM station's rotation--despite its never being specified.

"Who Wants McCain?" follows many dozens of dead-on musical mimicries that Shanklin has been conceiving and executing for EIB ever since the mid-90s, displaying a remarkable faculty for replicating the timbre of an extraordinary range of voices. That would be impressive enough, but Shanklin also knows how to deftly replicate the lyrical style of each song he's modifing in the service of Limbaugh's ideology. (A less recent skewering of the onetime Keating Five legislator, Shanklin's "The Maverick McCain", sounds at some points almost indistinguishable from the familiar theme which opened each episode of James Garner's classic Maverick series.)

This latest Limbaugh lambasting of John McCain is just the most recent element of an unrelenting campaign the broadcaster has been waging against the polarizing frontrunner, fearful that the sometimes disloyal Republican will sell out his party's conservative wing once elected. But the song is a take-off of a rather melancholy recording, so this CCR parody ends up sounding decidedly less cutting than the well-honed and downright nasty McCain impression the broadcaster himself lately has been often sliding into. As the campaign has intensified, Rush has
employed this voice increasingly in monologue and even with callers.

Limbaugh's been evolving this impression ever since the former POW and current Rush foil declared for the 2008 GOP nomination. (Given the severe limitations of that cochlear implant separating him from absolute deafness, it's amazing he can still ape voices at all, much less nail them, as he usually does.) But as time has gone by, Rush's imitation has sounded increasingly embittered, and thus has been progressively more reflective of the nickname by which, according to Newsweek, the Arizonan is known behind his back in the halls of Congress: Senator Hothead.


What's So Great About Newstalk Radio?

I've long contended that the newstalk radio genre offers its audience more, arguably, than any of the myriad other available forms of news and entertainment media.

A BlatherWatch poster seemed unduly dismissive of this contention, made frequently during my KIRO broadcasts and repeated in a recent BW posting I penned. But of course there's that pesky qualifier "arguably".

So I shall argue the proposition right here. Eventually.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Next Best Thing to HOSTing Newstalk Radio?

As I type these keystrokes, it's precisely 10:55 pm Pacific Time on a certain momentous Sunday night. Like you perhaps, right now I'm struggling to digest the conclusion, some four hours ago, of one the most memorable sporting spectacles in history--the New England Patriots losing their grasp on an undefeated season in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLII.

This particular point in time would have fallen near the end of the first hour of the February 3, 2008 edition of The Bryan Styble Program on KIRO, the largest newstalk radio outlet west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. But the program didn't
make air tonight, because my long-running local open-line broadcast was cancelled last week. This happened en masse, with the brooming of the rest of the station's local newstalk weekend lineup, and of course was the decision of KIRO's new ownership regime, Bonneville Broadcasting. (Management claimed, first privately to me and then publicly in the media, that the decision was purely budgetary.)

I could sit and rue that unfortunate--but long-anticipated, at least by me--development, while continuing to post on BlatherWatch to set the record straight about my somewhat controversial run at the most-respected talk radio operation in the Pacific Northwest...or I could vent my various talk-radio ideas herein.

I'm electing the second option. Accordingly, henceforth you can check Radioactive Seattle for almost daily updates regarding everything heard over Seattle's various newstalk radio stations. (These items, mostly in the form of critiques of hosts and their broadcast styles, shall be posted amid my occasional "radioactive" takes on everything from astronomy to zoology.)

This town's rich variety of hosts are mostly ignored by both of Seattle's dailies, but there's an added reason why there's room for an additional blog monitoring the wide range of commercial newstalk radio bombarding ears around the Sound is warranted, whether or not its author happens to be a longtime host himself. BlatherWatch's leftist proprietor, whose fascination with the genre has always seemed pointedly ideological, of late is said to have largely lost his interest in newstalk radio. Many BW posters have noted the popular blog's recent drift toward politics and away from the magical aural medium.

Radioactive Seattle shall endeavor to help fill this cyber-niche with incisive commentary on the wide range of commercial newstalk radio programming reaching Puget Sound audiences. Behind-the-scenes maneuvering
by the typically strong personalities which dominate the genre is generally less interesting than the things these people say on their shows, thus I have no inclination toward (nor any aptitude for, anyway) the sort of aggressive (and sometimes reckless) industry reporting BW has engaged in.

The off-air activities of talk radio professionals are just that, off the air, and thus are presumably irrelevant to an audience seeking information and analysis of the news and the culture. They also happen to be the sole aspect of this arcane end of show business which I shan't miss throughout the months or even years ahead until I'm again "propagating conversation at the speed of light" somewhere.

That's of course assuming that KIRO doesn't end up being the final stage in my 19-year career in commercial newstalk radio. So though I'm no longer one of the privileged few hosting broadcasts at the highest level of what is arguably the most interesting advent of the media age, at least I'll instead be able to freely discuss the genre herein. And in the process cover some matters which, for one or another reason, it was inappropriate for me to discuss on the air, at least over KIRO.

I hope you'll find the musings on newstalk radio in Radioactive Seattle worth reading, and even responding to.


The Bryan Styble Program
featuring Open Lines for Open Minds
KIRO Newstalk Radio 2005-2008