Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thinking Seriously, About the Serious-Thinking Dennis Prager

In case anyone missed the mercilessly-hammered point of the satire below ["The Dennis Plagiar Show"], its never-stated thesis is:  The sometimes-brilliant Dennis Prager is so unmindful of both broadcast imperatives and factual integrity that his program is catastrophically undermined.

Prager is no dimwit--though he does inadvertantly say loads of dumb things on the air--but his plagued program's principal problem isn't stupidity.  Actually, Prager is stupid in one essential regard.  And profoundly so.

Prager delusionally believes one can host quality call-in newstalk radio while lacking a powerful and quick memory, an unfortunate lifelong shortcoming he increasingly and cheerfully admits to on-air.  But it should be an immediate deal-killer for any programmer, those suits who decide and bestow the precious few hosting slots.  And Prager's torpidly-slow speaking style compounds all this, by allowing his quicker-thinking listeners chance during every Prager thought-collecting pause to notice how many details the host is messing up or just missing.

Ironically enough, Prager is a highly successful public speaker, but lecturing in front of a visible audience is as vastly different an art form from skillfully hosting commercial newstalk radio for thousands or even millions of invisible and mostly-solitary listeners as is, well, nonfiction book authoring is from scrapbooking.  The Dennis Prager Show sounds like a verbal scrapbook.

Prager has been unwittingly concealing his radio ineptitude from his large fan base and often cloyingly-adoring callers because they seldom notice any of this, and probably wouldn't care even if alerted to it.  I've zero doubt that a Pragermaniac's response to even his most blatant broadcast incompetence is so biased by his or her adoration of the air personality that, if confronted with it, the worst they'd muster might be, "Oh, that's just Dennis."

That's at least in substantial part why Prager has been so undeservingly successful in a medium where, given his skill set, he has no business even being on the air.

Talk radio listeners don't need--or even want--to understand radio.  They need to enjoy it, as well as use it as part of their personal information-gathering processes.  In a perfect universe, every talk radio caller would also be as articulate and informed as the gifted hosts they're phoning, but hey, they'd also then be contributing the same added value as the highly-paid host while working for free.

The circumstance that the host gets a studio and three hours while the caller has but a phone and at most three minutes is supposedly reflective of the host possessing rare skills vital to the comfort of the audience's ears.  (I'm amazed I didn't develop a caulaflower pair within months of regular Prager listenership.)  Only those few individuals who can commandingly handle both the content and formatic ends of the complex endeavor should ever be entrusted with one of the tiny handful of radio slots available.

Many of the details I'm talking about here are left to the responsibility of the professionals who handle them, i.e., the off-air people who in the industry term "produce" a given program.  But much of what's missing from The Dennis Prager Show unfortunately can't be supplied by off-air personnel, even in this near light-speed digital era.

Any quality host inserts on the fly frequent verbal cues and aural grace notes which service the continual needs of the listener with the aim of polishing the overall sound of the show.  So whenever those needs are unmet, as they chronically are by Prager, the show sounds lousy.  To avoid confusing the listener and augment what's being said by anyone involved, the host must constantly monitor a wide range of considerations which on quality shows are all intentionally kept from the listener.  Well, maybe not hidden, but executed in such silky fashion it's as if they were concealed.

Ever wonder what goes on in a production meeting for a newstalk radio program?  Then listen to The Dennis Prager Show; he does maybe a half-dozen of them every show, whenever he floats ideas to his longtime (and, I imagine, long-suffering) producer Allen Estrin.

And yet it sure sounds like Prager never even bothers with true production meetings, maybe since, after all, he's the host, not the producer.  If so, that's convicting evidence of his criminal misunderstanding of radio.  In actuality, only to the listener and to his guests is Prager the host, whatever his title.  From this perspective on the other side of your radio, he's not the host but the "talent"--however untalented in fact that individual may be.

Television has only one thing the older (and superior) medium of radio lacks, and it isn't pictures*, it's graphics.  Though increasingly cluttered on certain info-dispensing cable networks, graphics continually inform the viewer of things that would sound hopelessly redundant on radio.  Assuming attentive technical directors in the TV control room--an unrealized presumption in far too many cases nowadays--talking heads on TV are always identified with graphical data [i.e., first line: "BRYAN STYBLE"; subhead:  "Former Seattle-based newstalk radio host and noted Dylanologist"] superimposed near the bottom of the screen.  That's why TV pros call them "supers".

But on radio, there's only sound, and two people talking at the same time never works well. Someone dubious might counter:  but a talk radio conversation is a two-way exchange, and some have three or more voices!

Right.  All the more reason why the conscientious host never neglect even for an on-air moment his numerous responsibilities to sort all this out for the listener, by regularly reminding us who's talking to whom, what time it is (so-called "time-checks", something Prager's occasionally refers to though without ever using its proper term), the local general weather conditions, what's calendrically special about that particular date, toss in a promo or two for other shows in the lineup, and oh yeah, identify what show and station they're tuned to.  And all the while, that skillful host is silently keeping an eye on the clock and those ever-oncoming breaks, segues which need to be gracefully and stylishly executed for a high-quality listening experience.  And extremely talented hosts can juggle all these newstalk-radio balls while still remaining--or more likely, just sounding--relaxed.

In the newstalk radio biz, the numerous elements every program demands are broken down into two broad categories:  "content" (i.e., the political or social viewpoints being expressed along with any information being connoted), and all the host's orchestrating verbal connectors, which are part of something known as "formatics".  This latter category, of course, is the sole and constant responsibility of talk radio hosts, never their guests or callers.

By the way, formatics is a word I fear the vocabulary-rich Prager has never even heard.  Check that; he's surely heard this industry term hundreds if not thousands of times, because he's been spending at least part of every week of his experience-saturated life inside radio stations for 30 years now.  But Prager clearly considers formatics incidental compared to content, if not being entirely oblivious to them.

Prager's staff fumbles incessantly, too:  his program's never-rotating bumper music is almost always poorly slid under the verbal proceedings--that's why they're known as "music beds", incidentally.  But that's just one of the more jarring of the many ways his engineer Sean O'Connell makes things even worse.  The produced elements--like the incomprehensible "Ultimate Issues" and "Male-Female" intro montages--are often downright sloppy, yet haven't been adjusted in years.

If Estrin is too busy aurally riding shotgun on Prager's always bumpy stagecoach ride, a would-be caller might be required to talk to a college intern screening her first show and struggling to understand a sophisticated point while trying to distill it down to the few words allowed by the usually small fields allotted on the call-queque screen.  If you want to probe, say, some of the subtle yet fundamental differences between agnosticism and atheism, Prager might just end up with "Religion is bad" on his screen.

But even Estrin can't screen, and this shocked and dismayed me once.  Last year I was in the middle of an on-air exchange with Prager, having somehow managed to be "held-over" a break, something every Salem show--other than Bill Bennett's, to his credit--assiduously avoids for various reasons.  (I don't have a tape, but I'd wager the only reason is by the time I finally made air, some clunky music bed signaled he didn't have even 20 seconds for me to amateurishly make my point.  You can buy a copy of that show and check me on this, but it'll cost you.  I'd tell you how much, but I'm a never-time caller at The Dennis Prager Store.)

Anyway, when Estrin got on my line while the audience was being subjected to some of the mostly substandard-sounding ads Salem manages to sell, it was to scold me for "not getting to [my] point", even though I had been, though perhaps not as swiftly as the, ahem, standards of the show mandate.

Then Estrin vetoed--under threat of not returning me to air in order to finish my interrupted presentation!--a point that would have taken precisely 14 seconds for me to add while very conceivably being life-changing for a severely-handicapped Prager fan.

Actually, maybe I shouldn't describe him as disabled all, much less severely, because radio is the only realm where this man and I are equally able.  That is, this caller had described himself as totally but only recently blind, and lamented to Prager not a fortnight prior how difficult a time he was having adjusting.

All I wanted to parenthetically add was this:  "Dennis, about that newly-blinded man for whom you said you couldn't offer anything more than your deep, sincere sympathy:  Well, I'm not much of a musician, but I recommend he should try taking up the drums late in life like I did, not before my early 50s.  Like you Dennis, I can play several instruments, but drumming is the only one I routinely play better with my eyes closed."

My "heart" doesn't break often, quite unlike the ever-saccarine Prager's.  He often insists he is "speaking from" his heart, whereas my coronary organ only serves to pump blood to places like my brain, whose mind does all my speaking for me.  Yet no exaggeration, I nearly cried when dismissively and condescendingly chided by Estrin that the unhappy man man in question "probably isn't listening again today anyway".

And I bet Estrin was even erroneous with that ugly presumption, since far more loyal newstalk radio callers are blind than are ever imagined by the listeners, simply because they never mention it.  I even described how my idea even might almost instantly improve the fellow's sad circumstance.  Taking up the drums easily makes my top ten decisions reached over my entire amateur-caller's life, for many additional reasons besides the entire new universe I find myself in while drumming away in the dark.  (Oh, and on down days, make that my top three.)  I thusly would have advanced the stated aims of Prager's "Happiness Hour", but Estrin's cruelly-callous behavior--toward the sightless guy, not me, though that sad man fortunately never heard it--had put the utter lie to his boss's trademark hour.

Okay, I guess I should have called an hour earlier that Friday, because then I might have gotten an intern screening instead during the "Happiness Hour" proper, instead of encountering Estrin during the allegedly open-line, week-concluding hour.  But before reconnecting me with St. Dennis, Estrin even called on his professional radio experience to lecture me, the obviously amateur caller, about how much time I'd be squandering, since "air-time is precious, and Dennis just doesn't have time for you to add that".  (Estrin was actually right on both those points.   Hardly in the ways he meant, but rather, in deeply darker and fully culpable meanings.  Maybe Estrin was high on some of that honey he writes and sometimes broadcasts about;  you probably can buy yourself a jar of the sweet stuff at The Dennis Prager Store.)

A year later I regret not foregoing my additional "precious" Prager airtime in favor of just slamming the phone down on Estrin after acidly replying:  "If that were true, your boss would also never air those always-weak 'week's highlights' montages you slap together for him."  You'd hope the highlights clip would at least be solid, but even it often contains glittering examples of Prager's on-air awkwardness.  I guess that seasoned pro Estrin can't even find one or two minutes of quality buried beneath the fifteen heaping hours of rotten air-time Prager prattles away each week.

If Prager was any good as a radio newstalker, he wouldn't consult his callers-dedicated  computer screen even once per program anyway for anything but the who-and-where data.  Prager's sole open-line hour per week isn't what it pretends to be.  Verbally-able callers are still bounced for the most dubious of stated reasons, and G-d knows what the true rationales are; "Dennis would prefer to answer that question by e-mail; here's his address" a female screener blithely lied to me when I wanted to ask nothing during the hour when I can supposedly raise "anything under the Sun" with Prager.  I honestly informed her I wanted merely to register my legitimate complaint about the creeping scatology on his show.  The supposedly genteel Prager frequently employs that nasty excretory C-word--which may be a lot tamer than the never-used S-word but still sure annoys many listeners--and has even disgraced his broadcast with at least one flatulence joke.  I'd tell it to you, but I'm one of the few former professional stand-up comics who never even once worked blue.  (It wasn't funny anyway, but that didn't seem to dampen Prager's chuckles after telling it.)

Maybe because throughout my entire newstalk hosting career I conducted mostly open-phones and thus seldom restricted topics, I don't know why I must show my cards to every big-time host before I can play my amateurish talk radio hand.  Every show must weed out pranksters and drunks--something far easier said than done anyway, especially by interns--but if Prager had earned even a tenth of this enormous reputation for erudition, he could easily endure for at least that single hour what I used to thrive on.  Not 24 hours per day of course, but fully offering my listeners 24 hours every week-of open-line opportunity, just in case the drive-time shows were too cluttered for KIRO callers to have their say.  (Every KIRO show had a fine and maybe even great sound, except maybe my own fifth of the KIRO lineup, or some reviewers so found my work.  Of course, I was doing just about everything but running the board--four hours per overnight, six mornings a week--over KIRO/Seattle, always learning simultaneously with my audience what subject(s) I would next find myself discussing.

That wonderful KIRO gig paid better than the money I suspect Salem finds for Estrin (unless he makes just south of six figures), but then I was just proudly holding down the underrated overnight slot, something many serious radio pros like Estrin won't lower themselves to take anyway, even as a host.  That's because it's such a supposedly marginal audience, but I know for a fact that it's got its sightless fans, at least at KIRO.

One of my sole two sympathies for Prager--the other is his 6'3" stature, which I certainly couldn't handle; I wish I were an inch or two shorter than my own 5'11"--is the shift Salem assigned him:  head-to-head weekdays, noon-to-3 Eastern time, directly against Rush.

The handful of conservative listeners the industry's decades-long reigning king hasn't already swept away for the entirety of the time-slot are thus left for Prager's bumbling show to attract, mostly only by those who mistake Limbaugh's bombastic style for meanness and thus prefer a "polite" host like Prager to hang with for a few hours.

Meanwhile, that unhappy blind man, who continues to haunt my thoughts, makes me unhappy; might that be acceptable material for this week's Happiness Hour?  Probably not, since every "dedicated" hour on Prager's show is also topic-restricted to whatever narrow question Prager thought up, maybe during his drive to the studio that day, or maybe the previous day, during one of those on-air Prager production meetings that gave little ol' amateur me a rare glimpse into the high-stakes world nationally-syndicated newstalk radio is.

One of The Dennis Prager Show's brand-new features fails spectacularly: those listener-provided phone-number jingles Prager's been soliciting are each independently created yet share an astounding unlistenability, and are even downright unintelligible in some cases.  And this for an item whose sole purpose is to connote information vital to would-be callers!  Of course, Prager never gets around any but a tiny fraction of his waiting callers anyway.  So while further littering his already atrocious sound with yet more aural trash, Prager's at least saving such people a lot of trouble by making all but impossible to identify the necessary digits.  (I defy you to listen to one of Prager's favorite "numbers jingles"--the one he infelitiously calls the "boom-boom" one--and figure out what number to dial.)  

About the only good thing I can say about Prager's approach to talk radio hosting is when he's yelling, he sounds authentically riled.  That's as opposed to, say, Mark Levin, another abysmibally lame broadcaster, who summons artificial anger at the drop of a hat, or call.  But while Prager's intensity seems real, Prager's laughter is mostly phony.  That's because Prager thinks it helps to project such emotion, to lighten the already far-too-light preceedings, even for unfunny gags that are barely smile-worthy.  But in fact to everyone attuned to its synthetic nature, Prager's well-honed chuckling just reeks of insincerity.  And I mean that sincerely.

That previous sentence is not a reflection of any sentiment on my own part, but rather a direct rip-off of one of the most commonly-heard sentences rolling out of Prager's mouth.  He thinks he's re-emphasizing, but with this corrosive phrase he's actually daring his audience to wonder about anything he's already said which wasn't followed by that frequent I-really-mean-it redundancy.

Unless Prager is an outright liar--and I don't believe that, and never want to--his memory problem is far worse that I even imagined, as evidenced by a call made by another fellow bothered by all this insincere sincerity.  Prager sometimes cites the familiar definition of a certain Yiddish word--a kid being tried for slaying his parents requesting mercy due to his orphan status--but here's a far less murderous way to define chutspah:  when a caller in New York City begged Prager to please lay off all the I-sincerely-mean-its, Prager denied he even says it!

(Five-time published author Prager recently dusted off the old grammatical smiler that "good writers are entitled to only three exclamation points in their entire careers", the underlying theory there being good ol'  less-is-more thinking.  My previous paragraph depleted one-third of my supposed lifetime entitlement prudently.)

I don't know if I'll ever get around to reading Prager's new book, but I would love to dive deeply into his manuscripts, before they're seen by book editors who are sometimes paid several hundreds of thousands of dollars at the biggest New York publishing houses.  Still the Best Hope may be the Citizen Kane of 2012 nonfiction, or it may be the result of a laborious collaboration that started out as a bunch of scattered ideas, some maybe importantly good, and only then heavily hammered into readability.

(A minor once-published author in Tampa for whom I edited a would-be second nonfiction book delivered me this colossal gem:  "Every man should explore the deep, dark netherlands of his mind."  Might have worked in Dutch, but certainly not English.  Oh, and he still promises he'll soon remit my fee, a couple years later.  He may simply be dissatisfied because it remains, thankfully, unpublished.)

Blame both Shawn and Salem Radio--a notoriously stingy Dallas-based company for everyone but its supposedly star talent--for Prager's consistently terrible engineering, something fellow Salem newtalker Michael Medved, a terrifically talented guy, must also endure.  Limbaugh's technically sterling sound is enormously expensive to deliver, for all manner of reasons.  And Salem isn't merely interested in saving pennies, but souls as well; its faith-advancing policies are reflective of its activist Christian ownership, despite having a couple serious Jewish voices (Prager and Medved) in its lineup. 

Many daily hosts never see a radio studio more than a few times per year, if that.  That's due to the truly cancerous commercial newstalk radio advent of the "home studio", which in fact is just about never a true studio at all, but rather merely some microphone-and-mini-board setup installed in a host's basement or den and wired into whatever real broadcast facility the show is produced at, often half a continent away.  And seldom if ever is the audience informed about something they have every right to know:  that the host to whom they're so loyally listening is so lazy and disrespectful of his listeners' ears to merely drive across town for each show to a radio studio, which might in fact be right down his street.

But Prager to his absolute credit uses a radio station or at least a true studio whenever available, and in this important regard I happen for once to be in ironclad agreement with him.  Home studios unavoidably compromise the sound of those talk radio shows so-produced almost as much as cell phone technology hurts call-in radio conversations.  (More on that seismic issue in a soon-forthcoming RadioactiveSeattle essay.)  But the industry doesn't care because they long ago concluded that listeners nowadays care only about content, or at least think they only care about it.

Formatics-lean shows constitute an increasing majority of all the shows available up on the satellites, but formatics always enhance the content, by making what's said more readily digestible by listeners' minds.  This is especially important when those minds are navigating tight traffic conditions while tuned to their car radios.

The Dennis Prager Show is virtually oblivious to quality formatics, something which can only be supplied by the host.  That's what hosting is, for G-d's sake.  Prager is happy to leave these vital details unattended to or at best clumsily-attempted, presumably because his approach to talk radio has the "important" part down, serious thinking about serious issues.  But in the case of the often unintentionally-hilarious Dennis Prager Show, the host himself hasn't bothered to even minimally acquire the skill-set he needs to accomplish what he so earnestly wants to do.

What Prager doesn't know and in fact might even deeply dispute--but which Rush Limbaugh (and Bryan Styble) understand--is that every quality newstalk radio program is fully one part content and one part formatics.  Prager thinks it's only the content that matters, and thanks to his bad memory, even his content is often confused. 

Prager apparently is truly as honest as the on-air personality he portrays, as is indicated whenever he admits he's always had this memory problem.  That is, it's not an aging issue, but rather something that has been tripping him up on the air--and surely often in life since childhood as well--since he first started in radio.  I report this from first-hand experience, having started listening to Prager when he started at KABC/Los Angeles on Sunday nights in 1982.  And for a decade, I was a regular caller on his various KABC shows.  Most first-time broadcasters sound amateurish or worse first few weeks, but slowly yet steadily pick up the skills needed to minimally serve their audience's interests.  Yet Prager remains as intensely bad a talk radio host today as he was in 1982.

The multi-talented and well-intentioned Prager is seriously miscast as a call-in radio talk show host, and it makes a pretty smart guy come off on the air sometimes just to the intellectual side of Homer Simpson.  Or as Alfred E. Newman once said--or at least was attributed by the Mad editors as having said, in that funny aphorism the magazine for decades has been hiding each issue in its seldom-read masthead:  "Some people are like ink blotters.  They soak up all the information, but get it all backwards."

Prager has many good ideas, some of which are even original as far as I can determine, and in fact I actually agree with him much more frequently than I disagree with his various societal and political takes.  But because he can't mind the factual details and is ignorant of or oblivious to so many broadcasting imperatives, his nationally-syndicated Salem Radio production The Dennis Prager Show is a breathtakingly terrible radio show.

I've explained at least once on-air to the hosts of Orlando's American Adversaries call-in show that their particular political views are completely irrelevant to this lifelong radio guy.  "It wouldn't matter to me if your show was to the left of Trotsky or the right of Himmler" I hyperbolically insisted--and even noted that either of those would-be productions would actually be inherently more interesting shows than the one I was saying this on!--"because I don't care about ideology, I care about good radio."

I regularly called in contributions to their show in the earliest days of The American Adversaries in 2010 because I heard their earnestness, but felt sorry about the fact that their intentions were being undermined by neither of them being an experienced radio pro, what Limbaugh terms a "highly-trained broadcast professional".  Or in a typical listener's words, anyone who "sounds great on the air".  Listeners don't need to know about formatics or any of the many considerations every high quality talk show attends to, but they do hugely benefit from them.  So whenever they're absent--a phenomenon known as "bad radio"--the listeners' ears are severely punished.

To their credit and my amazement, Larry Adams and Christopher Hart not only didn't resent my repeated call-in complaints about their production--again, not of their viewpoints, but the way they were being presented--but rather actually appreciated the critiques from a retired longtime newstalk radio yakker.  Or at least said they did.  And vastly more important, they accordingly worked hard on bumping up their sound, and remain improving with lots of improvement distance yet to cover.

Whereas on the verge of beginning his fourth decade on the air, the ever-inept Prager still hasn't even figured out how to read simple commercial copy without an annoying singsong.  And he may be totally unaware of all of this, since for 30 years Prager always has seemed to naively believe he's sounded just fine throughout the time he's been (mis-)doing radio.  But that's confusing success with talent.  In any event, if his work didn't demonstrate such utter and constant contempt for long-established broadcast standards, I would never have been so savagely satirical of him below.

When I first I heard him happily musing on-air about his weak memory, I tried to but couldn't make air on The Dennis Prager Show that day, for the simple reason that he didn't take many calls.  Like every day.  He endlessly claims he'll soon go to the phones, and may even intend to, but still in effect is lying by frequently giving out the numbers and repeatedly pledging to take calls over a three-hour show that nonetheless sometimes concludes with only two callers ever being heard.

Prager's seldom-realized intentions to absorb caller input are constantly thwarted by the clumsy way he conducts the show.  And even the handful who get on the show are thusly allotted insufficient air-time to get out whatever they're trying to say.  That's because truly vast amounts of Prager's limited airtime is squandered by his broadcasting ineptitude.

And as a result, Prager nowadays voices empty apologies hourly to those screened-and-waiting potential callers haven't already hung up in frustration or simple recognition that making air was hopeless.  But instead of hourly lamenting how "I wish could have taken your calls", he should be daily apologizing for never having done his broadcast homework since 1982.

And not just to those unaired callers, some of whom quite possibly have been on hold nearly three hours, patiently but quixotically waiting for Prager to stop bumbling and get it together to allow time for their brief contributions.  Instead, the daily apology should be issued to everyone tuned in, for allowing his broadcast boneheadedness to contaminate their listening experience and--if they're one of those screened-yet-unaired callers--maybe even substantially raising their phone bills.

There's at least a thousand ways a host can gracefully bring a caller on to have his say, yet Prager seems to have pared it to down a single banal variation--"Okay, let's now go to [caller] in [locale].   Hi, [caller], Dennis Prager."  (Actually, the second sentence there would be fine--and even reinforcing of the entire sequence--if employed in what is known as a "format", but for that to work his slate must be completely cleaned for the first sentence every time.  Or one at least strives for that.)

Accordingly, I am confident that below is a transcript of not merely what I wanted to say, but also how he would have introduced our exchange:

"Okay, let's now go to Bryan in Seattle.  Hi Bryan, Dennis Prager."  

"Hey Dennis, first off, let me re-emphasize something I've been telling you on-air since 1982 down in L.A.; that is, that I'm always grateful for the opportunity to contribute to your broadcast.  And I particularly appreciated what you just so cheerfully admitted to earlier this show.  That is, that you don't now nor have ever been lucky enough to possess tremendous mental recall, what you termed "a good memory".  But it's unfathomable why your immediate next sentence wasn't something like, 'Therefore, I am retiring from newstalk radio at the conclusion of this final edition of The Dennis Prager Show, and in sad fact, should never have been ever granted my own program in the first place.' "


* Any decent radio show generates gazillions more images than do even the best-produced television shows, but they're inconspicuous for the simple reason that they're in the mind of each listener.

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