A friend of mine wrote me the other day to say he had taken a new job that gave him a lot of time to listen to talk radio. He said he found FM talk "much more civil" than AM talk.
I remember when I thought that way, too. Looking back now, I realize how narrow my horizons were. By "FM talk," I meant -- and I think my friend meant -- exclusively NPR talk shows, which are subsidized, have no commercials, and do not really have to compete in a market at all.
My impression back then of AM talk radio was that it was something like sports talk shout jocks, with lots of slanging and insults and rudeness.
MY CONVERSION TO CONSERVATISM came about in stages. Some friends of ours in the early '90s (still friends) asked me to come by their house and collect their mail from the front hall floor while they went on vacation. One day in their mail stack I found a new copy of National Review, which I hadn't seen in many years. I opened it to the back page and found Florence King.
Florence King! One of my favorite writers. I sat down and began to read the issue. I remember the slow dawning of reason, as I went through issue after issue of this most literate and intelligent of magazines.
I had a similar dawning experience shortly thereafter when I turned on the Rush Limbaugh show for the first time. It was a goosey thrill, kind of like doing something forbidden behind the barn. In the event, it amazed me how courteous Rush was to his listeners, how smart he was, and how funny.
RUSH MAKES NO BONES about the core mission of his program, which has nothing to do with politics or morality. It's to make as much money from commercial sponsorship as possible. It's a business.
All commercial radio has the same imperative. It matters little whether you listen to country FM or commercial talk: The station has to sell commercials for as much money as possible. That means ratings, because ratings drive ad rates. In order to raise and maintain ratings, radio programs have to entertain.
You can entertain in all kinds of ways: With "ten in a row" country hits (the anticipation of which will make a listener stay tuned in through long commercial blocks); with comic bits and funny noises and sound bites and a mordant sense of humor (like Boston talk king Howie Carr); with rhetorical verve and adroit argument (like Jay Severin); or with a nasty, snarling confrontational style (like Michael Savage, who, with his health food background, must be a blast at parties).
But however you entertain, you have to entertain. No hour-long interviews with authors who suffer from polio, no endless discussions of restless leg syndrome, no half-hour self-righteous portraits of lowlifes.
THE EXAMPLES CAN VARY WIDELY. This morning, I found Boston Herald reporter Michelle McPhee on FM talk station WTKK, talking about how a marginal cheating episode had blown the validity of the Boston Police Department's latest promotion exam for detectives. I listened for an hour while I drove around on my morning errands. She interviewed the police commissioner, who obviously knew her well (she's an experienced crime reporter).
So make the comparison valid. It's not FM vs. AM. It's subsidized radio vs. commercial radio. Howie Carr, for example, just reportedly inked a new contract with WTKK -- bombshell news in Boston, where Carr has been a fixture on AM WRKO for 20 years.
Besides, if you want to hear the rudest of liberalism on display, just tune in NPR's comedy show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Its participants are arrogant, superior, snotty, self-righteous -- and wrong.
Not even Michael Savage can beat that quintifecta.