Public Argument, Civil Society and What Talk Radio Teaches about Rhetoric

By Kane, Thomas | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Argument, Civil Society and What Talk Radio Teaches about Rhetoric


Kane, Thomas, Argumentation and Advocacy


In an earlier part of this century, G.K. Chesterton wrote of the irony he found regarding the invention of radio: "How strange it is that mankind should have invented a machine for speaking to the whole world at precisely the moment when no man has anything to say."

By contrast, talk radio entered the mass media arena at a time when people had plenty to say. As Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein recently wrote, "Bound by neither the standards of factual accuracy nor objectivity to which the mainstream press aspired (even if it didn't always reach), talk radio exploded into the political world like a cluster bomb" (165). By 1995, over a thousand radio stations were broadcasting some form of talk as their main program format (Laufer x). Among the seventy-five top markets in the country, news/talk radio ranks second only to Adult Contemporary music as the most popular radio format (Hoyt 46).

In 1993, The Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press conducted a comprehensive survey on the vocal minority in American politics, and found that almost one half of Americans listen to talk radio on a relatively frequent basis, with one in six listening regularly (1). Eleven percent have attempted to call into a radio program and six percent report that they have gotten on the air to make their views known (2). Thus, it is difficult to disagree with Peter Laufer "that talk radio has developed into [a] cultural force of consequence in America"(9).

In attempting to identify the economic and sociopolitical reasons for the emergence of talk radio, Mike Hoyt, associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, identifies technology and economics as important factors. With the emergence of FM radio and its superior sound quality, AM radio needed a reason to exist. Talk radio provided the reason. Technological achievements such as car phones and satellite networks contributed to the growth. In defining sociopolitical reasons, Hoyt notes that "in a world where front-porch, front-stoop conversation is disappearing, people yearn to connect. For another, of course, two-way talk radio is a great vent for political frustration, of which there is no shortage. It fits the mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-anymore national mood" (46).

In explaining the reasons for the Republican party's victory in the 1994 House of Representatives and Senate elections, Balz and Brownstein assess a prominent role for talk radio: "Republicans benefited from a enormous surge of conservative votes, urged on by the angry diatribes of talk radio hosts and mobilized by the likes of the Christian Coalition, which distributed thirty-three million voter guides, and the National Rifle Association, which poured $3.4 million into targeted campaigns" (56).

President Bill Clinton, the target of many conservative talk show hosts since his 1992 election, called KMOX in Saint Louis June 24, 1994 while-flying over the State of Missouri aboard Air Force One. "Much of talk radio is just a constant, unremitting, drumbeat of negativism and cynicism," he told the two hosts (Laufer 120). Yet, scarcely a year earlier, Clinton had invited more than 200 talk show hosts from around the country to a briefing on his health care proposals along with an opportunity to broadcast their programs from the White House lawn (20). He understands the importance of talk radio in the formation of public opinion.

The political scientist and philosopher James S. Fishkin, relying on the works of Plutarch, describes how members of the Council in ancient Sparta were elected by a method called the Shout: "The order in which candidates to the Council were considered was determined by lot. This order was not known to the impartial evaluators who were seated in another room with writing tablets. The evaluators' job was simply to assess the loudness of the cheering each candidate received when he walked in front of the assembled throng. The candidate receiving the loudest shouts and applause was deemed the winner" (23). …

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