Although Clinton did not specifically mention radio talk show hosts in his critical remarks, many people believed that he was in some way blaming them for the terrible bombing. Carol Arnold, host of a radio talk show in Oklahoma City, responded, "It's really unfortunate that the president, after doing such a good job . . . in leading the government to provide backup and support quickly and efficiently, would follow it up by attacking the free speech of talk show hosts."
On the other hand, Alan Colmes, another radio host, tended to agree with the president and expressed his belief that a "poisonous atmosphere" had developed in the country. This, he said, "gives the cowards and the malcontents all the permission they need to do what they do best: hate."
Talk radio is different from most other media because the listeners have an opportunity to immediately participate in what is being discussed. They can talk right back. Moreover, when listeners call in, they do so anonymously ("This is Mary from Detroit."). Anonymity, however, makes it easy for racists and hatemongers of all sorts to express their views all over the public airwaves. Also, some talk show hosts seem to invite or provoke anger and hate. What, if anything, should be done about this?
What Is Talk Radio?
Talk radio has been described as "America's back fence," "the First Amendment's playground," and "half participatory democracy, half cheesy show biz." As a radio format, it has been around since at least the 1960s. But it came into its own as a political powerhouse in 1989 when many talk show hosts across the nation egged on their listeners to force members of Congress to vote against a huge congressional pay raise. Many believe that conservative-leaning talk radio had much to do with the stunning Republican congressional victory in 1994.
Today, talk radio is mostly a local phenomenon. Only a few talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh, are considered national successes. Limbaugh, who is very critical of Clinton, is broadcast over 660 stations and heard by an estimated 20-million listeners.
Most talk radio show hosts are politically conservative. This is probably because their audience tends to be conservative. But the most popular hosts seem to be successful more for their personality and wit than their politics.
Who listens to talk radio? Surveys show that most listeners are in their 50s. While millions tune in, only about 6 percent ever call in. Many of the callers, however, often seem to be those who are the most angry and mean-spirited.
Talk show hosts set the tone for the callers. They must be entertaining, provocative, and well-informed. While most are highly opinionated, they usually welcome callers who disagree with them. Hosts want controversy and clashing viewpoints. This is what draws the listeners (and the advertisers). But even before the Oklahoma City bombing and President Clinton's critical remarks about "angry voices," some talk show hosts were being accused of inspiring hate and violence.
Part of the criticism directed against certain talk show hosts concerns their use of exaggerated language to get a reaction from listeners. A Cincinnati radio host calls liberals "loathsome dogs to be exterminated." A host on San Francisco talk radio refers to gays as "Nazis trying to steal our freedom." A Phoenix host once told listeners that gun control advocate Sarah Brady should be "put down" like a diseased dog by a vet. This language is often intended to provoke listeners, but some fear it simply makes America a more hateful society.
The hosts, in turn, respond to critics by stating that they are not expressing hatred against racial or ethnic groups. They say their ridicule is directed at those who disagree with their ideas. They also say that any listener who does not like a show can simply tune out.
Some other talk radio hosts have been denounced for encouraging violence. Colorado Springs host Don Baker, a strong opponent of gun control, suggested that his listeners take their guns with them to Washington in the summer of 1994 to protest a proposed federal ban on assault weapons.
G. Gordon Liddy, a Washington, D.C., area talk show host, gave directions on how to shoot intrusive federal ATF (Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco) agents, who are responsible for enforcing gun laws. He advised people to aim for the head since ATF agents frequently wear bulletproof vests. He later told listeners that if the head is too hard to hit, "then shoot to the groin area."
In at least one case, a talk show host became the victim of violent hate. In 1984, Alan Berg, a liberal Jewish talk radio host in Denver, was shot to death by a gunman with neo-Nazi views.
Ellen Ratner, a reporter for the Talk Radio News Service and a host herself, argues that the great majority of talk show hosts do not inspire violence or hate. "Blaming talk radio for the bombing in Oklahoma City," she says, "is condemning the Constitution for guaranteeing the right to speak openly."
Many supporters of talk radio believe that critics simply don't like the conservative ideas often expressed on it. They say that talk radio gives conservatives a voice, which they don't have on network television or public radio. They see the rest of the media as biased toward liberals, a charge that other conservatives frequently echo.
Deregulation of the Air Waves
The airwaves used by radio stations to broadcast their programs belong to the public. Since 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has regulated radio and television. For a number of years, the FCC imposed a "fairness doctrine" on broadcasters. Under this rule, stations had to provide programs on public issues and also opportunities for people with different views to be heard. The idea was to promote free speech by encouraging diversity.
In 1987, however, the FCC abolished the fairness doctrine, as part of the Reagan administration's drive to deregulate industries. The FCC stated that the doctrine was no longer necessary because technology had created many more stations, which provided diversity of opinions. The fairness doctrine, concluded the FCC, actually inhibited public discussion by intimidating broadcasters.
Since then, the FCC has further eased its regulation of the broadcasting industry except in the area of obscenity. Talk radio uses tape delay to screen for this. During this period, talk radio has become a national phenomenon. Now some groups are calling upon the FCC to impose new regulations. Other groups are pressuring radio stations not to carry objectionable programming. To fans, however, talk radio simply allows Americans to exercise a basic right: free speech.
For Discussion and Writing
- Why do you think radio talk show callers are usually not required to give their names on the air? Do you think that they should be required to do so anyway? Why or why not?
- Do you think some radio talk show hosts inspire hate and violence? Explain.
- Ellen Ratner, reporter for the Talk Radio News Service, says, "Talk radio doesn't inspire anything that isn't already in the American heart?" Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- Do you think the FCC should reimpose the fairness doctrine? Why or why not?
For Further Information
Freedom of Speech in the United States: This web site covers recent free speech cases, including Supreme Court decisions from the Court's 1996-97, 1997-98, and 1998-99 terms as well as selected lower court decisions during the same period.
A C T I V I T Y
Who Should Be on the Air?
In this activity, students will role play radio station executives deciding whether particular talk radio show hosts should remain on the air.
1. Break into small groups of 3 to 4 students. You are station executives at WXXX. In response to criticism about your talk radio hosts, you have publicly announced a new "Fresh Air" policy. From now on, all your shows will meet three criteria:
They will be fair. The shows should present a variety of opinions and allow an adequate presentation of the opinions.
They will not air obscenity. The shows should not air words, phrases, or subjects that, according to community standards, appeal to a lewd interest in sex, are obviously offensive, and have no serious artistic, scientific, or social interest.
They will not incite violence. The shows should not glamorize or in any way promote violence or violent solutions to problems.
2. In each group, meet and review the three talk show hosts below. Decide for each: (1) Does the person meet your new standards? Why or why not? (2) Will you keep the person on the air? Why or why not?
3. Each group should report its findings back to the class. Debrief the activity by discussing these questions:
- Do you think the "Fresh Air" policy provides good guidelines for a station to use? Explain.
- Do you think stations should voluntarily use them? Why or why not?
- Do you think the F.C.C. should impose them? Explain your answer.
Host #1: "Machine Gun" Mike. Mike has consistently received high ratings. Fast-talking, quick-witted, hot-tempered, and highly opinionated, Mike lives for arguments from callers he disagrees with. Although he does call them names ("weirdo," "pinko," "slimeball"), his harangues also contain reasoned arguments. When he's heard enough from someone he dislikes, he says, "Here's what I really think," and plays a tape of machine-gun fire. Several times he's told on the air how he uses pictures of certain politicians as targets at a firing range.
Host #2: "Forever Young" John. John hosts your highest-rated program on the air. His audience consists of adolescents and young males. While he does report his version of the news and sometimes pushes or bashes political candidates, politics is not his major interest. He considers himself a comedian and "shock jock." Proud of speaking his mind, he often insults, ridicules, and belittles callers. He imitates speech patterns of people with accents different from his. He asks callers personal sexual questions. His off-color humor has caused the F.C.C. to fine the station several times for using obscenity on the air.
Host #3: "Wonderful" Wanda. Wanda hosts your afternoon program. Each show usually concentrates on a single issue. She invites guests who agree with her point of view to discuss an issue on the air. Callers ask brief questions, which Wanda and her guests expound on. No caller spends much time on the air, and Wanda particularly cuts short any critical callers.