Thursday, April 07, 2005

Learning a bit about how talk radio works, from article in _The Atlantic_

I keep a personal reading list of periodicals I try to keep read on a regular basis, well as regular as my other duties allow. Actually, I keep three lists: one for personal reading, one for collection development needs, and one for professional development (my areas of academic interest). These do not include the journals I read for library science, some through my ALA membership and others that all the librarians read at work. The personal reading list is somewhat fluent based on what I consider can be good things to read to keep up with various topics and what I consider interesting. I do it in part so I can be better prepared to work at the Information Desk, a way to stay informed, and in part because I just like to be informed and learn new things. Access also dictates a bit of what I read for these lists since I can only read what I have access to through subscriptions, online or in print, at work. Overall, we do pretty well I think in that regard.

At any rate, The Atlantic magazine for April 2005 has a feature article on talk radio. The focus of the article is on John Ziegler, host of a talk radio show for KFI AM 640 out in Los Angeles. While focusing on the radio host, the article also provides details and insights on how a radio station works as well as on the intricacies of radio media consolidation. The article's layout on the magazine is interesting as well, if a bit distracting at times. Certain words and phrases are highlighted in a color (blue, pink, so on), and this is an indication to read a footnote or sidenote explaining the term or phrase in question. Sometimes it is something explaining a radio industry term, such as "Prophet," which is "the special OS for KFI's computer system--'like Windows for a radio station,' according to Mr. Ziegler's producer." Some of the note boxes can be short, others can be longer, but they all provide little insights into how the station and the industry work. The article also gives some background on the emergence of talk radio and how it has become what it is today.

The author, David Foster Wallace, writes that "whatever social effects of talk radio or partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today's AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits" (55). The article goes into detail to discuss how ratings work, how ads are set up, the differences between local programming and syndication. Details such as these illustrate his point of talk radio as a business.

What I found most interesting in the article was the segment where the author describes the skills necessary to be a good talk radio host. And as good as I am with people in a classroom or working in front of people, I am not sure I myself could to talk radio. It is a bit lengthy, but I have copied and pasted the passage because it deserves to be looked over:

"To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want — with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential — a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you're saying — which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you're speaking. Plus, ideally, what you're saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself — your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being. Someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you're discussing. And it gets even trickier: You're trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you're communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech's ticcy unconscious "umm"s or "you know"s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You're also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English — the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can't be too slow, since that's low-energy and dull, but it can't be too rushed or it will sound like babbling. And so you have somehow to keep all these different imperatives and structures in mind at the same time, while also filling exactly, say, eleven minutes, with no dead air and no going over, such that at 10:46 you have wound things up neatly and are in a position to say, "KFI is the station with the most frequent traffic reports. Alan LaGreen is in the KFI Traffic Center" (which, to be honest, Mr. Z. sometimes leaves himself only three or even two seconds for and has to say extremely fast, which he can always do without a flub. So then, ready: go" (58-59).

You have to start with an interesting topic. I at times have a hard time finding a topic to write about as a writer as is, so finding one that I can expound on at a moment's notice is not any easier. The being alone part does not bother me, since writing is a solitary act. True, there will be readers if you share your work, but when you do the writing itself, it is a very solitary act. Also, in writing, you can go back and revise and edit in order to have a better piece of writing, one that is interesting and well written. In talk radio, much of this process is impossible because the host has to think on his feet, say it, then as he is saying it, make sure he keeps track of what he is saying so it sounds coherent, and he is on the spot, so if he makes a mistake, there is no opportunity to fix it. Add to it that you have to provoke an emotional reaction so that callers and listeners will respond to you. And then there is the fact that you have to do all of it through your voice. There aren't any nonverbal cues or facial expressions to help you convey what you want nor any cues from an audience to help you see if you are on the right track or not. Regardless of where one stands politically, whether one likes or hates talk radio, one has to admit it takes a complex set of skills to make it work. It is kind of admirable in a way how they can synchronize all those elements into something coherent.

The article itself runs over 20 pages, so take time out to read it. I had to read it in bits and pieces over a few days since I have other duties, but it was well worth it. I am also making a note of this article because some of our Freshman Composition classes have a unit in their textbook on Clear Channel Communications and on the issue of media consolidation. The article would make a nice supplement to the readings in their text, and I am guessing it could prove useful to a student or two when they write their research papers.

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