Life & Liberty: Talk Radio

The endless conversation


One of these days every program that ever aired on commercial TV, every movie ever screened, every sports event happening in every sandlot in America, and every deliberative assembly deliberating how to misuse the people's money—all will be aired simultaneously on cable TV and still many people won't find anything worth watching. As it is, with commercial television viewership dipping slightly year after year and cable television living up only to its promise to offer variety, not to its implied promise to offer quality, a slightly larger number of Americans are turning, again, to radio.

This observation must inevitably sound self-serving, since commercial TV is what I did for 13 years but radio is what I do,and have done for 13 years, some of it overlapping the television adventures. I've an emotional, not to forget a financial, stake in the continuing success of radio, and I can't pretend objectivity about that. This is called post-Watergate moralistic full disclosure. Now you know.

The movie Talk Radio, directed by Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street), derives from a stage play written by and starring Eric Bogosian. (A paperback edition of the play's script is available for $6.95 from Vintage.) Talk Radio is both a successful "opening up" of the stage version and a frequently razor-sharp depiction of that admittedly bizarre but nonetheless fascinating and increasingly popular form of sado-masochism, the late-night radio talk program. Were Eric Bogosian to abandon the thespian life and find himself in the mood for a mid-life career change, he would be first-rate as a talk host: he's quick on his feet, a master adlibber—I ran him through his paces on my late-night talk program and found him, as the kids say, awesome—and the possessor of a radio voice to die for.

Speaking of dying, in June 1984 one of our number, Alan Berg, a Denver radio host, died for his opinions, as it were, the victim of a right-wing anti-Semitic and anti-just-about-everything-else hate group. Immediately after Berg's death many talk hosts were interviewed, some of us moaning and groaning about how dangerous our job is, how "valiant" we are in expressing the thoughts that bring out the craziness in people not far away from certifiable insanity in any case, how worried we are about similar happenings in the future. Others of us, I among them, said that Berg is the only talk host ever seriously hurt because of his job. Plumbers are more endangered, I said to, if memory serves, the New York Times.

With the nationwide availability now of Talk Radio and in 1988 of Betrayed, the former culminating in a Berg-like assassination, the latter beginning with the same event, maybe it'll be open season on talk hosts. Time to revise wills.

The film chronicles a night, and slightly more, in the life of a Dallas late-night talk host, Barry Champlain, Golden, with some not terribly successful flashbacks to Barry Golden's life as a clothing salesman, a huckster, and a womanizer. In the central night featured in the movie, Barry is being considered for national radio syndication. His boss (Alec Baldwin) is on hand (in real life the management types are out the door by 6:00), and the syndicator (John Pankow) hovers about, casting a mysterious eye and beatific but undoubtedly phony smiles on one and all. Barry's producer (Leslie Hope), who is his girlfriend, busies herself with officiousness and looks great. And his ex-wife (Ellen Greene) arrives to gum up the works; actually, the ex-wife comes because Barry is terrified of the upcoming syndication and needs a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.

Barry's engineer cum call screener (John McGinley), who's seen it all and knows everything about Barry and has shared girls with him, casts cryptic glances and makes sardonic remarks. A total fruitcake druggie (Michael Wincott), who calls the show with one of the more idiotic conversational routines ever filmed, comes to the station, invited by Barry, to continue his insane ramblings. Barry (Bogosian) baits his audience by humiliating the handicapped, playing to his own Jewishness, and taunting the anti-Semitic, antihomosexual, antiblack night audience. He accelerates the level of his invective precisely because he's told by his boss to lower the level so that the syndication deal will go through, and he eventually pays the price of his opinions, depicted as not exactly what Dallas most desires in local entertainers.

Radio performers who interact in some way with their listeners seldom have been featured in the movies. Play Misty for Me (1971) is the best known instance before Talk Radio, and in 1984 Choose Me foisted Genevieve Bujold on screen as Dr. Love, a touchy-feely afternoon meaningful-relationship-advice talk host. But the disc jockey in Play Misty for Me spins records and doesn't primarily talk to his listeners, or rather talk with his listeners, and Dr. Love is only one of many key characters in that film.

Barry Champlain, in Talk Radio, is the movie. And as conceived and performed by Bogosian, Champlain is not only believable, he is alarmingly so. Alan Berg referred to talk radio as "the last neighborhood in town." This aspect of the business, this significance in the popular culture, emerges—hyperbolically, to be sure, but not fraudulently.

Who listens? I mean: who listens to anybody in America? Youngsters complain that their parents don't hear them, spouses say the same of their wives and husbands; citizens, except foolish citizens or the powerful, know that our elected lords and masters listen to us only as a courtesy and then do exactly what they please. With a fifth of all Americans moving each year and great numbers of people living in huge apartment and condominium complexes and never quite interacting with their "neighbors," who knows the person who lives next door?

Who listens? People like Barry Champlain listen. Our brotherhood listens (and it is largely a brotherhood; few women, aside from nationally syndicated Sally Jessy Raphael, are late-night radio talk hosts or for that matter talk hosts at any time of day). You can write a letter to your favorite newspaper or magazine and sometimes see it printed, often mauled in the editing. Nobody responds, except in Commentary's endless letters column. You can complain to the underpaid people who answer telephones at TV stations, and you'll get a meaninglessly soothing response of some sort and the station will continue to do precisely what it was doing that drove you wild.

But when you call a radio talk program, you have at your beck and call a professional listener (who'll also mouth off back to you) and you have a hefty number of citizens listening, some of whom will then immediately call and brand you either a prophet without honor or a fool, or both. The talk program is the last neighborhood in town. In the modern idiom it is not a neighborhood of tangible, viewable people whom you can literally touch, but hordes of anonymous people who respond to you as a sound in the night, a voice in the wilderness, a target, or an object of temporary veneration. In an America that, we're told, will soon contain tens of millions of people who work at home and "fax" in their papers and interface with the mainframe, whatever that is, through their personal computers, what more appropriate form of neighborliness than the telephone-caller radio talk show?

Ultimately the question arises: does the radio talk program mean anything? Like much pop entertainment, it is superficial; like all entertainers, the talk host is a temporary phenomenon who, when he moves on or is fired, is almost immediately forgotten; another voice in the night, another wiseacre, goader, friend, enemy, bigot, enemy of bigots, what-have-you, replacing him with nary a nod. Does a talk host have to be murdered by haters to certify his "importance" in the popular culture? I hope not. But no matter how profound some of the thoughts are that float through the night—and sometimes a talk program amounts to more than junk, froth, and inanity—the significance of the talk program is that it functions as one of the only real connecting threads between people in an atomized society. The reality of talk radio is more terrifying than Talk Radio, the movie.

Contributing editor David Brudnoy's talk program on WBZ can be heard in 38 states and most of Canada nightly from 9:00–1:00, Eastern time, at 1030 on the AM dial. His program has aired continuously for longer than any other talk show in Boston.