RUDENESS RULES THE RADIO
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Thursday's John and Ken radio talk show (KFI AM 640) included an interview with Rep Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) in which the hosts interrupted Sanchez over 30 times, yelled loudly into their microphones in order to drown out her voice, and at several points screamed at her, "Are you ignorant or are you lying?" What is of interest is that the hosts were so proud of their performance that they ran the tape again later in the same show.
This episode is illustrative of a phenomenon that the mainstream press has failed to comment on adequately, namely the new culture of rudeness as an accepted, everyday part of American radio. John and Ken are used as an example not because they are particularly nasty compared to the rest, but because they are among the best in the business. They are intelligent, educated, and articulate, not to mention less ideologically narrow than most, so if they choose to behave in this way, it says something about where our cultural norms are heading.
The context of this particular episode involved the upcoming recall election of California Governor Gray Davis. As I have described in a previous column, John Kobylt (pronounced cobalt) and Ken Chiampou (pronounced sham poe) have been strongly in favor of the recall, to the point that they have become intimately involved in the campaign.
Those in favor of dumping Davis are now watching with glee as the Democrats fumble with a problem that would perplex a professor of mathematical logic: If no credible Democrat puts her name on the recall ballot (the most credible being u.s. Sen. Diane Feinstein), Davis has a better chance of personally surviving the recall. At least that is one school of thought. Democratic voters would have a limited choice among Davis, some Republicans, lots of unknowns, and one Green Party candidate. It is suggested that this would motivate Democrats to vote No on the recall and thereby defeat it entirely. Davis clearly prefers this strategy, and until the past few days the state's highest ranking Democrats have stayed with it.
The problem with this strategy for the Democrats is that Davis might lose, and this would almost certainly leave the state's highest office to a Republican. A few Democratic officials have now broken ranks over the past couple of days. One of them was Loretta Sanchez, who has publicly called for Diane Feinstein to enter the race. Sanchez agreed to be interviewed on the John and Ken show that aired Thursday, July 31.
The interview itself took slightly more than 13 minutes, beginning with a polite exchange of pleasantries, a suggestion by Sanchez that she wants Feinstein to run because it will help to defeat the recall (and not because she thinks Davis is going to lose), and a polite response from the hosts that her logic sounded a little peculiar. John did most of the interview with the occasional interjection from Ken. They suggested that the real reason Sanchez and other Democrats are looking for Feinstein to be the white knight is because Davis is "dead meat."
None of this was terribly contentious. In the normal course of events one might have expected the discussion to go on about how Feinstein would be better than Davis as governor, and how her chances would stack up against well known potential opposition candidates such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
Instead, the hosts (as they later admitted) goaded Sanchez into a defense of the Davis record and a discussion of the electricity crisis and as one later remarked, things got fiery.
The nasty part started as the hosts repeated an old accusation made by former Congressman Bob Dornan after Sanchez turned him out of Congress: "Yeah but if you run you'll get the illegal vote like you did last time." Sanchez replied, "Okay, you guys, that's enough, because I didn't get illegal votes and you all know that."
John and Ken: "Everybody in our audience thinks so. We get emails every time you're on about that."
They then ramped up the attack, asking her to respond to this question: If Democrats think Bush should be defeated for reelection because of his $450 billion federal deficit, why don't they also support turning out Davis?
As Sanchez began to respond, John spoke loudly over her, "Answer the question," and then nearly shouting, "Answer the question!" This movie drama-like demand is getting to be one of the oldest tricks in the talk show realm. It implies without the need for explanation that the guest's answer is inadequate. In this case, the technique was also abusive, because Sanchez was trying to speak at the time.
Sanchez continued her response by making the extremely questionable claim that $28 billion of the $38 billion state deficit is due to the energy price manipulation scandal. As Sanchez tried to speak, the hosts talked over her, "You're wrong, you are wrong on that." As Sanchez tried to go on, she was again interrupted, "You are ignorant. Oh, you are ignorant." By this point, all three were speaking, with Sanchez at least keeping her voice down while the two hosts talked or yelled over her. John continued, "Oh you are ignorant lady. You don't know what you're talking about lady." You really don't. You have no idea what you're talking about. You're a bubble head."
After a long pause, Sanchez asked quietly, "Are you quite done? Shall I call you names too? Is that the way you run your show?"
The response: "You can't come here with your snotty I know better than you attitude and come up with so many wrong facts. OK? Why don't you guys speak the truth, huh?"
Sanchez asserted that she was speaking the truth, and Ken, who was the more quiet in this interview said, "Well then you don't know, you're just ignorant, because John is right."
John: "Either you're ignorant or you're lying. Which is it?"
To Sanchez's weak reply, John continued, "No, you didn't know what you were talking about, so say I am ignorant or I was lying. which is it?"
As the interview began to conclude, Sanchez made the defensible point that "this whole recall process is a bad way of doing government, it's a bad . . ." But as of this point and for the remaining one minute of the interview, Sanchez was not given the chance to complete more than two sentences in a row without being loudly interrupted. John once again repeated the charge that "You're either ignorant or you're lying, and you haven't answered the question."
The few excerpts given here fail to describe the entire sense that comes from listening to this sort of verbal street fight. The hosts are experienced voice professionals who have the added advantage that speaking in studio over a microphone means that they are always going to sound clearer than a guest who is speaking from outside the studio over the phone. In addition, as the careful listener will recognize, the host voices are usually louder than those of the callers. When the host decides to talk over the caller, it is the host we hear. In the interview described here, Sanchez is barely audible when John turns up the decibels.
Radio talk show hosts have learned to use various tricks in order to make callers seem stupid. The continual interrupting, the drowning out, the technique of laughing at a caller's remark are all effective techniques to belittle anyone with a position antagonistic to that of the host. It's entertaining in a low sort of way, but it is damaging to our ability to carry on constructive political discourse.
What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that the rudeness level is accepted by the listening audience. The interview described here was run not just once, but twice during the same four hour show. John and Ken were so proud of their work that they bragged about the interview after it occurred, made slighting remarks about Sanchez, ran it again later in the show, and took calls from listeners who added to the piling on by doing their own insulting remarks. I wonder why some politician suffering through this kind of interview doesn't just say, "Did your mother teach you that it's rude to interrupt?" That's something I'd like to hear.