On Passion and Proportionality. Why I Don’t Miss Talk Radio.

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Don Henley once called his songs “an electronic campfire around which we can share the stories necessary for our survival.” What Henley believed about music is what I believe is the potential of radio.

People seem surprised when I tell them I don’t miss hosting a live three-hour daily radio show. The talk format’s emphasis on emotionalism and related loss of proportionality might help explain why I don’t miss it, and two of today’s stories illustrate the problem.

In today’s paper you can read about the 60th anniversary of the dismantling of the Auschwitz death camps and you can also read about the controversy over Buster the Rabbit’s disputed visit to Vermont. That these two stories should appear in the same sentence is disheartening, but that the latter will receive more attention on talk radio today is both certain and disgusting.

The Auschwitz story is clearly more important and should be inestimably more interesting to people of faith. Aharon Appelfeld argues that God didn’t show up at Auschwitz [ “God did not reveal himself in Auschwitz or in other camps.”] AND that Jews have taken up the work God should have done but didn’t. [ “A doctor who survived, from a religious background, who sailed to Israel with us in June 1946, told us: “We didn’t see God when we expected him, so we have no choice but to do what he was supposed to do: we will protect the weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility is all ours.”]

Is he right about God? This is a subject worth discussing triggered by the marking of a news event.

The Sponge Bob and Buster stories are unimportant and uninteresting by comparison, but I can guarantee you they have been and will be the bread and butter of talk shows for a few more days. Yesterday a quick turn of the dial revealed these as the simultaneous subject of discussion on two national (one conservative and one liberal) and three local Seattle stations.

Why does the unimportant overwhelm the significant in today’s media? Why discuss Buster and not God’s alleged absence in the Holocaust?

1) Buster and Sponge Bob are easily understood, approachable and talk-able. The less complicated the better for talk radio.
2) Buster and Sponge Bob appeal to the shallow waters of emotional reaction. God and the Holocaust appeal to emotion tempered by deeper thought and time. One is hot flash, frivolous emotion, the other is deep, turbulent, life-altering emotion.
3) The Holocaust and God’s alleged absence is sad and depressing and talk radio is about hot and upbeat, always earnestly conveying the importance of impulsive, actionable issues. The listener is made to believe they can and should DO something about PBS and Buster; what can be done about God and the Holocaust?
4) Buster and Sponge Bob are divisive and get people riled up. Deborah Tannen’s “The Argument Culture” rightly observed that today’s media is uninterested in finding middle ground, reasoning together; what works is heat not light, what works is extremes talking past each other not reasonable people trying to find common ground.
5) Buster and Sponge Bob are “entertaining” and radio programmers want entertainment.

What is lost in this media environment? Not much only our hearts, minds and souls.

Which brings us back to Don Henley and the story behind his writing and recording the “Garden of Allah.” His label thought their audiences needed something upbeat and suggested that Henley write a “sparkly ballad.” Instead, in light of the circus surrounding the OJ Simpson trial, Henley wrote the prophetic, in-your-face, truth-telling “Garden of Allah.” which imagines the devil coming to L.A. and concluding there is no need for him, because all his work is done. It may have been Henley’s most honest work, but not his best-selling.

I think my radio show always conveyed an enthusiasm for my subject, but I also sought proportionality. If I was on the radio today I could not live with myself if I dedicated considerable time to Buster and Sponge Bob I would have resisted the temptation to talk about the frivolous equivalent of a “talk radio” sparkly ballad. Instead, I would have taken on the subject that matters¢â‚¬¦where was God in the holocaust? And in making this decision I would have violated the basic rules of the talk radio game, and on occasion I would have gotten some flack from management.

The salmon grows weary of swimming upstream, but only makes the trip once in a lifetime. After fifteen years of swimming upstream in broadcasting I’m still swimming upstream, but in different waters.

It saddens me to tune in to listen to radio full of passion (often manufactured as part of the formulaic emotional shtick) and lacking in proportionality, and it saddens me more when people of faith are lemmings instead of salmon.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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