PRINT April 1995


Talk Radio

BEFORE THERE WAS CYBERSPACE, there was the logosphere—as Gaston Bachelard dubbed the world-enveloping “ionized layer” of the babble transmitted on the radio. For the early century’s avant-garde, radio promised a new common language, a unified consciousness, Whitman’s Body Electric: it was the “immensification of space. . . . No longer visible and framable the stage becomes universal and cosmic” (F. T. Marinetti). If it were possible to broadcast music, some reasoned, why not refined sensations of taste? “People will drink water and think they are drinking wine” (Velimir Khlebnikov).

As sound, radio plugs directly into the brain—hence the common schizophrenic fantasy of radio-controlled implants. But radio also defines a far-flung community. An adolescent during the cacophonous post–World War I radio boom—when raucous hucksters and, later, aggressive motormouths like Walter Winchell and Father Coughlin ruled the air—Marshall McLuhan understood that rather than linking us to the cosmos, radio “creates insatiable village tastes for gossip, rumor, and personal malice.” Unlike the Futurists, McLuhan saw the wireless as materialist and primitivizing. On the one hand, radio functions as a transpersonal nervous system of time checks, weather reports, and traffic updates. On the other, it is the tribal drum, regimenting individual will to the rhythm of collective madness. It was radio, McLuhan asserted, that brought the Nazis to power in Germany. Hitler evidently agreed: the Third Reich manufactured the world’s cheapest wireless set—the Volksempfanger, or “people’s receiver”—and encouraged its use for group listening.

In the U.S., radio has stimulated more benign forms of communion, ranging from the spooky paranoia of the Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?”) to the teenage tribal unity celebrated by American Graffiti and mood music’s soft social control. Recently, however, the logosphere has reasserted itself with a vengeance. Not since the CB craze of the ’70s has radio attracted so much critical attention, or been perceived to carry so much power. You may not be able to hear America singing, but, if nothing else, talk radio demonstrates that white rap-artists like Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern really have the blues.

Talk radio is experienced as a renegade form. Despite their best-selling manifestos, Limbaugh and Stern position themselves as outsiders. Both traffic in grandiose self-regard, truculent self-pity, contempt for liberals, and underlying misogyny. Obsessed with besting perceived rivals, neither tolerates dissent. (By cosmic coincidence, they share the same January birthday and thus were simultaneously feted by sundry politicians, showbiz personalities, and miscellaneous sycophants.)

Complaints amplified, Limbaugh and Stern give new meaning to the term Baby Boomer. Limbaugh, the more official of the two (Newt Gingrich cites him as authentic “public broadcasting”), is a superego who identifies his show as “The Way Things Ought to Be. ” (Like the Shadow, he knows.) Small wonder the New York Times attempts to coopt him for its ads. The more anarchic and scatological Stern, meanwhile, makes himself a parody of the transpersonal nervous system by interspersing his obscene, racist stream of consciousness with farts, belches, sexual fantasies, and on-air staff directives.

Talk radio began to mix in U.S. politics during the 1992 election. As noted in Wayne Munson’s All Talk, Ross Perot broke into the campaign discourse like a querulous radio caller, while President Bush, realizing too late what was at stake, was obliged to swallow his pride and visit Limbaugh. But although Bertolt Brecht called for talk radio as far back as 1932 (“Radio is onesided when it should be two. . . . Let the listener speak as well as hear”), to come to fruition the form evidently required the election of Bill Clinton. Intrinsically opposed to big government (taxes) and the mainstreamliberalpress (ambiguity), talk radio put the new president instantly on the defensive by bashing his brain with the issues of gays in the military and Zoe Baird.

The logosphere ruled the 1994 elections. Credited with manning the P.A. system that brought the Republicans to victory, the GOP gratefully dubbed Limbaugh their “Majority Maker.” Stern (who takes credit for defeating Mario Cuomo) captured, then discarded the Libertarian Party nomination for governor of New York, and was later invited to attend the appreciative winner’s inauguration. Not to be outdone, New Jersey’s governor gave Stern’s name to a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Meanwhile, befuddled Democrats began a futile search for a liberal talk-radio personality (Cuomo? Hillary?) to lead their charge back up Capitol Hill.

If conservatives dominate talk radio it may be because liberals are programmatically inclined to pretend to respect opposing points of view. Whereas the most commonly heard phrase on the Limbaugh show is “Ditto, Rush,” “liberal” talk radio would be a confusing morass of competing frequencies. Echoing the classic McLuhan formulation, the New York Times terms talk radio a social “echo chamber”—predicting that the format might replace civic associations, labor unions, and even political parties. A public version of political focus groups, the logosphere offers a new spin on participatory democracy. As Khlebnikov suggested, people will drink water and think they are drinking . . . whine?

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.