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The talk-radio shows carried by the airwaves of Middle America are lampooned by many as bigoted if not outright looney. But writing them off misses the fact that, most likely, they speak for a significant part of the US electorate, and that even if you don’t agree with the hosts, they know how to do engaging, entertaining radio – wherein lies the problem.
Conservative talk-radio shows in America tend to come in for a fair amount of derision. But I’ve come to see – and hear – another side to them thanks to a number of 1,000-mile-plus road trips across the mighty breadth of the dark fields of the republic. These have revealed the surprisingly entertaining options that dominate the airwaves south of the Mason-Dixon line.
So when I hastily headed out for one last pre-lockdown burst of freedom on the open road at the beginning of March, as COVID-19 gained a foothold in the US including Austin, Texas, where I am based, I didn’t prepare a listening roster by downloading edifying podcasts to keep me company on the road. Instead, for 1,240 miles across three days of driving I relied solely on America’s radio waves, hopping between myriad radio shows of a particularly conservative or religious bent.
There is a guilty pleasure to be had listening to this type of radio, which is accused of having been turned into a political weapon with talk-radio hosts acting as ideological enforcers, their passionate diatribes chiming with listeners’ baser frustrations, as described in a 2019 article published in The Atlantic about the political impact of talk-radio in America.
Like me, you may well find yourself not agreeing with much, if anything, a right-wing conservative talk-radio host is saying. But there is no denying that these compromise-skewering, Republican-biased and Donald Trump-endorsing hosts often know how to present in an entertaining and humorous way, especially as they take the Democrats to task, portraying them as staid, navel-gazing killjoys.
And I am just going to tell it straight: the Evangelical Christian rock channels are surprisingly catchy, and after eight hours on the road, bored out of my mind, I’ve found myself unable to resist joining the electric guitar-strumming lead singer as the hot air barrels in through the car’s open windows, and we both proclaim at the tops of our voices: “The light of Jesus shines on! He cradles us in his heart, yeah, yeah!!”
Long intrigued by the shape of Texas on the map, I chose a route taking me from the state’s most south-eastern point at South Padre Island, next to the Gulf of Mexico and close to the Mexican border, then following a diagonal line to the state’s far north western corner in the Panhandle, the great square slab of land that, when you look at a map, seems bolted on. The choice wasn’t entirely random. It is a route similar to that taken by the Texan writer Larry McMurtry, which he described in his book In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas (1). “There are times when one just feels like driving,” McMurtry wrote. The second biggest state in America after Alaska, and about three times the size of the UK, Texas was made for road trips.
Outside the town of Cuero, which had its start in the mid-19th century as a staging point on the Chisholm Trail cattle route to Kansas, a radio host was parsing the every-day frictions that come from the use of pronouns for transgender individuals and the potential confusions that can arise when swapping he for she, and vice-versa, based on a person’s personal preference.
Well, I thought to myself, this is a bit of a change to the earnest tones of the more liberal-leaning National Public Radio (NPR) station that you usually hear on the radio in the bigger cities such as Austin. NPR does plenty of good and needed reporting on transgender issues, including covering the targeting and killing of transgender individuals, and heart-rending stories about transgender children. But, as with much of the media coverage of transgender issues, NPR tends to limit its reporting to this narrow-range of aspects, leaving out many other angles that could be covered, such as the parents who are worried it’s too soon for their child to make such a life-changing decision.
The talk-radio host outside of Cuero wasn’t saying anything particularly revelatory, but it was refreshing to hear someone engaging with the transgender topic and being willing to explore the nuances, while pushing back against the usual media-endorsed narratives that often seem to suggest it can only be one way, and no other perspectives are valid. As a result of this uncompromising stance, nowadays it is increasingly the case – and not just in America – that if you don’t comply with that one perspective then you are judged a colossal and antiquated bigot – a so-called TERF, an acronym that originally stood for trans-exclusionary radical feminist that is now used to label anyone deemed as transphobic – and hence run the risk of being pilloried and abused by transgender activists (the writer J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter novels, has experienced their ire due to a comment she made on Twitter about women and menstruation).
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Of course, the host has an agenda. I imagine he would prefer a world in which all the men are forthright and strong, and all the women are fair and feminine. But there was no denying that he came across as articulate and engaging in discussing a thorny topic, proving companionable company as I sped past fields of grazing cattle and gigantic Stars and Stripes and Texas flags, each as big as a house, billowing in the wind at the likes of car stores by the roadside.
As I passed through Llano – “The deer capital of Texas” – with its gun and taxidermy shops, often with a Donald Trump 2020 flag flying outside, on the radio a man announced “a rendition of the national anthem in honour of those who serve and have given their lives for the country.” As a British citizen, I am clearly not the target audience, but if you want to have a better understanding of American culture beyond the lodestar cities, you could do a lot worse than paying attention to what people are saying on these radio shows.
There’s much about American perspective that leaves me bamboozled. I’m grateful for the UK’s National Health Service and I think America’s for-profit healthcare system that leaves physicians suffering moral injuries because of its inhumane processes is an amoral travesty. I also don’t like the idea of a heavily armed American populace. It’s estimated there are more than 390 million firearms in America. But, at the same time, it is their country, and I understand that the majority of Americans who support guns and minimal government interference are not motivated by malice.
Sticking with the theme of engaging with the loveable opposition, I pulled over at the Provident Arms gun shop. Despite the years I’ve lived in Texas, I’d never been into a gun shop. The gun shop wasn’t open for another 20 minutes, so I got talking to a man waiting in his pickup truck. He owned an AR-15, an AK-47 and a .45 caliber pistol. His name was Omar and he wasn’t white, offering a variation on the gun nut stereotype depicted by many.
“All the other stores are out of ammo,” Omar said. “I’m not worried about the Coronavirus outbreak but clearly others are. I just want some ammo for the wild boars around where I live that tear up the crops.” We discussed the reliability and longevity of the AK-47 that has made it the most widely available firearm in history. Going off first impressions, Omar struck me as a polite and friendly kind of guy. If Americans are going to insist on carrying arms, I think I’d prefer someone like Omar to be armed than certain social-justice warriors, considering the invective they embrace on the likes of social media.
As I approached the city of Abilene – teetotal and known as the buckle of the Bible Belt with its three bible colleges – two radio hosts discussed whether COVID-19 might be a form of God’s judgement on America’s sins ranging from pornography to “the killing of innocents” (abortion). It was a stringent angle, for sure, though the locals I met when I pulled over for lunch at Larry’s Better Burger Drive-in seemed friendly enough amid the peeling turquoise paintwork.
“Don’t be put off by the décor,” said the middle-aged man in a truck parked beside me. “It’s the best burger you’ll ever eat.”
“I’ll vouch for that,” chimed in another man ahead of us at the counter.
“The same old grill is used,” my neighbour added, “that’s the secret.”
Driving out of Abilene, I pulled over at a ramshackle open-air store set up by a junction selling Donald Trump merchandize. The proprietor, Tony, explained he drives round the country, setting up at rallies, fairs and by the road, and that business is good. I asked him how he thought the president was doing with his response to the Coronavirus. “I think he is doing great – he stopped those flights from China coming before anyone else did,” Tony said. “This whole thing is going to be a reality check for many people, and that could be a good thing in a way. Now they might stop bickering about small things and come together. We need to come together to deal with this.” That’s a fair enough perspective, I thought. So the guy’s a fan of Donald Trump. That’s his right.
And he’s far from alone.
“What a great store,” said an elderly lady who had pulled over and was browsing the pro-Donald Trump T-shirts.
I thought I recognised a trace of a British accent, and sure enough, she was originally from the UK but had emigrated to the US decades ago.
“I like what the president is doing about the border and stopping people coming in illegally,” the lady said. “You meet people in this city and they don’t speak English, it’s ridiculous. You bet I am going to vote for him in November.”
Back on the road and tuned into the radio, a reporter interviewed a man at a gun shop who, unlike Omar, explained he was buying ammo in case of mass panic breaking out in the country. On another show, three jocular hosts bantered about the Democrats panicking over COVID-19 and using the outbreak to leverage arguments in support of a “socialist” agenda and the likes of universal healthcare and enhanced welfare support.
I sympathize with the Democratic Party’s predicament in overcoming the strident rhetoric coming from radio hosts who paint America and the world in black-and-white terms. Democrat politicians face the age-old dilemma of having to overcome the stigma that comes from telling people what they need to but don’t want to hear.
“It urges us not to throw ourselves always into the swim of things, but to stand aside and reflect,” the philosopher Roger Scruton wrote in his discussion of a society founded on the notion of “we” as the priority versus a society founded on the notion of “I,” and how the “we” attitude recognises limits and constraints for the sake of long-term benefits and society’s greater good (3). “It is the voice of wisdom in a world of noise. And for that very reason, no one hears it.”
This conundrum also partly explains why Donald Trump manages to still win over so many Americans: people want to be entertained and to hear something zany and upbeat, as opposed to the inconvenient, more complex, and duller truth. As those three hosts illustrated bouncing off each other, there’s plenty of humorous material to be had in shooting down the straight faced and earnest toned. It’s so much more fun to obliterate boundaries and flick the middle finger at common, reasonable and non-partisan logic. For listeners, it can prove electrifying, especially as America becomes increasingly polarised. In such circumstances, people want to know they are right and to hear messages that mesh with their frustrations, even if the talk-radio bearers of those messages ignore the more complex reality. The riots in America, sparked by the death of another black man in police custody, show how bitterly divided America has become. The challenge of bridging this divide will only get harder if Americans only listen to those who offer the same perspective as their own, and don’t give the other side a chance to air their view. By dealing in such absolutes, it gets harder and harder to be able to hear what President Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” which then leaves the way open for the darker capacities of human nature.
“With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilized and human pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivized release,” (2) commented the British writer Christopher Hitchens. “Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it.”
- McMurtry, L., “In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas”, 1968.
- Hitchens, C., “Orwell’s Victory”, 2002.
- Scruton, R., “The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope”, 2010