On the eve of Phil Donahue's retirement, I got to thinking about his show, and about talk shows in general. I've been listening to talk radio for years--national and local, liberal and conservative, financial or medical or gardening. It's surprising what you can learn from the conversations.
One thing I've learned all too well is this: never argue with a talk show host.
Consider Donahue. Then consider Larry King, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Jim Hightower, Tom Leykis, Bob "Get off my phone, you creep!" Grant, Jim Bohanan, Dr. Laura, Bruce Williams, Click 'n' Clack, or any of a hundred other talk show guys you either love, or love to loathe. Just take a minute and think about them, or whoever you're most familiar with.
Then think about their callers.
I'll use Larry King as an example. Before his radio show was yanked from my local AM station in favor of G. Gordon Liddy in 1993, I listened for two reasons. I enjoyed his generally high-quality interviews with famous and/or interesting guests. And whenever I needed to blow off some steam, I'd listen to him abuse his callers and scream at the radio at the top of my lungs. I was convinced there were two Larry Kings: Dr. King, and Larry Hyde, and I had daily visions of hearing him get his comeuppance.
It didn't take long to realize it would never happen.
First, consider Larry King. He's been in the business for decades. He's put his reputation on the line for more years than I've lived, stepping up to the microphone and interviewing people from all walks of life, including the names some of us know only from history books. He's a broadcast legend, a Peabody winner, who still has to prove himself every day for an hour or more, whether in interviews or fielding calls on whatever subject the callers bring to the air. Consider that: five to twenty hours of weekly, live debate and discussion of issues, consultation with heads of state and faith, cultural movers and shakers, and Marlon Brando. You can't spend the latter half of the 20th century with that level of practice and not become a formidable rhetorical adversary. Smart as you think you may be, chances are you can't win a fair debate with Larry King. I never called Larry to voice my irritation with him, because I know he could demolish me without breaking a sweat.
Second, Larry's got The Button. I found myself praying for technical difficulties, that the dreaded Button Larry used to mute the caller so he could talk at leisure would be ineffective and he'd have to actually have a dialog. It never happened. Once a caller got on Larry's nerves, it became a monolog, and the caller's ancestry, mental stability and attention to hygiene became subject to uninterruptable comment. It seemed like a cheat to me, but I had to admit it was an effective way to win every dang argument, if only by default. (Other hosts may use other methods, such as a less obvious Moron Button or an audience full of vocal Donaheads or a sound clip of a flushing toilet. Or the patience to wait for the inevitable commercial break. But everyone seems to have something to get the upper hand in a debate that we the callers are subject to.
Third, there's the wacko factor. Even when Larry King had me looking for the militia membership applications, I had to admit that many of his callers were in fact deserving of little more than contempt. You want to seem like a reasonable person? Put on someone who disagrees with you who can't argue coherently. There are enough Unabomber wannabes and Freemen and people a few cans short of a six-pack who are eager to call these shows and show him what's what, only to be sent scurrying with their Wranglers ablaze. Get enough of those, and even Larry Hyde can come across as a beleaguered moderate.
I don't mean to pick only on Larry, and really I don't mean this as a condemnation; I figure he's the host because he can handle the ocean of people eager for their fifteen seconds of fame, and still put on a show that gathers ratings and sponsors and awards. I simply suggest that if you think he's full of hot air, you will in no way have the opportunity to say so on his show and get away with it. He'll drop you like a bad transmission.
Limbaugh has his own tricks, and I can't think of many who have called his radio show looking for a fight who have come away with anything approaching a victory, moral or otherwise. Love him or hate him, Rush knows his way around an argument and how to make his opponents sound utterly outclassed, and a trillion or so dittoheads eager to follow a confrontational caller to defend the host's honor and reputation and all-around omniscience. Phil Donahue had a similar knack for rallying his troops in favor of the Correct Position against the forces of Ignorance and Ignominy. He bobs and weaves and leans and emotes like Bono on the Joshua Tree tour, broadcasting to his audience the Appropriate Reaction, and they oblige.
In a different forum, away from the Home Field Advantage, against a similarly seasoned professional, it's conceivable that these guys can be taken down a notch. I've seen Larry King reduced to a pathetic, red-suspendered caricature--by an ex-wife, of all things. She got his goat by telling a magazine that she dumped him and not the other way around. He sued, for damages ... and the return of his pants. (Now that's comedy.) Limbaugh has been skewered in late-night environments like the Letterman show and his all-too-brief stint as a Pat Sajak replacement host, and by the poisoned (but danged funny) pen of Al Franken. Bob Grant...well, he just got canned by WABC for pissing off the wrong people.
What's the point? It is this. You may feel a given talk show host is the product of the unholy union between the lords of the underworld and a used-car salesman who moonlights as an auctioneer. But if you think YOU are the one who has been chosen to bring the bloated windbag down to the realm of us mere mortals, think again. You're not good enough, no matter how good you think you are. They make their living fending off the slings and arrows of the stirred-up masses, and you're just one other faceless grunt on the front line of debate, ripe for the slaughter.
I'm reading a book right now by PJ O'Rourke, "The enemies list." He originally suggested that we formulate a list, McCarthy-style, of those who in the "good old days" of blacklisting and witch hunts, were hounded out of respectable society. But he opined that in the 90s, shame has been bred out of modern society, and the best way to get rid of our enemies is to top-forty them to death--give them all the attention and mollycoddling they can handle until society gets burned out on hearing about them and finds new meat to barbecue.
I think if you really want to topple a talk show giant, give them what they want. Larry King's fall from radio grace came in 1993, the year Clinton became President and the American Left felt they had the right on the run. He got overconfident, and took the gloves of discretion off when dealing with his callers. In a matter of months, Larry was nowhere to be found on my radio dial, and the station turned to an almost all-Conservative format. Republicans were suddenly a minority party in both branches of government, and when you're the underdog there's no place to go but up. Limbaugh's popularity soared as he became the beachhead for anti-Clinton sentiment. It was a boon to his ratings and his "power" as the voice of the disenfranchised Right.
Two years later, when the GOP swept into dominance of both houses of Congress and governor's mansions across the country, Limbaugh has been following King's footsteps. More strident, less tolerant, dictating what it means to be a "true" conservative and slapping down longtime fans and listeners who dare to express even minor philosophical differences, Limbaugh is in danger of forgetting the lessons of history: America hates winners who rub your face in it. Note the current anti-Republican mood; like the Democrats in 1994, the GOP is on the ropes and their Champion is getting tag-teamed by the entire Cherokee Nation.
I sit, I seethe, but I do not dial in. I know my limitations. On their turf, I am outmatched. I strike back in my own way, with a peashooter and a bottomless supply of mean-spirited clichés. I feel the populace is becoming less tolerant of each other, and these radio Goliaths aren't helping matters. They're drawing lines in the sand to the left and right of us, and they're telling us that there's no middle ground. Meanwhile, we look at this "no middle ground" and find that if we really think about it, the vast majority of us are between the lines, maybe stepping a few inches over the line with one foot, but still in the ideological buffer zone.
I propose we let the groups who have completely crossed the lines have at each other, lob their stink bombs, and reduce each other to piles of meadow muffins and fetid air. When the smooth-talking extremists on both sides have demolished each other's credibility, those of us who remain, rejected by both camps for not being "true" to their causes, can get together and solve the world's problems. We'll disagree, often vehemently, but dammit, we can still be friends. If someone won't budge from their position, leave them behind as we march toward the future. (Donahue revolutionized television daytime talk shows, but the industry has passed him by--many would say, on the way down into the cesspool. Remember when Phil wearing a dress was deemed controversial? Now it's almost quaint.)
You want to win an argument against a talk show host? Turn him off. Watch the Weather Channel. When these giant redwoods of ego fall and nobody hears them, high-five your neighbor, or shed a tear for a career that fell prey to its own success and ossified its way to obsolescence.