Talk Radio. It’s All the Same Show


Button number 1 on by car radio is Oregon Public Broadcast (OPB).  Button number 4 is KXL Talk Radio. When I am driving in the Portland area, I compulsively bounce from one station to the other. In the noon hour that means I get to hear and compare two versions of reality that track very closely to the political divisions in America. This is a habit I recommend to everyone. It’s good to escape your narrow view of the world and challenge one’s confirmation bias.

On OPB, I hear a show called “Think Out Loud” and its host Dave Miller. I know many people in Portland who love that show. It covers a wide range of topics and issues, mostly about Portland, but they also take the show out to cover state-wide issues. To their credit, OBP has bureaus in Salem and in Eastern Oregon. Miller has exactly the type of voice one has come to expect on public radio. He is calm, with that hushed, almost urgent tone that is so easy to parody. Everything that comes out his mouth is slathered with sincerity. He generally sounds like he is not just thinking out loud but thinking hard during every interview.

Over on KXL, noon is time for Lars Larson. Lars is the northwest version of Rush Limbaugh. He does his show standing up with his pistol always tucked into the small of his back. I used to see him in City Hall, his handgun at the ready. The show started locally but now has affiliates across the country. Larson’s voice is booming and invariably friendly. It is the sort of voice you hear greet an old friend across the bar on a Saturday night. His has the same schtick as any right-wing talker. Four hours a day, he delivers monologues sure to be red meat for his core listeners then goes to the phones. He is always polite to callers, especially “naysayers.”  They, he says over and over, go to the head of the line. Larson is wicked smart and can turn even the most dedicated lefty caller into a helpless foil. Larson does remote shows too, at gun retailers and farm equipment sales companies.

Depending on which side of the political spectrum floats your boat, I am sure you have the same question, “How can you listen to that crap?” As I have written before, I am a centrist with an enduring fascination with political polarization. I long ago cultivated an ability to watch, read and listen to diametrically opposed commentary to help me understand the fault lines, and most importantly, what Americans have in common.

After years of flipping back and forth between Miller and Larson, I have come to the conclusion that they are the same show. THE EXACT SAME SHOW.

First, let’s start with the two groups of listeners. Neither group can stand to even hear the voice of the opposite host. OPB listeners, more than KXL listeners, are sure that they are open minded, willing to consider all sides of an issue. I call this the liberal conceit. At no point do they concede an inch of their dogma, but they need to feel like they are just better people for their approach to contrary ideas. On the other side, I kind of admire Lars’ core audience. The don’t like liberals and don’t hold back on their contempt. Basically, the other side can go fuck themselves. Liberals in the Twitterverse are getting there but for right-wing radio listeners that unvarnished honesty comes easily.

Both stations perform an important function for their listeners. After a few minutes of hearing what they think repeated back to them, they just feel better about themselves and the world. Unmitigated agreement is soothing. And, when a contrary idea appears, both groups get that gut level “Yea!” as Lars and Dave put the opposition in their place. This is a formula as old as ancient storytellers around a roaring fire. Our tribe feels good to us. Our tribe is right. We would go to war for our tribe.

Lars and Dave do the same things when they are discussing social and political issues with the opposition. They are mostly polite. Lars has all of his arguments down solid. He never moves an inch. They both get a little Socratic in their challenges. Dave layers his questions with liberal trope blind alleys to see if his guest can trap themselves in error of their ways. Lars is a bit more confrontational. His questions challenge, leaving little room for escape. For their listeners, the reaction is the same, “Ha! Well that showed them!”

Both shows try to cultivate outrage but in very different ways. It is always the goal of right-wing radio to make sure the listener is aggrieved to the point of anger. Anger is the coin of the realm in all right-wing media. In every show, Lars layers seeming outrage after outrage and makes no bones that it‘s the liberals, media or government who is at fault. This is a propaganda technique as old as the moon. The trick that Lars has mastered, unlike some other talkers, is that he stays just at the edges of being preachy to his listeners. He riles them up and confirms what they were thinking when they tuned in. He knows that conservatives, especially Trumpists, don’t like to be told what to do. So, he polishes the golden path of anger, turns up the lights and gets out of the way.

Dave has many of the same goals, but he knows that his audience doesn’t need its outrage served up bloody rare. His plan is to lay out his arguments with seeming pristine logic and clarity. His is the thinking person’s outrage machine. He knows when to turn up the urgency knob on his voice, so the audience knows he is genuinely on their side. Getting a little preachy with his audience is fine. Liberals don’t mind being told what to do. In fact, they feel a little cheated if Dave doesn’t offer a useful outlet for their now heightened concern. If his guest isn’t buying what he is selling, then he is the master of expressing the slightest tone of disappointment.  Mouths pursed, eyes narrowed, his listeners shake their heads in disapproval. Letter to the editor to follow.

Almost nobody listens to the arguments of polarization like I do. I’ll admit that sometimes it is exhausting. Both sides drive me nuts. But the fact that I do listen to both Dave and Lars ultimately means that I get twice as many opportunities to yell at my radio, “Oh…Fuck Off!” Catharsis times two.

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