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Christopher Wilde
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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

My Operation Chaos: What I Learned in Talk Radio

By Christopher Wilde

I've learned a lot from failure.  In the late 1990's I worked in AM talk radio here in Salt Lake City.  In that time I worked in front of and behind the mic of two AM talk radio stations and was the program director of a third station devoted to syndicated news.  When I got into radio it was with the hope and ambition of having an enduring career. One day I thought, if I work really hard maybe I could be as popular as a Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, or G. Gordan Liddy.

It has always been in my nature to take in volumes of information.  When I went to college reading the text book cover to cover was never enough.  If something sparked my curiosity I was off in the library looking up references and mulling over all the new ideas that sprang into my mind.  When I earned my own show I came to the radio microphone with hundreds of pages of news and reports culminated from all over the globe, covered in multi-colored highlights, and hand scrawled notes.

Being over informed made me an interesting side show but it didn't make me a better talk host.  Youthfully bombastic, argumentative, and full of passion there was more than one time I hoped for a rip roaring debate only to bludgeon callers to death with my arsenal of facts.  Looking back my biggest regret was my failure to elicit and explore the multitude of experiences and emotional attitudes that made up the true facts of a day to day listener's life. 

The most rewarding aspect of being on air was the joy and privilege of interjecting new ideas into the atmosphere.  In a single day I would synthesize so much information that I was often discussing issues, elaborating ideas, and fostering concepts long before they'd been interjected into the public domain by my colleagues.  People are driven into radio for a multitude of reasons not the least of which is their egos.  For me coming to the microphone was a means to express a new idea.

Ideas were and still are a drug to me.  One moment it dawns on me that you could use the heat of the earth to build a pretty successful garden underground the next minute I've uncovered a twenty-five page document on Walipini Construction (pdf).  Then I begin to wonder if that couldn't be augmented with LED grow lights.   The idea drove me to the microphone under the gross misconception that if you inform people with enough passion they will care. 

While I had growing listeners and always a few deeply loyal fans my program never took off the way I'd hoped.  Disillusioned and disappointed I moved out of radio and for the next few years returned to the silent majority of listeners who never pick up the phone to engage in the great verbal dance that is talk radio.

It was over the intervening years with my mouth shut, my ears open, and the experience of having spoken on end for hundreds of hours (I once did a show seven days a week, six hours a night for more than six months) that I really understood.  It was only then that I learned the secret of the major players like Rush Limbaugh.  The key to success in talk radio has nothing to do with ideas.

A good idea can spring from looking at rows in a field and develop into a television, from selling milk shake machines to establishing the McDonald franchise, from calculating a search algorithm to launching Google.  While these examples are corporate in nature good ideas can develop into new nations, establish new standards of free speech, and launch a world wide expectation of universal human rights.  The right idea at the right time and place is the soul of a benevolent eternal future.

For everyone who has found success and made money from syndicated talk radio the formula is the same; divide and conquer.  In radio ideas are not concepts to foster innovation.  They are weapons to affirm your preconceived platform of liberal or conservative, left or right, or even up and down.  If a caller who supports your position offers an idea it can be the greatest thing in the world, but if next week Congressman X across the isle suggests the same idea.  He is bad and must be stopped at all costs.

It's very simple but it does take some listening to get pass the hook.  A highly educated, very intelligent listener who hears a good idea being put down by a talk host either turns off the radio completely or the more likely consequence is that they tune in and satiate their own moral superiority.  Fans of the host feel like they have someone speaking for them while those opposed have someone to despise.

It did not matter who proposed the idea that would change the world. That was my perpetual folly behind the golden microphone. My repeated mistake was to be open to ideas for the sake of their merit.  Once caught consorting with the opposing viewpoint your fans feel betrayed, your enemies assume victory, and both sides turn off the radio.

The formula for success in talk radio is to pick the largest two opposing groups you can make your niche, and polarize them every single minute you are on the air.  This makes for great, provocative, and entertaining radio.  A syndicated talk radio host can make a lot of money, but for the issues they espouse they will never (ever) make a fundamental change for the better.  They can't. Their very careers are founded on division and if they brought people together they'd be out of work.


Related Articles by Christopher Wilde: Sorry For All the Politics, Americans Start Learning Spanish, The Equality to Self-Criticize, or  scroll through the archive 2008.

1 comment:

ken said...

Thanks Chris, for sharing your perspective with me. There is, in fact, a conflict of polar opposites in the world today. I have had a vote negated by 3rd party candidate, by my proximity to a large urban center and by pure propaganda. My vote counted the other day.
Although I agree in principle with what you say, the "moderate" view that the truth lies in between opposing views is ridiculous. The truth is where it is.

I have taken a stand for my kids and grandkids. The endless rhythm of Marxist thought in school and major media is eroding the foundation of our country.

The proof is in the hate filled personal attacks heard everywhere.

God Bless You