Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Talk Radio and Citizen Participation

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

When we talk about active citizen participation in the media -- true two-wayinteraction -- a free and open exchange of ideas -- we may think of talkradio. It is an interesting concept, made all the more fascinating by the fact that it is only marginally true.

Talk radio is certainly not a new form of communication and entertainment,but its steady growth and increasing impact make it even more important to evaluate critically these days.

Longtime Boston radio talk show host Gerry Williams sometimes confoundsradio wannabees (often college students studying broadcasting) with a simple question: What kind of business do you think this is? The students invariably suggest noble answers: news, public service, information. A few come somewhat closer to the mark by answering "entertainment." Williams sneers at their ignorance as he finally says, "Sales. Advertising." He is in the advertising business, he tells them.

It is a difficult and somewhat surprising lesson to hear, but it is true. On-air personalities are in the sales business. Their job is to gather anaudience so that commercials can be run. That's the only way the radiostation makes money, after all. The programming itself is a kind of filler-- the real business of talk radio (any radio) is, of course, the business ofmaking money, of advertising.

Talk radio gathers its audience around fairly narrow demographic lines(mostly middle-aged, largely male, socially and politically aware) by providing talk programs that are true "infotainment" -- half information and half entertainment.

It is often the interactive nature of this particular medium which arouses our interest. Real live people call in and talk with the host. Audience participation. Democracy. Let your voice be heard. Etcetera. In point offact, however, only about 2 % of the audience ever calls to participate. The rest of us are just there listening.

Conservative talk show guru Rush Limbaugh is brutally honest when he explains which phone calls are taken on the air. People do not listen to his show, he says, to hear the callers. They tune in to listen to him. Characteristically egotistical (but straightforward), he explains that callers are chosen for only one reason -- to make the host look good. Nevertheless, talk radio is reaching towards a kind of participatory citizen involvement and activism. Local print and access TV are reaching, too. Local newspapers not only encourage and actively solicit Letters to theEditor for publication, but now many of them also print phone calls in a special section. Access Television not only depends upon direct citizen participation in the production of programs, but many programs feature a"live phone in" capability to make participation even easier.

Across all forms of media, the trend is towards the empowerment of the individual. Until recently, Freedom of the Press used to apply only to those who owned one; today radio, print and television are urging (begging) for your involvement. Not only is your involvement good for their business, butit is also important for our democratic society.

Radio, print and television technology today makes it possible for each of us to make ourselves heard: to offer an idea, an opinion, a plan, a reaction.

All that's missing is our own involvement and participation as active senders of media messages rather than as merely passive receivers.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.