A few words about American talk radio (and related topics)

In this month’s Atlantic Monthly David Foster Wallace has a long article on Los Angeles talk radio host John Ziegler. DFW (as fans like to call him) spent a month hanging around KFI‘s studios. What he finally came up with is… stimulating.

Like most talk radio hosts, Ziegler is aggressively right wing. But Wallace is quick to explain that this isn’t part of some vast conspiracy, it’s just good business:

Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today’s AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.

On talk radio, current affairs issues serve the same purpose as everything else that goes to air. Without the audience there’s no advertising, and without the advertising there’s no revenue. When Ziegler complains about being pushed to give more attention to a gang rape trial, his program director Robin Bertolucci reminds him that if a Christina Aguilera song can play morning, afternoon, and evening then so can a rape story:

it is worth noting that a certain assumption behind Ms. B.’s Christina Aguilera analogy—namely, that a criminal trial is every bit as much an entertainment product as a Top 40 song—was not questioned or even blinked at by either participant. This is doubtless one reason for KFI’s ratings éclat—the near total conflation of news and entertainment.

Apart from Wallace’s informative account of the goings on inside a talk radio studio, a large part of the buzz gathering around this article is about DFW himself. As a novelist he is notorious for his annotations. His 1996 novel Infinite Jest runs to 1079 pages with the last 92 of those being ‘notes and errata.’ Wallace once admitted that "I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself." It’s hard to imagine that he ever tries. The Atlantic article is 23 pages long and is studded with color-coded side-notes- some of which have notes of their own.

If I could figure out how to insert little colored side-notes into this blog entry I’d use one to tell you that Wallace’s side-notes have become an issue in their own right. Not everyone’s sure how to deal with them. While the little notes in the margin of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X were easy enough to get around to when you were ready, Wallace’s side notes demand to be read right away. If you’re the kind of person who’s always looking things up while they’re reading you probably won’t mind too much.

Along with books like David Eggers’ memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG) , Wallace’s novels are often referred to as ‘metafiction.’ (or sometimes even ‘post-metafiction’) I won’t try to explain what that means but I will say it doesn’t involve communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself.

It’s funny, but I can’t help thinking how much fun it might be to write something like this about Tim Blair.

Note: I think the April 2005 edition of the Atlantic is well worth the 13 or so dollars you’ll pay for it at the newsagent (I particularly enjoyed the ad for the $14,615 exercise machine on page 127). But if you just want to skim the DFW article here are couple of places you might look for it:

Click to access DFW_Host.pdf

Click to access 2005-04wallace-atlantic.pdf

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wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

As DFW is my favourite living writer under the age of 40 – thanks for the tip, Don.

Infinite Jest is the best book I’ve read that I never finished.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Kinda with you there wwb.” Infinite Jest” could have been twice the book if it was a third the length, Also, just like Martin (“whorfling smashes”) Amis, when DFW writes about tennis, I can just tell from my own sporting life that he’s only a C grade club hacker or prep school paddler.

For me his best work is his short stories. “Girl With Curious Hair” is “American Pyscho” turned into the glittering razor-edged powerpop song it should have been for starters. And “Lyndon” is an utterly hallucinatory snapshot of a hallucinatory time, rendered with photoshop realism.

DFW should stop aiming for brillance and jest settle for it instead.

Oh, yeah, US shock jocks. Shouldn’t their audiences being working, not listening?

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

Working not listening. Is very nice.

DFW would whip Amis’ arse on the court. (Weight for age.) I’d pay to see ’em go a round in the salon, but.

the fuck’s wwb?

LHM
LHM
2022 years ago

An easier way to say this would be that ideology has become a big business.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

Its simple – conservative ideology doesn’t do nuance, and neither does the average joe in the street. Especially when he’s only half-listening because he’s doing something else (work) at the time.

What the left needs to compete here is more Michael Moores who aren’t afraid to be simplistic, unfair and hypocritical in order to make a punchy point.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Don – Thanks for the link to the DFW article. I’ve had a long interest in radio and really enjoyed reading the level of detail and big picture. I don’t mind the little breakout boxes at all.