Talk Radio as We Know It

As the glitterati of talk radio gathered in New York City on June 9-10 for the big "New Media Seminar," two things virtually screamed out at you: First, FM radio is on its last legs as a music medium and second, freedom of speech must be preserved on the airwaves so that talk show hosts can be as obscene as they want to be.

It may seem strange to the radio outsider that so many hosts are so protective of their "right" under the First Amendment to utter the F-word with impunity — but here, at the annual convention put on by TALKERS Magazine — the general theory is that if the F-word is banned, other speech may be banned as well.

So the coveted "Freedom of Speech Award" went to a man who has fought a very public battle against censorship of any type — Howard Stern. The "King of All Media" did not show up to claim his prize, but he did send a member of his on-air ensemble — the actor George Takei who once cruised the galaxy as Mr. Sulu on the Starship Enterprise.

Mr. Takei’s speech was fascinating as he spoke passionately about his days as a prisoner in an internment camp for Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor and how that ruined his father’s business. Mr. Takei did not mention that virtually all Americans now believe the round up of Japanese Americans was wrong, that some payments for property losses were made in 1948, that President Reagan officially apologized in 1988, and that beginning in 1990 reparations were paid.

More on subject, he discussed the Howard Stern Show, which has now moved to satellite radio so that Howard can be as vulgar as he wants to be. Noting that Stern likes to use certain forbidden words and discuss "bodily functions" that would make most people blush, he asked "what is really obscene?" All Howard is doing is talking the way real people talk in real life.

And, according to Mr. Sulu — that is, Mr. Takei, the REAL obscenities in this country are being perpetrated by the Bush Administration. You know — that war in Iraq that’s all based on lies.

Finally, Mr. Takei had come to a place in his speech where most of us in the room could agree. Not that we all disagree with the War in Iraq, but that we all believe the First Amendment was in the Bill of Rights to protect Mr. Stern’s freedom to disagree with political leaders and to be able to express that disagreement without fear.

Still, many on the ensuing panels wondered why it takes repeated use of the F-word to protect political speech. Some even expressed the opinion that without some government-imposed taboos, there is no "shock" left in the term "shock jock." By moving over to a satellite pay service, Mr. Stern has no envelope to push and no corporate overseer to spar with. He still has his fans, but the entertainment value went down by degrees when he stopped fighting with the FCC.

Ultimately, as most of the hosts and producers in the audience agreed, the marketplace will decide. If talk of body parts and bathroom habits doesn’t appeal to you, you’re probably not a Stern listener anyway.

And what about the marketplace? The nation’s number two host, Sean Hannity, delivered a passionate speech about opportunities in the field of talk radio. Hannity believes that talk radio has nowhere to go but up. So what does that mean for music on your radio?

It was brought out that in many big cities, a top-rated music station can be much less profitable than a lower rated talk station. That’s due to the vagaries of demographics and the foreground nature of talk. But here’s the shocker: The consensus was that your computer, your iPod, and even your cell phone will soon provide the songs you want to hear — selected by you and not by some program director in Atlanta.

AM radio will one day be ethnic programming and infomercials, and talk programming as we know it will migrate to FM. The biggest of the big like WBAP and KLIF may survive for a long while, but the die is cast.

Meanwhile, Howard Stern is doing his thing via satellite as more people are discovering talk radio over the air, internet streaming, podcasting, and even cable TV. Part of the future is already here and the rest is rapidly approaching.

Lynn Woolley and Sean Hannity
Sean Hannity and Lynn Woolley

Lynn Woolley and Dr. Laura
Lynn Woolley and Dr. Laura


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