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Radio talk shows can be defined as radio broadcasts centered primarily on conversational speech. They encompass numerous discourse genres and formats, ranging from political diatribes to highly interactive exchanges with members of the listening audience. Many talk shows have hybrid formats featuring music, sound effects, and news interspersed with interviews, debates, social and political commentary, religious exegesis, medical advice, therapeutic discourse, question-and-answer sessions, sports-fan exchanges, and storytelling.
Talk shows are typically hosted by a single radio personality, usually positioned as an expert in some area. Many also feature occasional guests who are interviewed, as well as one or two regular interlocutors who assist the host. Audience participation is usually a major feature of talk radio shows worldwide, with opportunities for listeners to telephone or write to the program host with questions, comments, or music requests, which are then relayed on air. The place of talk radio in non-Western nations parallels the role of talk radio in Western nations, yet it is a relatively new area of exploration that merits more in-depth research.
The social consequences of talk radio are extensive. Three major types of impact can be identified. First, talk radio has far-reaching implications for the nature of the public sphere in modern societies as it creates forums for participatory democracy and the development of public opinion. Second, talk radio influences both everyday discourse and political discourse by providing models of talk and by setting agendas through talk. And third, talk radio has become a major part of everyday life for countless people around the globe as they structure their days around favorite programs and as they develop affective ties to radio personalities.
Talk shows have been a prominent feature of radio since the inception of broadcasting in Western nations in the 1920s and in non-Western contexts from the 1940s onward. Early examples include Alexander Woolcott’s (1887–1943) urbane commentary on New York’s WOR in the 1920s and Walter Winchell’s (1897–1972) political gossip program on NBC in the 1930s. More interactive formats emerged in the 1930s, first with vox populi “man on the street” interviews being taped and then later relayed on air, and then with radio “town hall meetings,” which featured live broadcasts of studio audiences discussing current events. Such formats were also introduced in colonial broadcasting in Africa as early as the late 1940s. In the United States, radio call-in programs began in the mid-1940s. Precursors of talk radio formats and functions include public traditions such as town hall meetings, and gathering places such as literary circles, coffee houses, village squares, and beer gardens, as well as mass entertainment forms, such as vaudeville and circus sideshows.
Between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the number of radio stations in the United States featuring talk radio quadrupled. By the mid-1990s, talk radio ranked as the second most popular radio format in the United States, with country music being the first. The dramatic rise of talk radio during this period is attributed to several factors, including a general collapse of public life in the United States, coupled with an increased predictability and absence of personality in FM radio programming. Some scholars have argued that Americans found themselves increasingly isolated and thus turned to talk radio as a way to be connected to community and to others. Similar arguments have been made about talk radio in other parts of the world, such as England and Israel.
During the 1980s, certain AM stations as well as National Public Radio (NPR) strategized to “reactivate attentive listening” (Douglas 1999, p. 286) through less predictable formats, more chatty ad-libbing, and greater emphasis on sound effects and voice qualities. Further contributing factors to the prevalence and popularity of talk radio at the end of the twentieth century include the increased facility of national broadcasting afforded by satellite technology and the increased facility of audience interactivity afforded by cell phones. A final factor relatively unnoticed by scholarship is the fact that countless radio listeners are engaged in lengthy commutes to and from work. Morning “drive time” talk radio formats as well as evening news magazines fit into these lifestyle patterns and relieve the boredom and isolation of commuting for long periods every day.
Approximately 80 percent of all U.S. radio stations include some form of talk radio in their programming. Many stations, such as NBC’s Talknet, ABC’s Talkradio Network, and Air America Radio, are exclusively devoted to round-the-clock live talk programming. NPR also features a substantial number of entertaining and informative talk programs, such as All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, Car Talk, and A Prairie Home Companion.
While the genre of talk radio might be best known for its strong language, irreverence, and polarizing discourse, encapsulated in the persona of the shock jock, the majority of talk radio programs worldwide do not adhere to this model. Examples of the former in the United States include broadcasters Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Don Imus. As with many shock jocks, these individuals and their stations have been subject to investigations by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a governmental regulatory body, and some have received fines and suspensions for pushing the limits of respectability on the airwaves.
By contrast, most of the world’s talk show hosts, including those in the United States, are models of respectability. They work to build community, air common concerns, solve problems, and develop better futures for their listeners. In many African nations, for example, talk radio programs play a significant role in informing people about electoral processes, debating political issues, and allowing citizens to air their views. One dramatic case of talk radio in the service of democracy in Africa is exemplified by the Talk Mogadishu program on Somalia’s station, HornAfrik. On this program, listeners from different parts of the city call in to update each other on events across the chaotic, war-torn city landscape. In addition, they pose pointed questions to rival warlords who appear as program guests. Other examples include the popular talk shows on Zambia’s national radio station. Two Bemba-language programs, Baanacimbuusa (Women Advisors) and Kabuusha Takolelwe Boowa (a proverb meaning “the inquirer was not poisoned by a mushroom”), are inspired directly by indigenous modes of advising. In the former, the host introduces a topic concerning family and marriage, which a panel of elder women then discusses. In some cases, the topic is developed from a listener’s letter. In the Kabuusha program, an expert advisor answers listeners’ letters on a variety of subjects, including corrupt politicians, adulterous spouses, inlaws who demand more marriage payments, and employers who exploit their workers.
In their capacity as important avenues for influencing public opinion and voting behavior, talk radio programs have attracted the attention of politicians in numerous contexts worldwide. In the United States, for example, talk radio contributed to a coordinated popular protest against a proposed congressional pay raise in 1989. It continues to be a vital influence on the tenor of presidential campaigns, cabinet and Supreme Court nomination hearings, and the reception of government policies in general. In contexts where there is less media freedom, political radio talk show hosts often risk charges of sedition, physical threat, or forced exile, as recent cases from Uganda and Haiti attest.
Criticisms, Concerns, and Prospects
Critics of talk radio describe it as a debased form of journalism and public discourse. Their concern is that personal opinions and private experiences are emphasized over relevant facts and information. Listeners are thus not enlightened in ways that allow them to develop informed opinions. In this analysis, talk radio is not about citizenship or participatory democracy, but about sensationalism and ratings. Other criticisms include an assessment that hosts with call-in programs simulate a model of authentic dialogue, but in reality are engaged in a complex form of social control and norm making. These criticisms are well founded when applied to certain forms of talk radio, particularly the shock jock genres, but detract from the fact that a multiplicity of talk radio genres also work to foster positive social change, personal growth, and enjoyable listening experiences among audiences.
Talk radio will continue to be a vibrant and multifaceted hybrid genre well into the future. The recent emergence of Internet radio and Internet telephoning is already yielding many more possibilities for talk radio formats and talk radio communities, including global talk radio. Coupled with the rise of other participatory and audience-produced media such as blogs and wikis, talk radio will continue to be a media form that allows audiences to “be the media” and thus have an impact on the tenor of political life and communication environments more generally. From ice hockey fan exchanges to dialogues on compassion in Zen Buddhism, talk radio provides an important area of scholarly inquiry as it touches on virtually every field of the social sciences, including media studies, cultural studies, anthropology, sociolinguistics, social psychology, and political science.
- Barker, David C. 2002. Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior. New York: Colombia University Press.
- Douglas, Susan J. 1999. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York: Times Books.
- Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. 1956. Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy and Distance. Psychiatry 19: 215–229.
- Hutchby, Ian. 1996. Confrontation Talk: Arguments, Asymmetries, and Power on Talk Radio. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Katriel, Tamar. 2004. Dialogic Moments: From Soul Talks to Talk Radio in Israeli Culture. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
- Munson, Wayne. 1993. All Talk: The Talkshow in Media Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Tacchi, Jo. 1998. Radio Texture: Between Self and Others. In Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, ed. Daniel Miller, 25–45. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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