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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Talk Shows

Lastweek, I appeared on two radio programs. One was a live Toronto based talk radio program, The John Oakley Show, heard in Toronto on 640 am. the other was taped for future broadcast on The Bob Edwards Show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. The programs couldn't have more different and more similar.

On John Oakley's show the topic was whether Bill O'Reilly of Fox News had gone too far in his attacks on Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who performed abortions and was shot to death on May 31 as he attended church. There was Susan G. Cole, a left wing journalist and David Menzies, a conservative journalist. I was there in an expected role, presumably as the academic voice in the middle, ostensibly to add a few thoughtful perspectives to the fray.

I have been on a few talk radio programs before, and usually in the role as an ombudsman-like character: somewhat Solomonic, above the fray, a bit boring I suppose. They have not, for the most part, been enjoyable experiences as the yelling quickly takes the place of wit and debate. Often in the interest of "spicing up" the program, a "surprise" guest joins in the discussion just to put everyone in studio on edge. This happened to me while I was on a phone-in show a few years ago on Alaska Public Radio. Suddenly the former editor of Ramparts Magazine, now professional conservative David Horowitz was on the line from California to attack NPR as a nest of commies. I was happy to debate Mr. Horowitz, but I thought it was unprofessional of the program not to let me know in advance. The phrase "sandbagged" came to mind.

None of that happened on The John Oakley Show. Cole and Menzies clearly knew their assigned roles and they would dive in with a lot of wit and smart alecky comments and needling. They clearly enjoyed trying to beat each other up - rhetorically at least. John Oakley, the host threw in a few acerbic comments of his own, then took one call from someone with a very strong Russian accent and before we knew it, a half an hour had passed and we were off the air.

What I liked about it was the fast pace and quick wit. There was a lot of thinking on one's feet by the guests. I confess I got tired at one point of being the voice of moderation and I threw a couple of incendiary devices as well. At the end, we agreed that O'Reilly might be guilty of incitement, but only if the FBI could prove that the alleged killer was a regular viewer of The O'Reilly Factor.

The Bob Edwards Show is the opposite in tone and pacing. I was the only guest and Bob (who used to host NPR's Morning Edition for more than 20 years) gave me lots of time to talk about ombudsmanship, the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) and a few other things besides. Sirius XM Radio may be commercial in its aims, but Bob's show still has a lot of public radio DNA. Not a lot of one-liners here, although I think I heard Bob laugh at a couple of my jokes.

Both shows have enormous value to the listeners. The John Oakley Show is about fireworks; The Bob Edwards Show is more like a coal fire. You can't warm yourself intellectually from the first and you might not be dazzled by the second. But both have their undoubted value and it seems very loyal audiences. But my guess is that there is not a lot of audience cross-over. Red and blue (North) America are still very much two solitudes on the air.

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