Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Me
The tables are starting to turn and maybe, just maybe, the public is ready for my style of broadcasting again.
At age 63, I’ve had lots of different jobs in my life, starting at age 14 as a gas station bathroom cleaner, and moving on, to name just a few, to pizza maker, drug store clerk, office assistant, news reporter, columnist, college trustee, more recently, presidential appointee, to currently, senior scholar. Some of those jobs could be exhilarating at times, others sometimes frustrating and, on occasion, even humiliating. I’ll let you figure out which was which (hint: the answers are not always obvious).
But looking back, some of my favorite jobs were those I held in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when I had the chance to host several public affairs oriented radio and T.V. programs, including a weekly radio show (“Feedback with Hal Plotkin!”) on KPEN (97.7FM back then) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a TV talk show that aired on a local UHF-TV channel (“CrossPoint with Hal Plotkin!”) and later, as a founding on-air editor of Marketplace, public radio’s now long-running business and economic news program.
There was something very special about those media jobs that reliably lifted my spirits. I think it was the chance to talk with people I’d otherwise never meet, and to contribute constructively to the public conversation. It felt like getting paid to have fun (that is, when I actually did get paid. That’s another story all-together).
It was a different time. This was, of course, pre-Internet and even mostly pre-cable TV. Back then, public affairs programs, where you focused on the issues of the day, were almost always pretty sedate. As a host, my goals were always the same: to stay out of the way, to elicit news, information, and memorable insights, to keep the conversation moving, to listen to my guests, maintain high standards for accuracy and fairness, and to leave listeners or viewers better informed.
I never staged or presided over shouting matches, wouldn’t tolerate, invite, or even imagine such a thing, and never catered, at least not intentionally, to the lowest common denominator. (Okay, okay, there was that one time I interviewed wet T-shirt contestants, but my station manager made me do it, I swear).
Before my on-air run ended, more with a whimper than a bang, my radio and TV shows typically featured in-depth interviews with members of congress, senators, industry leaders, scientists, environmentalists (the inventor of a car that ran on used cooking oil!), famous big thinkers galore, professors, authors, artists, a few singers, people talking about philosophy, religion, ethics, and many people I just found interesting, even if they were sometimes a bit on the fringe, such as losing senatorial candidate and presidential daughter Maureen Reagan, (a genuinely gracious, funny, and quite brilliant woman), as well as quirkier guests, such as Edward Murphy, the inventor of Murphy’s Law (remarkably, nothing went wrong during that interview). They were lively, informative, and, for the most part, fun conversations, notwithstanding the time one guest had a panic attack and bolted from the studio just as a live program began. Or the time I discovered that the tape recorder was not running after finishing a one-hour interview that was supposed to be pre-recorded (he kindly stayed and did the whole thing again). I’ll also never forget when the late Congressman Tom Lantos, as admirable a figure as I ever interviewed, mistakenly thought our station was under bombardment. Within a few years of starting, I had something of a broadcasting success story on my hands. After a while, some pretty famous people even started asking to be on the show. Other would-be guests sometimes showed up entirely uninvited.
My biggest fan, my Mom, was delighted more than I can describe when my radio shows started to earn high ratings, eventually repeatedly winning its time slot in the Sunday morning local radio Arbitron book in our targeted audience demo (people with spending money). Mom started sending her friends copies of the ratings. I did well enough, in fact, to get an invitation in 1986 from American Public Radio to join the small crew, led by legendary public radio producer Jim Russell (the first executive producer of All Things Considered), that put Marketplace on the air.
Two years later, in 1989, my Mom died. I took a leave of absence from Marketplace to help my sister wrap up her estate. There was a house to fix up and sell, and months of tasks left behind by a woman who had not planned on dying, at least not then. I had intended to return to Marketplace once the estate tasks were under control but in the end never could bring myself to set a date, mostly because returning to Northern California had reminded me how deeply I hated living in Southern California, where the Marketplace studio was located, particularly on public radio wages. I tried to work out setting up a Marketplace bureau in San Francisco but personalities and the priorities of others killed that idea. I also thought, without basis it turned out, that I would find another suitable public affairs broadcasting job somewhere in the Bay Area, where I felt more at home. But that never happened.
Instead, something else was afoot in broadcasting, something that even then struck me as deeply dark and destructive: the rise of radio personalities such as Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and the whole right-wing “shock jock” radio milieu, which marked the beginning of a fast end to broadcasts designed to inform rather than incite or enrage, a development that left me and others like me out in the cold. Part of this had to do with the contemporaneous 1987 Reagan-era repeal of the Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, which had up until that time required broadcasters, under the pain of losing their licenses, to “present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.” By the late 1980’s, that was no longer the law of the land.
There were commercial pressures in play at the time too, to be sure, not just regulatory concerns, but it was Katie Bar the Door once commercial broadcasters no longer had to worry that unfair, even disgraceful, programming choices might cost them their access to public airwaves. In the new unregulated context commercial broadcasters had only one goal: drawing the largest audience possible. Smart, calm, fact-based public affairs programming mostly fell by the wayside and, in its place, a new zeitgeist emerged on the public airwaves epitomized, on the radio, by Howard Stern farting into a microphone and Rush Limbaugh’s hate speech, which drew big crowds by mercilessly attacking and victimizing others, a reliable attention-getting tactic since the days of public hangings. Junk media followed the same basic model as junk food, serving up what the public wants even though it sickens and even kills them over time.
For a time, I went looking for corporate sponsors to see if I could find some willing to support my type of broadcasting, in which most local station managers expressed little interest. But I had no luck. At the same time, local radio and TV stations were well along the path to the corporate consolidation that has pretty much eliminated local ownership of broadcast media. In the early 1990’s I moved back into print journalism, where I had gotten my start, and pretty much gave up on ever sitting behind a broadcast microphone again.
A New Beginning
Remarkably, that is about to change. Recently, I was approached by a foundation based in Paris working in partnership with an international online broadcaster and asked to host a pilot episode of a new global, online public affairs program focused on ending violence and promoting peaceful collaborations across borders and cultures. Although many details remain, we have agreed to move forward. There is lots to do, including creating some type of set in my home office, and noodling through the structure of the program, including how we can best enable audience participation. We have the first few guests lined up. And there may be some practice programs involved. Fortunately, my producing online broadcaster has deep experience producing programming that matters. We plan to broadcast (distribute?) the first of these programs in November. A more formal announcement will be forthcoming.
As I used to say a very long time ago, “please stay tuned for additional details.”