(2) Talk Radio, Commuting and the Fairness Doctrine
Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and I all share the same birthday, this has always irritated me. My first serious girlfriend, Katrina, also shared the birthday so I guess it balances out.
Limbaugh got his start in radio while living in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where he briefly lived off welfare. He has since died from lung cancer, a disease he claimed did not exist. My parents also lived in Cape Girardeau at the time, raising my oldest sister at the start of their marriage. They would later move to Kansas City, where I was born, before resettling in St. Joseph.
Information, Entertainment and Technology
Radio was the dominant form of news and entertainment for over thirty years. It, along with the telephone, ushered in a wave of new technologies that would quickly transform society before TV took the mantle.
The Ancient Greeks relied on word-of-mouth for the exchange of information as they had no radio, telephone, telegraph, television nor even printed press. They could only tell people stuff when they physically saw them. They would perform plays at festivals dedicated to the Greek God Dionysus, helping to promote Greek culture and reinforce social cohesion across the empire. Soon these festivals spread throughout the Mediterranean, solidifying Greece’s standing as a formidable empire for nearly a thousand years and establishing what would become live Theatre, eventually leading to TV and Film.
Benjamin Franklin grew rich operating a printing press through the early/mid 1700s. The printing press was the first mass producer of information. Franklin was, to my tastes, the original American information-entrepreneur, the Bill Gates of his day. He would provide aid to Thomas Paine when Paine arrived sick in Philadelphia. Paine would later publish “Common Sense”, a pamphlet that contributed significantly to pre-revolutionary colonial sentiment, leading to the Declaration of Independence that established the United States as the inaugural “Land of the Free”, a government by and for the people.
The printing press dominated the dissemination of information for the next hundred plus years. The telegraph was invented in the late 1840s, eventually bankrupting our beloved Pony Express. The telephone debuted in the mid-late 1870s. Between the technologies, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the first Republican president. Both technologies would take many years to build out the necessary infrastructure to operate, eventually providing the ability to talk instantaneously with someone across the continent in a way that had never existed before in all of human history.
Henry Ford created the first mass produced automobile, the Model A, in 1903. The car suffered from several mechanical malfunctions and at the heady price of $800–900, sold less than a couple thousand units. In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T which, ranging around $260–600, sold millions of units by 1927 and began the automotive revolution.
Radio communication was invented in the late 1890s. After several years of development, consumer broadcasts became available, first with AM frequencies in the early 1920s then FM frequencies around ten years later. It quickly became a dominant form of entertainment and competitor to the telegraph and printing press. Families would listen to shows after dinner, throughout the day there were westerns, comedies, dramas, educational and news shows. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt adopted the radio for his Fireside Chats to communicate directly with the American People.
Television sets were first introduced in the late 1930s but production was halted due to an asshole named Adolf starting World War II, a man who incidentally learned very well to use radio to promote his plans with carefully constructed propaganda. During the War, radio continued to grow both for the war effort and the consumption of news and entertainment.
Following the defeat of the fascist asshole Nazis and their deluded idiot friends in 1945, television production began again and within a few years was flourishing. In 1947, Harry Truman’s first State of the Union address was televised. By the early 1950s, with the post-war economy blossoming, many households transitioned from radio to TV, only thirty years after commercial radio first appeared. Technological innovation had begun to grow rapidly.
The Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine, established in 1949, required broadcasts to be honest, equitable, and balanced. It didn’t seem a particularly onerous expectation.
Given how radio technically worked, someone needed to regulate who could broadcast at available frequencies, otherwise it would just be a morass of noise with broadcasts interfering with one another, thus the FCC was born. Incidentally, this is why pirate radio came to fruition, to challenge established broadcasters, since owning a license required paying a fee; politics aren’t always as clean as what’s printed on a pamphlet. A couple guys in Boston kept arguing about licenses and political advocacy so in 1941 the FCC made a decision, the Mayflower Decision, stating that stations should remain neutral and not editorialize opinions about politics.
“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower
By 1949 the FCC realized life contained more nuance and so replaced it with the Fairness Doctrine. The whole thing is obviously more complicated than this but two of the central aspects of the ruling were that radio stations needed to dedicate time to issues of public concern and allow for the expression of opposing views on those issues, rather than expressing only one view. It was a recognition that rigorous debate aided the nation and honest evidence aided debate. Again, it didn’t seem a particularly onerous request but as frequently is the case, the devil is in the details.
As stations grew and content shifted, issues of enforcement became more thorny. Society had changed considerably in the intervening years. By 1987, under President Reagan, the FCC solicited public opinion about how to better enforce the many intricate aspects of the doctrine but decided in the end to abandon it entirely. A DC circuit court upheld the decision, without ruling on the constitutionality of abandoning it. In short, they accepted the FCC’s argument that given the abundance of voices in the media market, restrictions may violate a station’s First Amendment rights, despite the fact that radio waves are not people and the state regulates many things of public interest, even owns some of them, like highways. Still, that was the end of the issue.
Rise of the Highway
President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, to essentially connect every corner of the country via a national highway system. Partially intended to aid military mobility in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union, it also allowed Americans easy mobility across the country, causing many to migrate from communities of their birth to big cities or vice-versa.
Through the early years of the Industrial Revolution most people worked within a short distance of their home or had access to some form of public transportation like a street-car or railroad for their commute. By the 1970s automobile ownership became commonplace and through the 80s and 90s people began living further from their workplaces and thus began the American ritual of the daily car commute. Even then, commutes over half an hour were less common and carpooling was an encouraged trend.
Pollution from car exhaust started to become a public health concern thus the Environmental Protection Agency was born in 1970, along with amendments to the Clean Air Act, authorizing the Agency to regulate car emissions. As people began spending more time driving to and from work, the need for something to keep them awake and alert arose. The struggle to separate music from noise, signal versus static, began.
Rush Limbaugh’s signature radio show debuted in 1988, the same year I graduated High-school and qualified for the Nationals Debate Tournament. It started as a highly politicized, opinion broadcast. Limbaugh wasn’t there to play music or report news. Like a carnival barker, he riled up the crowd and pushed people’s buttons. Over time, his rhetoric grew more severe, paving the way for the wave of right-wing talk radio programming soon to come.
Initially, his audience was largely limited to the already “converted”, those looking to have their buttons pushed. My maternal grandmother used to listen to his show but later in life decided to stop. I think she became aware that he made her unhappy and chose to focus on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, practical, real-world things instead of the over-heated infotainment. She was dramatically happier and more pleasant afterward.
“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” -Abraham Lincoln
Soon talk radio shows were scheduled to overlap with rush-hours where they held the captive attention of commuters. Despite the abundance of stations dedicated to playing music, a large portion of the country preferred the button-pushers and so right-wing talk radio flourished through the 90s to today. While the shock-jock style worked for right-wing radio, it didn’t lend itself well to left-leaning or moderate voices and so the talk-radio landscape skewed heavily to the right.
80s Culture and the Ethos of Individualism
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” came out in 1982, ushering in the moonwalk and parachute pants. The same year, “Mazes and Monsters” debuted, a film in which Tom Hanks plays a fictional D&D game, loses his mind then stabs a guy in New York; it was my first experience with something so bad it’s funny. Also in 1982, my dad invested in a Paul Harvey concert in St. Joseph. An announcer from radio’s heyday, turns out not many people wanted to watch him drone on for hours and hours in person. We had to declare bankruptcy then move to Overland Park, Kansas out of embarrassment.
“Return of the Jedi” was finally released in 1983, as was “The Outsiders”, a film about misfits bonding against an established order. Our family would buy, over sequential Christmases, an Atari 2600 then our first VCR. In 1984, Run-D.M.C. released its eponymous debut album and the movies “Beat Street” and “Breakin’” were released. The former still stands as my most viewed VHS tape of all time as I learned the magical ways of the B-Boy. The latter, however, barely got one viewing as it sucked. By the close of 1984, a sequel to Breakin’ would be released titled “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”. It also sucked. It was most notable however for being a completely different film than it’s predecessor, a sequel in name only.
This likely motivated the creative team behind 1982’s “The Beastmaster” to follow-suit a few years later with their sequel, “Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time” which took the D&D-styled characters from the original fantasy-world into modern day Los Angeles. Unlike Breakin’ 2 or Mazes and Monsters, the Beastmaster franchise kicked absolute, other-worldly, time-bending ass and should have won a hundred thousand Academy awards.
During this period, the two most notable aspects of my identity were my fascination with computers and break dancing. Neither made me popular nor cool in school and as such, I remained fairly shy until I took a debate class with my friends Ani Bhatacharrya, Brian Patnode and Amit Mohan. This is also where I’d later meet Katrina and begin my interest in performance and theatre, eventually learning about Dionysus and moving to New York.