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Talk radio's price: a culture of complaint

How the political equation is skewed by dittoheads and Dr. Laura lackeys

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The election of pro-wrestler-turned-talk radio-host Jesse Ventura and the current controversy surrounding the Internet photos of pop-adviser Laura Schlessinger remind us that talk radio is now firmly ingrained in American culture.

Talk radio has sustained a discourse of anger, cynicism, and confrontation for almost a decade.

What is the attraction of a medium that highlights conflict and discontent, shows little respect for societal institutions, leaders, and processes, and thrives on humiliating the very audience members it depends upon for its existence?

The talk radio phenomenon is a microcosm of wider social trends.

It simulates meaningful connection in a world where people increasingly feel isolated and adrift from any real community. Talk show hosts offer simple rules, directions, and shortcuts for negotiating complex political, psychological, and social terrain to listeners who feel frustrated and overwhelmed.

Talk radio's populist foundations leave ordinary citizens with the impression that this is their medium, especially as alienation from elites has grown.

Audience members establish a pseudo-comradery with hosts and listeners like themselves to whom they can make public pronouncements, share intimacies, or just listen. Yet, to be a part of talk radio's communities means buying into its culture, language, rules of engagement, and its ways of relating.

Sensational, vitriolic public discourse is not a new phenomenon in the US. It might even be considered an American tradition. Colonial broadsheets printed gossip and scandal. The Founding Fathers even used them for personal attacks. During the penny press era in the 1800s, "yellow journalism," "muckraking," and tabloid-style reporting were commonplace. For more than 200 years, citizens have sounded off in letters to the editor, many of which resemble print versions of talk-radio rant-ings.

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