Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Excellence In Broadcasting
“Rush is just an amazing radio performer...Years ago, I used to listen in the car on my way to reporting gigs, and I’d notice that I disagreed with everything he was saying, yet I not only wanted to keep listening, I actually liked him. That is some chops. You can count on two hands the number of public figures in America who can pull that trick off.” -Ira Glass, Host of This American Life on NPR.
This NYT piece about Rush Limbaugh predates the outcome of our last presidential election by a couple of months, but it successfully encapsulates some of what I find intriguing about the man, and what sets him apart from his competitors.
Most talk radio hosts lose their flavor for me once I discover the neurosis that drives their selection of issues: Sean Hannity is a republican boyscout with very little personal nuance. Michael Savage suffers from sexual repression, and is bitter because he wasn't more thoroughly embraced by proponents of the beat generation. He later became even more bitter because he wasn't welcomed with open arms into the mainstream conservative intelligentsia. Glenn Beck is a conspiracy theorist who views himself as prophetically instrumental in some kind of upcoming--LDS flavored--American Revolution fantasy. He is also (understandably) struggling to find meaning in his life after suffering several substantial personal tragedies: He takes the lessons he learns on this journey (which should be a personal one) and projects them onto global and national political events.
Bill O'Reilly (as Rush tells us accurately in this piece), is Ted Baxter.
All of these characters are sympathetic in their own way, but they'll never be as compelling or entertaining as Rush. If Rush is suffering from serious personal demons, he doesn't let them drive him. While debating angry liberal callers, he hovers above the exchange amusedly, rejoindering as if from on high. Most importantly--as he says himself in this piece--he is a businessman and entertainer before he is a conservative, unlike his competitors. That gives him an edge the others do not have.
He doesn't start off with a message, he starts off with a vehicle. It's kind of like the difference between rock musicians who happens to be christian (Joseph Arthur/Bono) and christian rock musicians. The first group starts off with a love for the music that allows the inevitable bleed through of spiritual themes to seem organic, and thus believable. The second group (often less talented) start off with a message that they want to force into a form that may not be appropriate for it, and their finished product is often awkward and unconvincing.
While I don't share all of Limbaugh's worldview, I'll never accuse him of being awkward or unconvincing in his expression of it.