« Loose Links (Monday) | Main | Tempus »


The other day, I quipped that the format in which David Foster Wallace's "Host," appears in the current Atlantic might upstage its contents. I hope that that doesn't turn out to be the case. Mr Wallace, always a fan of footnotes, and even, I seem to recall, of footnotes to footnotes, has taken the aside to a new plateau of articulation. The footnotes to "Host" are signaled by lightly colored boxes that frame words in the text. These correspond to larger - well, generally larger boxes of the same color in the sidebar. This is not just a gimmick; it gives to each of Mr Wallaces notes a slightly different voice, and as most of his footnotes introduce some ironic qualification of the story, the different colors suggest, what is the case, that the note of irony shifts from note to note, ranging from faux disbelief to outright disagreement; one note consists of nothing more than "?!". Because the notes slow down the story, it might be said that the reader will have evolved a more deliberative response to "Host"; certainly the varying sizes and colors suggest a complexity of vision that would be quite beyond the power of monotonal footnotes situated in their customary place.

But "Host" is not just a delivery system for gimmicky layout.

In the best tradition of magazine journalism, it takes an interesting exponent of a way of life, in this case talk radio, as a synecdoche for something serious in our way of doing things. John Ziegler was a thirty-seven year-old radio veteran last year when Mr Wallace sat in on a few of the shows that Mr Ziegler broadcasts from KFT, an AM station situated near Koreatown in Los Angeles. (If I could deploy sidebar-studding footnotes, I would interject in a more interesting way that the reader of "Host" will soon begin to wonder why reportage that Mr Wallace did last spring and early summer is only now appearing in print. As it is, parenthesis will have to do.) The climax of the story, upon which the article promptly closes, occurs on the tenth anniversary of the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman; to say that O J Simpson is John Ziegler's bête noire is to sound uncomfortable echoes of the talk-show host's checkered career, so perhaps it would be better to say that the former athlete is an obsession of Mr Ziegler's. As a sportscaster in North Carolina nine years ago, the then twenty-something Mr Ziegler rather foolishly convinces himself that he can get away with "an incredibly tame joke" - Mr Ziegler's words - about Mr Simpson's lack of innocence, and when is fired for this lapse of judgment, he decides that he has been a martyr to Political Correctness. A few years later, in Nashville, he screws up bigger-time by using the 'N' word, in a friendly sort of way you understand, to describe Tiger Woods. As recently as three years ago, Mr Ziegler lost a post in Louisville for dissing the physical attributes of a current colleague/former lover. Mr Ziegler is still young enough to offend Jewish sensibilities and, by doing so, collect all three of the conservative stigmata.

When Mr Wallace's subject was fired in Louisville, his employer was Clear Channel Communications. When he showed up for work at his next (and current) gig in Los Angeles, his employer was - Clear Channel Communications. Clear Channel owns over a thousand radio stations in the United States, and it can afford to be breezy about giving a talented talker work in a newer, bigger market after it has seen fit to take it away in a smaller, lesser place. David Foster Wallace rightly recognizes the promotion here. What you do with a gifted employee who, for the right reasons, has become an embarrassment in the highly local field of radio, is: move him. Memo to John Ziegler: don't follow in the footsteps of KFT predecessor Laura Schlesinger and go national; once you've botched national, you'll have nowhere else to go. "Host" is tangentially informative about the Darth Vader-ish concentration of media outlet ownership in the past ten years; Mr Wallace refers to it intelligently, but it is not his topic. It is my topic, though; I would prohibit any person, natural or otherwise (corporate) from owning more than one radio or television frequency. (I would allow owners to pool expensive back-office operations, which are mostly automated anyway.) The closest that "Host" gets to a critique of modern media ownership is in a discussion of the dismantling of the old "Fairness Doctrine," pursuant to which broadcasters were obliged to give "equal time" to "both sides" of a public argument. It was one of the most flawed New Deal propositions, and it proved to be unworkable, but it wouldn't have been necessary in an environment of solitary broadcasters. Liberals worry about the unholy influence that monolithic corporations can bring to bear on what gets published and what gets broadcast, and their anxiety is not mistaken - except insofar as it overlooks something worse: the freedom that media behemoths bestow upon their outposts to do anything that will make a lot of money. Censorship isn't the problem! Au contraire!

What sort of man is John Ziegler? If "Host" never quite discloses the man, that may be because the man is utterly resistant to exposure. The article shows us a type of guy whom we all know to be fiercely protective, if not positively stupid, about his "inner man." Mr Ziegler attributes his unmarried state to a peripatetic career, the moves of which are, in his mind, somebody else's fault. Religious background is never spelled out, but I sense that "the host" is a Catholic kind of guy. He is certainly a patriarchal male. His boss, as it happens, is a woman, and during their weekly critiques - during which she makes her points with a "no moving parts" blandness that certainly underscores Mr Ziegler's mistrust of Program Directors - Mr Ziegler resorts to an utterly pathetic world-weariness that anyone would recognize as the challenged male's first line of defense. Or perhaps he's yawning because he really is tired. You decide.

The interesting thing about John Ziegler is that he clearly regards himself as a normal American guy. And why not? That the host of a talk show to which angry white men direct their anger, an anger motivated by profound social shifts that severely discount their formerly brontosaurean standing, should regard himself as a normal guy is perhaps the most eloquent comment that can be made about this country right now. Talk radio is the medium par excellence for venting the cyclonic discontent of remaindered men. Men, that is, who used to get by on simply being men. A similar rage infected the old European aristocracies as their privileges were everywhere stripped away, and they're still fighting it, so God only knows how long the Willy Lomans are going to fuss. Attempts to create a talk-show galaxy on the left are bound to fail, I think; or else they'll mutate into something really unlike the Rushes and the Dr Lauras. That's because, while people on the left are plenty angry, they're not angry about the same things that make talk-show participants on the right feel that they're being crucified. They can address the political developments that make them mad. The agony on the right has nothing to do with politics per se. It has everything to do with sexuality, with the erosion of a consensus that had lasted for millennia.

Talk shows are angry for many reasons. As Mr Wallace points out, negative emotions are much easier to rouse than positive ones, because we share our fears but not our joys, particularly in secular, individualistic societies. (To a true, old-fashioned Whiggish liberal like me, you can't say anything better about a civilization than that no two of its eccentric citizens share quite the same idea of happiness.) Our fears represent the common hardships that we all have behind us; our joys partake of extremely diverse hopes and futures. Besides, who would bother to call in to a radio show to vent happiness? You have to get through the screener, first of all, and, depending on the pitch of your contribution, you may be kept on hold for an hour or more before your phone becomes a feed, and even then there are no guarantees that your call will be used. That you will be used. Happy people have other things to do, and in any case happiness is its own reward. Serious dissatisfaction requires sharing - at a minimum. If this weren't as true as the color of the sky, there wouldn't be any bars.

As constant readers know, I used to be in radio myself. It was classical radio, and there were certainly no talk shows on KLEF. But our facilities were so underdeveloped that, after office hours, announcers on duty were expected to answer all incoming phone calls. These came almost exclusively from cranky listeners: if I say that happy people don't call up radio stations, I know whereof I speak. As part of the broadcasting community in the city that zoomed from seventh to fourth place in size (interest is another matter altogether), I can say with confidence that nobody at any radio station wanted to get listeners worked up. In a Houston where shootouts at four-way stops were not unheard of, the risks of spontaneous male violence were fully appreciated. They still are, but now they're being made to pay. 

And even though the kind of radio that I did was utterly different from Mr Ziegler's, it was still radio, and I'm happy to attest that David Foster Wallace has got his radio right. There are undoubtedly slips and mistaken inferences. But until someone points one out, I'm going to assume that there are no important lapses. "Host" is a great piece of reporting, beautifully written and brilliantly laid out. Mr Wallace's next innovation ought to be the replication in print not of the Internet but of talk radio.

I've been so sure of what I took from "Host" that I haven't felt the need of offering proof-quotations, but I never meant to deprive you of the pleasures of Mr Wallace's text. Ordinarily, I would go back and force an insertion somewhere - and then work like hell to make it look seamless. But in the course of considering that option, I came across a tangent in the article that happens to have stuck in my mind: I want to hear Phil Hendrie!

In some cases, though, the personas are more contrived and extreme. In the slot preceding Mr. Z.'s on KLI, for instance, is the Phil Hendrie Show, which is actually a cruel and complicated kind of meta-talk radio. What happens every night on this program is that Phil Hendrie brings on some wildly offensive guest - a man who's leaving his wife because she's had a mastectomy, a Little League coach who advocates corporal punishment of players, a retired colonel who claims that females' only proper place in the military is as domestics and concubines for the officers [zut! zut! zut!] - and first-time or casual listeners will call in and argue with the guests and (not surprisingly) get very angry and upset. Except the whole thing's a put-on. The guests are fake, their different voices done by Hendrie [sidebar: "(who really is a gifted mimic)"] with the aid of mike processing and a first-rate board op. and the show's real entertainment is the callers, who don't know it's all a gag - Hendrie's real audience, which is in on the joke, enjoys hearing these callers get more and more outraged and sputtery as the "guests" yank their chain. It's all a bit like the old Candid Camera show if the joke perpetrated over and over on that show were convincing somebody that a loved one had just died. So obviously Hendrie - whose show now draws an estimate one million listeners a week - lies on the outer frontier of radio persona.

Well, hey, folks, nobody gets hurt. Not in America. Not yet. 

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2