A year ago, much of America had to at least pay a moment’s notice to the “scandal” that was generated by the racist comments from radio talk show host Don Imus. His vicious comments were directed at the Rutgers women’s basketball team and ended up getting the popular talk show host fired. However, within a year, Imus was back on the air with another radio network with little industry scrutiny. So how does someone like Don Imus, who called the college students at Rutgers “nappy headed hoes,” get back on the airwaves?
Rory O’Connor answers this question and many others in his in his most recent book, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio: America’s Ten Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives. O’Connor’s book takes a look at what he identifies as some of the worst examples of hate speech on talk radio in the US today. The author identifies Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Hugh Hewitt as the worst proponents of hate speech on radio. O’Connor says that one of the reasons Don Imus is back on the air is because hate speech is so much a part of the talk radio in this country. In fact, hate speech has in many ways become the norm for talk radio, a fact that is reflected in the popularity of the talk show personalities already listed. Imus was pulled from the air primarily because of the exposure his comments of the women’s basketball team generated. This exposure caused advertisers to pull support for the show, but the same type of hate speech was being broadcast at the same time on hundreds of other radio stations across the country.
Shock Jocks demonstrates that hate speech that is directed against African Americans, immigrants, the poor, the gay community, and other oppressed communities is the norm for many of the syndicated radio. The author profiles what he calls the “Top 10 hate talkers on radio,” with a brief explanation of how each got started in radio and some of the more egregious statements they have made on air over the years. What O’Connor demonstrates is that these hate speech talk show hosts are so accessible, they are likely to be found in most communities in the country and many of us are unaware of it. In the radio market of West Michigan where I write from, five of the top ten radio shows that the book focuses on air Monday through Friday. Reading Shock Jocks provided me with another opportunity to examine the radio landscape in my community and what I discovered was not pleasant.
In addition to investigating the specific radio talk show hosts who spew hate on a daily basis, O’Connor looks at several factors that have determined the shift to more right-leaning talk radio. The author identifies media ownership consolidation, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, and the constant push in radio for increased ratings as factors in the rise of right wing talk radio. O’Connor supports this analysis with a recent study from the Center for American Progress called The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio published in 2007. This report found that of all the radio talk shows in the US “91% could be identified as Conservative and just 9% as Progressive.”
The book also provides a short chapter on the rise and fall of Air America, a liberal attempt at countering the influence of right wing radio. What O’Conner discovered was that Air America lacked sufficient funding to really challenge right wing radio and that they were up against big advertisers who preferred to not spend their money during these liberal leaning shows.
Shock Jocks ends with a brief chapter on how progressive minded people can challenge hate speech radio. His five suggestions are 1) Support Independent Media, 2) Demand Media Accountability, 3) Go After Profiteers of Hate, 4) Fight Hate Where You Find It, and 5) Find and Share Quality Journalism. While I agree with these five suggestions, I was hoping the author would have spent more time on each and provided more examples of how these tactics are working around the country. The other shortcoming of the book is that it does not identify religious right radio talk shows or programs like that of Focus on the Family which also engages in its own form of hate speech. Beyond these minor criticisms, Shock Jocks is an important resource for those who want to combat the hate speech that has infested a great deal of the radio airwaves of this country.
Rory O’Connor, Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio: America’s Ten Worst Hate Talkers and the Progressive Alternatives, (Alternet, 2008).