Thursday, December 21, 2006

Public Radio Gone Astray

Vacuity of the Call-In Format

I don't know much, but I know this...

A recent new addition to programming on public radio is the inclusion of listeners into the conversion (AirTalk with Larry Mantle and Talk of the Nation).

Advertising executives understand that we all want to feel important and often show "someone like us" in their ads. Even pornographic videos often have an average-looking guy with good-looking women (plural) to give us the impresssion that we not only could be that guy, but that we deserve to be (if only in our fantasies).

This instinct was epitomized in the repeated (usually ignorant, sometimes bigoted) comments that a sometime secretary of mine was wont to utter when irritated. They invariably started with "I don't know much, but I know this..." and were heavily laced with the sentiment that she was just as good as the elitist she was bashing. Hers was the hallmark of one eager to talk the talk without walking the walk, the inability to come to terms with her own intellectual laziness. It is not the paradigm that should encouraged in the listening audience of public radio.

There is an objective reality

Many conservative intellectuals feel comfortable dismissing the opinions of the uninformed outright (sometimes, regrettably, the valid opinions of the informed as well). Some centrist and most liberal intellectuals, quite the contrary, are unable (paralyzed perhaps by latent feelings of cultural superiority?) or refuse to defend the validity of the founding principle of the Enlightenment from which they sprang: that well-informed and dispassionate reasoning is much more effective at discovering the truth than uninformed or passionate appeals. It is the duty of the teacher to teach, the student to learn. Too many Liberals have sadly (and unwisely) conceded the word "duty" to Conservatives. Duty is the yin to Liberty's yang. To sit at the adult's table, you must act like an adult.

I believe it is the duty of public radio to select topics that will educate and ennoble society, to invite guests who will most competently frame the debate and support their position with logical reasoning, to air all sides of a question without imputing moral equivalence to them. Air time is a precious resource. Listeners spend an eternity on the phone to be heard. Such persistence takes passion. But as Aristotle once observed, "the law is reason, free from passion". Passionate people are less likely to make well-reasoned dispassionate arguments. It is difficult for an unprepared guest to make a valid point. It is nearly impossible for an unprepared listener with no particular expertise to do so.

Meritocracy, not democracy

Symphony conductors do not invite amateur musicians to sit in during a performance. Send the call-in format back to the AM dial, where its use is so effectively exploited.

This is one student who wants to be taught by a qualified teacher.


Brendan said...

>>Why not give the questions in advance to guests so they can be adequately prepared?

Because then it's not an interview. The bare minimum for an interview is that the guest not receive the questions in advance. Otherwise, it's a staged event. Perhaps in an ideal world, such a thing could work; in reality, especially on hot-button issues, it just gives the interviewee a chance to spout well-honed sound bites. Kind of like watching Brit Hume "interview" Dick Cheney or George Bush conduct a "town hall" meeting.

One alternative is the email interview. They preserve the give and take, but allow the respondent a bit of extra time to clarify a thought before sharing it. does these quite a bit, and they can provide for a thoughtful discussion, which is what you're after. But live interviews carry the idea that a good questioner can elicit some truth through skillful probing.

Of course, this format is not without flaw. "Gotcha" questions, bullying by the hosts (think O'Reilly), sandbagging the guest (think Gross with guest O'Reilly), etc. But an interview is a place where the participants should be prepared in general only; i.e., they should know the topic(s). Knowing the specific questions in advance and then sitting there and parroting the script is a waste of everybody's time.

Regarding call-in shows:

I'm with you on this one, Dan. I don't care for them. The only show that I ever heard where the callers were usually worth anything was the now-defunct The Connection, a WBRU-produced show that some other NPR stations also carried.

Call-in shows are cheap, and they let the stations airing them pat themselves on the back for their "community involvement." Unfortunately, it is also true that a lot of listeners like them. We're in the minority on this one.

Dan Weston said...

>>>Why not give the questions in advance to guests so they can be adequately prepared?

> it just gives the interviewee a chance to spout well-honed sound bites.

I said give the questions in advance. Not script the cross-examination. Get the canned answer, then vet it.

> Because then it's not an interview.

Exactly. That is why the first heading is "Inadequacy of the Interview Format". Interviews give an inverted sense of credibility. Guests with "talking points" they've spouted ad nauseam, especially if accompanied by an NPR voice (you know what kind of voice I'm talking about!) sound so trustworthy and knowledgeable. And are often professional propaganda-peddlers.

WARNING: Anecdotal testimony follows.

I once saw an interview on a Discovery/National Geographic-type cable channel with a "climatologist". She had a thick Appalachian accent (made her sound dumb), seemed nervous (shifty?), and needed a couple questions repeated (unprepared? clueless?). The interviewer was fishing for a good layman's version of how weather and climate work. The guest instead launched into a convoluted discussion of the current climate models and then admitted that she didn't really know how the climate worked after all.

I was sure they had scraped up some village idiot out of desperation. Just as I was about to turn the channel, the interview wound up with the guest's CV: Ph.D. at CalTech, post-doc at NOAA/ENCAR, now chief scientist somewhere in Atlanta. By "didn't really know exactly", she was presumably talking about a much deeper level of understanding, not "duh, how does this work?"

I realized too late that I had written her off from the get-go by her accent! Sealing the deal was her utter lack of slick packaging and sound bites. I mistook form and substance. And I even studied physics in college!

I learned two things that day:

1) I was a cultural bigot.
2) I am not insightful enough to distinguish form and substance in real time. I need a slower delivery mechanism, so that follow-up questions actually get answered and not evaded, where a single topic is addressed thoroughly, not many topics shallowly. And where style has no forum to impress.

I imagine I am not the only one with the above failings.