A few years ago I drove all the way across the United States eating exclusively at the Hooters chain of restaurants. Hooters are popular establishments where perky, well-endowed, scantily attired young women serve non-gourmet quality food to men who have almost certainly not dropped by to sample the tasty vittles. Hooters cuisine works best when washed down with copious amounts of beer, or ignored. There is a mildly ironic element to the whole Hooters approach – the chain’s official motto is “Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined” – but I am not ironic and I do not drink. For 15 days and 4,700 miles – I took a long detour through Dixie, then wended my way back up to St Louis before again heading south and west on Route 66 – I consumed nothing but chicken wings, quesadillas, burgers, fries and key lime pie, an entity Hooters seems to view as something of a delicacy. It worked out to 19 meals in 15 days, and that was plenty. At the time I set out on my epic adventure, I was awaiting the results of a cholesterol test I had recently taken. It was a long trip.
The purpose of my expedition – other than to fulfil every American’s dream of driving from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Redwood Forest – was to poke fun at the addled notion that the mythical journey across the heartland of America requires some sort of “theme”. Knuckleheads, patriots, cultural fetishists and obsessives of all descriptions routinely embark on pilgrimages across the hinterland, vowing to visit every state capitol or every baseball stadium or every building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This is a charming but idiotic enterprise; most of the state capitols are in dreary backwaters; the stadiums are virtually interchangeable and in any case far from memorable architecturally; and there are no Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the really funky sections of American cities, as Wright, like all iconoclasts, catered to the rich.
These man-made contrivances seem pitifully picayune and irrelevant, if not downright silly, when contrasted with the Grand Canyon, the mighty Mississippi, the towering Rockies, the Great Plains and all the other natural splendours that make America such a remarkable country. Lewis and Clark didn’t need any kind of theme when Thomas Jefferson commissioned them to trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They understood that they were plunging into a stupendously beautiful wilderness where at every bend in the road they would stumble upon panoramas that would make their hearts miss a beat. They didn’t need to collect one ornate headdress from every Indian tribe or visit every Shawnee, Pawnee, Shoshone and Ute sweat lodge to make their undertaking more memorable. Those guys knew the score.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip across America. I was staggered by the things I saw and was touched and inspired by the people I met. From the sidewalks of New York to the mythical cities of the plain like Dodge City and Wichita, from the banks of the Hudson to Santa Monica Pier, I found the American people to be warm, welcoming, proud, optimistic and yes, even happy. This was especially true of the young women employed by Hooters. But not once from the time I left Washington DC until I pulled into East Los Angeles did I ever turn on my radio. For that way lies madness.
For more than a decade, talk radio has been the terrain where the pitched battle for the soul of America has been fought. Or let us say, radio is the place where the right wing has been waging the battle for America’s soul, because radio is the only medium that conservatives control. People on the left who revile Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, people who view right-wing radio as a malignant contrivance direct from Satan’s workshop, conveniently forget that the left controls the motion picture industry, most of the major American newspapers, and to a greater or lesser extent the principal nightly news programmes. That’s why right-wing radio sprang up in the first place: conservatives felt that they had nowhere else to go to get their message out. The conversational agenda in America had long been set by Hollywood, network television and the New York Times, and Hollywood, network TV and the New York Times have never been friends of conservatives. And though the left is loath to admit it, conservatives have a right to their beliefs. And a right to defend them.
Liberals may dispute this, but the record is clear. There are virtually no motion pictures made in Hollywood where businessmen – heroes of the right – are portrayed as anything less than repellent. The crooked cop is a staple of American film, especially if he is based in Los Angeles or the Bronx. Ditto the mobbed-up politician. There are virtually no motion pictures where devout Christians are not portrayed as being oafish and ridiculous. There are virtually no television shows where rustics or people who live in small towns are not presented as being in some way dim. The nightly news programmes are hosted by conventional, middle-of-the-road liberals, a reality that is neither sinister nor surprising: journalists naturally lean to the left in the same way businessmen naturally lean to the right. Similarly, the major late-night talk shows are helmed by gifted liberals like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. And the New York Times and Time and Newsweek are not in the business of publishing stories that give aid and comfort to those who oppose abortion, healthcare and amnesties for illegal immigrants, or who believe that the dinosaurs died out a scant six thousand years ago. Nor is there any reason they should be. Still, given the obstacles they found themselves up against, it is hardly surprising that conservatives turned elsewhere to get their views aired. Radio was the one medium the left did not control.
When I speak of the left I do not mean the hard European-style left, which accounts for no more than 10 per cent of the American population, but the more squishy, congenial left that consists of intellectuals and teachers and artists and “knowledge workers” – that is, virtually all of my friends – along with the default-mode left, which is made up largely of union members and minorities who disapprove of abortion and gay rights and welfare and liberal immigration laws, but who vote Democratic because they know which side their bread is buttered on. In their hearts they may lean right, but at the ballot box they vote left. This is the genius of the Democratic Party: you can win an awful lot of elections, especially in the major urban centres, if you put everybody on the payroll.
Realising roughly two decades ago that liberals had things pretty well sewed up in the major media, ambitious men like Rush Limbaugh took their message to the radio airwaves and quickly developed huge, loyal and often quite rabid followings. Though their detractors refuse to concede this point, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and even the calculatingly outrageous Glenn Beck are talented entertainers who know how to put on a show. They provoke, they taunt, they ridicule, they make people’s blood boil. They give their listeners their money’s worth. They are, first and foremost, agents provocateurs who stir up the man in the street, something that is not true of more staid, sober, conservative intellectuals like William F Buckley, David Brooks and George Will. They are ambitious men whose ranting and raving and deliberate verbal excesses have at least as much to do with career management and wealth formation as with championing a deeply felt political philosophy.
People who wish that Limbaugh et al would tone down their rhetoric a notch and be more reasonable, more willing to see the other guy’s point of view, simply do not understand the business that these men are in. If Limbaugh ever became reasonable, if Beck ever stopped being outrageous, they would find themselves out of work by the end of the week. These men may seem wicked to their detractors. They may even strike some people as manipulative and unprincipled. The wishy-washy liberals I know – people who are scared of their own shadow – honestly look upon them as evil incarnate. But they are definitely not boring.
That said, I never once turned on my radio when I drove across the heartland of America. I refrained from doing so for several reasons. One, I hate commercial country-and-western music, which dominates the airwaves in the South, the Midwest and the Southwest. I find it antiseptic, corny and contrived. It is worse than smooth jazz. It is the worst music in the world. Two, I hate classic rock, another radio staple; I have already heard all the music by Genesis, the Eagles and the Who that I wish to hear for the rest of my life. In fact, I had already heard enough in 1978. Three, I hate to hear anybody talking about religion, in any context, for any reason, outside of the relevant house of worship. Religion is personal and belongs in the realm of the sacred. The airwaves are not sacred.
But most important, I dislike talk radio. I dislike talk radio for one reason and one reason only: because it is unrelentingly unpleasant. (This is true not only of politically oriented radio but of sports-talk radio.) Talk radio, the stomping grounds of a battalion of Johnny One-Notes, creates the impression that everyone in the United States is at everyone else’s throat, that everyone is angry and bitter and outraged and miserable all the time. Talk radio is dominated by crackpots and paranoids; talk radio is dominated by people whose entire emotional repertoire consists of rage and disbelief; talk radio is hysterical. Thus, if you turned on your radio while motoring past the wheat fields of Kansas or through the foothills of the Rockies or across the wide Missouri you could easily forget what a remarkable country you are living in, a country of hard-working people who love their jobs, love their families and love their country.
The United States of America, with all its faults, is the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known. It is also by far the most multicultural nation in the world. And America works. But if you listened to a steady diet of talk radio, you would think that everyone in America was a gun-toting psychopath, a neo-Nazi, a drug dealer, a minion of Lucifer, a communist, a pederast or a moron. I am not suggesting that America is lacking in psychopaths, pederasts, minions of Lucifer or morons. But they are not nearly as numerous as talk radio would have us believe. And they do not all work for the federal government.
In enunciating my feelings about talk radio, I am not merely referring to right-wing radio. Several years ago, a cabal of livid liberals launched Air America, a serious attempt to fight back against Rush Limbaugh & Company. The results were disastrous. Underfunded and poorly managed, Air America’s biggest problem was a pitiful lack of talent: washed-up actresses, bargain-basement personalities, recycled DJs. Only Al Franken, now a US senator, stood out in any way. Whiny, paranoid and almost criminally dull, Air America soon turned into a national laughing stock. Those initially seduced by its promise soon went back to their old listening patterns, tuning in to the genteel programmes aired by National Public Radio.
Though viewed by the right as the handmaiden of the left, NPR is actually quite an intelligent and reasonable enterprise: certainly not apolitical, but by no means a fawning creature of the left. Yet by no stretch of the imagination can it be viewed as directly competing with right-wing talk radio, because NPR does not engage in confrontational broadcasting. NPR may countenance the occasional argument, but it does not go in for fistfights. Right-wing talk radio does. Right-wing talk radio, with its brawling, insolent style, is an entity unto itself. And the people who run it know what they are doing. By contrast, the people at Air America were amateurs and clowns. God, was it awful. As the preceding makes clear, it wasn’t just the rabid right that I tuned out as I motored across those fruited plains and past those amber waves of grain. I tuned out the loony left as well. I tuned out all the cranks, the misanthropes, the racists, the anti-Semites, the gun nuts, the conspiracy-theory types, the enemies of religion, the enemies of the federal government, the enemies of the United Nations, the enemies of the people. Throughout my trip I wanted to experience America as it really existed, not as some malignant caricature that had been dreamed up by the extremists on both the right and the left.
Ironically, I was making this transcontinental trip at the same time that Sacha Baron Cohen was slapping together his contemptuous, viciously anti- American road film Borat. Visiting the same America I visited, Cohen, an elitist public school boy, found Americans to be cruel, mean-spirited, backwards, stupid. This is the America that well-heeled boys from Cambridge go out to look for and this is the America they find. I found a different America. I found an America of warm, honest, forward-looking people. I found an America that refused to be categorised. But then again, I grew up working class, giving me a huge advantage over people like Baron Cohen. I actually like ordinary people. I grew up with them. And I learned a long time ago that just because you’re smarter than other people doesn’t mean you’re better than them.
But the thing that most struck me about America was that its inhabitants were notably short on rage, short on anger, short on pettiness, short on the kind of gratuitous cruelty that is the stock-in-trade of talk-radio hosts. Americans, it has been said again and again, are friendly people. Their leaders and entertainers might be vicious, but they themselves are not. They are not hateful, they are not vindictive and they are not mean. Most important, they are not locked in a permanent state of apoplexy.
Listening to talk radio while I drove across America would have filled my head with images of black helicopters, skinheads, Ruby Ridge, dead tots in Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, kiddy porn purveyors, car bombers, terrorists, mass murderers. Listening to talk radio would have cast a dark cloud over the whole adventure. Listening to talk radio would have wrecked the trip; I would have been so depressed by the time I reached Paducah, Kentucky, I would have packed it in, returned the rental car, and flown back home. Listening to talk radio would have trapped me inside an alternate universe of people who deeply, deeply hate anyone who disagrees with them and who, when push comes to shove, do not seem to like the country they are living in.
My advice then to every talk show host – left, right or indifferent – is to stow the microphone, get in the car, start driving west and experience America the way it is, not the way you imagined it. And keep the radio turned off throughout your excursion. You might learn something.
This article appears in Radio Redux, the new issue of Index on Censorship, out now
Joe Queenan is a cultural critic and movie reviewer, living in New York. He contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times and the Guardian. He is the author of 10 books, including Queenan Country (2005) and Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (2006).