And the death of real talk-radio...
By Brad Friedman on 9/6/2009, 12:16pm PT  

Jim White, 1936 - 2003

A few personal observations... I doubt that I'd be involved in radio at all these days myself, were it not for the many late nights, as a child, in the dark, when I should have been sleeping, listening to Jim White broadcast over the 50,000 watt KMOX blow-torch in St. Louis, MO. Back in the days when talk radio was something very different than what it has now become...

Back in the day, White, who would broadcast for six hours, from 9p - 3a, would often do little more than read a few of the day's news headlines, and then open up the phone lines for questions and comments on those stories, or anything else on listeners' minds. It was not ideological nor particularly political. It was discussion about the news events of the day. Period.

KMOX, "The Voice of St. Louis," was doing all news and talk long before almost any other station in the nation, and certainly long before the 80s and 90s virus of cookie-cutter "outrage" talk radio modeled essentially as: "Here's an outrageous anecdotal news story! Here's my opinion on who the villain is and how outrageous they are! What's your opinion?!"

It was also certainly long before the ideological/political/propaganda-based model of rant radio developed by Rush Limbaugh and picked up across every frequency on the nation's public airwaves. That, of course, wouldn't have been possible until Ronald Reagan's dissolution of the long-held Fairness Doctrine in 1987, paving the way for unfair and wholly unbalanced political doctrine to be espoused, hour after hour, without rebuttal, across our nation's public airwaves.

The damage wrought by that dissolution was then cemented --- or rather, exacerbated many times over --- by Bill Clinton's Telecommuncations Act of 1996 allowing a handful of private corporations to buy up access to virtually all of the nation's public airwaves so that propagandist loons such as Limbaugh would be heard in every market, to the exclusion of virtually any opposing voices.

The troubles our country now faces stem directly and clearly from those two horrible public policies, both anything but in the public's best interest.

As Lincoln said to fellow Republicans in 1856 [hat-tip BRAD BLOG commenter Karen]: "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government."

Sadly, KMOX would eventually be taken over by corporate radio goliath Clear Channel, and Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and the other rightwing despots and propagandists would become their staples, as independent, sensible, local radio programming would all but disappear.

But I digress. Back, before all of that, Jim White was a voice in the night. A conduit for the community to come to together and discuss. Whatever was on their minds.

As his obit in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes: "Mr. White occasionally had guests, but his show largely relied on interaction with his audience of insomniacs, night owls, graveyard shift workers, parents up with crying children and children staying up past bedtime."

I was, of course, as a grade-schooler and then junior high-schooler, in that latter-described group.

Were it up to me, and were the world a very different place than it has now become, I'd loved to have picked up in White's footsteps today whenever I'm fortunate enough to host or guest host on the public airwaves. I'd have loved to have done a radio show consisting of little more than sharing the day's news and rationally discussing it all with listeners, rather than carrying out the politically-charged and focused rants and investigative news interviews that have, unfortunately, become all-too-necessary when non-rightwing folks like myself are granted rare access to those public airwaves --- all in an attempt to offer even a modicum of balance to the dangerously imbalanced post-1987 perversion of our airwaves.

Alas, such a world, and such a show, will likely no longer be possible in my lifetime, I'm afraid.

I was also reminded, by the Post's obit, of one particularly notable evening on White's show:

[A]a young man called in claiming to have an atomic weapon from Whiteman Air Force Base. Mr. White kept him on the line for hours, while the FBI, convinced by some of the man's statements that he could actually have the weapon, worked to track him down. Turns out he didn't have the weapon, just some insider knowledge from a family member who worked at the base.

That event would eventually be the inspiration for a short radio play I wrote and recorded many years ago. Though in my version of the story --- written to have taken place on the fictional "Jim Brown's Talk of the Town" radio show --- the ending was somewhat more dramatic.

I'm afraid, as with Jim White and the type of talk radio he so expertly carried out night after night across the vast darkness of the great plains --- the powerful KMOX signal could be heard in dozens of states after other stations were forced to power down their transmitters at sunset --- that radio play has now been lost to all but memory.

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