The Longform Guide to Talk Radio
From Glenn Beck to Ira Glass, stories from across the radio dial.
Ira Glas, host of This American Life
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for The Webby Awards.
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In honor of the show, here’s a collection of stories on talk radio from the Longform archive:
Cliff Doerksen • Chicago Reader • May 2002
How Zion, Ill., a fundamentalist Christian settlement with a population of 6,250, created one of the most popular stations in the country during the early days of radio.
“The seeds of Zion's brief season as a mass media capital were sown at the time of the town's creation. Incorporated in 1902, Zion was a prime example of what the neohippie set would term an ‘intentional community.’ In the words of religious historian Grant Wacker, Zion was an experiment in social engineering ‘that ranks among the largest and most grandly conceived utopian communities in modern American history.’ The architect of this brave new world was the Reverend John Alexander Dowie. A Scot who began his clerical career as a Congregationalist, Dowie left that body in 1878 to launch his own denomination, which, despite its purely Protestant nature, he dubbed the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCC for short). Doctrinally, this start-up faith was distinguished from the competition by Dowie's ideas about ‘divine healing.’ According to revelations given to Dowie by God, sickness and infirmity were manifestations of sin and inadequate faith. Consequently, he preached a radical rejection of all conventional medical treatment in favor of prayer and clean living. That meant no tobacco or booze, and strict adherence to the pork- and shellfish-free diet prescribed in Leviticus.”
David Foster Wallace • Atlantic • April 2005
On conservative radio host John Ziegler and modern media:
“It is worth considering the strange media landscape in which political talk radio is a salient. Never before have there been so many different national news sources—different now in terms of both medium and ideology. Major newspapers from anywhere are available online; there are the broadcast networks plus public TV, cable's CNN, Fox News, CNBC, et al., print and Web magazines, Internet bulletin boards, The Daily Show, e-mail newsletters, blogs. All this is well known; it's part of the Media Environment we live in. But there are prices and ironies here. One is that the increasing control of U.S. mass media by a mere handful of corporations has—rather counterintuitively—created a situation of extreme fragmentation, a kaleidoscope of information options. Another is that the ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. In some respects all this variety is probably good, productive of difference and dialogue and so on. But it can also be confusing and stressful for the average citizen. Short of signing on to a particular mass ideology and patronizing only those partisan news sources that ratify what you want to believe, it is increasingly hard to determine which sources to pay attention to and how exactly to distinguish real information from spin.”
Alex French and Howie Kahn • Grantland • July 2012
An oral history of WFAN, the first all-sports talk radio station:
“Ed Coleman (host, ‘Coleman and the Soul Man’): I did updates for Lampley. He had to go on the air at 1:05 and he'd get to the studio at 1 after having lunch somewhere. Jim had a lot of things going on in his life, probably a lot of liquid lunches. Sometimes he'd be a little bit late. Anyway, once Lampley had to go on the air at 1:05, or whatever, and he raced into the studio with no time to go to the bathroom. He's signaling to give him a cup. And we give him a large cup and he proceeds to take a leak right there while he's doing the monologue. I thought it was one of the greatest broadcasting feats I've ever seen.”
Kelefa Sanneh • The New Yorker • August 2009
A profile of Michael Savage.
“Just about any news story leads him back to his central thesis: that lefties are ruining the world, or trying to. After a Somali pirate was captured and brought to New York for trial, he told listeners to expect a backlash: ‘Some terrorist front from Milwaukee’s Somali community, in my opinion, is already saying, ‘He’s a child! He shouldn’t be judged, already, as a man.’ I haven’t seen Al Sharpton, yet, calling him an environmental warrior. I haven’t seen Jesse Jackson saying, ‘We’ve linked arms; we shall overcome.’ But don’t be shocked.’ Television viewers may still remember Savage’s brief, unhappy tenure on MSNBC, which ended after he responded to a prank caller by saying, ‘Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig.’ And earlier this year he found himself at the center of a strange international incident, after the British government announced—seemingly out of the blue—that he was on a list of twenty-two ‘hate promoters’ who had recently been banned from entering the country. On his show that day, he played ‘God Save the Queen,’ by the Sex Pistols, and said, ‘The punks had it right—there is no future in England.’ ”
Zadie Smith • New York Review of Books • August 2008
On the BBC radio addresses of E.M. Forrester.
“The tone is resolutely conversational, frothy, and without academic pretension (‘Now you have to be cool over Yeats. He was a great poet, he lived poetry, but there was an element of bunkum in him.’ ‘What is the use of Art? There’s a nasty one’), the sort of thing one can imagine made T.S. Eliot—also broadcasting for the BBC during this period—sigh wearily as he passed Forster’s recording booth on the way to his own. Eliot was very serious about literary criticism; Forster could be too, but in these broadcasts he is not, at least not in any sense Eliot would recognize. For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are ‘recommendations’ only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.”
Marshall Sella • New York Times Magazine • April 1999
A profile of Ira Glass a few years into This American Life.
“There's no end to the raw material from which Glass may draw, because he has stripped away all traditional journalistic notions of what makes stories timely. He can therefore do entire shows about compulsive liars or Niagara Falls (including a tape of a man tumbling over the falls in a barrel, as well as another interview with a man whose job it is to haul dead bodies out of the water below). Glass calls his mission 'goony and idealistic'—to give voice to those outside the mainstream. Tragically, though, many will still plod through life unheard. In the warren of the show's offices, there's a box of submissions that no one has found time to formally reject. They start with lines like ‘Love was not for Sam.’ Some aspire to greatness: By the age of 8, he was a professional eater.' Others do not: ‘I have written and performed several one-woman pieces, one of which involved a stripping clown.’ “
Bonus reading: Glass on the wonders of Radiolab.
Alexander Zaitchik • Salon • September 2009
On Beck’s rise, pre-fall.
“At 15, Beck enrolled in a drama class at a Bellingham, Wash., public high school (which he attended after moving in with his father following his mother’s death). Part of the class involved re-creating the lost world of dramatic radio at local station WGMI, where Beck and his classmates produced old-time radio with live scripts and sound effects.
“Beck wasn’t just living in the radio past. At 15, he was already reading the local trade publications. It was in one of these that he saw a help wanted ad for KUBE 93, Seattle’s newly launched FM station. A high-school junior at the time, he was hired on the basis of an audition tape that station managers thought was the polished work of an older man. Beck’s radio voice had already matured well beyond his years. ‘When he showed up he didn’t even have a driver’s license and wasn’t eligible for a worker’s permit, but we hired him anyway,’ says Michael O’Shea, Beck’s manager at the station.”
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.