Pilot of the airwaves, here is my request
You don't have to play it, but I hope you'll do your best
I've been listening to your show on the radio
And you seem like a friend to me.
~ Charlie Dore, 1980
It's hard to believe that, so many years after local AM talk radio went heavily and methodically right-wing, I still tune in. Not out of a sense that I have to hear what the enemy is doing--that's hardly a mystery at this point--but because I confess that I enjoy a certain segment of it. I hasten to add that I listen to AM very selectively: only KFI 640, and only late at night, under the cover of darkness. I consider the overnight "Coast to Coast" show that originated with Art Bell and is now hosted mainly by his acolyte George Noory, the radio version of "In Search Of," that '70s television show about unexplained phenomena that totally transfixed me as a teen.
Radio is actually a better forum for this because so much is left to the imagination, making it the perfect medium for regular unresolved discussions about (and sometimes led by) UFO's, pet psychics, Egyptologists, Civil War buffs, Bigfoot trackers, hypnotists, futurists, astrologists, government skeptics, rocket scientists, paranormals and so on. For me, the weirder, the better; lying awake listening to the outrageous claims of the expert psychics and ghost busters make it easier to forget that this is the same station that rails against immigrants, black folk and big government during working hours. I scrupulously avoid those working hours and most of KFI's politics, which I find frankly loathsome and a lot scarier than the monsters--including the devil himself, who sometime makes an appearance with George--that are often hot topics on "Coast to Coast."
Not that there's any guarantee that the nasty real world won't creep into the theoretical or fantastical. More than once I've had to turn the radio off because discussions about the ancient world or alien activity suddenly dovetails into stumping for Tea Party causes like zero taxes and state's rights. Too, the conspiracy-minded callers from Omaha or small-town Anywhere, USA often break the spell for me when they expound on why they believe the presidency of Obama is the surest sign yet that the end of the world is nigh.
At such moments I wonder why I even bother with AM, particularly with the right looking more entrenched and emboldened than ever. I suppose it's because "Coast to Coast," though esconced in the middle of all this bombast, is ironically a model of talk that sometimes offers a glimmer of hope for change. Among the talking heads and experts I've heard over the years are progressives like physicist Michi Okaku and other scholars who openly decry the growing meanness of the American spirit or the serious effects of climate change. The wondrous thing is that these guys actually get to talk at length without being baited into screaming matches; maybe it's because by 2 a.m., KFI figures their biggest fans are fast asleep and it's okay to ease up on their take-no-prisoners reputation for a while, at least until the sun comes up. While things can get bizarre and overboard in the wee hours, I've learned things from guests I've never heard of who expound on their life's work--medieval Europe, new theories about brain neurotransitters--for a good hour. It's less about talking points or political showboating and more about a spirit of inquiry and exchange. At its most lucid, this is non-sound bite radio that, while not itself liberal in any way, doesn't mind letting people state their case and support theses with the kind of copious detail and dense analyses that would never make it on AM. Or, for that matter, on a lot of FM.
Like Cinderella though, the coach turns back into a pumpkin at daybreak. The good news? The possibility of transformation is, again, just sixteen hours away.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.