What's That Racket?

From the Department of the Inevitable comes the news that a group of wealthy Democrats has raised $10 million to start a liberal radio network. The New York Times reports that the group wants "to counterbalance the conservative tenor of radio programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show," and "is in talks with Al Franken, the comedian and author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot."

For those who don't identify with ideologues of either tribe—and when we see one bearing down on us from across the room, immediately head for the bar and order a huge vodka martini, straight-up—this was an amusing and even satisfying development, because it revealed in an unusually stark way the truth about ideology.

The word "ideology" comes from the Greek idea, and the dictionary defines it as a system of ideas, a way of thinking about the world. But in the media today, ideology is not about thinking at all. It's about the opposite of thinking: perfect allegiance to a rigid menu of positions and attitudes, and unbending fealty to either Team A or Team B. There's no room for variation, eccentricity, originality, or independence, because the two teams are engaged in a battle for an enormously valuable prize.

The prize is not the White House or the Supreme Court. Though political power is what the ideologues pretend to seek, that's just a ruse. The real prize is money. Ideology is an industry run by two groups of powerful people who use the media to put on a very lucrative show. The show is all about how much they loathe each other. If you've heard conservative media stars like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, you know how much they loathe those horrible, brainless, immensely powerful hypocrites known as liberals. And if you've seen or read liberal media stars like Franken and Michael Moore, you know how much they loathe those horrible, brainless, immensely powerful hypocrites known as conservatives.

Both shows are entertaining the first, and maybe the second, time you catch them. If you're not a believer of either creed, you can actually laugh along with both teams. Ours is a hilarious society, full of knaves and fools. There really are stupid white guys, and there really are femi-nazis.

But listen to the ideologues for a while and it becomes apparent that, deep down, they don't really loathe their targets, or each other. They crave each other, in the way we crave anything that's essential to our existence: air, water, food. And they need each other as desperately as any lovers do. Without his liberal foils, Rush Limbaugh would be an obscure Midwestern disc jockey. Without his conservative foils, Michael Moore would be an obscure Midwestern filmmaker. Ideologues do not want to win the battle they're engaged in, a battle that pretends to be all about truth and justice. Because the battle is just a show, and the show is making them rich, and each side is the other's best supporting actor.

"We believe this is a tremendous business opportunity," Jon Sinton, the executive who will head the liberal radio network, told the Associated Press. "There are so many right-wing talk shows, we think it's created a hole in the market you could drive a truck through." Anita Drobny, one of the wealthy funders of the network, told The New York Times that she wants to raise at least $200 million for the project within the next year, money "she hopes to use to finance other media ventures like the acquisition of radio stations and television production."

Some radio-industry experts, particularly those in the conservative camp, laughed off the whole scheme. Big-time liberal talk radio has been tried before, they said, and it's never worked. Besides, they added, liberals already have National Public Radio. Ah, but NPR is not a money-making venture, and thus cannot meet the core goal of all modern media ideologues, which is cash.

With all this talk of financing massive media ventures and driving trucks through holes, it's odd that someone isn't aiming a truck at the biggest hole of all: the huge audience of people, perhaps a majority of Americans, who are not all that ideological. There are millions and millions of people with radios who might tune into the kind of radio that those in the ideology racket cannot offer: sharp, funny, friendly radio that's not wedded to any one set of ideas.

I know, I know: There are good, non-ideological radio hosts in cities around the country, and they serve their audiences well. But none of them have made it really big, and the question is why. Do we have to cede the entire universe of commercial talk radio to people who are essentially staging a vaudeville show that offers the same joke 24 hours a day—two clowns calling each other idiots?

All media ideologues have one thing in common: anger. Scratch a real ideologue, left or right, and invariably what you find is a person who is working out some ancient vendetta against a parent, a sibling, a school, a company, or some social group that rejected them and made them feel small. The anger became a passion, and passion can produce compelling, lucrative media content.

But should angry people own the landscape? American radio is a wasteland of niche-driven music programming, frat-boy humor, and ideology-driven talk. What it lacks is heart, that simple, thoughtful, menschy desire to listen and learn from other people—to connect—that Larry King brought to radio ages ago, before he jumped to television. Aren't there any young Larry Kings out there? And if they aren't fire-breathing ideologues, will anybody ever hire them?