Over the past year, I have spent several hours a week talking on the radio in Boston. Beginning in August, I hosted a two-hour program every Sunday night from 7-9pm on what used to be NewsTalk 96.9. Guests — from the Globe’s Glen Johnson to former Channel 5 weatherman Dick Albert to the Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College — joined me and helped in my weekly quest to make a little more sense of our world. In addition, I had the good fortune to fill-in for Jim Braude on the Jim & Margery show (Margery Eagan is really smart), for Doug Meehan and for Hank Morse. I also joined Michael Graham and others for election night coverage — trying to make sense of returns through our respective partisan lenses. Everything I saw made me think that talk radio is a vital and important medium. So, consider this not an obituary for the now-gone station as much as a challenge to others to fill the vacuum left by its demise.
In the Boston Herald, Howie Carr argued that the station died because it failed to persuade the courts to let him work there. He is absolutely not right. His further diagnosis, that the station had become “Moonbat Radio” is similar nonsense. If there was a problem with the programming at 96.9FM it was that it lacked coherence. A listener could not be sure exactly what he or she would encounter when tuning in. You can’t say that about WRKO. Howie’s world of conservative angry talk still has a place. My view is that that’s the kind of talk radio that’s dead or dying. We don’t need a constant stream of anger and complaint. Nothing comes of that — and we have much still to hope for together.
We live in a vibrant city. Here, we take ideas seriously. Talk radio that does the same has a place in the city and it does not have to be crazy right wing to succeed. For me, one of the lessons of my time on the air was the wisdom of the callers. Sure, there were calls from people who were driven by agenda rather than reason (did I know how many babies die every year? why did I hate guns? had I ever read the constitution?). But there were also callers whose ideas turned or focused our conversation (I remember a caller who talked about the value of his vocational education). Every time I left the station, I felt that I had learned something that mattered from someone who had taken the time to call the show.
If you go see the Huntington Theater’s production of “Our Town,” you get the sense of being part of a small town gathering. The other people in the theater are strangers, but you are connected by the common experience of the show, by your individual decisions to attend. So too with a good talk radio show. And the conversation that happens — about Elizabeth Warren, the value of a college education, a coming storm — is the stuff of our community. By meeting together, with a facilitator (host) at the center, we help figure out what it means to live together in this part of the world at this point in the century. Sports radio does that for our local teams. Talk radio done right can do that for our city.
NPR goes part of the way, but it does not offer enough room for conversation from its listeners. And we need to hear from the people who listen to NPR. They have lots of intellect, lots of opinions, and not enough programs that reach out to them and seek their participation. My talk radio notion is that the radio can be the place where the community gathers to talk and to listen to one another. We have had glimpses of it here — David Brudnoy, Larry Glick, and Chris Lydon. We need more. We need hosts who will take the time to help make sense of complicated news and then lead a conversation that solicits and values the thinking of the audience. We need interviews that lead us to think and understand more about the world than we did when the show started. And we need hosts with the political courage to take a position (left or right) and tolerate and try to make sense of views that differ.
When that happened on WTKK, it was terrific stuff. A station with the courage of its convictions can make that happen here in Boston. How great would it be to get in the car and know that somewhere on the radio was a conversation characterized by energy and intelligence? A place where you might listen, learn and laugh a little. From its beginnings until right now, this City has been a thoughtful place. We deserve radio that reflects this essential aspect of our character.