MAGA: Make Audio Great Again

Comment from Peter Saxon with special guest Valerie Geller.

Two things upon which most Americans can agree are that:

  1. The United States is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, 160 years ago. 
  2. The other side’s to blame – and, in particular, the media that targets them.

It was a little surprising then to read this article, “Fathers saw this President coming,” in The Australian (subscription), a reliably conservative broadsheet. 

In the article, a scathing critique of the incumbent, columnist, Troy Bramston, quotes extensively from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis’ book American Dialogue (2018).

“In his book, Ellis sought to channel the founders to help make sense of where the US finds itself today. Their “greatest legacy,” he wrote, “is the recognition that argument is the answer.” Today’s politicians have forgotten how to argue and debate, and work together, in a spirit of progress. The media has become more partisan and voters would rather have their prejudices confirmed than challenged.”
The vast majority of online comments from Oz subscribers confirms that.

The article continues: “There are three rules in national politics now: money, money and money,” Ellis says. “Politics has been weaponised and money drives all. One of the big reasons for the inability to have the kind of dialogue the founders embodied is the internet. People are not getting their news from mainstream (media outlets).”

Those involved in MSM would agree that in large part, the problem is Social Media.  But what about Talk Radio, to what extent, if any, should it shoulder the blame? 

In the quest for P1 listeners and the advertisers they attract, have some radio stations become a rallying point for would-be demagogues who offer simple solutions to complex issues and address social grievances? How can the same stations that bring people together in times of natural disasters help tear them apart when political foes are running for office?

In an exclusive discussion with radioinfo, world renowned Los Angeles and New York based radio programmer and talent coach, Valerie Geller, had this to say…

“When radio became commercial… something where making money and getting lots and lots of listeners for profit overrode the public service, that’s when people began to get very extreme and polarisation really happened. You could make a lot of noise and draw a lot of attention with very extreme views. Some of those views were very simplistic and people tend to be tribal.”

Ms Geller has trained some of the world’s top talent in over 500 radio stations around the world. In over 25 years of coaching, whether her clients have been progressive, conservative or apolitical, her mantra has been the same: 

Tell the Truth, Make it Matter and Never Be Boring

Seems straight forward enough, but over the past four or five years, somehow the definition of “the truth” has changed. Most of us understood that “truth” required some basis in “fact.” At some point in the past four years, the term “alternative facts,” which would once have been interpreted as lies, has been legitimised. No doubt that the dissemination of “alternative facts” has been unhelpful in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the USA.

Who’s to blame for the 220,000 and rising death toll? Like almost everything else in the U.S. today, it depends on which set of alternative facts you want to believe. Remember the impeachment? Despite the cavalcade of credible witnesses, it was never about whether their testimony was true or not. It was all about who held power in the Senate. If the Democrats had been in power,  then Trump would be in jail already. But they’re not. The Republicans are, therefore Trump is presumed an innocent man.  Either way, the truth was irrelevant.

How did it come to this? Says Ms Geller, “It’s like boiling a frog… slowly. Audiences have become cynical, complacent and no longer believe what they see and hear.”

At a time when Australia, has the most stable and popular federal government it has had since 2007, with a conservative Prime Minister at its helm in Scott Morrison, the American election has infiltrated our relatively serene shores and triggered fierce arguments between the local chapters of the “Forever” and the “Never” or the “Anyone But” Trumpers. 

Of course, the Americans have at least three political issues that remain irreconcilable between the left v right divide. One is gun rights, another is abortion, and the third is universal health care. If you so much as suggest to some Americans (and Pauline and I have met plenty) that unfettered access to military grade weapons could be dialled back a bit or that a woman should have the right to choose according to her own beliefs and circumstances or that if universal, affordable health care works reasonably well in virtually every other developed capitalist country on the planet then why not in America? – you’ll get labelled a pinko, socialist lefty.

Happily, these are non-issues in Australia. 

Yet, while those issues have been touchpoints for decades in America, the level of distrust and anger surrounding this election is unprecedented. Both candidate’s supporters fervently believe that the sky will fall in if the other wins. 
So, the issue now is not so much who wins (and that’s really saying something) as what will happen in the aftermath.
Many different issues, including race relations on one side and cancel culture on the other, have contributed to the toxic society in which our American cousins find themselves today and I don’t wish to make further comment on the politics of a foreign power and ally – other than to draw comparison to our own “lucky country.”
In Australia, we have never had the very pillars of our democracy – free and fair elections and freedom of the press (media) – so threatened as they are in America right now. 
I cannot recall any Australian politician seriously bringing in to question the legitimacy of an election result – let alone pre-empt it as being rigged in the event that it doesn’t go their way. 
And, while politicians of different stripes have always grumbled about the leanings of various media outlets and sought to correct individual utterances from journalists or broadcasters from time to time, they accept the fact that a questioning and sometimes hostile media is an occupational hazard of being an elected politician in a democracy. And they realise that it is those pillars of the democracy are what our soldiers fought for.
Following the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when John Howard, also a conservative PM, to his eternal credit, introduced gun laws that prohibited semi-automatic weapons, he pointedly said in a speech, ‘We will not go down the American path…’
It’s time we revived that phrase and not allow ourselves to go down the American path which threatens to destroy it’s own democratic values as its adversaries, and ours, look on with glee.
“For a long time people asked, ‘how could it have happened in Nazi Germany?” says Ms Geller, “Well, now we know. You divide people, you polarise people you make a sect of people, (you call them) bad and wrong and evil. When you do that, it foments hatred instead of fomenting the things that we need to do, which is to tell each other our stories and get to know each other as human beings. 
“Most people can coexist and agree to disagree on philosophy but keep their basic humanity. What’s been so shocking is to see this fomenting of hatred and that the veneer was very thin and it didn’t take very much to lift off that veneer. I think the world has been appalled at how leadership can choose ignorance over education and choose hearsay over science and all kinds of things have just been almost unthinkable to educated, thinking people.” 

Beyond the threat of unrest in the immediate aftermath of next week’s presidential election, most observers agree that it will take many years to at least replace the thin veneer of civility that existed before. What role can radio play to bring people back together again in America and prevent hatred and division from reaching Australia?
“I believe the personal is universal. Nothing that you go through in your life, the struggles as a human being, everybody else is going through them also, and radio can be a great connector for those things. 
“What’s also true is we are in dark days. The world is in dark days with a pandemic… with all kinds of governments, not just in America, but many European governments and many countries in the world are shutting down democracy. I think radio has a part to play and I think ultimately if people are to have a say in their own lives we need to have a media that we can rely on with journalism that’s good and accurate. 
“You know, I was raised to try to leave our campsite better than we found it – give back to the world if you are able to do so. And I think we can do that in radio. 
“We have done it in past and we can do it again in the future,”
says Valerie Geller.

Peter Saxon




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