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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2002 / 10 Kislev, 5763

Michael Long

Mike Long
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On the radio

What really happens behind the scenes at talk shows | I spent most of this week guest hosting the national broadcast of The Gary Nolan Show on Radio America. It wasn't a completely new experience; one of my first jobs ever was in radio, back in high school. At the age of 16, I had a "board shift" on Sunday afternoons, from one in the afternoon until 10 p.m. I played country 45s on the daytimer AM station, and gospel on FM until 3 p.m., when the station incongruously switched to rock and roll.

Talk radio, though, is an entirely different kettle of cookies. While I do about a dozen radio segments each month in markets around the country, settling in to deliver three hours of one's own opinions is a little nervous-making. I had several guests, which took some of the burden away, but for the rest of the time, I took it on myself to be the sole source of entertainment, enlightenment, and information. You have to think pretty highly of your own opinions to try something like that; actually attempting it is like taking disco-dance lessons on the fifty-yard line in a filled-to-capacity football stadium. The lesson (which, fortunately, I understood before I opened the microphone) is that you have to be entertaining, and even the mouthiest, most self-impressed pundit needs far more than a few clever words and an attitude.

It's exhilarating. As a host, you have to know more than just what you believe. Your opinions have to be the demonstrable product of a logical analysis of fact. And, live on the radio, those facts need to be at hand. My producer, Shana Pearlman, was a gem, running the board, screening calls, and even providing for me a "stress ball" when she noticed I was constantly fidgeting with the headphone cord.

"Am I making sense?" I asked during a break.

"Yes! Very coherent, very clear. It sounds good."she said.

Later, when she and I knocked around a women's rights issue on the air, she delivered just enough of a push for the other side's opinion that I was able to make my own points even clearer.

"That worked out really well," I told her during the next break.

"It's the producer's job to make the host look good," she said, twiddling a few knobs among the universe of lights and slides on the board.

I like issues and politics, but I also love music, and the host gets to choose his own "bumper music," the song snippets used to introduce each segment of the show. I scoured my huge music collection in order to inflict upon listeners the best of my favorite obscure bands: Fountains of Wayne, Drive-by Truckers, Ben Folds Five. As I said on the air, I figured by this age I wouldn't like this kind of music anymore, but here I am anyway. Go figure.

In my mind, I filled out the audience with stereotypes of whom I imagine listens to prime time on the East Coast and drive-time on the West Coast. I reminded listeners that three hours of my broadcast made it unnecessary for them to read the newspaper that day. I also think I claimed to have the strength of ten men.

You want to know how fast radio eats material? My professional biography took only about half of the first segment of the first half hour. I'm 39 years old, I've done a few marginally interesting things in my life, and I now know that they can be distilled into a story, with digressions, that runs under ten minutes.

After only an evening of spleen venting, one wonders what sort of marginalia and twaddle Congress spends years wading through. Outrage over the "let women in" mess at Augusta National Golf Club can be vented in less than three minutes. A statement of the issue in question, support for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association, occupies about thirty seconds. (With dramatic pauses and harrumphs of indignation, it clocks a minute.) Which is part of the reason a talk-show host has to have not only a mastery of the issues at stake, but also an internalized library of anecdotes, facts, and minutiae to illustrate those issues. It also takes mental organization and constant thinking ahead.

Not that I'm complaining. I'd do talk-show hosting again in a minute, and, from what the network tells me, I will probably get the chance.

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Long