Marconi may someday go down as society’s greatest monster, and it probably won’t have anything to do with his place on Italy’s Fascist Grand Council — although in retrospect, that’s not a strong resume builder. While the radio streamlined information and gave us Orson Welles’ inaugural episode of “Punk’d,” its current standing in our world is as a fledgling, near-obsolete medium.
Between television, iPods and the Internet, radio needs to work hard if it wants to get noticed, and too often, that means getting desperate. Across the AM dial, the fourth-string receiver managing to catch radio’s Hail Mary pass is the talk station, and whether it’s Limbaugh or Stern, politics or a morning zoo, talk excels in only one area: shooting itself in the foot.
The latest sonic marksman to pull an on-air Plaxico Burress is Green Bay’s own Jerry Bader. Bader, whose program on WTAQ is followed by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity — the ‘27 Yankees have nothing on that line-up — is a conservative personality who tackles tough issues like Obama’s health care plan and whether children should still learn cursive in school.
On Oct. 26, following news that Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton was dropping out of the gubernatorial race due to personal reasons, Bader used “sources” to claim that a lesbian love affair forced the lieutenant governor to step away. It was a salacious story, inducing both gossip and a whirlwind of high-fives among conservatives and teenage boys. Yet once the initial noise died down, we were left with nothing more than a rumor spewed by a radio blowhard. Within a day, Bader backed down, stating he “lost confidence in the sources that provided information yesterday.” And naturally, Lawton dismissed it, suggesting it was an “outrageous lie.”
Uh oh. If you’re going to accuse a prominent public figure of being both a disloyal wife and a switch-hitter, you need to be sure your sources are accurate. Bader’s apparently weren’t, and now he’s on a two-week leave wondering whether his quick mouth will cost him his job.
Bader got what was coming and shouldn’t expect much sympathy — he shouldn’t expect another WTAQ paycheck, either. Unlike other notable radio controversies, such as Don Imus’ Rutgers fiasco or the Minnesota guys who said that Magic Johnson faked AIDS, Bader’s claim was not simply a glib, offensive lapse of rationality. He heard a story, reported it as a member of the media and was dead wrong. When it comes to disseminating information with a potentially damaging impact, you can’t be dead wrong.
But this isn’t all his fault. Ultimately, his actions are fairly predictable given the current state of radio. Like the kid on the playground whose 15 minutes of fame came courtesy of a short-term fascination with Crazy Bones, he’s going to step it up to get the schoolyard to appreciate him again. Maybe it’s eating rocks for money or swearing in front of teachers, but whatever the act, it’s going to be self-destructive.
This is where radio stands. Its days of dominating the market are long dead, and as new forms of media chip away at its dwindling influence, the last line of sound wave soldiers are going down in a firestorm of hyperbole and libel. When Limbaugh argues that he’s not part of the mainstream media, he’s right, but it’s not because of some liberal ideology; it’s because people no longer care about radio.
Of course, it’s not dead yet, and judging by the people whose voices saturate the airwaves, I doubt it’ll accept euthanasia any time soon. But even though it often represents nothing more than angry rambling and the same three Lil Wayne songs over and over again, it’s important not to tune out completely. After all, if no one were listening to Bader that day, we would’ve had a harder time substantiating what a half-wit he is. But try not to make a habit of it. We have TV for a reason.
Sean Kittridge (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in journalism.