Did Neal Conan die in vain?


National Public Radio made a change this week; The Talk of the Nation (including the Political Junkie, Ken Rudin), hosted by Neal Conan has been cancelled.  It is to be replaced by Here and Now, hosted by Robin Young.  This is not the first time in my life that I have tuned in a radio station or program I liked to find it had been replaced by country music, Spanish sports or conservative talk.  It is the nature of broadcasting, regardless of my feelings, “things change.”   Still, Talk of the Nation had been on air for 21 years and Conan had worked for NPR for over 30 years.  That is a lot of history and listener loyalty to discard like a worn-out shoe.   The network had a simple answer: “viewers and program directors are asking for more news programs and less call-in, talk shows.”

Is the network right?  Are we as a nation getting tired of Neal Conan and by inference Rush Limbaugh?   That might not be a bad thing; the hard news and objective reporting idolized and fictionalized in our memories might return.  We might be witnessing a reversal of the trend in broadcasting that is at least 20 years old; the trend toward polarized talk and politically framed news reporting.   Talk radio once lived only in the dark-of-night; it did not have mega-audiences of today and it did not influence elections.  But sometime, my guess is around 1990, talk radio climbed out of the dark of the middle of the night and entered into the mainstream of the daytime world.  When it did, talk radio started to become a very big thing.  Did anyone know who Rush Limbaugh was in 1985?   My answer would be that only his mother, the Kansas City Royals fans and maybe a few people in Sacramento did.   About that time I discovered talk radio.  I used to listen to Larry King when I was driving at night.  He had interesting guests and late into the program listeners could call in and ask the guest questions.  I never called in, but I liked the format and always listened at night while I was alone and driving home after work.  At home the television was always on and the radio was always off – both were default settings; no talk radio.

In the late 1990s, I moved out of that life and left the television behind.  Living alone in a very small apartment, I started to listen to the radio every evening.  I particularly liked talk shows that dealt with ideas and news.  But, by then the talk had started to change; it was becoming more polarized and more emotionally charged.  Thoughtful was out and emotional was in; people yelled at each other, screamed their opinions into the microphone and the hated the “others” – the people who thought differently.  Within a few years, talk radio stopped being interesting to me; I still listened (and listen) to the radio in the evenings, but only to music – preferably to classical music on NPR.

In the daytime and in my office while working, I listen to NPR; I listened to Neal Conan.  However, there have been times, such as the later years of  the war in Iraq that NPR seemed little better to me than Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.  NPR was no better than Fox, each host had an agenda, or so it seemed to me.  That said, for the most part I do still listen to NPR at work and  I was not pleased to hear of the end of Talk of the Nation.  I think the network made a mistake.  But now I am after thinking about it for a couple of days, I am not as certain as I was when listening to Neal’s last broadcast.

I will miss the program, I will miss Neal’s voice and thoughtful responses.  Neal was well-informed and thought.  That is, except to those he did not deem worthy of his respect.  For example, there was a caller on the last day who, while representing some 1900 engineers and architects, questioned the accepted theory on the collapse of some buildings in New York on 9-11.  Neal dismissed him as kook, anti-science, conspiracy theorist and hung up on him. He might have been all of those things, but it is also possible that he was not any of  those things.  The dismissal did not feel right to me; it felt like the comments Rush, Sean, Glenn and Michael Savage make about people who think differently.  And that is where I see a problem – too much of radio programing – I don’t know about television, as I said I left TV in the other life – is based on disrespect.  We can never get to the truth on any subject if we refuse to listed to any opinion that disagrees with our own.  Denigrating and demonizing a caller might please the audience, but it does not advance the search for truth.

Again, I am sorry that Neal Conan is gone from NPR and I am sure I will miss him and Talk of the Nation.    But if losing Neal signals a new trend – a trend that might mean someday all of the Rushes and Seans are also gone for the airways –  it will have been worth it for me.  Traditionally, when any public figure speaks at the funeral of fallen heroes or martyrs they always express the hope: “He will not have died in vain.”  I hope that Neal did not die in vain and indeed listeners and program directors are clambering for more objective news reporting.  I know I would very much like to see a change in the polarized, emotional rants that masquerade as news reporting.  Good luck Neal and don’t be a stranger.

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