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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 3, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Seeds Make Weeds; FDR and Talk Radio

I've talked a lot about bird feeders, I know. But last garbage collection day, I put out two perfectly good bird feeders from which many birds had happily eaten.

A neighbor picked them up before the trashwights came. I tried to get his attention but he drove off before he noticed me. Because I wanted to explain why I was getting rid of them.

It's pretty simple. They were both the kind of feeder where birds perch on a little roost (or roost on a little perch) sticking out in front of a hole in the face of the tube.

That kind of design is fine if there's a tray under the tube to catch the spillage from the holes. But with these two feeders, there was no tray.

Birds eat like finicky two-year-olds. They like what they like and reject what they aren't in the mood for. But when they like something, they eat with enthusiasm, and the food gets splashed around.

The result is a lot of seeds dropping on the ground -- unless there's a tray to catch most of them.

If you have your birdfeeder on a porch or patio or deck, you now have pools of birdseed. This is fine at first, because ground feeders clean up for you.

Only they aren't efficient -- they clean up those spilled seeds the way two-year-olds pick up their toys. You can hardly tell they tried.

So I found myself sweeping up five or six dustpanfuls of seeds every couple of weeks. I realized that I was paying birdseed prices for what ended up as garbage without any intervening alimentation by birds.

It was worse where I had one of those trayless tube feeders over soil. Seeds that are birdfood in the feeder become weeds when they're growing in the soil underneath it.

Mmmm. Thistles. Just what my garden needed.

Now that squirrel baffles (and distance from sturdy branches and other launching pads) had solved my squirrel problems, I could hang some open tray feeders along with the small-bird-only cage feeders.

So I ditched the perfectly good (but spilly) feeders, and while there's still some spillage even with the trays, keeping the ground feeders happy, it's down to about five percent of what it used to be. (So maybe it's eight percent. It's not like I care enough to measure.)

I just wanted my neighbor to know -- those birdfeeders he picked up work very well. The birds like them. He just needs to know that along with them comes a mess, no matter where he puts them.

*

I've been reading H.W. Brands's biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class, which is not as biased against Roosevelt as the title might suggest. After all, being a traitor to the upper class is considered rather praiseworthy on the extreme Left.

In any event, I was struck by a passage on page 223, which took note of the fact that Roosevelt saw early on the importance of the new technology of radio, which was spreading through the country in the late 1920s.

As Roosevelt said, "Whereas five years ago 99 out of 100 took their arguments from the editorials and the news columns of the daily press, today at least half of the voters, sitting at their own fireside, listen to the actual words of the political leaders on both sides and make their decision based on what they hear rather than what they read.... In reaching their decision as to which party they will support, what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers."

Roosevelt found that by mastering radio, he was able to develop living-room intimacy with the voters of America. His aristocratic accent didn't hurt him -- radio announcers all talked that way; only entertainers used "natural-sounding" speech on radio. Instead, by using a medium that was not yet taken seriously as a source of news, Democrat Roosevelt was able to get around the newspapers which, in most parts of the country, were staunchly Republican.

Well, it occurred to me as I read this that radio had its day, and then television came to rule. The power elite no longer despised the broadcast news, but instead came to fear it. Reagan used television as Roosevelt used radio, to reach the people over the heads of the media establishment.

To keep their control, the increasingly Leftist elite began to cut off nationwide television access to leaders they disapproved of. They refused to carry some, then most, presidential speeches -- when the president was Bush. (Which didn't hurt Bush, because he was so terrible on TV; it might have helped him.)

More to the point, television news broke the back of TV-dependent politicos by reducing everything to "sound bites" of only a couple of seconds, then framing it all in commentary that they controlled.

But once again, as in Roosevelt's time, radio came to the rescue. The government decision in the 1970s to require all new cars sold with radios to have the FM band as well as AM. This little change essentially killed AM music radio, since AM isn't as good at carrying music as FM.

So there were all those AM stations whose value had plummeted, struggling to find programming that would allow them to compete with the FM music stations. Along came talk radio -- speech worked fine on the radio, and AM carried over long distances at night -- and the AM stations survived, provided their talk radio wasn't just an echo of what people could already get on the TV networks.

With network television and most newspapers hostile to conservative values and political views, a large number of ordinary people were -- mostly without realizing it -- hungry to hear an approach to current events that wasn't so openly hostile to their values, that wasn't so propagandistic in trying to sell them on ideas they didn't like at all.

It wasn't a politician who was able to bring them what they wanted -- it was Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh was and is a creature and creator of radio. (His television show failed and deserved to.)

It was radio, on hundreds of local stations, that gave Americans an alternative to the lockstep media. Only after Limbaugh's phenomenal success at influencing politics did Rupert Murdoch create the Fox News Channel for cable TV, with conservative and libertarian commentators at night and scrupulously balanced news coverage all the rest of the time (which independent monitors have verified again and again -- Fox News is the only television coverage that even tries to be even-handed).

It is hard for us today to appreciate what it meant to Americans to hear Roosevelt talk to them warmly, intimately, on the radio. They came to like and trust him -- even people who didn't actually like his political programs.

My parents, for instance, were no fans of his policies, but I remember as a child hearing them talk about his fireside chats and, while my dad jokingly mimicked Roosevelt's voice saying, "My friends -- and you are my friends," I got the distinct feeling that listening to Roosevelt meant something to my folks. My dad turned twelve soon after Roosevelt's first inauguration; his teenage years were punctuated by those fireside chats on the radio. Everyone heard them.

Limbaugh isn't alone on talk radio now; there are many voices with their own followings. Some are every bit as scary-crazy as the Left would have you believe, but most are reasonable and many are actually rather centrist -- far more open-minded than the Left is, or than the Left is capable of recognizing, since our "intellectual" elite is marked by the most pervasive and unyielding closed-mindedness since the slavery advocates of the years leading up to the Civil War.

Some politicians learn these lessons: Huckabee has been working hard on getting the sneakiness and sliminess out of his public persona through his weekend television show on Fox. I think the sneakiness and sliminess are still there, but they are now well-concealed from view.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is as stiff and cold onscreen as ever, and Sarah Palin still looks like a deer in the headlights. Too bad; Romney and Palin are likely to be media roadkill in the runup to the 2012 election, and Huckabee will be well-placed to seem warm and avuncular and trustworthy.

Remember that in North Carolina, Jesse Helms came to public view on talk radio. This was a singularly unattractive man onscreen, but Helms learned how to control his persona when he spoke. I remember his first debates with Jim Hunt in the senate race of 1984. I watched for five minutes and switched off the television. There was no point in watching more. Media-savvy Helms was destroying Hunt in the image race, regardless of the content of the debate itself.

Hunt got fierce and angry; Helms, who knew how to control his media appearance, came off as patient, warm, friendly, avuncular; he never showed anger toward Hunt. Huckabee may find, as Helms did, that you can be off the deep end to the Right but still seem electable to moderates just because you seem so harmless and nice.

Talk shows defeated the sound bites of "mainstream" media, and their candor and energy trump the rehearsed and/or teleprompted speeches of politicians. Those who can talk warmly over the air, sounding unrehearsed even as they read from notes or prompters, can build a following.

Roosevelt knew it and used it -- that's much of the reason he was able to pull off four presidential election victories.

Learning to master new media doesn't mean you're a good person, or a bad one. Besides Roosevelt, another man who mastered the power of radio was Adolf Hitler. But Winston Churchill also proved to be brilliant on radio. It was the foundation of C.S. Lewis's popularity, with a series of broadcasts he made to strengthen the Christian faith of Britain in the war against Nazism. Whoever masters the medium can use it, for good or ill.

Here is the unique power of radio: It is the voice alone. It's not just in fantasy novels that the human voice as magical power. We who listen to audiobooks know that hearing a story read is more powerful than reading it to yourself; in many ways, it is more powerful than movies that tell the same stories. Because your eyes can be engaged in other activities -- driving, knitting, cooking, eating -- while you listen to radio or other pure-audio presentations, they can sustain your interest in what is being said for much longer than visual media can, since they require you to watch and lose power with distraction.

Talk radio has revived and sustained public discourse from the Right and Center of American politics during an era when only the extreme Left is represented on most television and in most newspapers (and universities, schoolrooms, movies, and television shows). The result is an extraordinarily well-informed populace that has no intention of being told what to think. The Left dismisses "talk radio" as extremist propaganda, not realizing (or perhaps realizing all too well) that it is the antidote to extremist propaganda from the Left.

Even now, radio (like its twin, internet audio) is still underutilized as a means of bringing all points of view into public discussion. My kids grew up listening to half-hour audioplays as they went to sleep in their rooms. Imagine that: letting kids hear professionally performed dramas and comedies that allow them to close their eyes. Why isn't there radio programming for children at just the hour when they're likely to be going to bed?

Teenagers will watch all kinds of wonderful nonsense on YouTube; what people often miss is that they often listen to it while doing homework. The audio market and low-budget video market are bigger than anyone thinks -- as long as it's really well written and has a core of truth.

Mark my words -- while Hollywood keeps trying to edge farther away from traditional values in huge-budget projects, radio and cheap internet video can offer the entertainment antidote on far lower budgets. All that is required is that the writing and performing be excellent and never preachy, and the price be as close to free as possible.

*

My wife and I watched one more episode of Harry's Law, and the verdict is in. Series writer David E. Kelley is off the deep end. It's not just that he inserts knee-jerk Leftist dogma in every episode. Now he's flat-out lying about America -- or else he has lost any kind of contact with reality.

In the series' second episode, Harry (Kathy Bates) is defending an old woman who robbed a liquor store at gunpoint. Her defense is that she was starving and had no alternative.

Excuse me? Has Kelley ever been to Cincinnati (where the story supposedly takes place)? Does he think there's no welfare available to the poor? Between state welfare programs and local non-government organizations, does he really believe that the only choice of poor people is to rob stores at gunpoint?

It is simply asinine that Kelley's puppet prosecutor did not point out all the welfare sources that could have kept this woman fed -- without her having to resort to armed robbery.

In other words, Kelley's television shows do not take place in the real world. Instead, they exist only in the Leftist fantasyland where the American poor still live as if it were 1889. Or even 1935. That place only exists today in their imagination.

In a way, Kelley and his ilk are confessing something rather awful. The Left has had control of American government and the power elite for decades. If it's all still as bad as ever, then that would suggest that all the money we've poured into the Leftist agenda has been utterly wasted. Where did it go, if it has accomplished nothing, as Kelley and his fellow deniers-of-America-as-it-is claim?

Clever dialogue and good acting cannot make up for complete stupidity and/or deliberate lying. Gilligan's Island knew it was dumb; that's why it was funny. Kelley has made his show even dumber, but he thinks that he's smart, the way a drunk claims to be sober even as he reels along bumping into everything.

There are smart shows on television. But David E. Kelley isn't writing any of them.


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