The Pros and Cons of Hot Talk

How one radio talk show is getting us all fired up

Communicators have to be mindful of the power that they possess to create emotion, sway opinion, even foster divisions and hatreds. There are too many reminders in the world of what mass media can wreak. The ideas that lay waste to towns in Bosnia, Nigeria, Guatemala take shape in the minds of politicians and generals. But they are delivered to the soldiers and citizenry by their messengers – broadcasters and journalists.

One writer recently asked several people in the former Yugoslavia how they thought the horrors in their country came to be. All of them replied that it was ignorance. They were an undereducated society, brutish in spirit. Petty gripes between communities, long dead hatreds were amplified by the propaganda of hate into the sickening system of ethnic cleansing and murder. Before any war begins radio, TV stations and newspapers all do their work – warning groups that others are out to get them. For months it went on in Rwanda, before the machetes were drawn.

Every morning as I go through my coffee, cleansing and consciousness-reviving routine I listen to radio. Often its music, which can be dangerous. If you hear a song you find particularly annoying, it can play over and over in your head all day at work, slowly driving you mad. Postal workers who snap likely listen to soft rock stations at the start of the day while they polish their rifle.

Mostly it’s news and talk I listen to though. And at 8:35 a.m. I’m usually tuned to CKNW to hear out Rafe (Ralph, actually) Mair. Call it a guilty pleasure, political awareness-raising or just a way to pass the time. At the beginning of his program Mr. Mair steps up on his soapbox, and using all the vocal inflection he’s borrowed from his hero Winston Churchill, he editorializes on any number of subjects. As a former Socred cabinet minister, and chum of many of BC’s political elite, it’s most often politics as it concerns this province which he talks about.

I forgive Mair’s conflicts of interest – his enthusiasm for Bill Bennett, and political reform movements are unabashed – because he often speaks about subjects that are of interest to me. I also recognize that Mair has a great deal of political influence in these parts. He has a regular morning listenership at around 150,000. It’s widely felt that Mair’s campaigning was critical in wiping out the Charlottetown Accord and Kemano II. If you are interested in this province’s politics then Mair’s program is a good guidepost.

Mair is a proud British Columbian, where there are so few in BC’s media. He was actually raised here, and regularly mentions that he lived in Kerrisdale as a youth, went to school and church there too. He is a small L liberal with conservative leanings on matters of public policy. He is no where near as right wing as his U.S. talk show counterparts. He comes off as a moderate much of the time (right wing demagogues don’t get much credence in Canada) and it is probably the reason he is so popular in his native province. In fact, Mair’s only “unpopular” opinion is that he is anti-abortion, which he takes care not to mention too often.

Rafe can sound like a broken record sometimes. His regular assaults on the political left get tiresome, and his Ottawa bashing is insistent. It’s rumoured that on rare occasions he got called by his bosses at WIC to lay off on some topics, which Mair stubbornly ignored.

If you’ve listened to his recent speeches (circa 1996, ed.), you’ll know that his current concern (some would say rant) is the “Unity Bill” Prime Minister Chretien and his Liberal scalawags are currently proposing. It’s hard for a British Columbian not to support Mair in his views. BC with its growing population base (it stands at 4 million) is woefully underrepresented politically in confederation. Contrast this with the overrepresentation of Quebec and Ontario and you have the makings of a Rafe Mair editorial.

Mair cannot be categorized with ultra-conservative kooks like Doug Collins, who makes a living out of publishing racial slander in the North Shore News. But Mair, by doing his job well, resorts to the kind of speech that enflames populations. Not many this side of the Ottawa River care for Lucky Bouchard, but the hatred and distrust of French-Canadian separatists is palpable in the speech of Mair and his callers. No question, Canada has become a politically mismanaged mess in the last generation. But to what end should we take our squabble with the separatists? Civil war? There are more than a few talk show callers who seem to think so.

The separatists have already begun conducting the ethnic cleansing of Quebec. Prosecuting businesses for English signage is an act of deep ethnic insecurity. Fat Jacque’s referendum night speech unmasked the intentions of many separatists – to be the unquestioned kings of their corner of the continent. Must we stoop to Parizeau’s level, by continuing to speak about the country as us and them?

Provoking audiences is a talk show host’s bread’n’butter. Firebrand Bouchard proved it in the referendum campaign – fill the air with heated half-truths and innuendo and watch your poll results sky-rocket. Mair takes care to present the truth as he sees it. In the process he beats up the reputations of politicians, separatists, Torontonians alike, and the audience devours it.

Stepping back, I had to look at what Mair’s message does to me. It makes me breathe fire actually. And so it does with many others. I have an 80-something aunt who would personally strangle Brian Mulroney and his ilk given the chance. The idiot who visited 24 Sussex Drive knife in hand was hopped up on Bouchard’s rhetoric. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin’s assassin, a well-off law student, killed in the name of a perceived injustice. Hot talk fueled the destruction in Oklahoma City as much as any truck full of fertilizer. All of this mayhem was done in the name of someone else’s cause.

I think Mair knows the power he wields as a broadcaster. For the most part I believe he uses it wisely. But audiences have to put his words, and the words of our leaders and other public figures, in perspective with their own lives. Is what they say worth getting enraged about?

Usually not. But sometimes the answer is `yes’. The deeds of the separatists and other politicians can really affect our lives. For an impotent few, faxing their MP, speaking out at political meetings, or being involved in their community isn’t an option. Their action is reaction, and they choose the route of radicals.

I’m not asserting that Mair’s words will lead to the tyranny of a Timothy McVeigh. Mair serves a purpose by articulating the disaffection many share with today’s leaders and the systems they uphold. But Mair and other communicators would do well to tell people how they can realistically affect change. Because change is possible.

Anger for anger’s sake has no value. But when you and the multitude get pissed at the right politician, business leader, or public figure all at once, it’s pure gold.