Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series about America’s xenophobic soul. If you missed Part 1, follow THIS LINK
The first time I realized that an entirely separate world existed within our nation was a hot, humid and stanky night somewhere in the Virginia mountains. I was headed to my college campus. It was close to 2 a.m. and I was going out of my mind because I had no tunes after the theft of my under-dash cassette deck (installed with my late pal, Ralph Ippolito). Trying to find something to listen to on AM radio in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere was mind-numbing.
Then I hit on a signal, a very strong signal, and a voice boomed out of the dark: “. . . and this is why we have to thank ALL MIGHTEE GAWD for giving us the Holy Nuclear Weapons that will deliver us from the Communistic Tyranny the Russians are spreading across Gaaaawd’s great creation! We will cleanse the world with a Holy Fire and . . . ” then the signal was gone.
At first I thought I had heard someone riffing on “the Holy Hand Grenade” from the Monty Python movie and laughed, but then it hit me: “That guy was serious!” My next thought was, “thank God I’m going 80 miles an hour.” I turned the radio off and started working through a playlist in my head, singing songs at the top of my lungs.
After that, I noticed how “born again” the world around me was becoming. As long as there has been broadcast media, evangelicals have been “evangelizing,” but by the early 1980s their television networks were the mortar between the foundation stones of conservative politics. Every hour of the day some channel was blaring Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Their exhortations grew more and more politically conservative and by 1980 Falwell had spawned the Moral Majority.
In the early and mid ‘70s I spent school breaks working with my dad, a plumbing contractor, traveling to job sites around the mid-Atlantic region. Around this time, I first heard Bob Grant’s radio program and wondered aloud why he was so angry. My dad said, “He’s not angry; his audience is.”
Grant would rant back and forth with callers until he had either praised the person for being racist, sexist and xenophobic or holler, “Get off the phone!” at the liberal commies. Grant signed off every broadcast with, “Get Gaddafi!” referencing the Libyan strongman.
The second time we listened to Grant I asked my dad, “Why do you listen to this crap?” He laughed and said it was fun and “keeps me on my toes.” My dad loved a good debate (it’s a family thing and one of things I miss most about growing up). When he went at it with Grant on the radio — rebutting every fraudulent fact or countering every inaccurate historical reference — he was having a great time.
But teenage me scoffed and said something about checking out WBLS or playing the Stevie Wonder “Inner Visions” 8 track. He looked at me and said with all seriousness that he listened to Grant’s program “so I’ll know when it’s time to dig up the guns.” I must have looked like . . . because he laughed and said, “Nah, it’s just fun.”
But it wasn’t fun, the atmosphere of the time was toxic. People thought the economy sucked, that the Japanese had actually won World War II (based on how much real estate they bought and how many cars they sold here) and that America was being held hostage by the Iranians.
Political media chugged along through the mid ’80s during the era of Bonnie St. Ronnie Reagan, he of the Shining City on the Hill and the destroyer of organized labor.
Talk radio had a similar number of liberal and conservative hosts because the Fairness Doctrine dictated that stations provide equal time for differing political views. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission repealed the doctrine and conservatives bum-rushed the airwaves because anger, hate, fear and resentment sell and conservatives can ladle that stuff out by the bucketful.
No longer encumbered by rules demanding equal time on the public airways, corporate media swiftly overwhelmed the markets with the conservative talk radio format giving voice to the anger seething under the surface of society, an anger stoked by the televangelists of the Religious Right.
Next: The rise of the Religious Right and the shaping of American politics.