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Talk Radio

March 27th, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren Bowie, Becca Sears, Sam Foster, Nick Farr
Talk Radio (1988)
Director Oliver Stone
28 March 2012

Controversy on the Radio

In 1988, Oliver Stone and and Eric Bogosian came together to write a storyline about a Jewish man named Barry Champlain.  Based in Dallas, Texas, the radio host has a knack for cutting people down with his controversial political arguments.  Throughout the show, Champlain receives hate-mail and angry callers, one even making a bomb threat and threatening phone calls.  His show was supposed to go national, but he was murdered the night he was given approval.  The movie was based off of the real life character of Alan Berg, a radio talk show host who was known for his largely liberal and outspoken viewpoints, along with his confrontational interview style. Alan Berg, too, was shot and killed in his driveway by a group of white nationalists, called The Order. Through the story of Barry Champlain, we can see how effective the radio is, reinforcing the necessity for our society to become media literate.

The FCC began enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine in 1949.  The Fairness Doctrine consisted of two criteria that radio and television stations had to meet in order to get their license renewed.  The first criteria was that license holders had an “affirmative obligation to provide coverage of vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community served by the broadcaster” (Hazlett and Sosa, 280).  If broadcasters didn’t cover issues in the community’s interest, the FCC could revoke their license (Hazlett and Sosa, 286).  The second part of the criteria formed around the idea of equal access.  This meant that license holders had to “provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues” (Hazlett and Sosa, 280).  The foundation of the fairness doctrine was based on the belief that broadcasters would “tend to underprovide a public good – news about important social issues” (Hazlett and Sosa, 279).  In other words, the government had a lack of confidence in the ability of broadcasters to provide meaningful, educational content to the public.

The Fairness Doctrine was struck down in 1987 because the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the First Amendment.  When the FCC makes decisions determining which programming is “fair and balanced for the public”, this represents a tremendous amount of power.  Hazlett and Sosa note that opponents of the fairness doctrine believed that this power would be abused by regulators under the influence of “political factions.”  They further note, “Self-censorship would result in a ‘chilling effect’ on the flow of controversial speech” (280).  The Supreme Court concluded that this “chilling effect could trigger a successful First Amendment challenge to the FCC’s regulatory regime” (Hazlett and Sosa, 299).  In 1985, Congress admonished the FCC claiming that the fairness doctrine “chilled free speech, precisely on the grounds that it reached a conclusion lacking any factual or statistical basis” (Hazlett and Sosa, 299).   As a result, broadcasters were essentially given carte blanche under the guise of free speech.

There are many radio talk shows that have been cut off due to inappropriate comments.  The most recent, of course, is that of Rush Limbaugh.  Late in February, he called a female Georgetown University student a “slut” and a “prostitute” based on her testimony before a committee of the House of Democrats.  She did not accept his apology, as he was only doing so due to pressure from sponsors who would pull advertising if he did not do so (Rush Limbaugh).  Others include Don Imus, from his morning Talk Show, Imus in the Morning. After he made a comment about the NCAA Women’s Basketball team, seven sponsors had either pulled their ads outright or suspended advertising on the show to protest his remarks.  These included General Motors (Imus’s biggest advertiser), Staples Inc. ClaxoSmithKline, Sprint Nexel, PetMeds, American Express and Procter & Gable (Don Imus).  Howard Stern, another radio host, actually moved his show to Satellite Radio where FCC regulations do not exist.  From 1990 to 2004, the FCC has fined owners of radio stations that carried The Howard Stern Show a total of $2.5 million for indecent programming (Howard Stern).

Talk Radio, coupled with the study of other talk show hosts and an understanding of the FCC, provides an extreme insight to the effects of radio and the power a voice can have over a group of people.  Instead of refraining from turning on his station, Barry Champlain receives phone calls from people complaining about the terrible acts he’s committing.  Just like television and newspapers, radio is another form of mass media we must come to understand and realize it has an effect on our culture and on our society.  Being media literate in terms of radio is just as important as the other forms we have studied, which is easily seen in the movie Talk Radio and the real-life controversies that continue to happen.

Important Quotes

  1. “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words cause permanent damage!” – Barry
  2. “We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor. HOOOO-WEEE! Jericho’s Pizza, off Route 1-11 at the Jericho Turnpike, they got that pizza you’ll never forget, one bite and you don’t have to eat for a week. I saw a guy in there the other day combing his hair with the stuff off the plate. Jericho’s Pizza.” Barry Champlain
  3. “You’re not going to make me apologize for getting you a slot on national radio.” – Dan
  4. “I should hang; I’m a hypocrite. I ask for sincerity and I lie. I denounce the system as I embrace it. I want money and power and prestige: I want ratings and success. And I don’t give a damn about you, or the world. That’s the truth: for that I could say I’m sorry, but I won’t. Why should I? I mean who the hell are you anyways you… audience! You’re on me every night like a pack of wolves because you can’t stand facing what you are and what you’ve made! Yes the world is a terrible place, yes cancer and garbage disposals will get you. Yes the war is coming, yes the world is shot to hell and you’re all goners! Everything is screwed up and you like it that way don’t you!” – Barry Champlain
  5. “Talk Radio. Free speech isn’t really free at all.” – Barry Champlain
  6. “What do you think you’re doing in here, Barry? This is a talk show. You are a talk show host.” – Dan
  7. “The worst news of the night is that three out of four people in this country say they rather watch TV than have sex with their spouse. The second worst news is that some kids needed money for crack last night so you know what they did? They stuck a knife in the throat of an eighty year old grandmother down on Eulid Avenue. Right here in Dallas. One night, in one American city. Multiply that by hundreds of cities and what’ve you got: a country where culture means pornography and slasher films, where ethics mans payoffs, graft insider trading, where integrity means lying, whoring, intoxication. This country is in deep trouble, people! This country is rotten to the core and somebody better do something about it. I want you to take your hand out of the bowl of Fritos, throw away your National Inquirer, and pick up that phone – go ahead PICK IT UP! Hold it up to your face and dial 555-T-A-L-K. Open your mouth and tell ’em what we’re gonna do about the mess this country’s in. TALK RADIO, it’s the last neighborhood in town. People just don’t talk to each other anymore.” – Barry Champlain
  8. “Like Barry always said, if you didn’t like him, turn him off! They didn’t have to kill him” – listener

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the consequences of the deregulation of radio? Should talk radio be in the best interests of the public?
  2. Is the Fairness Doctrine inconsistent with the first amendment, the right to free speech? Why would the Fairness Doctrine be considered unconstitutional?
  3. What similarities and differences can be seen between the regulation of radio versus television?

  1. What kind of lessons does Talk Radio teach us about media literacy?

Works Cited

“Alan Berg.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2012.


“Don Imus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2012.


Hazlett,Thomas W. and Sosa, David W. “Was The Fairness Doctrine A “Chilling Effect”?
Evidence from the Postderegulation Radio Market,” The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol.    26, No. 1 (January 1997) (pp. 279-301).

“Howard Stern.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2012.


“Rush Limbaugh.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2012.



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