‘Talk’ makes politics of talk radio entertaining

Posted Sunday, May. 04, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Talk: A Novel of Politics and the Media

by Michael Smerconish

Cider Mill Press, $24.95

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What could possibly go wrong when a top-rated conservative radio talk-show host becomes the most influential voice in a presidential election, yet isn’t a true believer in the convictions he espouses over the airwaves?

That’s the conundrum of conscience that protagonist Stan Powers must confront in Michael Smerconish’s Talk, the story of a talking head who reaches the pinnacle of his profession but ultimately overcomes the monster of his duplicity with the inner voice of good moral sense.

In other words, we got a fantasy on our hands here.

Smerconish, himself a conservative radio talk-show host and regular contributor on CNN after a stint on cable TV’s MSNBC, ultimately uses his simple narrative with the complex star to call for moderation in public debate.

But before he can do that, Stan must overcome his own ambition and scruples.

Stan Powers — born Stanislaw Pawlowsky before adopting a more radio-friendly name — is a disc jockey in the Tampa, Fla., market whose station changes its format to talk.

Station management gives Stan an opportunity to try the genre, and he succeeds with the help of a radio consultant, who advises the newbie that the keys to success are opinions that are provocative and often over the top to stir the conservative masses.

“There is no political middle,” the consultant tells Stan. “It doesn’t exist on radio. You will never get anywhere saying anything moderate or mushy. Either you offer a consistent conservative view or you’re not getting any traction.”

Stan, in reality, is a moderate. He describes himself to the reader as “conservative” on fiscal and national security issues, yet more left on America’s modern social issues.

But nuance definitely won’t get one to national syndication and the industry’s big, big bucks.

That’s the place Stan finally finds with the help of a Republican presidential candidate whom Stan helps to the nomination by railroading an opponent with a salacious report about his personal life. (The candidate harmed was, by the way, the “real” Stan Powers’ preference for the nomination.)

In “the most important (general) election of our lifetime,” (Aren’t they all described that way?) Stan uses his platform to smear Democratic candidate Bob Tobias, a pariah to the right. (As an aside, Tobias’ power-hungry wife and Stan were lovers in college a generation ago. You’ve got to have the element of sex in a book, right?)

That is until Stan can no longer ignore the pleadings of his conscience and the burdens of living a lie.

Enough is enough, says the inner Stan Powers, who goes on the radio to announce his true beliefs.

We came to this place, asserts Stan, because of hyper-partisan districts created by state legislatures, the effect of closed primaries in selecting presidential candidates (we don’t have to worry about that in Texas), money (money and more money) and, last but not least, the one our protagonist knows all too much about: a polarized media.

Smerconish’s novel isn’t a literary marvel or, likely, an accurate portrayal inside the realm of talk radio.

It’s hard to believe that in reality one could be “conservative and compelling” and believable (or liberal, compelling and believable) if there were no truth to the conviction.

Tyler Cox, operations manager of WBAP/820 AM in North Texas, called the idea that station management would encourage a host to be inflammatory “abhorrent.”

“I recall once interviewing a talk applicant,” Cox said, adding that the encounter was not in this market, “who asked if I was looking for a conservative or a liberal. I asked him where he fell in that spectrum. He said, ‘What do you want me to be?’

“Interview over.”

But Talk as a guilty pleasure on a rainy Sunday afternoon? Sure.

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