Radio rattle

CHRONOLOGICALLY squeezed between newspapers and television, radio's three most glorious decades in the hemisphere of its origin came to an end in the 1950s. As the Internet continues to redefine the mass-media landscape in the West, radio remains the principal medium for most developing countries.

Yet this is largely owing to factors of underdevelopment rather than any intrinsic superiority of sound.

It is remarkable, therefore, how radio has gained political power and influence in the US. The current debate on immigration reform offers an excellent glimpse into radio's potency. With the Republican White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress both sympathetic to reform, immigration was considered one of those rare areas conducive to healthy bipartisanship.

Until radio stepped into the debate. Conservatives, who maintain a virtual lock-hold on radio talk shows, mounted a vigorous challenge to a compromise plan hours after the White House and senators of both parties formally unveiled it earlier this month. Barely 24 hours later, courtesy talk radio, the 700-page plan spanning border control and the shortage of skilled workers became for many ordinary Americans a misguided attempt to grant amnesty to millions of foreigners present in the US illegally.

White House and Congressional switchboards became inundated with constituents furious at what they considered an inexplicable rush to reward law-breakers. Confronted with dozens of amendments, the Senate was forced to allow more time for discussions before a final vote.

Radios talk format pulsates across the US dial. Loquacious hosts lead hours of no-holds-barred monologues interspersed with equally robust contributions from callers. A few hosts perceived to have overstepped the bounds of freedom of expression have been pulled off the air by outraged audiences. Yet countless others get away with high-decibel berating of callers they do not agree with.

Liberals have tried unsuccessfully for years to tap into radio's political potential. Many are left pondering how conservatives have been able to monopolise the format. The formula is evident in each broadcast. Applying it seems to be inordinately harder.

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