[13 May 2007]
In April 2007, the ubiquitous news item in the US was the media trial of radio shock-jock Don Imus, fueled by concerted backlash over derogatory comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The remarks Imus made didn’t strike me as any more offensive than the nasty quips that have garnered him wider public attention in the past (and somehow his show survived those controversies), but the press took the Rutgers story and ran.
As the days passed, the parade of personalities who stood before a television camera to strike down the comments or refute the seriousness of the slur was a “who’s who” of modern American media, right down to rapper Snoop Dog, who offered viewers of MTV News a grammar lesson on the proper use of the term “ho”, and how the word did not apply to college students at a prestigious Big East school who were playing in the NCAA finals.
While many D.C. insiders simultaneously denounced Imus’ comments while expressing support for the man and his show, advertisers responded to the public outcry and promptly pulled their sponsorship. Imus obligingly took to the usual apology circuit (a path recently matted by the shoes of Tim Hardaway, Michael Richards, and Mel Gibson) but to no avail: No advertisers? No show.
Don Imus and Al Sharpton, arguing over the “road map”, so to speak.
I have never listened to Don Imus. It is my understanding that he is a right-leaning radio jock who likes to stir up controversy (according to CBS News, “a mix of low-brow comedy and high-brow interviews”), but I only know him from the aforementioned faux pas that bring him to wider press attention and from pictures. And based on pictures, it astonishes me that he would have the gall to refer to anyone as “looking rough”: this from a man whose visage offers Keith Richards a fill-in-the-blank for, “If you think I look like hell, you should see…”
I will not mourn the loss of Imus in the Morning. So-called “controversial” radio jocks are scavengers on the cultural landscape, too often mislabeling their biases as “insights”, more concerned with gaining / maintaining market share than with attending to the tenets of good journalism. Simply put, the hosts are entertainers, and I question if the collective intelligence of the nation has risen one IQ point for the existence of shows like Imus’ and its ilk, broadcasts that purport to know “the facts” in matters of speculation. Since most of the listeners of such shows already share the host’s political stance, listening to such programs are not an opportunity for learning as much as an (easy) exercise in ideological reinforcement.
Nonetheless, I am concerned: Not for Imus, but for the national economy. Imus’ unemployment means one more hash mark against the so-called fiscal upswing, one more negative statistic that should (yet inexplicably doesn’t) prevent the Bush administration from declaring an economic “mission accomplished”. While many speculate that Imus will follow the path of Howard Stern and become a satellite radio host, free from the fair-weather support of sponsors and unfettered by the pesky reach of the FCC, that’s a dubious career path. The recent merger of Sirius and XM Radio indicates that the pool of satellite listeners has not grown the way these corporations had predicted it would, and as Howard Stern’s much ballyhooed signing with Sirius has demonstrated, public notoriety for a radio star is intrinsic upon public controversy; and since acquiring a subscription-only audience, Stern hasn’t garnered a byte of mainstream press coverage.
Instead of pursuing a new career chapter in a traditional media outlet, I think Imus’ availability offers an opportunity for a bold merger of the machines that emanate voices from the dashboard of many American vehicles: Talk radio, meet OnStar.
OnStar, the leader in the in-car navigational assistance field, has been broadcasting alongside the AM/FM radio for several years, providing drivers with turn-by-turn navigation, remote vehicle diagnostics, and a variety of other services that make travel easier and safer for those who feel that paper maps don’t talk enough. While OnStar offers a call center for urgent help, the downloaded driving instructions are offered in only one voice: the ubiquitous “Mary”. The voice belongs to Mary McDonald-Lewis, who offers calm and courteous automated advice when you need to locate the nearest gas station on I-80 or find a bar in Bozeman, Montana.
Indeed, Mary is the consummate professional, though by design, her tone is intentionally generic, as she’s trying to communicate with Alabamans and Mainers in the same breath without sounding too “different” from the person sitting at the wheel. (No easy feat: I’m from Maine, where the number four often rhymes with the word “noah”; my friend from Alabama says the number three as if it rhymes with “fray”. As such, I assure you that Mary’s pronunciation of “4334 North Main” is going to sound peculiar to at least one of us.)
If OnStar’s goal is to feature a voice with which the driver is comfortable, why not dispense with the effort to find a single lowest common vocal denominator and instead offer a variety of packages that incorporate one of several familiar voices reciting the OnStar scripts?
Behold OpStar (the name inspired by newspaper OpEd pages), a personality-driven subscription service that will allow customers to get recommendations for Thai food in Houston from Al Franken (“There are several Thai restaurants, but which to select? Wait, isn’t The Decider vacationing near here this week?”) or directions to the New York Times Building in Manhattan from Rush Limbaugh (“The only reason I’m providing these directions is because I assume you need to wrap some fish.”) OpStar will enlist various talk radio personalities from across the political spectrum to re-record variations on the bulk of Mary’s messages, allowing subscribers to enjoy the same efficient OnStar services except with Randi Rhodes or Lars Larson as the navigator. OpStar will offer three subscription levels depending on how interactive customers would like their system to be:
Wingman (available in Left and Right varieties)
This package will specialize in navigational guidance, incorporating the trademark stylings of your favorite talk radio host into the OnStar format. For instance, where Mary would simply say, “At the next intersection, turn right”, you could instead have Janine Garofalo urging, “You’ll need to turn right at the next intersection—god, I hate that phrase. Maybe you could pass through the intersection and take three quick lefts, instead.” Each instructional message would be modified to your specified political leaning, and the system would feature dozens of ad-libbed variations on the most common messages so that the driver will enjoy an array of phrasings that deliver the same message. (In that way, the experience will be much like listening to the host’s talk radio show.)
This upgraded service will include all of the Wingman features, plus additional commentary to fill the silence when the navigation requires you to stay on the same road for more than four miles. These will be political non-sequiturs, brief musings from the host on a range of topics. For example, the Bill O’Reilly OpStar might feature a five-minute rant on how the UN has outlived its usefulness, or how America’s secular movement seeks to blow pot smoke into the face of children. These messages will be updated quarterly, though only the most astute listeners will notice that there have been any changes.
The Shotgun Curmudgeon will also be offered in a Crossfire-esque version of the service, featuring the voices of both a progressive and a conservative navigator coming from the left and right speakers, respectively. This package will likely provide the most entertaining OpStar scripts, though the “agree to disagree” flavor is likely to prove dangerous if you’re traveling in a strange city:
Sean Hannity: “As you cross the bridge, select the left lane and merge onto the freeway.”
Alan Colmes: “The freeway? At this hour? Great choice if you like to get into situations where progress is non-existent and there are no opportunities for getting out. Oh, but then you DO support such things, don’t you, Sean?”
Hannity: “That’s your perception of freeways as defined by the liberal press, Alan, not the reality of freeways. But don’t let a little thing like ‘the facts’ interfere with your monologue.”
Colmes: “Why is it that the word ‘facts’ always sounds funny when you say it? Probably because it’s the punchline of a not-yet written joke, like, ‘The fact is, Saddam has WMDs.’”
Hannity: “Nice job. While you were making yet another inaccurate Iraq analogy, we missed the turn.”
This premium OpStar service will be an enhanced version of the Shotgun Curmudgeon, utilizing the built-in Global Positioning system currently utilized by OnStar. By taking advantage of the GPS functionality, OpStar voice talents can record specific messages that will be queued by specific geographical locations. For instance, as your car traveled from Iowa into Illinois, Michael Savage might advise, “Warning, you are about to enter into a blue state. Lock up your wallets or the liberals will try to take your money for stem cell research”, while those subscribed to Rachel Maddow’s OpStar might hear, “Welcome to Illinois, a state whose recent election history clearly indicates they have fully operational voting machines.”
This service will feature monthly updates, allowing the host to interject commentary on the latest issues confronting the nation. (Sam Sader’s March OpStar update might have include remarks such as, “You have arrived. You’ve done a great job. Fortunately for you, you aren’t a Federal Prosecutor, where doing a great job qualifies you for dismissal.”)
In addition to brief monologues on the longer stretches of road, the Constant Kibitzer would feature interviews with guests, allowing someone like Imus to have essentially the same show he has now (both commentary and interviews) while simultaneously offering a valuable public service: guiding subscribers down the dark, curvy byways of the American interstate system. (OpStar’s management will simply have to ensure that Imus doesn’t reignite controversy by guiding drivers along such roadways with a reckless phrase the likes of: “those are some nappy roads ahead, folks.”) With Imus thus employed in this new arena, the American economy will be spared his massive draw on the government dole. (What would the unemployment benefits be after losing a job that pays eight million dollars a year?)
OpStar is the answer. Good for Imus, and good for America.