The genesis of William Tell
My earliest memories of what would become my desire to become William Tell date from around age 10, that is, 1965. I saw a number of the David Wolper TV documentaries about World War II. Richard Basehart was the narrator. I don’t know how I would evaluate those performances today, but I was enamored of that deep bass voice and dreamed that someday I might use my own voice the same way.
Fast forward to 1977. The first job I got upon graduation from college was as night porter at a Big Boy restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, half an hour north of my house. It became my custom, on my commute, to listen to the conclusion of The Phil Gardner Show on WGAR. He often featured songs that don’t get much airplay, but have deep meanings.
One night he closed the show with Don McLean’s “Vincent.” I had the good fortune to have previously heard the story of Vincent van Gogh’s frustrated career as an evangelist. I was moved. Maybe someday I could do things like his playing of that song, that would open people’s hearts and minds to a broader vision of humanity, beyond the confines of selfish need.
This was another major step toward my eventual desire to become William Tell. Years later, researching the present post, I was not surprised to learn that Gardner is a Christian.
Alan Christian and Joe Lombardo
I moved to Baltimore in 1978, and began listening to the evening talk shows on WBAL.
At the time, Alan Christian was the giant of local talk radio in Baltimore. Frankly, I really came to wish to be like him. He normally would not take issue with any caller, but instead reflect or paraphrase what the caller said. This can be immensely flattering, especially when done by someone of Christian’s towering intellect. Every caller wants the host to appear to agree with her or him, and most of the time, this happened.
The exception was when a caller expressed bigotry of any form. Christian did not tolerate that.
After some years, Christian was succeeded on WBAL by Joe Lombardo. This became a very different show. The audience quickly learned that Joe would tolerate expressions Alan Christian would never have allowed; and callers of a certain bent were prone to take advantage.
Autonomy and balkanization
At this time, I developed a concern for the lack of autonomous thinking among many callers. One after another would call Joe and begin, “I’m calling to defend Ronald Reagan,” when Ronald Reagan had not been attacked. I came to conclude that these people had elected Reagan not President, but hero.
By the same token, many callers to Joe’s show would dismiss another caller, saying, “He listens to Alan Prell” (the liberal WBAL morning talk host) or “She listens to Ted Kennedy” (a prominent liberal Senator at the time). I concluded that, in these folks’ minds, to “listen to” someone was to adopt that person’s stands. This is what they themselves did, and what they assumed everyone else did.
They would not think for themselves. Maybe I could find a way to encourage folk to do that.
There is also the issue of the balkanization of the airwaves. Callers almost always want to please the host; they want the host to agree with them. So folks are prone only to call when they already agree with the host. So hosts of this or that orientation are prone to get calls only from like-minded people; other hosts of other orientations get calls from their like-minded people. Rarely is there any real discussion. Making matters worse is the tendency of many hosts to disrespect callers with whom they disagree — assuring a further segregation of the audience.
… was for decades the undisputed king of talk radio in Baltimore. He was so dominant that, in final years, WBAL broadcast his show live from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., and then rebroadcast it, recorded, from 9:00 to midnight. Given that the afternoon show included every-ten-minutes reports on traffic and weather that the night show was destined to omit, the rebroadcast must have sold a ton of advertising.
He became my nemesis.
At some point, I began to become aware that the callers whom he disrespected were expressing not liberalism, but hope. Some proposal for local government that had me very hopeful, he dismissed by saying, “It won’t change anything.” This happened several times. I remained clueless as to what that was about.
Eventually — I don’t recall specifically what he said. — I was stuck by an insight, “He’s insecure.” This was a dramatic moment for me; I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment, and looked all around me, and looked all around my world. The world. I did not perceive any threats to my well-being. He did, and this proved to be the most fundamental difference between us.
He was peddling not conservatism, but insecurity. He had the goal of recreating listeners in his own image, that they might be as insecure as he was. Well, if he could use projective identification to make folk insecure, I might can use projective identification to make them whole.
This parallels my much more recent thought, that feelings always occur before ideas, and any feeling will seek out ideas that rationalize the feeling. Fear will always find an object, something to be afraid of.
Related: Rationalism cannot save us.
In early decades, Smith focused on America’s foreign enemies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he needed to find a new bogeyman; and he did, in “the ruling elites” of America itself. Conservatives and liberals were no different, in his view; the ruling elites care only to enhance their own privilege, and look with contempt upon the common man. Notably, he said, they hold that the common man cannot be trusted with the truth. His thought this way was deeply influenced by the works of Shadia Drury.
A notable controversy involved an HUD initiative called “Moving to Opportunity” and a similar settlement to a federal suit brought by the ACLU, which I understood to have the goal of dispersing poor households into more prosperous areas. I strongly favored this, and had high hopes: anyone is more likely to prosper when surrounded by people who encourage each other to excel, as opposed to the back-stabbers and malcontents who will sabotage one’s dreams. To hear Smith tell it, however, you’d think the only “opportunity” in question was opportunity for black men to rob, rape and murder whites. He referred often to “the criminal element,” which I took as a code word for blacks. Robert Ehrlich was a frequent guest.
My stand reversed itself when I learned that the ACLU suit was, in fact, all about race, not poverty.
Related: Doubts about Brown v. Board
At some point, I began listening to music in the evenings at home, instead of talk shows. After several years of this, one day at midday, I was riding in a taxi, and the driver, a black man, was playing The Ron Smith Show on the radio. By now, I disliked Smith so intensely that the mere sound of his voice made my blood boil. I was astonished that a black man was listening to Smith, and said so. He answered, “It’s highly educational.” I spat back,
“The only thing I can learn from Ron Smith
is how to have a stroke.”
If I recall correctly, my plans for The William Tell Show had already all been made.
A Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults
Visiting my mother in Ohio, I came across an interview with Fred Rogers, creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in The Christian Century. Rogers’ interest in children’s television began with seeing a TV show intended for children, in which the characters were engaged in mayhem. I thought at once of Soupy Sales. Rogers said, “They were showing no respect for themselves, for each other, or for the audience.” In short, upset, he determined that he could and would do better.
And he did.
I felt exactly the same way about talk radio, and as to many hosts’ performances, had already told myself many times, “I can do better.” I could have a show that would be a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults, differing from the children’s show in that we would deal with difficult, adult topics — yet nevertheless a place where every caller is welcome and valued, no matter what she or he believes.
If I were to do that, I would certainly be a “Lone Ranger” among talk show hosts. Now, at the time, I was listening to The Big Broadcast Sunday nights on WAMU. They almost always included an episode of The Lone Ranger. As “The William Tell Overture” was the theme music for that show, it could be my theme music also; and I could use the stage name William Tell.
That Tell was an archer and horseman reminded me of another archer and literal horse-man: Chiron the centaur, with whom I have a strong personal identification. Thus I could use a centaur logo, and the trade name Trojan Horse Productions. Now, Chiron was not the Trojan Horse, but he dates from the same era.
Free Speech Handbook
On another visit to my mother, some years later, I came across this book on her bookshelves, Guides to Straight Thinking, by Stuart Chase. It blew me away. Chase nailed many of the specific patterns of error and abuse that seemed to me to plague talk radio. I asked Mom if I could keep it.
On the one hand, it would be good for me to train myself, and train my callers also, to steer clear of those mistakes. On the other hand, Chase’s language is likely to be out of reach of most of my listeners; so, this book is specifically inappropriate for them. But I could, and did, create a different manual suitable for my audience. This became Free Speech Handbook, with twelve guidelines of its own. I could train my listeners in these methods by highlighting one guideline each week, a different one each week for twelve weeks; then take a week off from that work, and then resume. This could be done four times a year — work enough, and time enough, for folk to learn critical thinking skills.
Nonetheless, I transcribed Guides to Straight Thinking, by hand — Mom graciously proofread the transcript. — and, for those who can read and understand it, listeners to my show or not, have posted it on my website.
To do these things, I must become a much better man than I am. William Tell cannot have a nemesis.
What I shall accomplish remains to be seen.
A sample: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1007874/posts
Available here: The Gospel According to Fred: A Visit with Mr. Rogers. There is a paywall.