“Rage eventually undoes the enraged, even if the anger is merited. And no, the media isn’t everything. The battle isn’t everything. Something else remains.” –Andrew Sullivan, columnist for The Atlantic, discussing the nature of the ideological Internet and the online personas of Matt Drudge and Andrew Breitbart
They don’t call it “listen radio,” so should it really be any surprise that Oliver Stone’s fiery 1988 drama Talk Radio is more about the distinctive lack of communication taking place all around Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian), the quick-witted and controversial Dallas radio host who’s been given a shot at national syndication—if only he can get through an all-important “tryout” night in front of the corporate executive in attendance, representing the network certain his abrasive shtick will bring them big audiences and big money?
As reflective of the times as this film was in the late ‘80s, it feels now even more so, perhaps as darkly prescient as Network was in 1976 about the future of television. Sure, Bogosian’s play (upon which this film is based) was drawn in part from the tragic story of Alan Berg, the Denver talker assassinated by Neo-Nazis in 1984, but Bogosian might as well have been writing about many of today’s most popular radio personalities, those who regularly sow anger, paranoia, and prejudice in the name of ratings.
In the film, Champlain’s rise to greatness closely mirrors that of Howard Stern—at least it does in the manner in which it’s depicted in Stern’s wildly entertaining (if somewhat whitewashed) biofilm Private Parts—as he is ridiculed in small markets by superiors who never understand his irreverence, pencil-pushing accountants who attempt to crush his creative approach to broadcasting under their thumbs because they either underestimate his instincts or are envious of his natural talents. Eventually, Champlain’s growing popularity brings him greater opportunities, resulting in the creation of his addictive late-night program “Night Talk,” where he holds court with a seemingly endless parade of the barely educated, deeply prejudiced, easily angered, and hopelessly despairing members of society who phone his program for their few minutes of fame on the airwaves.
They don’t really care that Barry hangs up on them. They don’t really care whether or not he agrees with them. His callers desperately need to be heard by someone, and because they have likely been rejected by most of polite society, this is where they can get their “fix,” and this is where their opinions, however outrageous, will be heard by a larger audience than they could otherwise command.
While at first the national syndication deal appears to be all wrapped up and the audition broadcast merely a formality, Champlain’s boss (Alec Baldwin) begins coming down hard on him when he seems preoccupied with fears about caving in to possible demands that he “mainstream” his act. On the one night it’s vital his show runs smoothly, Barry ratchets up the outrage and the on-air stunts, giving his behind-the-scenes sidekicks (Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley) the jitters. Fearing he’s about to lose his identity entirely in the name of material success, Barry reaches out to his ex-wife (Ellen Greene) for her counsel—or, more accurately, perhaps–her unquestioning support.
Is it that Barry Champlain knows he’s doomed as soon as he signs a contract for national syndication, and below the surface of his consciousness, decides to lash out with every strategy of self-sabotage he can imagine until he guarantees his own destruction? Does he want to purposefully spoil the deal and then create the image in his own mind that he was destroyed by ignorant outsiders that dared suggest the modifications to his style that would compromise his all-important integrity? Was his purpose nobler than that somehow, guided by the belief that only he understood what his audiences required—sometimes a sympathetic ear, other times dismissive and insulting reminders of their intellectual or moral inferiorities, or sometimes just a few moments in the fickle limelight that would help others understand the human condition in all its variety and urgency?
Is Barry simply driven to reach someone—anyone—to reveal his own fears about the world and his role in it?
Or, does Barry just love to stick it to idiots because it gives him a contact high?
Stone and Bogosian’s story is a recurring and eternal one, applicable in every time and every era. Remember when the affably befuddled Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart there are just “too many notes” in his composition? Talk Radio works because audiences can see themselves in the role of the host, daily forced to endure the self-righteousness, narrow-mindedness, and unproductive bigotries of others. Forever attempting to lead the heathen out of the wilderness, but forever talking to the wall.
What’s important to remember, naturally, is that when you’re doing the talking, it’s someone else who’s being made to listen. Or not.
PREVIOUSLY: Talking Pictures Part 1: My Dinner with Andre