II. History: U.S. Talk Shows from Radio to Television and the Internet

A. The Radio Host as Expert

The first U.S. talk show featuring a host talking informally to an audience probably was a prosaic farming program broadcast on radio in 1921 over WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts, according to historian Wayne Munson. During the 1920s, the radio networks had an estimated 21 “talk” programs, including public affairs, religion, and housekeeping. Hosts generally appeared as experts, educating their audiences. They offered a look into a more glamorous, exciting world. Alexander Woolcott on WOR in New York shared his urbane experiences, talking about the people he’d met and books he’d read. Walter Winchell struck fear in politicians with his political gossip show, which began on NBC in 1932.

B. The Dawn of Interactivity: The Audience Speaks

While these first talk shows were one-way discussions from the expert host and studio guests to a passive media audience, that quickly changed with more interactive formats. During the 1930s, taped “man on the street” interviews became popular on Houston’s Vox Populi radio program (1932-1947), which during its run on NBC, CBS, and ABC inspired many imitators.

In 1935 NBC pioneered America’s Town Meeting of the Air, which encouraged the studio audience to offer opinions about the major issues of the day. Historians believe the first call-in shows began 10 years later, when Barry Gray on WMCA in New York took a phone call on the air from celebrity bandleader Woody Herman.

Popular music programming soon developed listener request lines which also led to chitchat on air about the weather, sports, and other topics. Broadcasting Magazine reported in 1966 that about 80% of all radio stations in the United States were carrying some talk programs.

C. Amateurs in the Spotlight

Early game shows on radio and television such as The Answer ManInformation Please, and Truth or Consequences contributed to modern talk show culture because they invited audience involvement, asking ordinary people to challenge the experts. Talent scout shows hosted by Major Bowes, Ted Mack, and Arthur Godfrey also helped to pioneer the formulas that underpinned talk show culture 40 years later: they offered the appearance of real-life spontaneity, including potentially embarrassing moments for the people in the spotlight, and they showed that an unknown amateur could outshine the experts. In the late 1990s, CNN had taken over this approach on television with the callers on the Larry King Show, the America’s Talking call-in and e-mail chat show, and other programs.

D. Phil Donahue’s Roving Microphone

It was Phil Donahue, considered the founder of today’s talk show culture, who firmly established ordinary Americans in the audience as the stars of his show. Unable to attract many national celebrities to his television studio in Dayton, Ohio in the late 1960s, Donahue had few other options. Dashing through the aisles with a wireless mike, he “put a face on the faceless masses, as Howard Kurtz observed. This was an enormous hit with the audiences at home, who identified with the folks in the studio and relished their sudden celebrity status.

Roaming through the audience with a mike became every talk show host’s standard operating procedure for the next 30 years. Indeed, the sight of Elizabeth Dole, wife of the newly anointed presidential candidate, using her televised speech opportunity at the GOP convention in 1996 to cruise the delegate audience with a mike, illustrated how thoroughly Donahue’s talk show style shaped politics in the late 1990s.

E. Taboo Topics Become a Public Service

From the very first week of his Conversation Piece television show in November 1967, Phil Donahue offered what would become a much-imitated talk show formula: He used controversial, naughty material to prompt a “public-service” discussion. After launching his first show with celebrated atheist Madlyn Murray O’Hair he wound up the first week by asking viewers whether they thought children’s dolls should include genitals, as some sexual revolution activists were advocating. The program so shocked his Dayton, Ohio audience that they jammed the town’s telephone lines.

Sometimes talk shows did serve a valuable purpose by airing serious topics that were difficult to talk about in public, such as divorce, unemployment, AIDS, handicapped children, dangerous toys, and difficult family relationships. Such hosts as Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams helped raise money for civic causes, particularly those helping the handicapped or those with addictions. The programs seemed to be a relief from the anodyne conformity of accepted social behavior and the isolation many Americans felt in a mobile society where jobs and neighbors were likely to change. They identified with the hosts, who were called by their first names and who seemed to value ordinary people over the “experts.”

F. The Clicker Turns up the Heat

Soon scores of Donahue competitors were cramming the airwaves, and a new 1980s consumer product–the remote control “clicker”–meant that ongoing programs constantly had to grab for the audience’s attention. Struggling to survive these pressures, even the most respected talk show hosts went tabloid. Donahue dragged his public forum ever more deeply into the depths, offering salacious subjects with scant public-service content. He offered such shows as “Woman Wins 8-Year Battle to Care for Disabled Lesbian Lover.” He even wore a skirt to juice up a discussion about cross-dressers. Such gimmicks worked; Donahue’s “Transvestite Shopping Spree” garnered his largest audience during the 1991 season. But he grew ever more desperate as his ratings slipped. In 1994, Donahue tried unsuccessfully to televise live the execution of a convicted murderer in North Carolina.

G. Economics: Talk Is Cheap

Talk shows on radio and television proliferated from the 1960s on because they were cheap and easy to produce and yet had broad audience appeal, especially for the daytime stay-at-home women’s audience. Filling the broadcast schedule with dramatic programs required paid actors, scripts, props, and rehearsal time. Talk shows could be produced live to tape for much less-an estimated $25,000 to $50,000 per half hour in the mid-1980s, thanks to an unchanging studio set, one charismatic host, a booker-producer, and a few guests. If the big broadcast networks chose not to distribute a popular local talk show, they could still find a national or even international audience through syndication.

H. New Technologies Spread the Word

Innovative satellite technology that came into common use in the 1980s could beam a speaker from virtually any location to a mass national radio or television audience. At the same time, the U.S. government’s deregulation of the telephone, radio, and television industries opened up a seemingly infinite number of inexpensive, decentralized opportunities for broadcasters and cable operators.

Radio call-ins got a big boost in the 1980s when local shows gained national audiences through syndication to other local markets, and callers could take advantage of new, cheaper long distance phone rates and free 800 numbers. By the end of the 1990s, some of the most popular U.S. television talk shows, such as the bombastic Jerry Springer Show, also were syndicated to international audiences. Broadcasters around the world were discovering, as government-run media privatized in their countries after the end of the Cold War, that they, too, could attract audiences and fill their airwaves cheaply with U.S.-style talk shows featuring local celebrities and audiences.

I. The Internet: The Virtual Talk Show

In the late 1990s, the Internet emerged as a new communications grid connecting people even more instantly and cheaply around the world. The older media had been hound by space, time, and regulatory considerations. This new global medium offered seemingly limitless opportunities for inexpensive content that could find an audience. The most efficient and inexpensive format was still the talk show–called “chat” or “interactive” in the wired world. These interactive Web sites featured everything from celebrities offering themselves up for questions posted online by any random and anonymous person to bulletin hoards and chat rooms where strangers could talk under pseudonyms with fellow chatters in a hosted or unhosted environment. Without any broadcasting or government regulations, the Internet allowed the creation of diverse virtual communities out of like-minded chatters, offering a sense of connectedness to everyone, no matter how bizarre their interests might he. One of the most popular of these was The Well, which originated in the San Francisco Bay area.