The Word on ‘Talk Radio’ : Are the Airwaves Turning Into a Lethal Weapon?

Times Television Critic

The foul, nasty brilliance of semi-fictional Barry Champlain. The snarling, yelling, ranting, posturing vapidity of Morton Downey Jr. The anything-goes opportunism of Geraldo Rivera.

They all beg the question: At what point do the airwaves become a lethal weapon?

At this point:

--When Champlain, the obsessed, seething, self-destructive protagonist of Oliver Stone’s new movie, “Talk Radio,” answers a right-wing zealot’s death threats with his own taunts, or snaps at another caller: “I like you blacks. I think everyone should own one!”


--When Downey, with his studio transformed into a Roman forum turning thumbs down on a gladiator, screams at a guest: “Even Satan wouldn’t puke on you!”

--When a taping of “Geraldo,” pitting white supremacists against a black civil rights figure before a combustible studio audience, erupts in violence.

There are times when we gain more insight into television from going to movies--"Network,” “Broadcast News"--than from watching television. Although the setting for “Talk Radio” is a Dallas AM station whose outrageous star is modeled after radio talkers Howard Stern of New York and the late Alan Berg of Denver, Stone’s movie also directly pertains to “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” “Geraldo” and any other program whose frequent aim is confrontation.

These shows draw energy from wrath, seeking to turn rage into ratings. They play a game of “chicken,” hoping to go as far as they can go before swerving at the last second and avoiding a head-on collision.

The great peril--a la that explosive “Geraldo” episode that resembled a hockey brawl--is that they’ll swerve

too late.

Playing the gallant wounded warrior after his nose was smashed by a flying chair, Rivera ejected the white supremacists--who had served their purpose--and continued the taping, earning huge ratings when the heavily promoted episode aired later.

Next time, someone may be killed. But--given our spiraling lust for TV aggression through constant exposure to these shows--will anyone care?

Barry Champlain also works on the edge in “Talk Radio,” which is far closer to broadcasting’s anger mania than is “Midnight Caller,” the derivative NBC series (9 p.m. Tuesdays) whose do-gooding hero, Steve Killian, is a sort of Batman of the airwaves, using his radio talk show to further the cause of morality and justice.

Whereas Killian (Gary Cole) runs around San Francisco serving humanity, when he’s not doing the same thing via radio, Champlain (Eric Bogosian) is Morton Downey Jr. with wit and brains, finally admitting to his listeners: “I don’t give a damn about you or your world!”

Champlain appears ready to go up in flames. He’s neurotic, exposed nerve endings, an open, oozing wound--an unpredictable abrasion who insults and verbally mugs his callers, frequently to mask his own self-hatred: “It’s gutless, mindless people like you who make me puke!” Many of the bricks who call him are fringies from both the left and the right--bigots and racists who get slapped down in mid-sentence: “You pinheaded, red-necked moron!”

Through Bogosian’s mesmerizing performance (Richard Libertini was also a compelling Alan Berg type in “Betrayed”), we see the ugly dangers of combat broadcasting, what could happen with radio and video amok with Champlains, Downeys, Riveras and other self-serving commandos of the airwaves.

Like Berg, the radio talk-show host who was murdered by members of a neo-Nazi group in 1984, and the late Joe Pyne, who pioneered insult radio many years earlier, Champlain is a human match, an explosion waiting to happen.

Whereas Champlain truly exists only inside the booth, however--where his show assumes a claustrophobic life of its own, physically isolated from out-of-doors reality--NBC’s Killian truly lives only outside the booth.

“You shoot from the hip, and this is not a subject for that,” Killian’s boss, Devon King (Wendy Kilbourne), warned him when he did a show on AIDS without her approval. “The last thing is for someone to come along and feed the hysteria.”

That San Francisco, of all places, needed lecturing on any aspect of AIDS from Killian, strained credibility. The irony, however, was that King’s admonition--although well-taken in a generic sense--was more applicable to someone like Champlain than Killian, who, despite his relative bluntness and rough edges, is a wimp compared to his “Talk Radio” counterpart.

Broadcasting is not what ex-cop Killian is really about anyway, for “Midnight Caller” is essentially a stock adventure series with private-eye shadings and radio trimmings. In Lt. Carl Zymack (Arthur Taxier), moreover, Killian even has the formulaic weary police buddy who goes out on a limb for Jack and gets him inside info.

Killian can use it. In that recent, controversial episode on AIDS, he hit the streets and also used his show to foil a bisexual AIDS victim who was knowingly endangering others with a spree of one-night stands. In another episode--featuring a bitter paraplegic stereotype, supported by an Amos ‘n’ Andy black reporter stereotype, Killian stopped a suicide/murder.

And last Tuesday, Killian got involved in a bank robbery/hostage-taking/shootout, briefly going on the air inside the bank to allow one of the robbers--a deranged Vietnam vet stereotype--to “tell your side of the story.”

The episode began with a former anchorman who operated a TV station offering to “buy” Killian and his engineer for the station’s news. “Does it bother you that I’m not a journalist?” Killian wondered. “TV news isn’t journalism any more,” the man replied. “It’s about numbers, drama.”

The words may have been true, but they would have had far more juice from the mouth of a less ludicrous character.

Later, hearing about the bank robbery/hostage crisis, the station owner began barking orders to his staff:

“Get two minicam units with microwave transmitters in place. . . . Get the guys in the studio to use slo mos, stop actions and instant replay for the killings. And listen, set up a Telestrator from sports and outline it, the way Merlin Olsen does it on Sunday.” As a bonus, he decided to report from the scene himself, “live and in stereo.” Yes, and don’t forget the marching band.

If not for Cole’s controlled work as Killian and the stylized look of “Midnight Caller,” the series would be almost comic. By each week framing Killian as a flawless, problem-solving, zooming-to-the-rescue super hero, it squanders an opportunity to make an important statement about the unique connection between radio talk-show hosts of all stripes and their listeners.

Devon King briefly makes a pass at it, saying: “Jack gives people a sense of community. With Jack, there’s a shared experience.”

But Barry Champlain says it far better with his hostile give-and-take on the air and by stealing Alan Berg’s line about talk radio being “the last neighborhood in town.”

Unfortunately, some neighborhoods have a way of blowing up.