For many summers during my children’s growing up years, the Dicksons had one or another teenaged Austrian cousin visiting for several weeks. Over the years, we had at least four boys and three girls, several of whom became almost like siblings to our own younger generation.
    We shared our domestic routines, and we traveled with them on family excursions to beaches, to Washington, New England, Orlando and Canada. We might have gone on these trips anyway, but now we have mostly wonderful memories of these familial cultural exchanges.
Among my domestic memories of those summers is the only time I ever washed one of my children’s mouth out with soap.
    Bless his pea-picking little heart, one of my sons just had to keep trying out a new and highly inappropriate word he had learned from who-knows-where. I warned him about it several times, but he apparently found it impossible not to show off his new knowledge in front of his older Austrian cousin. I finally took him by the arm into our downstairs half-bath, put a dab of liquid soap on a washcloth, and gave his mouth a quick swab.{mosimage}
    My son blew a few bubbles, and the teenaged cousin who was standing in the hallway watching and who knew a few of those American words himself, uttered another American expression, “Wow!”
    Someone needs to do the same thing to some talk radio hosts.
    I grew up in a family radio business and worked in it for more than 25 years. Most of that time was energizing and fun in an industry filled with talented and creative people and at stations which strived to be a part of their communities. Toward the end of our time in radio, the mood changed. It became mean and sour with the rise of talk radio.
    We have seen this over and over again on the national level with personalities like Howard Stern, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. North Carolinians watched meanness play out yet again earlier this month when the hosts of a morning show in Raleigh made a series of remarks which have been widely criticized as racist and derogatory toward Native Americans, specifically North Carolina’s Lumbees. The remarks were made in a joking context, as they often are, but they were clearly painful to some people and highly inappropriate over the public airwaves.
    The station apologized to listeners and suspended the crew of the morning show without pay for three days. The furor continues nevertheless.
    I think two things about commercial radio in America today. Since Congress deregulated commercial radio with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, programming which was once locally generated and reflected the unique qualities of communities throughout the United States, is now homogenized and pasteurized. With a few exceptions like local morning shows and a scattering local news programming, listeners in Fayetteville hear the same programming as listeners in Boston, Dallas and Seattle. For better or worse, radio is now just a business, like many other national commercial enterprises.
    The other thing I think about radio is that the national glut of radio talk shows — some call-in, some not — which has befallen our nation over the last two decades reflects and promotes not only a lack of public civility but all kinds of “isms” including racism and sexism, as well as  religious intolerance, and outright meanness. All this is presented as a form of entertainment which advertisers support with their dollars and which reaps profits for station owners.   
    I have tried to operate under and to teach my children the standard that if you could not say something to your mother or your grandmother, you probably should not say it at all.
    Very little of the poison spewed on many of these shows would I ever have uttered to my mother or grandmother.
    It is shameful and profoundly sad that all of this has filtered down to the local level — the Raleigh station being only the most recent example, under the guise of “entertainment.” If we truly believe that calling each other names publicly and polarizing the American public is a form of entertainment, then something is very wrong, indeed.
    The cousin who witnessed my son’s encounter with the sudsy washcloth now practices law in Vienna and has two little girls of his own. I have no idea whether he has had occasion to use what he learned in the Dickson’s downstair’s bathroom in his own household, but I do know that I never had any more trouble with bad language from that son, at least in my presence. He obviously got the point.
    I am giving some thought to mailing that general manager of that Raleigh radio station a bottle of liquid soap and a washcloth.
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