In a medium full of corporate phonies, John Hall is one of the few disc jockeys heard on the radio in Maryland today who is not tightly leeching to sources of power. At
WRNR, 103.1, he mixes progressive music with gonzo hi-jinks; e.g., he is fond of telling listeners where police speed traps are and recently related to his audience an old (but well-known) sex story about Nancy Reagan.
Between the normal duties and artistic discipline that arises from being a WRNR jock, Hall often peppers his program with social and political commentary. When WRNR began last November to have a regular news/weather announcer come on during the morning and afternoon shifts, Hall started offering his own progressive rebuttals in frequently trenchant patter.
In recent months he has criticized U.S. involvement in Indonesia's genocidal annexation of East Timor, enthusiastically endorsed the legalization of marijuana, ripped the Clinton administration for funding our military industrial complex at Cold War levels, read commentary from The Nation that illustrates the level of economic inequality that exists in the U.S. today, advanced support for organized labor, played excerpts of speeches given by Noam Chomsky, and generally offered his listeners an alternative to both corporate media and sanitized radio.
Hall’s program reaches about 155,000 listeners a day. While WRNR is certainly a for-profit station that is primarily geared for music, Hall often manages to say more that champions working people in a given week than the editorial sections of the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun do all year.
MediaWise: What motivates you to frequently break from the norm in commercial radio and share with your listeners your progressive views on social and political matters? Why not leave that to the liberal media?
John Hall: The media isn’t liberal. The media is corporate for the most part, so these are issues that don’t get discussed in other media. And the majority of people view the legalization of marijuana and campaign finance reform, etcetera, favorably--just as the majority of people are against international trade agreements like GATT and NAFTA. Most people see through these issues but the corporate media doesn’t reflect these sentiments.
MW: Are there any issues you won’t discuss?
JH: I think everyone holds back. I am always censoring myself and I’m sorry about it. But I always have to consider whether my remarks might cause someone pain. In addition, I can’t criticize any station’s national advertisers. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t have the urge to criticize local advertisers. It would be biting the hand that feeds. I am willing to criticize fast food in the generic and insurance in the generic but I do put on the gloves when it comes to specific issues.
MW: What do you hope to accomplish by being so outspoken? That is, what would you like your listeners who generally agree with you to do?
JH: I would hope to inspire in my listeners a feeling of freedom--of speech, thought and political activity.
MW: What has the reaction been from your listeners? Have more been against or for what you have to say?
JH: I’ve had two callers ask, “Did you ever work for someone who is poorer than you are?” Their idea is it takes a rich person to give you a job because jobs are something that are given to you, an inferior, from on high.
For most people who call the reaction is favorable. The negative people [who disagree with Hall] are in the minority. More negatives write than call. It’s a cheap shot for me to go on the air with the critical letters or E-mail I get because the reaction of the listeners is always an instantaneous expression of sympathy for me and contempt for the poor critic.
MW: Should you offer callers once in a while a chance to rebut your points of view on the air?
JH: Yes, absolutely I should. If I don’t do it enough it is because I’m not really here to do a call-in show. Also, the equipment in our studio is not really set up to do that easily.
MW: You often read pieces from The Nation, CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser on the air. The common denominator of these publications is Alexander Cockburn, a political commentator well-quoted in MediaWise who often surprises new readers by saving his harshest criticism for people who are generally progressive, such as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. What do you think about Cockburn’s critics who think he’s too confrontational?
JH: As a person who is not confrontational by disposition I tend to see that the quality of being confrontational is a positive attribute.
MW: Isn’t it a turn-off for people who think differently to have more liberal points of view sometimes beaten into their heads?
JH: Anytime you open your mouth there’s going to be someone who’s put off. I try to deal with that by keeping the topical portions of my show brief. I realize that some people wish my comments were briefer.
MW: Along the same lines as Cockburn and Ken Silverstein [who edits CounterPunch along with Cockburn], you have been highly critical of Bill Clinton’s regressive social policies, such as his enthusiastic termination of the federal welfare program [AFDC]. In addition, you have spoken out against Al Gore’s phony environmentalism, you have been critical of the “free trade” policies endorsed by Clinton, and you’ve have been a proponent of labor at a time when that’s not particularly in vogue even with Democrats in Congress. How do you feel about the Democratic party today?
JH: You take Sally and I’ll take Sue. Ain’t no difference ‘twixt the two. [According to Hall this is a line from Dave Van Ronk’s song, “Cocaine Blues.”] There’s one political party in this country, and that’s the corporate party.
MW: I really like Iris DeMent’s song “Wasteland of the Free,” which I first heard on your show. What are some other new musical artists that you like to play who express themselves politically and socially?
JH: John Gorka (“Where the Bottles Break,” “Houses in the Fields,” “Land of the Bottom Line”); Dar Williams (“Bought and Sold”); James McMurtry (“Paris,” “The Good Life”); Bruce Cockburn (“The Mines of Mozambique,” “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” “They Call it Democracy”); Pete Seeger (“Talking Union”); Billy Bragg (“There’s Strength in the Union”).
MW: Generally speaking, what current trends in radio upsets you the most?
JH: It’s the same trend that’s disturbing about corporate culture in every form--its uniformity, the glorification of consumerism, and cruelty.
MW: What’s cruel about it?
JH: Take the support for the meat industry, which is nothing more than the trading of animal corpses for profit. Or the wanton cruelty of the automobile worship, and what it does to the environment and our souls. And the isolation that comes from motorism, which fosters that them-versus-us homicidal mentality.
MW: Anything else that you object to about radio today?
JH: There’s the obvious musical programming--the slavish conformity of programmers and the overwhelming triumph of play lists and ‘emphasis cuts’ seen all around the country. It should be obvious to anyone listening to the radio that, like fast food, there is a lack of distinction everywhere you look. The same music is playing on the radio in San Francisco, New York, Washington DC and Annapolis. Everywhere you go there’s the same artists and same songs by them, over and over again. At some stations they play the same songs 50 to 60 times a week. Although at WRNR we participate in this culture to some degree, we are open to providing an outlet for artists who get heard very seldom on the radio--country blues artists, Frank Zappa, the Beatfarmers, the Dead Kennedys, the Incredible String Band, Greg Brown, etcetera.