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Friday, April 16, 2004
Radio warfare

By now, everyone knows the situation with Air America. The network claims that station owner Arthur Liu "double booked" airtime; so far, Mr. Liu has not denied the charge. Air America posted a silly response referring to Mr. Liu as "Liu-cifer" and "Liu-ser." That attempt at humor has been removed. Contrary to Mr. Liu's charges, it appears that the network is not insolvent. Although a court ruled that Air America must be allowed back on the air in Chicago, the broadcasts remain unheard in Los Angeles. Everyone doubts that Liu and Air America will continue to do business with each other much longer.

Liu, incidentally, has been confirmed as a donor to Republicans Alfonse D'Amato and Rick Lazio. I have yet to see any evidence that he has ever supported a Democrat.

Let us turn our attention to a related, but broader, question: The political uses of the radio medium.

Is it true -- as many have alleged -- that nuance has no place in this medium? Do listeners always prefer broadcasters who do their jobs with all the understated refinement of Conan the Barbarian?

The history of allied radio propaganda in Germany during World War II may provide an answer.

The allies faced a big problem: Any German caught listening to a broadcast unapproved by Goebbels could receive the death penalty. What was the best way to fetch an audience under those grim circumstances?

The British and the Americans decided upon a subtle approach. They put together German entertainment programs featuring music, comedy, and so forth. The broadcasts seemed to originate within the Third Reich. The news segments were pro-Hitler. But the broadcasts gingerly questioned the competence of Reich officials and emphasized wartime losses. The use of such understated methods would -- it was hoped -- slowly undermine confidence in Hitler's regime.

The Russians, by contrast, used "meat cleaver" tactics. No subtlety for them: They filled Germany's airwaves with incessant anti-Hitler rants, which took on a nearly hysterical tone. They also discovered ways to interrupt official Third Reich broadcasts with sneering commentary. They even heckled Hitler himself during his broadcast speeches.

Which form of propaganda worked best -- the subtle approach or the thuddingly obvious in-your-face approach? Despite the risks, Germans listened to the Soviet harangues. Russia's propaganda campaign -- the verbal equivalent of a punch in the eye -- had far more impact than did the British and American equivalents.

The lessons for today are obvious. Anyone wishing to get a political message across through the use of the radio medium should take off the gloves and get ready for some bareknuckle brawling. Like it or not, that's what works.

I wish the situation were otherwise. I prefer more measured forms of discourse. But we have to take the audience as it is.

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