One of the hardest parts about running a talk radio show at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning is getting listeners to talk back. If this were a weekday, people would be mostly at work, already caffeinated. If this were a Saturday, slightly more people would be awake, somewhat fewer people would be at church and a lot fewer people would be leaving their radios off to avoid infomercials. Sunday morning is just a tough time.
Given that, one of the ways we measure the success–or lack thereof–of any show is by the number of calls and emails that we get. (Not the only way, of course. PZ doesn’t always get a lot of questions, but his download ratings are some of the highest we see.) Good shows are the ones where we can’t use everything that comes in, and not because of quality or the tendency for questions all to come in at the end of the show. Which they do.
By that measure, this morning’s program was definitely a success. We received six calls and one email. Yes, three of the calls were from the same woman, but only the email was from a Minnesota Atheists member–as far as we can tell. That’s reaching a new audience, part of what the show is supposed to do.
On the other hand, there were three calls from the same woman because she was too angry to let our engineer put her on hold so we could pick her up in the studio. One caller berated us for spreading “traditional medicine propaganda,” and the last caller called after the show was over to yell at the engineer and say he couldn’t believe Air America* would put something like this on the air. (Another thing about a Sunday morning slot is that you can’t buy your engineer a beer after a rough show. Sorry, Matt.)
We had one caller who left a message asking us to talk about the placebo effect and one email mentioning religious objections to vaccination. Aside from that, we only heard from people who were angry.
They had a reason to be angry. They were in pain. The woman who called multiple times had had a sister with cancer. The one who felt we were dealing in propaganda has two children with autism. I don’t know what the last caller’s story was, but I’m sure he had one. Every one of those people had a reason for their anger.
What they didn’t have was a rational reason to be angry at us. Reasons? Yes. Rational reasons? No.
That should have made them easier to deal with, maybe. Easier to shrug and say, “Not my fault. Not my problem.”
Easiest of all, in the short term anyway, would have been to tell them something that made them feel better. That’s what their gurus do. They tell these people that there’s a reason for what’s happening. They tell angry, hurt people that there’s something they can do to fix all this, right here, right now, without having to wait for more studies, more answers. They tell people like our callers that they’re in control–or will be if they can just get through to people like us.
We can’t do that, of course. We have to give the hard answers. We have to tell them there is no simple fix, not yet, maybe never that they’ll see. We have to take away this wall they’ve built around their pain, because it isn’t sound and it hurts people as it falls apart. And we have to make them understand that not letting their pain hurt other people is one of the hardest parts of growing up, but it’s time for them to do that.
No wonder they’re hurt. No wonder they’re angry. We’re asking a lot, and we have only two small things to give in return. Well, truth isn’t small, but it doesn’t look like a lot when you get it in the place of something you really wanted.
The other thing we can give them is their pain. We can acknowledge how they feel and acknowledge that it’s a perfectly reasonable response to their situation. And we can do that before we point out that it’s not a rational response to us. That’s not an easy thing to do when that pain is pointed straight at us with an intent to hurt, but if we’re asking them to be adults despite their difficult circumstances, it’s the least we can do. Isn’t it?
If you want to see it in practice, I recommend listening to the podcast of today’s radio show. PalMD is very good at it. I could be better, but I can practice. After all, just because I told Pal what I wanted us to talk about on the show, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from it too.
* The station is an Air America affiliate. We are not Air America programming. These facts calmed the caller down not at all.