Wednesday, February 22
He Takes the Shout Out of Talk Radio
The New York Times
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
Published: February 19, 2006
"WITH his soft-spoken demeanor and a preppy, bookish wardrobe that might seem more appropriate for a college professor, John Batchelor is not a particularly noticeable figure along the tree-lined streets of Briarcliff Manor, where he is one of Westchester's newest boldface names. Other than his involvement at the town's local Congregational church, where his wife is a pastor, Mr. Batchelor generally keeps a low profile.
But tune in to his near-nightly talk show on WABC radio and Mr. Batchelor is nothing if not provocative.
In the last five years, Mr. Batchelor has carved an unusual slot in the radio station's typically conservative lineup, where he is the host of a show from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on weeknights that is heard nationwide. He does not stray far from the political leanings of Laura Ingraham and some of his other WABC counterparts.
But in a landscape of radio often dominated by shouting, Mr. Batchelor's show has enjoyed the rare distinction of being a source of sophisticated — and at times impossibly erudite — political debate and quirky subject matter.
Mr. Batchelor, 57, has described his show as the BBC without British accents, but others in the world of talk radio have referred to it as NPR on drugs. A typical episode combines world news reports with interviews of guests who are almost always in another time zone and tend to run the gamut from foreign correspondents to leaders of militant groups in the Middle East, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"It's so much more exciting to interview terrorists than American politicians, who never, ever have anything interesting to say," Mr. Batchelor explained.
There is no call-in segment to the John Batchelor Show. Mr. Batchelor prefers instead to let his guests do the talking and then move rapidly from one subject to the next, with no downtime. And for added suspense, each segment is set to the strains of tense and sometimes warlike music from films like "Hotel Rwanda" and "Gladiator."
"This is an audio experience," Mr. Batchelor said. "Providing as many different voices, and as many different accents, and as many different points of view of the same story as possible gives the listener the feeling, correctly, that whatever we're covering is a global event."
For Mr. Batchelor, a former novelist, there is a good reason for the show's global perspective. In his world, segments on the show are not so much "reports" or "interviews" as they are "chapters" in what Mr. Batchelor considers the larger story of the United States in a post-9/11 world.
The show first went on the air the day after the attack on the World Trade Center. At the time, Mr. Batchelor had been appearing on a weekend radio show on WABC as a conservative commentator and conspiracy theorist, delving into assassinations and political mysteries.
On the weekend before Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Batchelor "happened to do a whole night's worth of talking on this weirdo guy over on the other side of the planet called Osama Bin Laden," recalled Lee Mason, Mr. Batchelor's longtime producer. On Sept. 12, a WABC producer called Mr. Batchelor and his liberal co-host at the time, Paul Alexander, and begged them to move into the time slot held by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Ms. Mason said.
The show was extended week after week until it eventually became a mainstay. Mr. Alexander left in 2003 to resume his career as a writer.
Mr. Batchelor said that every international event that he and his guests have debated — elections in Haiti, for example, or revolution in Nepal — is in some way connected to the conflict in the Middle East.
Among his favorite topics these days is Iran, he said, because "that's the next theater of conflict."
"I feel like I'm telling a series of stories every night," he said. "And they're all in the context of telling the story of the war, the threat to the United States, which I think is profound and will last a century or more."
With its climactic music and heavy subject matter, the show might not seem like one that most people would choose to listen to as they drift off to sleep. But in fact it is currently the top-rated show in talk radio for his time slot. Still, even for its most sophisticated acolytes, the show's content can at times be tough to decipher. When the on-air light flicked on in Mr. Batchelor's studio in Midtown Manhattan on a recent evening, for instance, the host jumped straight into an interview with a philosophy professor at Princeton, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who was asked to discuss cosmopolitanism and its relationship to the so-called cartoon riots in the Middle East.
A half-hour later, an astronomy professor at a Mexican university was on the air, describing in detail his theories on the genesis of genetic material from the "prebiotic soup" that existed on Earth billions of years ago.
“In talk radio, you're only supposed to be popular if you're tempestuous, confrontational or bigoted," Mr. Batchelor said, sitting at a desk cluttered with microphones and computers. "In my opinion, talk radio has consistently underestimated its audience. My show works because it's very smart and so is the audience."
On the show Mr. Batchelor rarely hides his own conservative views, but some of his most frequent guests are also his political opposites. Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been on several times and is the editor of The Nation magazine, said she thought the show was "an antidote to the trivialization of news and the classic talk radio format."
"Though I disagree with him about 90 percent of the time, he has had me on and he's respectful of my views," she said of Mr. Batchelor. "He lets me speak my piece, which you can't say about many of our media formats today." [...]