CMN 3105: Reading #3 Sept 21 2013
Ears Wide Shut: epistemological Populism, Argutainment and Canadian
Conservative Talk Radio
Paul Saurette & Shane Gunster
Radio has a slightly anachronistic air about it.
Perceived as technologically inferior ro imagebased media and less serious than textual media, radio is
often ignored as a marginal and ephemeral medium with little enduring political significance.
Political talk radio (PTR) has emerged as an influential medium for political debate, discussion and
First, the current literature leaves virtually entirely unexamined the content and /or rhetorical characteristics
of talk radio. Existing studies have at most identified only the most straight forward discursive strategies
such as agenda setting.
The good reason however to suspect that a variety of rhetorical techniques play as they as they do in many
other sites of political debate, a central role in structuring the discourse of political talk radio.
We need to study not only who PTR talks to/with nor simply what PTR talks about but also how PTR talks.
As a first step to address these gaps we have examined the rhetorical strategies of Adler On Line (AOL)
Epistemological populism since it employs a variety of populist rhetorical tropes to define certain types of
individual experience as the only ground of valid and politically relevant knowledge.
We suggest that this epistemology has significant political impacts insofar as its epistemic inclusions and
exclusions make certain political positions appear selfevident and others incomprehensible and repugnant.
We argue that the style of debate (as performed and enforced by the host) serves to privilege political
speech which is passionate, simple and entertaining.
Argutainment plays a key role in helping establishing the political preferences and views privileged by the
How and when we should (or shouldn’t) speak and what type of knowledge should and shouldn’t be viewed
as legitimate and worthy of our attention.
Populist rhetoric plays a central role in establishing what type of political deliberating and debate is possible
within it. Divided into two main sections the article first explores how Adler on Line renders a particular
epistemological framework authoritative. The second section then analyzes the rules and norms of political
expression and debate encouraged by the shows style of argutainment debate.
We chose AOL as our main object of study for a variety of reasons. Given our broader interest in the growth of popular conservative philosophy in Canada, AOL was an
obvious choice given the fact that Adler brings an openly conservative perspective to bear on the issues of
the day. However, the most important reason underlying our choice of AOL is the fact that it is the largest
and farthest reaching commercial PTR program in Canada.
Charles Adler, a Canadian broadcaster AOL is a nationally syndicated English language current affairs talk
show produced in Winnipeg and broadcast across the Corus Radio Network.
Canada’s only national private sector talk show and it is the only program of its kind to have a quasi
Consistent with our expectations, the sample offered an especially rich set of discourse about politics:
overtly political topics headlined the broadcast at roughly twice the frequency during this period than in the
weeks preceding and following the campaign.
Epistemology of AOL and how it functions broadly it is a perspective which we call epistemological
populism since it borrows heavily from the rhetorical patterns of political discourses of the populism to
valorize the knowledge of the common people, which they possess by virtue of their proximity to everyday
life as distinguished from the rarefied knowledge of elites which reflects their alienation from everyday life.
The assertion that individual opinions based upon first hand experience are much more reliable as a form of
knowledge than those generated by theories and academic studies.
Conversely the more abstract the form of knowledge and reasoning, the less rooted in concrete individual
experiences the more such knowledge is to be regarded with suspicion, especially when their conclusions
contradict the wisdom of common sense and practical everyday experience.
Despite the fact that national polls had consistently identified health as the most important political priority
for Canadians, discussions of crime and criminal policy received more attention than any other single issue
on the program during the campaign.
As the anecdotes pile up in segment after segment, they not only immunize listeners against countervailing
arguments and evidence about declining crime rates or the futility of law and order campaigns.
Broader trends or perspectives are never allowed to challenge the generalizability of certain individual
experience. But one of the challenges faced by such an experience based epistemology is that not
everyone’s experience is the same.
Filtering of guests, strains out those whose experiences and opinions and epistemological framework differ
from Adler’s own. In contrast, the show’s fourteen guests did include victims of crime, police officers community activists, faith
leaders an politicians.
Choice of guests is defined by the dictates of epistemological populism.
Epistemological populism tends to elevate individual experience as the only legitimate form and extend that
epistemological authority well beyond the realm where the persons immediate experience itself might be
seen as relevant.
In particular, police officials and correctional workers (though not social workers) were consistently
positioned as having a monopoly expert knowledge in this area.
This in itself primes the audience to accept the constables opinions as their own by creating a rhetorical
identification of the officer and the listeners. Even more important however is the fact that Adler’s
introduction encourages the audience to accept the constables opinions as facts as the objective truth not
on the basis of any evidence presented but rather because the constables day to day level experience as a
police officer and member of the OGIA grants him a special automatic epistemological authority.
The populist celebration for the people and common senses, it also uses the other side of the populist
trope the attack on elite to dismiss contending forms of knowledge and political opinions.
Dismissing contending epistemological accounts by explicitly attacking them at elitist is a pattern that recurs
frequently throughout AOL.
Rapid Fire Radio: Political Debate as Argutainment:
As we noted above, one of the enduring challenges faced by an experientialist epistemology is that lived
experience does not necessarily generate any single type of politics. Experience it too diffuse, contradictory
and ambiguous and the translation of experience into political knowledge and opinion is a profoundly
complex process which is subject to a wide range of significant variables and interpretation and
contestation (Gramsci 1971)
Similarly, as a medium which privileges real time, two way debate talk radio can accommodate and express
a wide range of political perspectives.
Building on the well known concept of infotainment We call the performative model embodied in AOL’s discourse argumentainment and argue that this style
has several defining characteristics.
Interests of the people
What people want in commercial terms (as evidenced by market share) and what people need in political
terms (alternative perspectives which cut through the morass of mainstream media) is represented as
ultimately the same thing: a provocative and entertaining style of debate, defined as highly emotional and
passionate and entertaining style of debate, defined as highly emotional and passionate, strongly
opinionated, simple and brief and confrontational.
A media tha