October 7, 2007

Review of Freethought Radio's National Premiere

I caught Saturday's premiere national broadcast of Freethought Radio on Air America and figured I'd post my review here. Freethought Radio has been going on for quite awhile, but Air America will give it a national broadcast for the first time. I like the idea of the show going national but found the implementation lacking in many ways. I have hope that it could be great, but it needs considerable work to reach its potential.

Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) hosted the show and spent considerable time promoting the FFRF (and themselves). I was willing to overlook their shameless self-promotion because, let's face it, the FFRF desperately needs promoting. It may be the largest freethought organization in America, but it is tiny in proportion to the number of American atheists and freethinkers. So I'm glad they now have this outlet to promote such a worthy organization.

Gaylor and Barker made a good case for the neglect of secular viewpoints in American culture and stressed the importance of providing programming for freethinkers. I agree completely with what they are trying to do. The impressive sales of atheist-oriented books tells me that there is a market out there for secular programming. Wouldn't it be nice to have secular perspectives better represented in the media? It seems like it could go a long way toward replacing stereotypes with accurate information.

Barker and Gaylor also provided some decent information about how America is not a Christian nation even though many Americans are convinced that it is. I thought that the way they presented this material was great - not so scholarly as to alienate anyone but still an effective review of American history. This is exactly the sort of information we need to publicize in order to inoculate people against widespread brainwashing by the Christian extremist community.

My criticisms of the broadcast, and I fully recognize that some of these will reflect my biases, are several but none are what I consider fatal. Gaylor and Barker remind me of kindergarten teachers, and I find this annoying. Barker consistently overdoes his annunciation to the point where he sounds unnatural, and Gaylor is sounds far too much like she's talking to dimwitted children. Admittedly, I am easily annoyed by this sort of thing, so it is entirely possible that others will not mind.

Much of their material struck me as terribly simplistic. I think this would be good for people not at all familiar with freethought but it is likely to be annoying to those of us who consider ourselves part of the growing secular movement.
I'm not sure who their intended audience is, and it didn't seem like they knew either. Our hosts spouted several catch phrases that adorn t-shirts in the FFRF store (e.g., "Beware of dogma," "Imagine no religion," etc.) at odd moments that came across as if they were talking to themselves rather than trying to deliver a message to their audience.

The show was very unprofessional. This may seem like a harsh condemnation, but I believe it is deserved. After every commercial break, listeners were told that they were listening to the Randi Rhodes show right before the Freethought Radio broadcast resumed. I realize this was the first Air America broadcast, but come on! Next, one of the advertised interviews used to promote the show never happened.
Barker and Gaylor said they were going to interview atheist-in-a-foxhole, Jeremy Hall. However, when it came time to do the interview, they said they couldn't get him on the phone and interviewed Mikey Weinstein from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to talk about the Hall case. It was interesting to hear more about the threats Hall has received from Christian extremists, but I was looking forward to hearing from Hall.

After abruptly cutting off Weinstein, Gaylor announced that they would next interview Christopher Hitchens. They botched Hall due to poor preparation, and now they were going to get Hitchens? I was skeptical, but enduring the lengthy commercials paid off...sort of. They did connect with Hitchens successfully but managed to do little than heap praise on him and pitch softball questions. Still, Hitchens managed to carry the interview on his own quite well. In fact, he came across as well or better than what I've seen in several of his other appearances.

All in all, I thought the show was an admirable effort but found myself feeling embarrassed for Gaylor and Barker throughout much of the broadcast. I've heard much more polished college radio shows, and I really thought these two would have done better. They need to identify a target audience and tailor the show to this audience. If they are targeting adolescents of average intelligence, then they are on the right track and could even get away with playing more of Barker's awful novelty music on the way to commercials. However, if they are hoping to build a base of adult listeners, then I can't help concluding that they have their work cut out for them. Hopefully, they will either get better with additional experience or realize that their cause would be greatly helped by bringing in someone with broadcasting talent to help spread the freethought message.

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