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Politics 24/7: No One Can Hear You Scream

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Be careful what you wish for. In this era of media superficiality, newsroom budget cuts and celebrity worship, there's also a growing call for depth and tough reporting on the crucial issues of our time, such as the election of a president.

Enter the next phase of niche media: XM Satellite Radio has launched a 24/7 channel devoted exclusively to presidential politics.

So I subject myself to 24 hours of Channel 130, POTUS '08 (the name is the acronym for president of the United States). There, I learn that "the question of the day," "the one question I have to ask," "the big question," "the real question right now," "the question I can't let you go without asking" is the one that XM's political voices ask their guests an average of three times an hour:

"Is it over?" "Should we go home?" "Does she have it?" "Has Hillary gone over the top?" "At this point, she can't be stopped, right?"

The responses on POTUS (where, as XM puts it, "everyone is an insider") are various versions of "Yes," delivered with basso profundo confidence, hedged slightly in hopes that a competitive Democratic race might yet return, or spoken with a knowing chuckle. Again and again, reporters, bloggers and consultants declare New York Sen. Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee, after which Channel 130's announcer reminds us that there are 403 days to go before the 2008 election.

Me, I'm ready to sell my vote to anyone who can stop the words.

I nearly fall to my knees in weeping gratitude when I hear the dean of American political reporters, The Post's own David Broder, slip in a rare note of caution: "Until actual votes are cast, anybody who talks about a front-runner is making a mistake."

But before Broder can get back to his phone, POTUS serves up another half-dozen pundits assuring us that it's all over.

There's a show jampacked with bloggers in their pajamas -- really, it's called "Pajamas Media" -- who have read each other's writing and are here to tell us that "Hillary is so far ahead it's almost time for her to make the pivot to looking ahead to the general election" (Glenn Reynolds), and that "She does have it sewn up absent an absolute explosion" (John Podhoretz), and that . . .

Dear God, make it stop.

That the tsunami of information unleashed by the digital revolution threatens to overwhelm our ability to discern meaning is obvious enough. But the new media's insatiable demand for material poses another kind of danger, too: The combination of the rising expectation of instantaneous information and the narrowing of categories to minuscule niches attacks the very concept of audience. Who craves a 24/7 channel on presidential politics? Anybody other than people who work on presidential politics?

Mass media and mass audiences are dead, we're told. Never again will there be a Walter Cronkite, a Beatles, a Top 40 radio. The Super Bowl is the last vestige of the era of mass, undifferentiated audiences. Now, it's all about the niche.

But the economics of the new model are uncertain. Narrow niches mean small audiences, which mean ad revenues that won't knock anyone's socks off. And goodness knows, nobody pays for content anymore. At a certain point, the niche becomes so narrow that it cannot sustain content of any value.

XM is cobbling together POTUS with a sprinkle of magic and a thimbleful of hope. There are no ads on the channel; it's just one more stream of content designed to lure people into paying a monthly fee for lots and lots of radio choices. So POTUS won't be hiring its own fleet of reporters to go out and get the news. That's way too old school.

Instead, POTUS has four radio pros, anchors who interview anyone who has ever written a book about presidential politics. (Believe me, I have heard them all in 24 hours. The guy who wrote about black Republicans. The guy who wrote about what it's like to be vice president. The guy who wrote about the electoral college.)

Aren't there any Viagra ads they could play?

Wait, there's news. Heavens to Betsy, the end of the third quarter fundraising period is nigh!

Call in the experts, collar the consultants. What does it mean? What will the campaign finance reports say? Tell us now, because we cannot wait for the actual reports to come out tomorrow.

Don't get me wrong: There's cool stuff on POTUS. The program directors of XM's music channels deliver snippets of political songs from different pop eras. The trivia bits are okay, though I'm not certain my life is wholly enriched now that I know that six presidents were left-handed. Some interviews do add value; a marketing executive from Miami plays Obama ads running in three states and explains how the candidate plays to different audiences.

Then I realize I am listening to the same interview with Duncan Hunter -- yes, a man named Duncan Hunter is running for president -- for the fourth time in nine hours. And I still don't know who he is. (Answer: longtime Republican congressman from California; pro-defense and anti-immigration hardliner.)

POTUS's program hosts know how to stretch an interview -- Scott Walterman's morning show has a newsy feel, and Rebecca Roberts's PM drive show takes its tone from public radio -- but 400 days out, even in this overhyped, wildly accelerated political season, there just isn't that much to say.

"The sound of candidates is competing with the crickets," Roberts says as she and co-anchor Tim Farley try to fill a half-hour of post-debate punditry after a GOP debate to which none of the major contenders show up. "But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to talk about."

So she talks and talks -- about how "there really aren't a lot of reporters here," and about how "blogging, I think, is an interesting medium," and about how "Ron Paul on a big screen is not as impressive as when you read about him on a blog."

When XM's talkers run out of gas, many more folks are ready to start jawing. Every media organization desperate to break out of its niche and reach into a new medium is only too happy to cough up its own "Gabfest" (as Slate.com's show on POTUS is called) or "Politics Program" (The Post's entry) or "On Air" show (National Journal).

In the future, maybe everyone will have his own TV or radio talk show -- or his own personal presidential politics pundit, someone who will come to your house and yammer at you about whether Hillary has wrapped it up.

POTUS is a rare expansion of news programming on radio, where rampant cost-cutting has largely dismantled commercial radio's news-gathering capacity, leaving public radio with a near-monopoly on news. On the XM and Sirius satellite services, the news channels are mainly mere retransmissions of the audio from various TV networks.

So all hail the idea behind POTUS. But beware of pundit overload. After all, XM still doesn't employ an actual reporter. Above all else, a warning: When tuning in to POTUS, take frequent breaks. Listening for extended periods can be hazardous to your commitment to democracy.

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