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Columnists Say the Darndest Things

July 31, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

A plane had just crashed. Perhaps it had been blown up. A bomb might have been stowed in the cargo hold. Or a missile might have taken it out. No one knew anything, except that the plane, and all its human occupants, had gone down in flames.

This did not stop the TV anchor, who had cut into regular programming, from talking--blathering, actually, because there was nothing new to report, nothing to elucidate murky events, no new insights to explain a tragedy of apparently epic proportion.

That, however, does not mean there was nothing to say.

There is always something to say.

I know this because a couple of days last week, I arose before dawn to co-host a morning show on talk radio. I'm not sure I lifted the veil of ignorance from anyone's eyes or brought a new understanding of the world to my listeners, but I can tell you this: I said a lot.

Oh yes. Quite a lot.

I held forth, with my co-host, on abusive Olympic gymnastic coaches (about which I know so much!), on the similarities between TWA Flight 800 and some marriages, on whether a young man in Washington should be sued by a soft drink company because he tried to take the company up on its insincere offer of a Harrier jet for 700,000 Pepsi points. I co-interviewed a movie critic, the editor of a cigar magazine and a "psychic" (who touched my "third eye," then, mindful of my brown hair and olive complexion, announced I had lived in Italy in a past life). I sympathized with several listeners, including one who was steamed that O.J. Simpson had been welcomed at her church with a standing ovation and another who complained about NBC's coverage of the Atlanta Games with the memorable beef, "And the bios are killing me."

And so it went for 3 1/2 hours each day, as novelist Tim O'Brien once wrote, ad weirdum.


One lesson a columnist learns early on is that there are very few subjects on which she has strong and defensible opinions.

This, at least, the writer has in common with the talker. Both find themselves making on-the-fly judgments about things they never thought much about before: Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson's golden shoes? For! Actor Robert Downey Jr. sleeping it off in a stranger's bed? Against!

The difference between writing for a living and talking extemporaneously for a living, however, is that the writer must give the impression of reaching a little deeper. A writer must be--or at least appear to be--more reflective, more creative with language, more able to limn the big picture. The difference between writing and talking is the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Similar result, different method.

On the radio, unlike in the newspaper, it was not rare to utter the first thought that popped into my head. I gave voice to sentiments that I would not commit to paper under any circumstance. Do you see, for instance, anything remotely funny about the name Li Xiaoshuang? Nor do I. Not in print, anyway. Spoken, however, the Chinese gymnast's name has a delightful, almost comical ring to Western ears. Many otherwise sensitive people cannot say it without repeating it for effect.

Which we did any number of times, I'm afraid, on the radio.


Talk radio rewards volubility, quick thinking and lightning verbal reflexes. There is little time for reflection, certainly none for editing, fine-tuning or taking it back. On the other hand, once uttered, your words are in flight--liberated, never to be retrieved, unlikely to return for haunting.

Here is something I hesitate to confess, because the moment is long gone, dissolved into the invisible universe of regrettable radio: In the middle of an interview with a well-muscled woman who stars on the sports stunt show "American Gladiators" we leaped out of our seats to compare thighs . . . and it was my idea.

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things that do not happen in print, where you have great gobs of time (relatively speaking) to tinker, to tighten, to burnish the final product.

When words are finally committed to paper, however, there is nowhere to hide, for there they sit, staring back at you from the breakfast table, enduring proof of your genius or an indelible reminder of your failings.

As writers, there is no greater frustration than being unable to transpose to paper the beautiful "music" you hear in your head. As talkers, you simply give voice to the unedited cacophony of your intellect and hope that this results in lively, intelligent and satisfying entertainment.

Often, with the great talkers, it does.

Other times, it results in an aging newspaper columnist leaping out of her seat to compare body parts with a woman who looks like Hulk Hogan with breasts.

Thankfully, there are no pictures in talk radio.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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