Punchback: Answering Critics

Taming Talk Show Dragons Without

by Tom Salter

Criticism: Public schools stink, at least that is what the guy on the radio said.

Answer: Get the truth to the people with the biggest mouths.

“If you are going to put your child into a government school because you don’t know any better you are too stupid to have a child. If you are too poor to put your child in a private school, you can’t afford a child. Government schools are nothing but a 12-year babysitting service. If you can’t afford to educate your children, you shouldn’t have any.”—Neal Boortz, nationally syndicated radio talk show host

No doubt some radio stations in your community carry a national radio program that regularly bashes public education.

Some criticisms have merit. We in education often are our own worst enemy. Some of the attacks are the results of a misinformed host or emanate from his or her personal feelings, prejudices and experiences.

The good news is that many of the problems we have with talk radio shows can be solved if we are willing to be patient and persistent.


Bad Information

I was a radio personality for 14 years before going to work in school public relations, and yes, I attacked our local school system. The superintendent who hired me was fond of saying, “I hired him to shut him up!”


As a talk show host, I could always attract callers on three subjects: taxes, abortion and public schools. Some thought I was a dragon, breathing fire on the local system. I thought I was being truthful and fair. At the time, I only knew what I read in the newspaper (failing test scores, acts of violence) and heard from my callers (lazy teachers and uncaring, overpaid administrators).

If you have dragons in your market, you have three choices: Ignore them, attack back or convert them. Ignoring them is a mistake. If you check the ratings of those shows, you will find them popular with high-income professionals and older listeners—also known as the movers and shakers and the ones who vote. If you attack them as an enemy, they will eat you for lunch. They have the voice and they always have the last word.

Instead, view these hosts as misinformed citizens. Your job: Patiently, persistently and gently tell the host and his or her listeners what is really happening in public schools.


Concentrate Locally

Realistically, you can do little about the opinions of syndicated hosts. Concentrate instead on your local talk shows in the following ways:


  • Listen to their programs often and objectively. Identify their major concerns and honestly evaluate the criticisms. If a host has a valid criticism, do not stick your head in the sand. Acknowledge the problem publicly and explain how you are working to solve it.

  • Invite hosts to your schools. Ask them to read to a class during Public School Week. Get them to MC a pageant or a spelling bee. Just find ways to get them in your schools to see what is really happening.

  • Invite them to visit the central office. Show them you don’t have secretaries who have secretaries who have secretaries. And let them talk to administrators.

Talk Show Advice

Offer to come on the talk show to answer questions, but be careful. Consider the following:

  • Practice first. Gather some advisers to ask practice questions. Make sure they are pointed questions about violence, wasted money, accountability and student test scores, but not softballs about a new reading program.

  • If the host is particularly hostile, take someone with you. A supportive business leader is best. Chances are the host won’t trash schools with the other guest saying good things about you, especially if the guest’s business advertises on the radio station.

  • Be prepared, but if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and promise to get it. Be sure you follow through.

  • Invite some “friends” to call the show but don’t stack the deck as that will be obvious.

  • Do not get into an argument. State your case and the facts calmly and stay in control of your emotions. Let them rant, and then reply calmly. If you blow your top, you lose.

  • Do not be intimidated. If you are nervous, you will not communicate well.

  • Maintain a sense of humor. These people are entertainers. If you can lighten up the conversation (I don’t mean tell jokes) and get the point across, you will be successful. But don’t go overboard. A flippant response to a legitimate concern will torpedo your efforts.

  • Tell your story. Make sure you have two or three ideas you want to convey during the interview and make those points often.

  • Tell the truth, period.

  • Thank the host for allowing you to come on the show and offer to return. Monitor the station after you leave and as often as you can to see if your appearance made a difference.

  • Don’t give up. It will likely take several visits and lots of patience to change a negative attitude that has been years in the making and is supported by rabid callers and high ratings.

Every situation is different, and every talk show host is different. The one constant is that we cannot afford to sit back and let people take potshots at us. You can’t simply hope the dragon stays in his cave. He won’t. You can only extinguish his fire with information and the truth, with patience and persistence.

Tom Salter is communication manager of the Alabama Department of Education, 50 Ripley St., Montgomery, AL 36104. E-mail: tsalter@alsde.edu