Monday, September 21, 2009

Talk Radio Hosts, Rappers and . . . Jack Benny and Fred Allen?

In this past weekend's New York Times article by David Segal comparing talk radio hosts to rappers, among the parallels that Segal draws is the presence in these seemingly disparate industries of "feuds."

Here's what Segal wrote about feuding rappers and feuding talk radio hosts:

50 Cent vs. Ja Rule. Lil’ Kim vs. Foxy Brown. Jay-Z vs. Nas. Every couple of years, one rapper will pick a fight with another and battle it out with the winner typically determined by sales. This will sound familiar to anyone who has followed, say, Bill O’Reilly’s broadsides at Mr. Limbaugh (“Walk away from these right-wing liars!” Mr. O’Reilly said of an unnamed rival, described as someone who smokes a cigar and owns a private jet) or Mark Levin’s attack on Mr. O’Reilly. (“He has a fledgling radio show, that has no ratings,” Mr. Levin said in 2008, “and he’ll be off radio soon because he’s a failure.” Levin’s predication came true in January of this year.) Liberal ranters can partake, too, as MSNBC host and fulminator par excellence Keith Olbermann has proven with his long running O’Reilly spat.

To Mr. Segal's provocative take on this seemingly recent feud phenomena, I'd like to add my own two (historical) cents about where all this ratings-building feudin' really began more than 70 years ago. That's right, the Mother of All American Pop Culture Feuds was the long running battle between Jack Benny and Fred Allen.

Jack Benny and Fred Allen were popular radio comedians who had made the leap from vaudeville to broadcasting around the same time in the early 1930s. Though they were friendly in real-life, an ad lib remark by Allen on his show in 1937 about Benny's notoriously bad violin playing inspired the two to play out a rivalry on their respective weekly programs for years. The feud became one the best-known and most successful running gags in radio history (over a period of about a decade).

So, it's really nothing new that feuding is good for ratings (whether pushing downloads, politics or Jello). Jay-Z, Rush Limbaugh, Fred Allen, 50-Cent, Jack Benny, Lil' Kim and their colleagues in the culture business are all just part of that great American capitalist feudin' continuum.

Click here for a sample recording from (and more details about) the Benny-Allen Feud.

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