In England, it used to be possible to drift into a doctorate-level education simply by listening to the radio. A child could begin with adventure serials and comedies, graduate to radio theater versions of classic plays and novels or documentaries about historical figures, and end up listening to an Oxford don talking about the Oxford Movement. Having been exiled to New York for the past several years, I do not know if this still applies, but I do know that serious radio programming in America hardly exists. Whereas in England, Radios Three and Four (the Third Program and Home Service of old) would broadcast lectures, documentaries, and plays, their American equivalents on National Public Radio seem able only to lecture.

For those who love radio, spinning the dial in search of intelligent life in the American ether can be a disheartening experience. New York has the world’s largest radio market and more stations than any other city—I have listened to most of them and can report mostly disappointment. It is depressing to compare my childhood listening in England with the intellectual fare served up to American youngsters on WNYC (New York’s Public Radio station) and the independent station WBAI. As a first-generation English boy who spoke only Polish at home, BBC radios Three and Four helped me become acculturated to Englishness at its best, and helped me develop an understanding of English character, history, and literature. Listening to WNYC and WBAI, first-generation and immigrant children in New York are likely to learn only loathing for their adoptive country—and if they are black or Hispanic, they will also be patronized and catered to in the most nauseating way.

I first came across Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Scott, Stendhal, the Greek tragedians, Sei Shonagon (of the “Pillowbook”), and Jane Austen by listening to radio dramatizations of their works. As the radio drama on NPR seems mostly to be by or about lesbians or congenital idiots. I wonder what there is to enthrall and educate an American child turning for entertainment or solace to the radio? I recall falling in love with Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” at the age of 12 because an English professor did a program on it. Poetry on WNYC? Forget it. Later, in my teens, I remember amazing some older Americans on vacation from Louisiana by talking to them about Huey Long. Most graduate history students in America could not tell Huey Long from Huey Lewis, they told me. Of course, I was lucky; most graduate students never got to hear Radio Three’s documentary on the “Kingfish.” Nor could they hear Conor Cruise O’Brien talk about modern history, Edward Lucie Smith about art. David Munrow about early music, and Enoch Powell about Herodotus.

Admittedly, American media are mostly anti-intellectual (or worse, pseudo-intellectual) and market-driven, but that is precisely why NPR ought to be providing programming that makes high culture freely available to all. Everyone has access to a radio, even in the ghetto and the inner city. Accidentally coming across broadcasting that is civilized, noble, and high-minded might enlighten and inspire under-privileged children to stop rapping and start reading. So what does NPR provide? A melange of fake hipness, condescension, and “diversity”; all the same correctly political hogwash whose heroes are all Latinos, “proud black women,” AIDS victims, and “artists.” From it one learns nothing one did not already know.

Are there no characters left on public radio? No eccentrics? Virtually all the people who broadcast on WNYC are soft-voiced snobs, full of piety and fake concern. I used to listen to Robert Robinson’s “Stop the Week” on the BBC. Bob Robinson (a cross between Dr. Johnson and Mr. Pickwick) held civilized and amusing conversations with three or four friends, and all of them said what the hell they liked. I remember listening to Marghanita Laski and Eleanor Summerfield, real women, feminine, witty, charming, and rude when necessary, women who could not be sexually harassed, women who seemed to be 18th-century mesdames de salons come to life. Compare such folks with the homogenized feminists and New Men on WNYC.

WBAI, the listener-sponsored Pacifica station, is worse. It could well be named Radio Chomsky—its fundraising drives usually involve selling tapes of the good professor’s speeches or remaindered copies of his books. The presenters are even more soft-voiced and hip than the ones on WNYC, and they think that everything is a CIA plot. The host of the morning show sounds like a black Uriah Heep, mumbling quietly to the rapt audience, so arrogant, yet so very humble. Much of the station’s output is devoted to the Afrocentric cult, and it shares this perspective with the frightening ruminations and rantings on WLIB, “1190 The Choice” (a “black-oriented” talk station). The choice appears to be between necklacing and shooting. If the station is truly as “representative of the African-American community” as it claims, then racial war is unpleasantly close.

So much for serious programming in New York. There remain the attempts to entertain. The golden age of American radio is obviously gone—no longer can children cut their imaginative teeth on “The Shadow” or “Escape” or “Dangerous Assignment.” Instead we have Imus in the Morning. Mr. Imus’s morning show is the only program in America that makes me glad to be living here in 1995 rather than 1945. The show is resolutely masculine in the best sense of the word. Imus himself is the nearest thing we have to H.L. Mencken these days, and his production crew ably supports him with sardonic comments and insults. Charles McCord writes satirical pieces (performed by an excellent impressionist) and is probably the best comic writer in America today. His monologues for a spoof on “Cardinal O’Connor” (reading out the lottery results) are hilarious, as are the frequent interruptions by the President’s drug-fiend “brother.”

That’s about it for radio comedy. The rest of the FM dial is distributed among brain-dead “easy listening” slush, St. Vitus dance music, and a couple of college radio stations, one of which played 24 hours of Bix Beiderbecke on his birthday. It is possible to hear good jazz and classical music on New York radio, but only if you can get past the annoyingly attitudinizing DJ’s. Radio Three, the classical music station in England, has presenters who are polite, informative, and self-deprecating; for some reason their New York counterparts are made up of the worst type of pretentious poseur: “We hear, from the BWV catalogue, and have heard, the kappellmeister, gessellschaft Dresden, perhaps Schnabelwopski 1714 . . . “

That leaves AM radio. Among younger people, it is fashionable to claim no knowledge of the existence of the AM dial. Talk radio lurks there, and the people doing the talking are usually middle-aged or elderly. The talk is resolutely and angrily political, political in a way that is likely to amaze British listeners used to politeness rather than politics on “Auntie Beeb” (the BBC). There is nothing quite like it in England, where there are few talk radio stations, and what few do exist are mostly given over to tedious cockneys maundering on about their arthritis. American talk radio, however, has an angry edge to it that is entertaining to the foreigner, if less piquant to the jaded palate of the native. The first time I heard Bob Grant scream “Get off my phone, you scumbag!” in his best W.C. Fields accent, I must admit I was hooked.

Mr. Grant’s afternoon show on WABG garners a sizable number of what he describes as “gavones and cacazotcs” (Mr. Grant is of Italian heritage), and he gives them short shrift. The rest of the audience is made up mainly of uneducated but well-meaning working stiffs from New Jersey and Long Island, confused and frustrated by America’s long drawn-out suicide. In a four-hour ritual, Mr. Grant recites his favorite catchphrases like a priest chanting spells to ward off the devils let loose in the Republic he loves: “It’s sick out there, folks, and getting sicker,” “We’re slipping and sliding into Third Worldism,” “Fake phony fraud,” and “the double-gated crowd.” Bêtes noires of the program are referred to by nickname: the feckless ex-Mayor Dinkins as “the men’s room attendant,” Hillary Clinton as “Evita Peron,” and Mario Cuomo as “The Sfacim.” During the 1994 election campaign, the Democratic machines in the New York and New Jersey area concocted a McCarthystyle plot to brand Grant a racist. Campaign workers with friends at New York magazine suggested an attack upon the radio host, and the magazine duly came out with a front cover blaring “Bob Grant: Why he hates blacks.” Those Republicans who took advantage of his ratings and support were, of course, guilty by association.

Another WABC host I listen to regularly is Jay Diamond. I was drawn to his late-night show because he has an oldfashioned mellow radio voice, and he speaks in complete sentences. Following on Mr. Diamond’s heels is the overnight show of Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa. No one knows the mean streets of this great and crumbling metropolis better than Sliwa, and no one is better informed as to what’s going on. The Mafia attempted to assassinate him in 1992 for being a little too free with his speech—Curtis, after taking a bullet in the gut, survived serious surgery and was soon broadcasting from his hospital bed.

Most famous and most representative of talk radio in America is, of course. Rush Limbaugh. In England, Limbaugh’s politics would be considered perfectly normal and decent by all Englishmen except for a few parlor socialists living idle lives in Hampstead. I was gratified, therefore, to learn that the mere mention of his name in New York is enough to set the teeth of acquaintances my age and older into a puritan grimace. “Rush Limbaugh!” a grunge musician growled at me in an East Village bar, “I hate him! He’s disgusting!” (Ten minutes later he was on-stage, spitting beer at the audience and screaming four-letter imprecations through a vast amplifier.) Older acquaintances (some old enough to know better) compare Mr. Limbaugh’s program to Father Coughlin’s broadcasts in the 30’s. They obviously never heard the good Father’s radio show, either first- or secondhand—Rush is a pussycat compared to Father Coughlin.

Of all the talk radio hosts I have listened to so far, my favorite has to be G. Gordon Liddy. Unfortunately, the kind of McGoverniks who used to invite the Panthers over for tea and to talk about “offing the pigs” now take umbrage at some of Mr. Liddy’s sardonic comments about intrusive BATE officers, comments taken, of course, entirely out of context. Mr. Liddy’s assurances that he will not divulge how many persons he has had to eliminate on his country’s behalf are thrilling to the ears of am red-blooded young man. Teenage boys who call in for advice are told to study the classics and look to their weapons. Female listeners send him photographs of themselves. The callers are the most articulate and intelligent on talk radio, and many actually know what they are talking about.

What is noticeable about these American shows is that there are so many of them, and that the majority of callers express practical common-sense views utterly unlike the media caricature of Middle America. In America, the left-inspired media indict popular talk shows for their “intolerance,” but the callers appear to me to be tolerant almost to the point of being pusillanimous. In England, America is often portrayed as the broken sewer of political correctness pouring across the Atlantic, the government taken over by the loony left, yet the real democracy taking place on talk radio proves that much of the American populace remains untouched by 30 years of radicalism.