Skip to comments.Why Talk Radio Runs to the Right
Posted on 12/22/2002 8:35:04 AM PST by harpu
The conservative dominance of talk radio isn't a given...Progressive voices can find their audience if the formula is right. (Oh yeah...more rubbish from the liberal media whiners)
"All Democrats are fat, lazy, and stupid," the talk-show host said in grave, serious tones as if he were uttering a sacred truth.
We were driving to Michigan for the holidays, and I was tuning around, listening for the stations I'd worked for two and three decades ago.
I turned the dial. One host, who had apparently hijacked the construction of a Habitat for Humanity home for his own self-promotion, vowed that it would only be given to a family that swears it's conservative. "No liberals are going to get this house," he said.
Turning the dial again, we found a convicted felon ranting about the importance of government having ever more powers to monitor, investigate and prosecute American citizens without having to worry about constitutional human rights protections.
Apparently the combining of nationwide German police agencies (following the terrorist attack of February 1933 when the parliament building was set afire) into one giant Fatherland Security Agency answerable only to the executive branch, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its Schutz Staffel, was a lesson of history that this guy had completely forgotten.
Neither, apparently, do most Americans recall that the single most powerful device used to bring about the SS and its political master was radio.
Is history repeating itself?
Setting aside the shrill and nonsensical efforts of those who suggest that the corporate-owned media in America is "liberal," the situation with regard to talk radio is particularly perplexing: It doesn't even carry a pretense of political balance.
Although the often-understated Al Gore recently came right out and said that much of the corporate-owned media are "part and parcel of the Republican Party," those who listen to talk radio know it has swung so far to the right that even Dwight Eisenhower or Barry Goldwater would be shocked.
Average Americans across the nation are wondering how could it be that a small fringe of the extreme right has so captured the nation's airwaves. And done it in such an effective fashion that when they attack folks like Tom Daschle, he and his family actually get increased numbers of death threats.
How is it that ex-felons like John Poindexter's protégé Ollie North and Richard Nixon's former burglar G. Gordon Liddy have become stars? How is it that ideologues like Rush Limbaugh can openly promote hard-right Republicans and avoid a return of the dead-since-Reagan Fairness Doctrine (and get around the desire of the American public for fairness) by claiming what they do is "just entertainment"?
And, given the domination of talk radio by the fringe hard right that represents the political views of only a small segment of America, why is it that the vast majority of talk radio stations across the nation never run even an occasional centrist or progressive show in the midst of their all-right, all-the-time programming day?
Even within the radio industry itself, there's astonishment.
Program directors and station managers I've talked with claim they have to program only hard-right hosts. They point out that when they insert even a few hours of a centrist or progressive talk host into a typical talk-radio day, the station's phone lines light up with angry, flaming reactions from listeners; even advertisers get calls of protest.
Just last month, a talk-radio station manager told me solemnly, "Only right-wingers listen to AM radio any more. The lefties would rather read."
How could this be? After all, an "environmentalist" Democrat -- Al Gore -- won the majority of the popular vote in the last presidential election, with a half-million more votes than any other presidential candidate (of any party) in the entire history of the nation. How could it be that there are only two Democratic or progressive voices in major national radio syndication, and only a small handful in partial syndication or on local shows?
The issue is important for two reasons. First, in a nation that considers itself a democratic republic, the institutions of democracy are imperiled by a lack of balanced national debate on issues of critical importance. As both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia learned, a steady radio drumbeat of a single viewpoint -- from either end of the political spectrum -- is not healthy for democracy when opposing voices are marginalized.
Second, what's happened recently in the radio industry represents a business opportunity of significant proportions. The station manager I talked with is wrong, because of something in science known as "sample bias." He was assuming that his radio listeners represent all radio listeners -- a crucial error.
Here's why the talk radio scene is so dominated by the right, and how it can become more democratic.
First, a very brief history:
When radio first became a national force in the 1920s and 1930s, most stations programmed everything. Country-western music would be followed by Big Band, followed by Mozart, followed by drama or comedy. Everything was jumbled together, and people needed the newspaper program guides to know when to listen to what.
As the market matured, and drama and comedy moved to television, radio stations realized that there were specific market segments and niches within those segments to which they could program. And they realized that people within those niches had very specific tastes.
Country-western listeners only wanted to hear country-western -- Big Band put them off, and classical music put them to sleep. Classical music fans, on the other hand, became irritated when country-western or the early versions of rock 'n roll came on the air. And rock fans clicked off the moment that Frank Sinatra came on.
So, as those of us who've worked in the business saw, stations began to program into these specific musical niches, and it led to a new renaissance (and profit windfall) in the radio business.
But to make money in the new world of radio that emerged in the 1950s, you had to be true to your niche.
At first, radio talk shows were seen as a way of fulfilling FCC community service requirements.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was a reporter and news anchor at a Lansing, Mich., station, we had an hourlong afternoon talk show. The show was overtly run to satisfy the FCC's mandate that stations "serve the public interest." Thus, our talk show focused mostly on public-interest issues, from local and national politics to lost dog reports, and we tried hard to present all viewpoints fairly (as was then required by the FCC's Fairness Doctrine).
In that, we were following a long radio tradition.
Modern talk radio as a major force in America started in 1926, when a Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles E. Coughlin, took to the airwaves. By the mid-1930s, as many as a full third of the entire nation -- an estimated 45 million people -- listened to his weekly broadcasts.
His downfall, and the end of the 15-year era of talk radio that he'd both created and dominated, came in the early 1940s when the nation was at war and Adolf Hitler was shipping millions of Jews to the death camps.
For reasons still unknown (Alzheimer's is suspected), Coughlin launched into hard-right, anti-Semitic tirades in his broadcasts, blaming an international Jewish conspiracy for communism, the Great Depression, World War II, and most of the world's other ills.
His sudden shift to the radical right disgusted his listeners and led his superiors in the Catholic Church to demand that he retire from radio and return to his parish duties, where he died in relative obscurity. Many say that the Fairness Doctrine came about in part because of Coughlin.
A generation later, a new Father Coughlin emerged in the form of Rush Limbaugh, an articulate and talented talk-show host out of Sacramento.
Within four years, Rush rose to national status by offering his program free of charge to stations across the nation. Station managers, not being business dummies, laid off local talent and picked up Rush's free show, leading to a national phenomena: The Limbaugh show was one of America's greatest radio success stories, spreading from state to state faster than any modern talk show had ever done. (Such free or barter offerings are now standard in the industry.)
And, station managers discovered, there is a loyal group of radio listeners who embraced Rush's brand of overt hard-right spin, believing every word he says even though he claims his show is "just entertainment."
The sudden success of Rush led local radio station programmers to look for more of the same: There was a sudden demand for Rush-clone talkers who could meet the needs of the nation's Rush-bonded listeners, and the all-right-wing talk radio format emerged, dominated by Limbaugh and Limbaugh clones in both style and political viewpoint.
Thus, the extreme fringe of the right wing dominates talk radio not because all radio listeners are right-wingers, but, instead, because the right-wingers and their investors were the first to the market with a consistent and predictable programming slant, making right-wing talk the first large niche to mature in the newly emergent talk segment of the radio industry.
Listeners always know what they'll get with Rush or one of his clones, and programming to a loyal and identifiable audience is both the dream and the necessity of every radio station's management.
Which brings us to the opportunity that this represents for Democrats, progressives, radio stations and those interested in supporting democracy by bringing balance to the nation's airwaves.
Going back to the music radio programming analogy, think of Rush and Rush-clone-right-wing talk as if it were country-western music.
It's unique and instantly recognizable and has a loyal and definable audience, just like any of the specific music niches. This explains why it's nearly impossible to successfully program progressive talk in the halfway fashion that's often been tried (and often failed) up to today.
The rules are the same as in music programming: Any competent radio station program directors know that they'll get angry listeners if they drop an hour of rock or rap into a country-western programming day.
It's equally easy to predict that if you were to drop an hour or three of a progressive talker into a day dominated by Rush and his clones, the listeners will be outraged. After all, those particular listeners thought they were tuned into an all-right-wing station.
But that response doesn't mean -- as conservatives in the radio industry suggest -- that there is no market for progressive talk radio.
What it means is that there's not yet an awakening in the broadcast industry to the reality that they're missing a huge, unserved market. But, as with right-wing talk, for balanced or progressive talk radio to succeed it must be programmed consistently throughout the day (and with talent as outrageous and interesting as Rush and his most successful clones).
Most stations that today identify themselves as "talk radio" stations are really programming the specific niche of "hard-right-Republican talk radio," and the niche of "progressive-and-Democratic talk radio" (which would speak to an equal-sized market) is just beginning to emerge and mature.
The key to success for both radio stations and networks is to realize that talk radio isn't a monolithic niche; it has matured into a category, like music did in the 1950s, and within that category there are multiple niches, including the very large demographic niches of conservative talk, relationship-advice talk, progressive talk, sports talk, and smaller niches of travel talk, investment talk, medical talk, local talk, etc.
Cynics say stations won't program Democrats because owners and management are all "rich Republicans." To this, I say they should listen to some of the music being profitably produced and programmed by America's largest publishing and broadcasting corporations. Profits, for better or worse, are relatively opinion-free.
With right-wing ideologues now in charge of our government, the time has never been better: as Rush showed during the Clinton years (the peak of his success), "issues" talk thrives best in an underdog environment. It's in the American psyche to give a fair listen to people challenging the party in power.
It's time to revitalize democracy and rational political discourse by returning balance to our nation's airwaves, and the profits to be made in this huge unfilled niche may be just the catalyst to bring it about.
That is to laugh.
"Lefties" own the TV airwaves -- by far more reaching than AM radio. They even caputured the call-in portion of C-Span right around the time of the 2000 election.
Methinks the author doth protest too much.
This is so blatantly untrue! I have known MANY skinny Democrats! LOL
Seriously, when you dissect this little ball of pig excrement masquerading as a "news" story, it all comes down to "Republicans are evil, basically just a new incarnation of the Nazi's".
Is that a reasonable argument, or is it sheer desperation?
The mantra of personal choice fights the leftist propensity to meddle. Folks like to drive what they want to drive and eat what they want to eat without some silly, whiny wussies b!chin'. Lefties prefer to opine in writing. There, they are able to ponder a response to criticism or ignore critique altogether. Lefties cannot defend their ideas on the fly which is why whenever they call in to talk radio, they are allowed to ramble on to demonstrate their mindlessness.
The very first time I heard Rush, I felt like he was speaking for me. I thought I was alone in that feeling until I realized that the country was filled with people just like me who don't have access to a microphone. Until that time there was no way for my opinions to be heard. Before Rush, our only outlet was to write a letter to the editor, usually a leftist paper, who would deride our opinion if they did print it.
Rush's show, including all the successful talk show hosts, follow a very American 'town hall' format. What Rush is "spewing forth" was considered mainstream, before radio was invented, when the United States's media was itself "hard-right" by today's standards. That same media pushed for and convinced enough legislators that abortion was wrong and should be banned. Rush is only speaking to us American loyalists who've always been there.
11. The abolition of incomes unearned by work.
12. In view of the enormous sacrifices of life and property demanded of a nation by any war, personal enrichment from war must be regarded as a crime against the nation. We demand therefore the ruthless confiscation of all war profits.
13. We demand the nationalization of all businesses which have been formed into corporations (trusts).
14. We demand profit-sharing in large industrial enterprises.
15. We demand the extensive development of insurance for old age
16. We demand the creation and maintenance of a healthy middle class, the immediate communalizing of big department stores, and their lease at a cheap rate to small traders, and that the utmost consideration shall be shown to all small traders in the placing of State and municiple orders.
17. We demand a land reform suitable to our national requirements, the passing of a law for the expropriation of land for communal purposes without compensation; the abolition of ground rent, and the prohibition of all speculation in land.
18. We demand the ruthless prosecution of those whose activities are injurious to the common interest. Common criminals, usurers, profiteers, etc., must be punished with death, whatever their creed or race.
19. We demand that Roman Law, which serves a materialistic world order, be replaced by a German common law.
20. The State must consider a thorough reconstruction of our national system of education (with the aim of opening up to every able and hard-working German the possibility of higher education and of thus obtaining advancement). The curricula of all educational establishments must be brought into line with the requirements of practical life. The aim of the school must be to give the pupil, beginning with the first sign of intelligence, a grasp of the nation of the State (through the study of civic affairs). We demand the education of gifted children of poor parents, whatever their class or occupation, at the expense of the State.
21. The State must ensure that the nation's health standards are raised by protecting mothers and infants, by prohibiting child labor, by promoting physical strength through legislation providing for compulsory gymnastics and sports, and by the extensive support of clubs engaged in the physical training of youth.
22. We demand the abolition of the mercenary army and the foundation of a people's army.
23. ... The publishing of papers which are not conducive to the national welfare must be forbidden.
Gun consfiscation, vegetarianism, sound familiar anyone?
Now the Left wants to blame the Right for social and political ills worldwide. Even anti-Semitism has surfaced as part of the left wing agenda. History does tend to repeat itself, not exactly but in recognizable patterns. Would it have been too difficult for the author to draw a parallel to Coughlin and the hard left wing bias of the networks? Talk radio exploded as a reaction to the left wing drivel of the networks and became an outlet for opinions that were not expressed anywhere else on the airwaves.
Liberals can crank up their own talk show networks. It's a free market. Al Gore and friends can let it rip.
Oh, yeah. But who says we're talking about actual books? If Amazon is any indication, lefties like books about as much as they like logic.
What the lefties like is to pontificate about how evil the country is, about how tolerant they are, and about how bigoted everyone else is. You don't need books for that. Hell, you don't even need much of a genetic legacy.
What a (totally empty, useless) life.
Hot button there my friend. Besides the nonsense that passes itself off as "Health Class" in my son's public high school (private schooled through 8th grade) is the Civics Class.
"Current events" is impossible to get a passing grade unless he watches CNN. Makes me want to puke, but we tune it in for 30 minutes a day so he can keep on top of what the teacher views as "important."
Remember years ago when Jesse Helms talked about getting a consortium of conservatives to buy one of the stations. It was just too expensive. Still, any oneof those parent companies, if they were really serious about increasing profits, should investigate and try this.
Faced with the same sort of nonsense in the New York City public schools, my parents scraped together the money to send me to a parochial school. As a result, I can read, write, and cipher- and I'm pretty well impervious to the drivel that CNN, et al, pour out onto the polluted airwaves each day.
I guess that makes me a "hard Right" conservative Nazi, huh?
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