Listen Up, Progressives: Talk Radio Matters

The impact of conservative talk radio on American politics cannot continue to go ignored, argue Eric Alterman and Danny Goldberg.

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Talk radio hosts such as Michael Savage (above), Rush Limbaugh, Neil Boortz, and G. Gordon Liddy have 48 million listeners altogether, which is more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined. (AP/John Storey)
Talk radio hosts such as Michael Savage (above), Rush Limbaugh, Neil Boortz, and G. Gordon Liddy have 48 million listeners altogether, which is more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined. (AP/John Storey)

Did you know that when the White House and members of the media mention "code words like ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’" what they are really proposing is "communist revolution?"

Did you know that Osama bin Laden’s remarks about global warming are almost identical to "those of the average, run-of-the-mill leftist, like Obama or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or the entire Democrat Party?" Or that the "global warming scam" is "an effort by the left to destroy capitalist economies?"

Here’s one I’ll bet you didn’t know: President Barack Obama was "advised by [the] Ft. Hood Shooter."

If you didn’t know the "facts" above, it means you probably haven’t been spending your time listening to talk radio hosts such as Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Neil Boortz, and G. Gordon Liddy. It’s hard work listening to these shows, but progressives should be paying attention to the impact they’re having: 48 million people get their news from these guys, according to the Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism, and the numbers of radio stations that carry at least some talk shows grew to 2,056 from 1,370 the year before, according to Inside Radio magazine.

That’s more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined, more than five times the audience of the three network Sunday news shows, nearly seven times the combined audience for cable news shows, nearly 10 times the audience for NPR’s "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," and 16 times the audience for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Progressives—and I (Eric) plead particularly guilty here—tend to focus their outrage on Fox News, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and pro-torture and antiscience op-ed writers on The Washington Post op-ed page, among others. But as these numbers indicate, we’re not looking at the one place where most Americans get their news. And 9 of the top 10 talk radio shows are hosted by implacable conservatives.

On top of that, the rhetoric on these shows is even worse than Fox News—much worse.

Think about those numbers and it becomes easier to understand how it is that between one-third and one-half of Americans believe falsehoods such as the notions that:

  • ACORN stole the election for Obama (it didn’t).
  • American prisons can’t safely hold terrorists (of course they can).
  • European,Canadian, and Australian citizens have inferior health care than their American counterparts (they patently do not and anyway health reform in the United States will not replicate these countries).

And then there are those nonexistent government death panels.

The larger point is talk radio may be an acquired taste for those who are used to the dulcet tones of public radio but it is not inherently any more or less moral than other kinds of media. It’s useful to think of talk radio as a musical genre—a cultural language that can be harnessed by the left or the right, for good or for bad, depending on the character and content of each program.

That people embrace such obvious misinformation from talk radio does not make them conservative, though they may end up behaving that way. And there is a difference between anger rooted in bigotry and righteous outrage driven by the real unfairness of the modern American system. The problem is that conservative hosts are able to harness both in a daily format that is convenient to listen to almost anywhere.

And what about progressives who boast similar capabilities to outrage? Whether one agrees with Michael Moore or not, he demonstrates that outrage can be transmuted into moral progressive ideas. Alas, he can only produce a film every couple of years.

More worrisome for our nation’s political culture is that many who embrace conservative politics come from a place of idealism, which is channeled destructively by talk radio hosts because the listeners don’t know the facts. Indeed, one-third of talk radio listeners define themselves as moderates or progressive Democrats. But they simply prefer the rough-and-tumble aesthetic of radio talkers whom they perceive as straight shooters.

Ed Schultz and a (tiny) few aside, there isn’t an equivalent on the left to channel this idealism. Left-wing movements of the 1930s thrived in rural America, but that was a period when labor unions were ascendant and reached out to working people. Today, however, this outreach comes almost exclusively from conservatives.

The size and scope of the comically misinformed members of the "Tea Party" movement clearly demonstrates that just about anyone can embrace reactionary ideas if they are exposed to them repeatedly and without contradiction, and talk radio offers a great forum for this. Is it any wonder that James Dobson, the powerful conservative Christian leader, recently announced a new radio show he will co-host with his 39-year-old tattooed, surfer conservative son on his Facebook page in which he asked supporters for $2 million dollars in donations as seed money?

One only has to grasp a few facts about the radio business to understand why conservative radio is so powerful and why. In 1987 when the Reagan administration ended the Fairness Doctrine the cultural landscape was such that many conservatives felt underserved by the mainstream media. Rush Limbaugh was able to use his considerable broadcasting skills to attract millions of them as an audience and revive the economic fortunes of AM radio stations around the country. At the same time, as Richard Viguerie describes in his 2004 book, America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media To Take Power, conservatives focused on small market stations for religious and political purposes and helped create an infrastructure that continues to serve them well.

Traditional radio stations attract audiences based on "formats" that group together demographic cohorts. Thus music radio is either R&B, pop, rock, country, or various versions or hybrids of those genres. While progressives ignored AM radio, viewing it as a passe medium for troglodytes, conservatives honed their skill at talk radio and by the 1990s most liberal moderate talk hosts had been taken off the air because they did not fit into what was now the conservative talk format.

Many radio executives who programmed the conservative radio stations and produced the shows did not agree with the hosts’ politics, but like most business people they gravitated to the easiest path to make the most money the quickest. These radio people understandably were not going to be motivated by an ideological agenda, even one they agreed with, if the listeners (and thus the ad revenues) weren’t there.

Consequently, when Air America and Democracy Radio launched in 2003 they faced a lack of liberal talent with the broadcasting chops to entertain radio listeners and a lack of stations on which to place programs—even when featuring someone with the celebrity of comedian Al Franken, who of course went on to become the junior senator from Minnesota—proving that popularity on the radio and in the voting booth are two different things today. A sizable investment was therefore needed, but nothing like the scale of the investment made by Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon in money-losing conservative newspapers ever materialized on the left to create enough programming to fill up station time 24/7 so as to justify a "progressive talk" formatted station. Conservative talk had a 17-year head start, and there just weren’t enough experienced broadcasters with progressive politics to create a format.

Further, identifying, developing, and marketing talent takes a lot of experimentation with a predictable amount of failures in order to succeed. This is part of the reason it took even an ultimately successful company such as Fox News years to turn a profit. This is also why so much investment in progressive radio was needed to market a brand-new format with lots of personalities new to radio and to give incentives for radio station owners in smaller markets to give the new format a chance. Ultimately, all this investment dropped off.

Al Franken’s new gig as a U.S. senator and Rachel Maddow’s success on MSNBC clearly demonstrate that Air America was not without its successes in launching careers and improving progressives’ position in the public discourse. But it never received the kind of patient, sustained financial support that would have given it the kind of chance it needed to succeed in the tough talk environment in which it needed to compete.

That’s history now. But the impact on American politics that conservative misinformation—and on too many occasions hateful, racist, and reactionary rhetoric—enjoys in our political environment cannot continue to go ignored by progressives who bemoan the state of affairs in which our leaders must operate.

Talk radio matters. It’s long past time we admitted it and acted accordingly.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Danny Goldberg, author of Bumping into Geniuses, is president of Gold Village Entertainment and has worked in the music business since the late 1960s. He was CEO of Air America Radio from 2005 until mid-2006.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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