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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Political Talk Radio

This past week with the elimination of Osama Bin Laden talk radio probably had a nice audience spike. Virtually all of us were relieved after nearly ten years and were justifiably proud of our military specialists, our intelligence community and our president.

The whole area surrounding political talk radio is very interesting to me. It is not new at all. Radio historians tell me that evangelist and huckster Aimee Semple McPherson had a talk radio show way back in 1924 and eventually bought a station. Detroit clergyman, Father Charles Coughlin, had a program that reached millions in the 1930’s. During the 1932 presidential campaign Coughlin endorsed Governor Roosevelt over President Hoover by proclaiming “Roosevelt or ruin”. A little while later he turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal and became increasingly strident. His superiors silenced him and he was banned from broadcast for life.

Political talk radio, as we know it became to get traction in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Many of us who are media analysts feel that it saved AM radio during that time period. Music was no longer viable on the AM dial when people could get the high fidelity sound of FM.

Other than sports talk which we covered recently (Media Realism, February 4, 2011) talk radio tends to focus on conservative talk, hot talk and liberal talk. Hot talk tends to be targeted at Men 18-49 and is devoted to pop culture although it sometimes veers into politics.

When most of us think of talk radio, conservative talk comes to mind first. The leading personalities in that arena tend to be Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage. Limbaugh is an interesting character to me. When I first heard him around 1990, he was different, even refreshing. Whatever your politics were you had to admit that he was one heck of a broadcaster. What impressed me at the time was how he played things straight. He was conservative for sure but not in a knee jerk fashion. And, for a guy who had been a sportscaster a few years earlier and had struggled a lot, he appeared to have a philosophical base to his comments. I remember vividly him giving a young caller a primer on what books to read if one were interested in the conservative viewpoint. The list off the top of my head included “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk, “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman, and the very heavy “Human Action” by Ludwig von Mises. It was stunning to hear that on talk radio. He fired bullets at both parties and was tough on Republicans who appeared inconsistent.

Then something happened. As his audience grew, he became more strident and his comments were not as fact based as they had been. George H.W. Bush invited him to stay at the White House and after a night in the Lincoln bedroom, he suddenly seemed to become a complete apologist for the Bush 41’s administration. Soon he was a leading spokesperson for the Republican Party whether the leadership liked it or not.

Many other conservative talk show hosts came on the scene and did quite well. The audience tends to be male, middle aged plus, and very conservative. Why has it worked? Well, many people say that they have an ability to tap into the anger of many of their listeners. Some view them as an outlet for those who are bitter or angry or scared.

There are some talk radio players on the liberal side of the ledger as well. Air America was launched a number of years ago as a counterpoint to conservative talk. It has not fared nearly as well. One of the stronger players, comedian Al Franken, left his talk show seat and won a seat in the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. But, generally, liberal talk has not caught on. Why? A brilliant young political analyst and a real progressive says that she feels liberals want to solve problems. They offer up complicated solutions and are policy wonks. That does not play well on talk radio where sound bites and clever interactions with callers reign.

One could also argue that liberals see government as the solution while conservatives see government as the problem. Whatever the reason, there is not a liberal talk show host on radio with a huge national constituency.

To me, the long haul picture for political talk radio is not very bright. In many markets stations simulcast on AM and FM and some have gone to FM alone. As a radio expert put it “many people under 40 have never listened to AM so they have to move to FM.” Structurally, there is a strong media problem. Simply put, the older you are, the more TV you tend to watch. As the talk audience gets older and retires or works part time, they are going to find outlets on TV that can give them what they want. On the left, MSNBC has many programs that are great substitutes for talk radio and Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox News fulfill many of the right’s needs. It is not clear but it is likely that part of the decline in political radio talk has been due to cable news/talk offerings and the trend should only accelerate.

In a free society, freedom of expression is important. Political talk all but bailed out AM radio. Its future is strong but it may take on other forms via cable or Internet options going forward.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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