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?
Talking Back To Talk Radio - Fairness,
Democracy, and Profits
Posted December 5, 2002 thepeoplesvoice.org
By THOM HARTMANN
"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. "It's a Hannity For Humanity house," a
different host said, adding that the Habitat For Humanity home he'd
apparently hijacked for his own self-promotion 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 SchutzStaffel, was a lesson of history
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 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. While 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 protégée Ollie
North and 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 his radio listeners represent all
radio listeners, a critical 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 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 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
When I was a Country/Western DJ, if I had tried to drop in a song from The
Rolling Stones, my listeners would have gone ballistic, calling in and
angrily complaining. Similarly, when I was doing morning drive-time Rock,
it would have been suicide to drop in four minutes of Mozart. Smart
programmers know to always hold true to their niche and their listeners.
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 WITL-AM/FM in Lansing, Michigan, we had an
afternoon talk show that ran from 2 to 3 pm. Usually hosted by the
station's general manager, the late Chuck Drake, and sometimes fill-in
hosted by us in the news staff, 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 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 he'd both created and dominated, came in the
early 1940s when the nation was at war and 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 he retire from radio and return
to his parish duties where he died in relative obscurity. Many say 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. Joe
Pyne (a conservative who almost always had a liberal with him on the air)
was dead, and conservative investors and programmers were looking to
unseat the fabulously popular liberal talker Alan Berg and bring
"balance" to America's airwaves. (In June of 1984, the year Rush
began "issues talk" on Sacramento's KFBK, Berg was
machine-gunned to death by right-wingers claiming they were from the Aryan
Nation.) 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 (around 20 million occasional listeners, with perhaps one to
five million who consider themselves "dittoheads") who embraced
Rush's brand of overt hard-right spin, believing every word he says even
though he claims his show is "just entertainment" to avoid a
reemergence of the Fairness Doctrine and the political-activity provisions
of McCain/Feingold. 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 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, 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 director knows 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 like Mike Malloy or Peter Werbe 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, like 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 who 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. Only a small
handful of stations have made a serious effort to program progressive
talk, and the only national network to offer any of it in a serious
fashion, the "i.e. America Network," hasn't yet made the
distinction between "progressive talk" and "soft/advice
talk," and, thus, doesn't offer a full day and night's lineup of
"hard" progressive talkers along with their "soft"
talkers who break up the day.
The key to success for both radio stations and networks is to realize that
talk radio isn't a monolithic niche - it's 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, and sports talk, and smaller
niches of travel talk, investment talk, medical talk, local talk, etc.
The station programmers I've talked with who've tried a progressive or
centrist talker for an hour or two, only to get angry responses from
dittoheads, think this means only extreme-right-wing talkers (and,
ideally, convicted felons or those who "declare war on
liberals") will make money for their station. And, because they've
already carved out the hard-right-Republican-talk niche and alienated the
progressive/Democrat niche, they're right.
But for stations who want to get into talk in a market already dominated
by right-wing talkers on competing stations, the irrefutable evidence of
national elections and polls shows that believing only right-wingers will
bring listeners (and advertisers) is a mistake. All they need do is what
anybody with music programming experience would recommend: identify their
niche and stick with it. (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.)
By running Democratic/progressive-talk in a programming day free of
right-wing talkers, stations will open up a new niche and ride it to
success. This is a particularly huge opportunity for music stations who
look with envy at the success of talk stations in their market, but
haven't been willing to jump in because all the best right-wing talkers
are already on the competition: all they need do is put on progressive
talkers, and they'll open a new, unserved, and profitable niche.
And, 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.
Those stations that take the plunge into progressive talk will serve
democracy by offering a loyal opposition (which Americans always
appreciate), and earn healthy revenues in an industry where it's
increasingly difficult to find a profitable niche. And whichever network
is first to realize this simple reality and provide stations with solid
progressive or Democrat talk programming will build a strong, viable, and
financially healthy business.
If you're in the business, consider seriously this advice from an old
radio station programmer. And if you listen to radio, call your local
stations (both talk and music) to let them know that you want to hear
progressive or Democrat voices, and will even patronize the advertisers of
such shows when they run them.
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.
© Copyright 2002 All rights reserved by Thom Hartmann.
Thom Hartmann is the author of "Unequal Protection: The Rise of
Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights" - www.unequalprotection.com
Permission is granted to reprint this article in print or web media, so
long as this credit is attached.