The Battle Hymn of the New Liberal Media: A
Good Business Plan
Posted October 19, 2003 thepeoplesvoice.org
In the last Democratic debate, one of the
questioners pointed out that fewer Americans identify themselves as either
liberals or Democrats than at any time since before Roosevelt's New Deal.
The implicit question was, "What's so bad about you guys that
Americans have decided 'liberal' is a curse word and people are
embarrassed to call themselves Democrats?"
Richard Gephardt tried to bluster his way
through an answer, pointing to a few Democratic victories, but the overall
response left the impression that all the candidates (and most other
Democrats) are clueless about what has happened in America over the past
20 years, why it happened, or how.
It's not that the liberal ideals are too
old fashioned or that Democrats have disintegrated or self-destructed.
It's that American public opinion has been steamrollered.
The 1980s saw massive funding of right-wing
think tanks that have engaged in blitzkrieg campaigns to overwhelm the
mainstream media with conservative viewpoints. The man whose followers
claim he's Jesus Christ's reincarnation, Reverend Moon, started the
Washington Times newspaper in 1982, and although it has lost money ever
since, it has succeeded in pushing political discourse in Washington to
the far right, presumably helping the good Reverend's other
military/industrial investments and lent legitimacy to his religion.
Republican operative and former Rush Limbaugh TV Show producer Roger Ailes,
with access to Rupert Murdoch's billions, founded the Fox News Network to
openly push the Republican agenda into America's living rooms.
But the goal wasn't just to provide an
alternative media - it was to influence all media.
This aspect of the conservative strategy
was outlined by former Republican Party chairman Rich Bond, who told the
Washington Post (8/20/92) that their main goal was to convince Americans
and, most important, journalists themselves - the referees of public
discourse in America - that they should become hypersensitive to any
story, writer, or source that may carry Democratic bias and thus only
present the Republican side of the story. "If you watch any great
coach," Bond explained, "what they try to do is 'work the refs.'
Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."
The plan started several years before Bond
spilled the beans to the Post. And its most powerful component has been
"conservative" talk radio.
The Reagan/Bush administration ended the
FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1986, and the next year saw Rush Limbaugh
appear in over 50 major markets across America - with no sponsors. The
myth believed by his listeners is that Americans just so loved Rush and
his philosophy that those stations that altruistically carried his show
quickly found sponsors. The liberal myth is that the way to replicate
Limbaugh's success is to re-invent a radio network like ABC or Premiere
but that carries liberals, and stations in major markets will flock to
pick up the programming.
But making something like the Rush
phenomenon happen isn't about networks or stations or even about
philosophy: It's about quality programming, a good business strategy, and
lots of cash. Particularly the cash.
Christian broadcasters have known this
equation for decades. Many radio stations will sell "block time"
- entire hours - for a bit less than they'd normally get if they had just
sold all the ads on an existing show. The purchaser gets not only all the
commercial minutes, but the entire hour to do whatever they want with.
Christian broadcasters use that hour to evangelize and beg for money, and
if they get more cash from their donors than the hour cost, they keep
their show on the air on that station and grow to the next.
One step down are light sponsorships -
where advertisers (often Bible publishers) buy one or a few
"seed" ads on a local station, so as soon as the program starts
on the station, management knows its downside is limited.
Talk radio has a similar past - and
Well-funded syndicates get together and buy
block time, put a conservative host on the air, and then find sponsors to
pay for it. If the income from the sponsors exceeds the cost of buying the
block time, they make a healthy profit. If not, the message still gets
spread, Republicans get elected, and the interests of the investors are
Less well financed shows find political
candidates or sympathetic companies to advertise locally to encourage
stations to pick up a show. (It's no coincidence that Limbaugh's show
debuted just as the '88 election cycle was beginning.)
While none of Limbaugh's original business
partners has ever gone public with the details of what it cost to first
get him on the air, it is public knowledge that syndicators of some of the
biggest names in conservative talk radio today are still, 15 years after
Limbaugh's national debut, buying block airtime in the tightest major
markets and working to bring in local sponsors in other markets.
The result of conservatives buying their
way into our airwaves has been a conservative transformation in average
Americans' political viewpoints. Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads tune in to
coast-to-coast, dawn-to-midnight conservative talk radio, and many have
come to believe the right's slogans and myths.
Thus, traditional American values of
community and compassion have been replaced with the conservative notions
that greed is good and corporations can better administer a democracy than
a freely elected government. A vast national right-wing echo chamber
across the AM dial has propelled conservative Republican candidates into
office, led us into two wars in two years, and succeeded in burying the
high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush administration while continuing
to blame all things bad on Bill Clinton.
It's even created its own mythos about who
will turn on a radio. They promote the idea - and some even believe it -
that only conservatives are interested in listening to talk radio. It has
nothing to do, they say, with the fact that nobody on the left has yet
spent the money necessary to buy or sponsor market share in major cities
for liberal hosts.
As an example of how extreme things have
gotten, on October 3rd, I participated on a panel of nationally syndicated
radio talk show hosts, sponsored by the industry publication Talker's
Magazine, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Talkers' publisher
Michael Harrison introduced me to the crowd as the "lone liberal on
the panel," and when Laura Ingram and I began debating, at least a
dozen others in the room angrily yelled at me whenever I made a point.
It wasn't a conspiracy, but a simple fact
of the past conservative investment in the broadcast industry that there
were no other self-identified liberals in national syndication on the
panel. Stations in small and medium-sized towns across the country have
picked up liberal talk shows on a no-cash barter (free) basis, but no
liberal shows have yet found the kind of investors willing to buy into a
major market on the possibility of profits a year down the road (it takes
about a year to solidify an audience base).
Further evidence of the economic past of
talk radio is found in the Talkers Magazine's "Talk Radio Research
Project," just released at the National Association of Broadcasters
conference. The magazine's study shows that three times as many listeners
identify themselves as Republicans or Libertarians, compared to the meager
12 percent who call themselves Democrats. Fox News Channel was the top
primary news source among all talk radio listeners.
Conservatives have their spokespeople on
the air in every nook and cranny of America, while liberals are much
harder to find. Potential Democratic AM radio listeners, disgusted with
the rants on the right, have tuned into music stations while they wait for
somebody to realize they represent a vast, untapped market. So only
conservatives are listening, although that doesn't mean for a moment only
conservatives would listen to talk radio.
In the meantime, the conservative
juggernaut feeding the media rolls on with increasing momentum.
After the Talkers' panel, I was given a
tour of the Heritage Foundation, which has provided me with some excellent
conservative thinkers to debate on my "liberal" radio program. I
was shown the wall with pictures of Scaife and Coors, another wall
engraved floor-to-ceiling with the names of conservative donors, the two
radio studios, and what seemed like miles of dark wood, hushed carpets,
leather-upholstered chairs, and subtly elegant meeting rooms. Demand from
network news shows for conservative video clips has even reached such a
point that Heritage is building out a TV set and studio.
Which brings us back to the answer to the
debate question posed to Dick Gephardt about why Americans are drifting to
It took several years and many millions for
both conservative talk radio and Fox News to build enough of an audience
to be self-sustaining and then profitable. Conservative investments in
these media have now both yielded profits and also pushed American public
opinion to the right with dizzying speed.
After all, the core of the conservative
agenda is to transfer control of our government and our commons to big
corporations; reduce taxes on the rich while squeezing the middle class;
and strip labor of its power to organize while enhancing organized
corporate power by supporting trade associations, Chambers of Commerce,
political alliances, and monopolistic mergers. These are the mantras of
conservative talk radio and Fox.
Trillions are at stake in this
transformation of America from its founding ideal of government of, by,
and for We, The People, into a neo-feudal state ruled by
corporate-CEOs-turned-politicians and operated on the ancient but corrupt
principle of crony capitalism and rule-by-the-rich.
To reverse our nation's slide toward
single-party rule and the death of democracy will require nothing less
than aggressive media efforts by those who still believe in the
egalitarian, democratic ideals first articulated by our nation's Founders.
Fortunately, we're now seeing the early stirrings of that: With the
pivotal 2004 elections so close, the timing couldn't be better.
The United Auto Workers union has put money
and resources into the i.e. America Radio Network, which syndicates
liberal talk radio from coast to coast. Several other unions and
Democratic candidates are waking up to the power of advertising on a
philosophically aligned show, and supporting liberal talk programming on a
Following on i.e.'s successes, AnShell
media, according to industry rumors, is on the verge of achieving funding
goals to roll out America's second liberal radio network in January. Al
Gore and Joel Hyatt are talking about a cable TV network to take on Fox
The Center For American Progress - a
liberal version of Heritage - is already providing great information and
research to reporters and commentators, and kicking off a national
conference October 27/28. Billionaire George Soros is helping fund a
political action group dedicated to revitalizing democracy.
And smaller, independent businesspeople are
getting into the act. Socially conscious companies like The Organic Wine
Company are sponsoring liberal talk radio shows. Two independent ventures
have set up shop this fall to nationally syndicate the Randi Rhodes show
and a new radio program by Marianne Williamson. Stations from coast to
coast have now picked up liberal talk shows, and they're discovering large
and active listenerships, often even beating the conservative competition.
Progressive business people and labor
unions are learning from the success of conservative media that with a
good business plan and a little patience it's possible to both advance
your side's social/political goals and to reach customers and potential
members. Working together with progressive talent, liberal activists, and
progressive, democracy-oriented companies and unions, America's "new
liberal media" just may succeed in the battle to wrest American back
from the clutching fingers of the extremist conservatives who've held sway
these past two decades.
We've watched them destroy our economy
three times in the past forty years (the Nixon inflation, Reagan/Bush
recession, and the new Bush debt crisis), drive our foreign policy into a
series of questionable wars, and openly attack both our environment and
our civil liberties. Like cold water on a sleeping face, conservative
excesses are finally awakening Americans to the recollection that our
nation's values have been fundamentally progressive since our Founding,
that Al Gore got a half-million more votes than George W. Bush in the last
presidential election, and that progressives/liberals are just as
enthusiastic about rooting for their "team" as are
conservatives. The larger half of America is finally finding its voice.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com)
is the award-winning, best-selling author of over a dozen books, and the
host of a syndicated daily talk show that runs opposite Rush Limbaugh in
cities from coast to coast. www.thomhartmann.com
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for
reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so long as this credit is
attached and the title is unchanged.