If Commercial Radio Actually Trafficked in News
Published on Saturday, November 30, 2002 by CommonDreams.org
Talking Back To Talk Radio - It's Time To Take Back Our Airwaves
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 anti-terrorism agency, 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 Coulter, Goldberg, and others who suggest the media in America is "liberal," the situation with regard to talk radio is particularly perplexing to most people: It doesn't even carry a pretense of political balance. While the ever-subtle Al Gore recently came right out and said that much of the media are "part and parcel of the Republican Party," those who listen to talk radio know the medium has swung so far to the right that even Dwight Eisenhower or Barry Goldwater would be repelled.

Centrists and progressives across the nation are asking 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 millions of Americans actually believe the pronouncements of ex-felons like John Poindexter's protégée Ollie North and Nixon's former burglar G. Gordon Liddy? How is it that ideologues like Rush Limbaugh can propagate lies and half-truths to the overt benefit of 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 this new Reich, 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 claim they have to program only right-wing hosts. They've point out that when they insert even a few hours of a left-of-center 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 radio station manager told me solemnly, "Only right-wingers listen to radio any more. The lefties would rather read."

How could this be? After all, a Democrat won the majority of the popular vote in the last presidential election, with more votes than any other Democratic candidate in the entire history of the nation: how could it be that there are no 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. Demagoguery - from either end of the political spectrum - is not healthy for democracy when there are no opposing voices.

Second, for those progressives looking for a good investment, 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."

Here's why the talk radio scene is so dominated by the right, and how it can change. 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 your niche.

If, when I was a Country/Western DJ, I had tried to drop in a song from, say, The Beatles, 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 pubic 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 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 competent talk-show host out of Sacramento who came to the attention of a group of conservative investors 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.) 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. (Coughlin began on a national network; Rush still doesn't have anything close to his listenership.)

And, station managers discovered, there was a small (about 4 to 5 million nationally) but loyal group of radio listeners who embraced Rush's brand of vitriol, fear-and-smear, and overt hard-right spin, believing every word he said even though he claimed it was "just entertainment" to avoid a reemergence of the Fairness Doctrine. 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-all-day 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 it was the first with a consistent and predictable programming slant, the first large niche in the new and 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. And station managers know that if they stray away from right-wingers for their talk programming, they'll get angry listeners and lose advertisers.

Which brings us to the opportunity this represents for progressives, radio stations, and those interested in bringing balance to the nation's airwaves.

Going back to the music radio programming analogy, think of Rush-clone-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 always 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-Rush-clones/all-day-long 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 progressive talk radio to succeed it will have to be programmed consistently throughout the day (and with talent as outrageous and interesting as Rush and his most successful clones).

The key to programming progressive talk 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 niches of conservative talk, relationship-advice talk, and progressive talk, and smaller niches of travel talk, investment talk, medical talk, etc.

Most station programmers who've tried a liberal 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. But the irrefutable evidence of national elections and polls shows such timidity is a mistake. All they need do is what anybody with music programming experience would recommend: identify their niche and stick with it.

By programming all-progressive-talk/all-day-long, stations can open up a new niche and ride it to success. And, with right-wing ideologues 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 all-progressive-talk/all-day-long format 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 take the time to educate station owners to this simple reality and provide a solid 24 hour day of progressive programming will do the American people a service while also building 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 and let them know that you want to hear progressive voices, and will even patronize the advertisers of such shows when they run them.

It's time to take back America's airwaves and return balance to our national dialogues.

Thom Hartmann is the author of "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights" - www.unequalprotection.com and www.thomhartmann.com. Permission is granted to reprint this article in print or web media, so long as this credit is attached.