Liberal Talk Radio - Let The Water Cooler Wars Begin

Rush Limbaugh has, at various times, claimed credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush - and given how narrow electoral margins have been recently, he may be right. But now, in a free-market fashion that even conservatives have to salute, the tide is turning.

The rollout of Air America Radio has raised the visibility of liberal talk radio in America, regardless of how that company's future plays out. The buzz in the industry now is that momentum and consumer curiosity have built to where the coming years will see a whole raft of new liberal talk shows appearing on the radio waves across America, and the existing successful liberal shows (Bernie Ward, Alan Colmes, Ed Schultz, Tony Trupiano, Peter Werbe, Randi Rhodes, Peter B. Collins, Guy James, Lynn Samuels, my show, etc.) are all continuing to grow.

The swing of the programming pendulum was inevitable and reasonable, particularly given that more than half the nation votes Democratic/Green and those "latte-drinking, Volvo-driving" folks represent a very desirable demographic for advertisers. Local stations all across the country are moving local liberal DJs and radio-savvy local talent into local talk formats. (For example, WDEV here in Vermont [recently featured in Harpers] put Progressive talk host Anthony Pollina and Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders on the air filling the 1-2 PM ET slot Monday through Friday with great listener response and a huge boost in Arbitron ratings.)

So here are a few tips to the up-and-coming crop of liberal talkers (I've been contacted by dozens this past year) from somebody who's been doing it for a while.

1. Forget that you're a liberal: it's about the show, not the content. Yes, I know that today's so-called conservatives are bent on destroying the American way of life, installing single-party rule, wiping out our civil liberties, and leading us into wars around the world just to enrich Bechtel, Halliburton, the Bush family, and the Carlyle Group. But while a thoughtful and in-depth analysis of today's political situation may go over well on Public Radio or re-runs of Buckley's "Firing Line," it's death on AM radio if not presented right.

Your program must be relentlessly entertaining. It must conform to the rules of radio, from voice modulation to clean transitions to quarter-hour resets of topic. If somebody turns it on randomly while going shopping, it must be so compelling that they sit in the parking lot waiting for the next break...and then still don't want to get out of the car.

Use all the same tools you learned when you were a DJ, and keep things popping. And if you don't have a background in commercial radio, either go through a very rapid learning curve about the medium and the industry (like G. Gordon Liddy did) or hire a consultant like Val Geller to get you up to speed.

2. Give them a forehead-slap every hour: have brilliant content. While content won't trump presentation, it does keep bringing them back, day after day, assuming good presentation. Radio listeners want to be entertained, but talk radio listeners also want to be educated. They need help winning the water cooler wars. They want to know the history, details, and practical application of their ideology.

My rule of thumb is that every hour I must give my listeners at least one or two good solid "forehead slaps" - a bit of information where the listener slaps their forehead and says, "Jeez, I never knew that!" or, "I knew that, but I never thought of it that way!"

3. Bring a chainsaw to the knife fight. I learned this advice from one of my talk radio mentors, Northeast Broadcasting's Bob Rowe. Always carry something to the show that's bigger than the obvious issue being discussed, and be mercilessly interesting. See things in some incredible new way, continuously drop mind-boggling information, and entertain people in ways they hadn't expected. Figure out what's your "unfair competitive advantage" - what you know, what you do, how you present - and use it ferociously. As WTKG's Phil Tower says, "Be unpredictable!"

4. Beware of guests who agree with you. When I was first on the air back in the late 1960s, I figured out that a guest I agree with will either take over the show or create boring, "ahhh, yeah," talk radio. But it wasn't until two years ago when Michael Medved had me on his show to argue with him - and told me he only seeks out guests to disagree with - that I got my own forehead-slap about how critical it is to be selective about guests, if you're going to have them at all (I rarely do).

Sure, Larry King and Terry Gross do guests brilliantly. But Terry Gross isn't doing AM daytime talk, and Larry King's AM talk show is off the air. (And Terry's most memorable and publicized show last year was when she and Bill O'Reilly got into a fight.) If you must have guests on your show, try first to limit them to people with whom you strongly disagree. (In this regard, the Heritage Foundation is a great resource, if you're willing to really do your homework or know your stuff.)

If you must have on sympathetic people with whom you agree, follow Art Bell's formula and get only people who have such startling, brilliant information and first-class presentation that they'll hold your listeners with you. But remember the risk: Unless you're as good as Chris Matthews at controlling a conversation, it'll be their show and not yours during the time they're on.

5. Have a take. I learned this from Clear Channel's Gabe Hobbs, and it's brilliant. Ever since hearing his speech at the last Talker's Magazine annual conference, whenever my producer/wife and I listen to a talk show on the radio, our question is, "What's this guy's take on the topic?"

What's truly amazing - and distressing - is the number of hosts who just ramble on, seem to agree with every one of their callers, or just read the news and complain about it, and never firmly stake out their own unique, original, and thought-provoking take on a topic.

6. Throw away the rulebook. Harpers magazine ran an article in their November, 2003 issue about how a liberal talk show could be successful by following a particular formula in a particular way. While the article did a decent job of creating a formula for a program, it entirely missed the power of personality. Nobody is ever going to listen to talk radio because they like the format: it's the talent that makes the show.

7. Learn the rules. That said, it is still important to know the rules and formulas followed in the talk industry. Just as Picasso learned how to draw with classic technique and accuracy before he broke the rules and invented his own style, it's critical to understand the systems pioneered by talk radio legends like Val Geller, Rush Limbaugh, and the late Jean Shepherd (who you can still hear on the web in archive). Deconstruct other hosts' shows to find their internal roadmap. Read Val Geller's books. Study the trade publications. Learn the rules so when you break them it's done intentionally.

8. Talk to your listener, not your co-host or engineer. Radio is the most intimate of mediums. While a TV screen is "over there," radio creates an "in here" imaginative process inside the listener's head. Done well, it stimulates your mind and touches your heart. Subtleties of inflection, timing, and the use of silence can paint a picture or fill a hall in the listener's imagination. Television only poorly recreates images on a distant box: Good radio is experienced as a caress, a whispered murmur, or an electrifying and inspiring call to arms. It's up-close and personal.

For example, television doesn't use compressors/limiters to homogenize its audio anywhere near as completely as do radio transmitters: Uniquely in radio is the normal volume-based emphasis stripped from our voices. To replace that lost emphasis, radio personalities must use tonal modulation, which the listener's brain seamlessly converts back into a perception of volume modulation. This is why "radio voice" tonal modulation sounds overdone in person, on the phone, or on television (remember Ted Knight?), where the volume modulation is left intact. It's only on radio that it sounds normal.

And, like politics, radio isn't something one can learn to do well overnight. Anybody who knows how much hard work and practice goes into producing effortless-sounding talk stands in awe of our industry's truly genius-level talents like Doug Stephan, Bruce Williams, Jim Bohannon, Joy Brown, Don Imus, and Howard Stern.

9. Keep it current. Sign up today for the Center for American Progress's daily Progress Report and Media Matters. And the news reports from the right-wing think-tanks as well. Get on the RNC, DNC, and Center for American Progress email lists. Check out,,, and, as well as and And don't forget The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Watch CNN's Crossfire and Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Remember that talk radio grew out of local news and community affairs programming, and still must be grounded in the topics of the day.

10. Don't worry about being sandwiched in between conservatives. I once believed that formatic purity was the key to success in talk radio programming - and even wrote a Common Dreams op-ed about it 2 years ago that was used as part of their business plan by Anshell Media (now Air America).

But my own experience being highly successful while also being sandwiched between cons - and even being carried on a top market Clear Channel station with con content, where my "liberal" show just showed in the new Arbitron survey a 280% increase in listenership (men 35-64) over the show I replaced last fall - has forced me to reconsider. It's the show, not the network or the station, that matters. The latter are just delivery vehicles. (For example, many stations follow semi-liberal Joy Brown with Rush and then Hannity. Three different formats, three different networks, all on one station and all have success.)

If you're good, people will tune in for you, the same as they did for Rush back when he was all there was. Just produce a killer show and you'll succeed.

America is waiting, so get started. More than half of America voted in the 2000 election for Al Gore, and millions more voted for Ralph Nader. The cons are a minority! There's a huge audience out there for liberal talk radio, and they're waiting for their forehead-slaps, their ammunition for the water cooler wars, and their validation of a liberal world-view. Give it to them well, and the market will trump ideology.

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