|In terms of audience
size, the canyon between right and left on radio's political spectrum is huge.
Top conservatives – Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn
Beck and Michael Savage – reach a combined audience of roughly 50 million
listeners a week. The most successful liberal talk hosts, such as Ed Schultz
and Randi Rhodes, each pull about 3 million weekly.
The story is the same on cable-TV where Fox News Channel – with Hannity,
Beck and Bill O'Reilly leading the charge – attracts twice as many viewers
in prime time as liberal-leaning MSNBC – featuring Schultz, Keith Olbermann
and Rachel Maddow.
November's election results notwithstanding, the political imbalance on radio
and cable has little to do with the way the population splits to the left or
right. The major parties have roughly the same number of ardent supporters year
to year, and the fluctuations in voting numbers simply do not track with the
radio and TV ratings.
Some say the success of conservative radio can be traced to 1987 when the
Reagan administration put an end to the Fairness Doctrine, making it easier for
broadcasters to be one-sided. Others cite the Telecommunications Act of 1996,
which led to mega-chains of stations and the widespread duplication of successful
formats – including conservative talk radio – which gradually took
over the stronger radio outlets in most markets.
But such arguments really overlook the simpler truths of the matter: conservative
broadcasters serve an audience that is often angry and easily stirred, that wants
to be reinforced more than challenged, and that doesn’t always feel compelled
to slavishly adhere to the facts.
More importantly, conservative broadcasters across the dial are vastly more
entertaining than their liberal counterparts. Limbaugh and Beck are polished
performers, with enough shtick in the tank to keep truckers engrossed over the
long haul, or to rouse tired shift workers on the drive to and from home. Indeed,
the daring diatribe of the right is so compelling that it often seems as if the
most dedicated listeners of conservative broadcasters are their progressive competitors.
Over the years Keith Olbermann has gradually made his MSNBC program unwatchable
as he obsessed over whatever outrageous statement Limbaugh had made on radio
earlier in the day. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, each highly acclaimed on radio,
emulated Olbermann’s style when they came to cable and they, too, became
tedious to watch. Right-wing broadcasters, on the other hand, don’t dwell
on what left-wing hosts are saying – they and their listeners couldn’t
Worse, some liberal commentators have taken to name-calling and other tactics
that they find so reprehensible in rants by the right. When Schultz calls Limbaugh “The
Drugster” and House Speaker John Boehner “The Tan Man” he is
taking the battle to the street, where he can’t ever win. When Schultz
says he doesn’t want Republicans as guests because he “doesn’t
care” what they have to say, and refers to them as “bastards” out
to destroy the American dream, he’s surrendering in the war of words that
his listeners want him to fight with eloquence.
The host who was interviewing me about all this, a fellow named Hal Ginsberg,
has coined a slogan for his progressive outlet, KRXA: “Think for yourself.” And
therein, I believe, lies much of the problem for on-air liberals. Their audience
does prefer to think for itself – it doesn’t need the recurrent ramblings
of broadcasters to show the way, at least not at great length.
A better slogan for progressives might actually be: “Speak for yourself.” Which
is why liberal radio works better for those behind the microphone than for those
expected to sit and listen.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.