CAN LIBERAL TALK RADIO SUCCEED? The news that Air America Radio will debut a lineup of liberal radio talk show hosts will mean the beginning of a new radio broadcast era — even if it flops.
---Air America Radio is a startup venture promising to get liberal talk shows on the air by March 31st-- and the centerpiece will be the show of comedian-author-Bill-O'Reilly-nemesis Al Franken. In fact, Franken has titled his show in the 12 noon to 3 pm slot (against Sean Hannity in many markets) "The O'Franken Factor" after you-know-who's radio and TV show.
---Franken makes no bones about it: he wants to be the liberal Rush Limbaugh, and with a year's contract under his belt he has a chance to try at a high-interest time....election year.
---It will give a welcome choice to many of us who drive long distances. On a recent 450 mile drive I flipped from radio station to radio station but all I could get was Rush Limbaugh talking for the zillionth time about Hillary. I KNEW that rant already. And if anyone seriously disagreed with Rush, they were usually cut off. If I tuned in at other times during the day I got Michael Reagan (GOP independent), Michael Savage (GOP but very independent), Michael Medved (GOP conservative), Sean Hannity (GOP party line). Only Michael Savage kept my attention — because he was not lock-step party line and was a (non-Howard Dean) scream. (OH: There IS Phil Hendrie who is all over the place politically and is a genius...and he'll get a SEPARATE post, since no one comes close).
---The prevailing conservative radio talk shows garner huge ratings and they're the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling (the liberal never has a chance if they call in). But these shows are a significant political force in 21st Century America since:
-----THEY RALLY THE GOP'S TROOPS. In 1980 there were 75 talk radio stations but now there are 1,000 and most carry conservative programs. Garrett Epps notes that "the political effect has been dramatic. Political scientist David C. Barker, author of 'Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion and American Political Behavior,' has analyzed statistics that suggest the Republican 'landslide' of 1994 stemmed largely from the increased polarization of one demographic — right-wing talk listeners." The Democrats not only didn't have anything to rally their troops, but they didn't have any outlets to even counter the full day schedule of programs geared to nothing but promoting one point of view and demonizing or ridiculing the other.
-----THEY SOLIDIFY A WAY OF THINKING: I know several people who PROUDLY tell me "I don't read the papers. I get all of my news from talk radio." Not only that, but they also usually get their arguments, their catch phrases, their whole belief system — to the extent you know exactly how they're going to complete a sentence. You can even tell which host they listen to.
---This is NOT SAYING anyone who agrees with these hosts fits into that category — not at ALL. There are many conservative and other listeners who read papers, surf the web, debate with friends and firmly believe what they say. They reached these conclusions on their own and love the hosts because they agree with THEM..
---But the talk shows solidify a party line, lay out expectations on proper partisan attitudes, and create a whole bunch of assumptions that foster a cohesive group-think.
-----THEY SPIN OFF INTO OTHER MEDIA: Into cable. Books. As talking heads on TV shows. Personal appearances. Corporate speaking gigs. And they get their point of view (stated in easy to understand terms) across.
---Talk radio actually has a long history in the US. But here are some key dates: 1930 (John J. Anthony's first radio call in show); 1945 (WMCA's Barry Gray forsakes deejaying for guests and is a hit); 1960s (various talk radio formats), 1987 (Reagan administration's FCC suspends "Fairness Doctorine" so both sides don't have to be aired..which leads to the rise of:); 1988 (Rush Limbaugh hits the airwaves and sparks a slew of imitators some great, others putrid).
---THEY WIN OVER SOME SWING VOTERS WHO CAN'T FIND OTHER POINTS OF VIEW AND THEY BOND WITH THE HOST: If someone listens to a host long enough (especially if there are no other talk shows on with other ideas) they like them and believe what they say.
Now, on the heels of the U.S. 2004 Presidential election pitting President George Bush against (presumably) Senator John Kerry, with control of the Congress up for grabs in Congressional elections, Ralph Nader running as a third party candidate, and key governor's races, it will be at least slightly different this time.
---In 2004, at least in some cities, there will be an alternative view and an immediate answer to the established hosts. So what does Liberal Talk Radio need to survive?
(1)IT NEEDS STATIONS IN KEY MARKETS. Air America says it's going to be on in stations in New York, California and Illinois — a good start.
(2)IT NEEDS ADVANCE PUBLICITY AND BUZZ: It already is getting some with today's annoucement and Franken is a pro at getting publicity. If O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, etc. start feuds with or threaten to sue the new hosts they'll be helping them out.
(3)IT NEEDS DEEP POCKETS: Franken was signed for a year. Good sign.
(4)IT NEEDS HIGHLY ENTERTAINING FUN HOSTS NOT just BORING OR ANGRY IDEOLOGUES: The problem with past liberal talk show hosts (such as Mario Cuomo who could have put coffee to sleep) was that they were pompous and/or wonkish and/or boring and/or unlikeable when you hear them, or combinations of all of these. Air America has put together mostly entertainers who are going to focus on comedy, except for Robert Kennedy Jr (whose show may be unintentionally funny). The hosts which will include Janeane Garofalo. If the country is indeed about evenly divided on party preference the hosts could coat anti-Bush anger (including their own) and get away with it.
---On the other hand, is there MARKET DEMAND for it except among anti-Bush wealthy bankrolling top Democrats? Can this new operation get ratings? Will angry Democrats tune to these shows as much as angry Republicans tune into theirs? Will swing voters be turned off or drawn in? Others point out the competition isn't just conservative radio, but middle-of-the-road programs.
---BUT it COULD get good ratings...and don't forget this:
-----They said CNN wouldn't succeed.
-----They said Fox News wouldn't succeed.
-----They said Rush Limbaugh wouldn't succeed.
-----They said Joe Gandelman wouldn't succeed.
---(Well, three out of four isn't bad...)
---If halfway-decent ratings come in, there's some buzz, Democrats and swing voters do a sampling and like it, there will at least be a countervailing voice in the United States. And even if Liberal Talk Radio bombs in the longrun, at least it'll be on during election year...and the quality of 2004's political decision...no matter which way the election goes...can only be enhanced.