Among the many lessons Bob Lassiter taught me was one about the nature of talk radio — a lesson that so many of its own participants seem never to have learned. He was talking one evening about the ardent liberals that identified him as one of their own, but who no longer called his show to tell him so and express their agreement, because he had bitterly disappointed them. He singled out one in particular, a woman from Clearwater named TJ.
"I've had calls from TJ begging and pleading with me," he said. "When I first came back to Tampa I was doing mornings over at WSUN. I mean it was hilarious and yet pathetic at the same time. There was poor old TJ on the phone — I'm over at SUN trying to do a morning show, and she wants me to listen to Rush Limbaugh every day and come in the following day on SUN and point-by-point go over what he said and correct him!"
He paused — Lassiter was a master of pacing. "This is not a battle between the forces of good and evil," he finally said. "It's radio. It's entertainment. Period."
Why are liberals so threatened by conservative talk radio? And vice versa? (Yes, I know that conservatives, especially those on radio, love to make fun of Air America and its ratings and financial troubles… hell, Neal Boortz feels a need to repeat any story, no matter how small, about Air America and its problems. But you know what, folks? They wouldn't make such a big deal about it if they weren't at least a little bit afraid of it.) I posit that it's because they believe the propaganda that both liberal and conservative radio personalities deliver about themselves: that they have the power to make a difference in political elections.
Balderdash. Rush Limbaugh, the all-important King of Talk Radio, the darling of the conservative publicity machine, would be ahead of everybody else on the radio if he'd made an impact of greater than five total votes. Air America Radio, the floundering liberal-talk outpost that conservatives love to trash (see above), had even less of an impact, of course. And guess what? Neither side's radio talking heads even have the potential to deliver any more votes for their candidate of choice.
The people who understand that the least seem, at least outwardly, to be the ones on the air.
You see, ladies and gentlemen, post-Limbaugh talk radio is not about convincing people to vote one way or the other. The people who listen to any given radio host have already made up their minds. Let me repeat that: Anybody who listens to Rush Limbaugh is already going to vote Republican. Anybody who listens to Air America is already going to vote Democrat. They are not there to change minds — they're there to reassure their constituencies. People like to hear their own opinions repeated back to them, and they absolutely hate to hear opinions on the radio that they disagree with.
Talk radio these days plays up both of those facts. The Limbaughs, Hannitys, Frankens, and Malloys of current talk radio don't want to challenge anyone; much as they take shots at the other guys, much as they may ask for the other guy to call in and explain some point, they don't actually want the other guys to call into the show and take part in any kind of real discussion. Sure, if you've listened to any of those people, you've heard the opposition call, but when was the last time you heard them get in a word edgewise? The hosts cut them off, do their best to make them look like fools, and move on. Why? Not because they're political hacks who don't want to allow the other guys to have any influence. They do it because that's what their fans want to hear: they want to hear the other side be made to shut up and look like an idiot.
Do you really think that anyone who hasn't made up his mind – the almighty Swing Voter – is going to listen to talk radio to help make a decision? Do you think that anyone who listens to, say, Laura Ingraham, is even slightly ambiguous about who they're going to vote for? No. Of course not. Talk radio in the 21st century is support-group radio: people listen to hear nationally prominent people say, "I agree with you." That's why local talk-radio is all but dead: nobody cares if some dude who lives in your hometown agrees with you or not when you've got a national celebrity to say what you want to hear.
In fact, fellow Blogcritic Dave Nalle – a man whom I respect – wrote an article not long ago titled "Air America: Telling Lies the Left Wants to Hear." I made plenty of comments on that post, but I now realize what I should have said–I should have simply commented on the title, as follows:
Air America: Telling Lies the Left Wants to Hear
Well, no shit. What else would it be?
So all of you on the left who are terribly upset by Rush Limbaugh and his fellow conservative talkers, their nationwide soapbox, and their subsequent influence on the electorate: forget it. They don't have any influence on the electorate. All of you on the right who are so gleeful at the apparent oncoming demise of Air America: what do you care? They're not stealing any votes, or listeners, or influence. Again, there's no influence to be had. Neither right-wing nor left-wing radio in this country has ever changed, or will ever change, a goddamn thing at the polls.
Let the babies have their bottles.