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The Real Reason for Talk Radio’s Rise to Power

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It is very easy to mock or demonize contemporary talk radio and its fans. For those of us who do not listen to it, other than for a few laughs from time to time, it is little more than an eccentric oddity. Nonetheless, we should not paint with a broad brush when referring to hosts of a similar political stripe. For instance, agree or disagree with Michael Savage, the issues he raises on his show are far more intellectually challenging than the drivel that passes for content on the EIB Network. Likewise, Michael Medved outshines Mark Levin in terms of format and presentation by light years.

With America’s increasingly polarized political atmosphere, pundits and public officeholders on the left and right alike have attacked partisan talk radio programs. Stating the obvious, such as that listeners only hear a single point of view and are therefore not fully informed about any given subject, a rational mind cannot seriously disagree with this analysis. However, it misses the mark by a country mile.

One man, though, is a bit more accurate in his commentary. Despite agreeing with him on essentially none of the issues, anarcho-socialist philosopher Noam Chomsky really did, in my opinion, get it right when describing the appeal of talk radio. Being interviewed at a forum conducted by the Commonwealth Club of California in 2009, he said the following:

If you listen, the message that comes across is….coherent….it gives answers to people who want….need….and deserve them. (These) are crazy answers, but (listeners) are not hearing any others….

….(Listeners) are people who’ve….done everything right….Christian, God fearing….take care of the families….and for thirty years they’ve been shafted. Somebody’s got to give them an answer; why?

Enter Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and the like.

Partisan talk radio is not popular due to the convincing charms of any given host. They are incidental figures; the reason for them being hosts in the first place is that an audience readily and reliably presents itself. From this, it can be deduced that the talk radio industry of today is a symptom, rather than cause, of the exponentially larger problem.

As I have said before, and undoubtedly will again, all politics are rooted in economics. Should a close look be taken at the demographics of talk radio listeners, one will notice that they are for the most part lower middle class and below. Geographically, talk radio is most popular in regions with high unemployment, low wages, and even lower rates of post-secondary educational attainment. That the typical talk radio listener is a frustrated middle aged, caucasian, and deeply religious man or woman who spouts off zany sounding diatribes at a moment’s notice should not be sneered at.

These people are feeling the effects of a globalist economy that has left them in a pile of dust bordering on quicksand. They have every right to be less than happy, and anyone who tells them different is simply out of touch. Asking for America’s talk radio crisis to be solved out of nowhere makes about as much sense as asking for a pet unicorn. Until principally blue collar workers can find the sort of employment opportunities that their parents had, count on AM’s profiteers of peril being here to stay.

Without adequate fair trade policies, this is guaranteed to be a very long time.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Robert McArthur

    “Likewise, Michael Medved outshines Mark Levin in terms of format and presentation by light years.”
    Oh PUL-leez! I will take Levin’s intellect to Medved’s desperate attempts to be a talk radio wannabe any day. (In fairness, he did give the world the Golden Turkey Awards.)

  • OC Patriot

    Oh PUL-leez! Levin doesn’t get his contract renewed because Toledo program director doesn’t like what he says about Ron Paul and then cries “Stalinism”. That’s some intellect on display. The man is a buffoon and is one of the few guys in radio who looks better than he sounds.

  • Robert McArthur

    Patriot: I bow to your expertise in buffoonery. I just can’t compete in your league.

  • OC Patriot

    Assessing buffoonery, probably not, but when it comes to committing buffoonery you seem to handle yourself well

  • Robert McArthur

    Alas, you overestimate me (or are probably just being kind). But I will follow your posts and learn from a master. I’ve never seen anyone put harlequinade into words as expertly as you. (Well, you’re not as good as Medved, but he sets a mighty high bar.) BTW: does the “Patriot” in your handle indicate military service by any chance?

  • “harlequinade”? Someone got a word-a-day calendar for Xmas

  • Keltoz

    Or, more likely, watches a lot of Animated Batman.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    To give Mark Levin credit, several times I’ve heard progressive pundits note how he’s the smartest one in the conservative pundit class…and they weren’t being sarcastic. They were also noting how Hannity seemed on many occasions to get his talking points from Levin.

    When an opponent says something complimentary and means it, that’s worth a lot more than a compliment from one’s own side.

    And as far as the rise of the Right’s talk-radio empire goes, from what I understand Limbaugh’s show was allowed to be broadcast by stations for free – they weren’t required to pay any royalties at all – and radio stations have to make money, too. So they would much rather broadcast a show where they could keep all the royalties than to broadcast one where they had to pay a percentage to someone else. This was American radio’s equivalent of ‘market dumping’.

  • There is no such thing as “America’s talk radio crisis,” Joe. As an authority on the topic, I refute your generalizations. There is no such thing as a “talk radio industry.” One cannot deduce anything about it.

    What I know from my broadcasting career is that if a program does not have an audience, it does not stay on the air. Right leaning radio works because it is entertaining to its audience. It is a show. Left leaning radio does not work because it is not entertaining. It is as a cause.

    Right radio is amplitude modulation (AM.) Left radio is frequency modulation (FM.)

    The difference between the two is the difference between country and jazz formats. The only thing about which you are correct is that “AM’s profiteers of peril being here to stay.” The is always an audience for peril.


  • Three years ago on Blogcritics I wrote, “If conservatives dominate talk radio, it is because it’s cheap. Talk radio doesn’t cost a radio station anything except electricity. Typically the air time is brokered and the talker pays for the time. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, for example, are not so much radio personalities as they are media companies.”

    I hope that helps.


  • Glenn Contrarian

    Tommy –

    Left leaning radio does not work because it is not entertaining.

    Again, I point y’all to Stephanie Miller whose “Sexy Liberal Show” is the number one comedy tour in the nation and is now a top-selling album. She and Rachel Maddow are quite entertaining, thank you very much, and Rachel is the smartest person in the room (Rhodes scholar, even).

    But anyway, I agree that Thom Hartmann – as much as I do enjoy the daily history lesson – is not that entertaining, Ed Schultz is sometimes too depressing, and Mike Malloy is the left’s answer to every angry, sexually-repressed fire-breathing loony on the Right (which is why I don’t listen to him).

    And why isn’t left-wing radio as ‘entertaining’? Because right-wing radio is directly tailored to its audience. Right-wing psycho-talk is essentially all one long diatribe about the threats facing the ‘real America’ – and recent scientific research shows that conservatives are significantly more likely to respond to perceived threats than are liberals. It matters not at all that so much of right-wing radio is blatantly false and sometimes inexcusably racist. All that matters is that the conservative listener safely cocooned within his echo chamber is hearing what he wants to hear from “his” people, and that he is being alerted to threats (real or imagined) against America by “those” people. And it has gotten to the point where it’s more patriotic – holier, even – to support those who are spouting obvious lies than it is to give even a moment’s consideration to the other side.

    Anyone with a decent understanding of history should know just how dangerous that is.

    Anyway, what you said in #10 backs up what I’d been told and repeated in #8.

  • Robert McArthur

    El Bicho/Keltoz: For those of us who study the history of the theatre as an avocation harlequinade is not a unique term. Your replies were VERY clever. Kudos! (For those of you in Rio Linda that means praise or acclaim.)

  • Randy W.

    @ 5 –
    I seriously doubt it. I’m willing to wager anyone who refers to themselves as “patriot” has never served. Case in point, the right-wing phonies on the airwaves, including those referenced: Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingraham, Jones, O’Reilly, Jones, Beck, et al.

  • Robert McArthur

    Randy W.: You left out Medved. The super supporter of the military who dropped out of Yale Law School after a year and managed to avoid the draft.

  • Costello

    Randy, since when are those who serve the only people who are patriots? And surely you don’t think all who serve are patriots.