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Former News Director Spills 'Secrets Of Talk Radio'

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As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the state of right-wing radio, an emailer points me in the direction of an article in Milwaukee Magazine by Dan Shelley, entitled "Secrets of Talk Radio." Shelley, a former news director of WTMJ in Milwaukee, offers up a chapter-and-verse rundown on what makes the shows tick, and what makes their hosts successful. Naturally, a big part of what attracts an audience is activating and maintaining a strident sense of victimhood among listeners. Similarly, a big part of the success of talk radio, in terms of electoral and policy outcomes, is extensive collaboration with the Republican party to tailor the daily message along the lines of current party talking points.

The most interesting aspect of the article is the technique by which the talk radio mavens succeed in maintaining credibility whilst supporting discreditable arguments. It all sort of boils down to some high concept stat-juking:

Unlike Stephen Colbert, they avoid engaging the formidable opponent:

Opponents are far more likely to get through when the producer is confident Charlie can use the dissenting caller to reinforce his original point. Ask former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Publisher Keith Spore, or former Police Chief Arthur Jones. How can Charlie do that? By belittling the caller's point of view. You can always tell, however, when the antagonist has gotten the better of Charlie. That's when he starts attacking the caller personally.

But the worst fate comes for those who ignore Charlie when he asks on the air why they did or didn't do something, and they never respond. That leaves him free to make his point unabated, day after day. The most frequent victims of this were Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley.

Charlie knew they would rarely call or e-mail to answer his criticism, so he could both criticize decisions they had made and blast them for not having the guts to come on his show and respond. What little credibility they had among Charlie's audience would decline by a thousand cuts.

Maximize marginal differences with conservative orthodoxy to create the illusion of "independence," while keeping significant differences of opinion under wraps:

A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush's disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don't genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.

Where progressive media is willing to take a flier on a long-shot or a lost-cause, the conservative blathersphere doesn't dare risk it:

Except in presidential elections, when they will always carry water for the Republican nominee, conservative hosts won't hurt their credibility by backing candidates they think can't win. So if they're uncharacteristically tepid, or even silent, about a particular race, that means the Democrat has a good chance of winning. Nor will hosts spend their credibility on an issue where they know they disagree with listeners. Charlie, for example, told me just before I left TMJ that Wisconsin's 2006 anti-gay marriage amendment was misguided. But he knew his followers would likely vote for it in droves. So he declined to speak out directly against it.

The whole article is a great read, filled with some fascinating insider anecdotes and a fuller look at the strategy of right-wing talk radio, so check it out. The article is, by my estimation, fair and straight-laced and not mean-spirited at all. Still, that didn't prevent WTMJ from issuing an aggrieved response:

We are surprised and saddened that a former employee, who worked with us for ten years, would choose to attack our talk shows hosts and company in this manner. Neither the station nor our hosts were offered a chance to comment on the claims made by the author. Newsradio 620 WTMJ stands by Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner and will continue to give their listeners the opportunity to share and participate in the best local talk programming in Milwaukee.

It's all part of the game.