Though the advertising boycott of Rush Limbaugh is significant for its size and scope, it will ultimately prove ineffectual in dislodging him from his commanding perch above the talk-radio world. That kind of movement would require a different type of acquiescence, namely on the part of program directors, not advertisers. And though there is a strong case to be made for such a course correction, there are no guarantees those who determine content will stray from their current business model.
Last week, radio-trade columnist Tom Taylor reported that Limbaugh's syndicate (Premier Networks) was circulating a list of 98 advertisers that want to avoid "environments likely to stir negative sentiments." He said the advertisers had concerns that extended beyond Limbaugh:
"They've specifically asked that you schedule their commercials in... programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity). Those are defined as environments likely to stir negative sentiment from a very small percentage of the listening public."
The bible of the talk-radio trades, Talkers, then pointed out that "no controversial programming" dictates were common and practically as old as talk radio itself, and were not a specific reaction to the Limbaugh case -- although they are certainly reiterated as a result of it.
Still, the hosts identified constitute the starting rotation at many talk stations across the country. Their programs, strung together, amount to 15 or more straight hours of daily kicking the crap out of President Obama (whether he deserves it or not). The only diversity they offer is in their voice inflections.
Meanwhile, the nation seems poised for something more multidimensional. Jon Stewart nailed it when, at the Rally to Restore Sanity, he co-hosted with Steven Colbert in 2010, he proclaimed:
"Most Americans don't live their lives just as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives."
Stewart's observation is supported by lots of recent data, including:
An August 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey that found that 40 percent of Americans who responded said their general approach to the issues was "moderate."
A December 2011 analysis by USA Today that showed that, since the 2008 election, more than 2.5 million voters have left the Democratic and Republican Parties, while the number of independents has grown. Registered Democrats are in decline in 25 of the 28 states that register voters by party, and Republicans dipped in 21 states. Independents gained in 18.
In January, Gallup announced that the percentage of Americans identifying as political independents increased in 2011 to 40 percent, the highest Gallup has ever measured.
But "independents" are not a constituency cultivated by current talk radio. Instead, talk caters to the same small number of loyal conservatives whom Limbaugh first attracted after his syndication in 1988. He filled a void when he established a clubhouse for those who were being denied membership in more mainstream outlets.
Philadelphia was the last major market to welcome Limbaugh when he came aboard at WWDB-FM (96.5) in 1992. The station was then home to "Evil" Irv Homer, a libertarian before Ron Paul made it fashionable; Dominick Quinn, a conservative known more for his expansive vocabulary than his ideology; Frank Ford, an acerbic liberal; and Bernie Herman, whose moniker was the now seemingly anachronistic "gentleman of broadcasting." Personality was king, and sustaining a conversation was more important than talking points.
Limbaugh's success on radio led to polarizing imitations on cable TV. Politicians imitated what they saw and heard, and took the nation down with them.
Though the public eschews polarization, politicians pile it on. The National Journal documented in 2010 that the Senate was more divided than at any point in the three decades since it has been evaluating legislators' key votes. The Journal found that every Democrat had complied a voting record more liberal than every conservative, and every Republican had complied a voting record more conservative than every Democrat. And, no, the climate has not always been like this. According to the Journal, in the early 1980s, with Ronald Reagan as president, 60 percent of the Senate was somewhere in the middle. That's a reality Arlen Specter documents in his forthcoming book, Life Among the Cannibals.
So Congress wasn't always like this, and neither was talk radio. Coincidence? I think not. There are other factors, but the climate created in the media is one of them. Which is why it would be healthy for the country should the backlash against Limbaugh take hold. But it won't come from an advertiser boycott, where one sponsor's decision creates another's opportunity. If anything, advertiser boycotts hurt radio generally as much as they harm a particular host.
This column originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer.