The passing of 60-Minutes creator, Don Hewitt, reminded me of the very useful role that broadcast media has played, and should play, in our lives. Mr. Hewitt's creation helped shape how Americans received accurate information about important issues and stories. Monday morning office debates around the country were often fueled by what appeared on 60-Minutes the night before. Though I never met Don Hewitt, I imagine that he must have often cringed at what became the sloppily broad definition of broadcast news. Every TV and radio broadcaster who presents something labeled news would benefit from learning what he had to teach about storytelling, fact checking, and fairness.
There has been a lot of talk in Washington in the past year about reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which would radically affect today's world of talk radio. That Federal Communications Commission guideline for broadcasters was struck down in 1987 and had required that stations provide free air time for responses to any controversial opinions that were broadcast. Its loss helped create a whole new category of business by providing an opportunity for a kind of flatly partisan talk radio programming that had not previously existed. Talk personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, gained traction on America's airwaves because they could rant about people in the public eye without regard to too many underlying facts or a sense of fairness in public discourse. This new business created a raft of so called right-wing talk personalities and probably became a lifeline for scores of failing AM radio stations.
The business of radio talk shows is, of course, based on attracting a crowd large enough to result in a substantial audience rating. Owing more to P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism than a deep exploration of ideas, the programs operate on the principle that the best way to draw a crowd is to create an emotionally stirring, conflict fueled spectacle. Think of the World Wrestling Federation or Ringling Brothers Circus as the business model. If it was just about truth, accuracy, and useful discussion, most talk radio shows would be unsuccessfully brief!
Current talk radio does seem to provide immediacy and a high degree of emotionalism that is rare on television or in magazines. Pew researchers found in 2004 that 17% of the public regularly listens to talk radio. This audience is mostly male, middle-aged and conservative. Among those who regularly listen to talk radio, 41% are Republican and 28% are Democrats. Furthermore, 45% describe themselves as conservatives, compared with 18% who say they are liberal. In the United States, talk radio is dominated by right-leaning political commentators: according to Talkstreamlive.com, the top five programs are those of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and George Noory. Others include Neal Boortz, Jim Quinn, Bill Cunningham, Mark Levin, Dennis Miller and Melanie Morgan. Noory has developed what I think is the most interesting niche; his late night program exploring paranormal phenomena.
Many of the most popular talkers label themselves as conservatives without fully defining what that really means. Let me say that I've worked in broadcasting (both radio and TV) all of my adult life, and I must confess that outside of religion, size of government issues, and banging the gong about deficit spending, the real difference between conservatives and liberals still eludes me. On talk radio there are lots of references to one group or the other not caring deeply enough about our country or being always on the wrong side of the important issues. Rule number one for current talk radio success seems to be to demonize a person, his or her belief system, or an entire political party. If you want to create a heated spectacle, have someone passionately articulate a position opposite to the feelings of most of the people in the room, then pass the microphone around. Just look at video from the current round of Town Hall meetings on health care in America.
When I first heard Limbaugh in the days when his ratings were at their peak, Bill Clinton was president, and it was easy to see that he supplied wonderful grist for the Limbaugh talk radio mill. My innate sense of Libra fairness was offended, and I'd usually punch another radio button after a few minutes of the bombast. Even with daily eruptions over health care reform today, references to Bill Clinton are still frequent. There must be some unanimous feelings of "who was that strange man" about George W. Bush because Hannity, Limbaugh, and Levin hardly ever mention him. Remember, it is a business built on entertainment and showmanship where you must have a good and colorful foil as the object of your wit and partisanship.
When we elected a Republican president and congress some years ago, I wondered who would become the "Whipping Boy" or girl for the conservative talk hosts. Most of us would now agree that the George W. Bush administration was generally judged to be a failure, and that presented a strange new challenge to people who ruled the talk show roost. They had to spin things a bit differently because it wasn't clear who was wearing the white hats and who had donned the black fedoras.
My theories about recent ratings declines for many politically charged talk shows are simple. Americans are passionate about many things, but most people have some sense of fairness and eventually distance themselves from anyone who indulges in what seems to be an unfair fight every day on public airwaves. Another thought is that the rise of Internet radio has siphoned off some listeners who didn't have that option five years ago. Also, there are now some stations that carry programming that is categorized with the liberal label from Air America. That network hasn't achieved anywhere near the success of the top conservative hosts. I think it's because when you are talking to people who agree with you, there are no fireworks in the town square to draw a crowd. We are facing some monumental issues as a country, and people are beginning to recognize that real solutions lie beyond traditional right-left politics and have to be seen in the realm of right and wrong, good and bad. The eventual fate of the unwieldy health care legislation is an example. It is neither liberals nor conservatives that carry the only key to our salvation.
The Fairness Doctrine is probably not destined to return anytime soon, and the talkers will continue to bluster on behalf of one camp or the other. The hosts, their syndicators and, the station owners are after all in "the business of show," not the business of finding the best practices for useful public discourse in America or developing an action plan that will save the country from those awful predictions and schisms they've built their businesses on.
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