THE BLOG
06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Media Entertainers: Small Audience & Little Influence

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... I was in the broadcasting business. I have some experience with ratings for radio and television. I know something about the size of audiences for media personalities and their influence on public life and policy -- or lack of it.

I am amused and puzzled at how much attention is paid these days to entertainers like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Keith Olbermann. The crew at MSNBC -- really only Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, since the others on that NBC owned channel can hardly be said to be politically off-center by any reasonable ideological measurement -- actually has an historically small viewing audience and is not seen as a real threat even by its right-wing competitors. Of course, those same right-wing entertainers, mainly found on the FOX NEWS cable channel and various radio stations, have similarly small audiences when measured against the industry as a whole and particularly past broadcasting personalities who put on similar type programs.

Numbers can be boring, but you can look them up. Yes, Olbermann and Maddow have more than a million viewers and the FOX NEWS group grabs about two to four times that many. By far the biggest audience for political entertainment belongs to Rush Limbaugh. Although his ratings change from time to time, it is generally agreed that Rush Limbaugh has between 16 and 20 million listeners. However, instead of boasting about "talent on loan from God" and some of his other frequent and adolescent self-worth estimates, Limbaugh ought to be humbled at his historical irrelevance in his own field. That assessment may surprise and upset some people -- "Dittoheads" they're called. But, giving Rush Limbaugh every one of his 20 million listeners, rather than the smaller numbers often reported, that means he reaches at most 6% of the American people. I think its fair to say that God might want to do a little better, especially considering His past experience on-the-air.

More than 70 years ago, back in the 1930s when the United States had only 122 million people, less than 40% of its current 308 million, a priest named Charles Caughlin (a priest long before that designation carried the negative weight of recent revelations) had twice the number of radio listeners Rush Limbaugh has now. Father Caughlin regularly reached some 40 million Americans. That's hardly a contest: Caughlin 33% of the American people, Rush Limbaugh 6%. Check Caughlin out. You'll find his show business style quite different from Limbaugh, but their content and approach to those in political power is strikingly similar. While Caughlin was sure Franklin Roosevelt meant the end of Western Civilization, as we know it, Rush Limbaugh feels the same way about Barack Obama. If Obama is really worried about the effect of right wing entertainers, especially Limbaugh, he might want to remember that FDR was elected President of the United States four times in a row from 1932 to 1944.

Another long ago favorite, Walter Winchell, also had many more listeners 60 years ago than Rush Limbaugh has in 2010. Plus, in his later years Winchell, with his trademark hat, was a TV hit -- quite the opposite of Limbaugh's failed attempt to make it on television. Walter Winchell was also in more than 2000 newspapers, at a time when newspapers were the major source for Americans to get their news and information. In terms of political leaning and ideology, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Caughlin and Walter Winchell are three peas in a pod. The right wing radio entertainers have been warning us of impending socialism for nearly 80 years. So, what separates these men besides the size of their listening audience? The answer is, the attention paid to them by others especially other media. In their day nobody, particularly other media, except those who tuned-in cared one way or the other about Caughlin or Winchell.

This same question applies to all the modern right wing media entertainers -- Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and the lesser-known but equally outlandish performers who populate the radio airwaves -- people like Michael Savage, Laura Ingram and Neal Boortz. These are all great entertainers, excellent "air personalities" and performers. But the question is: Why does anyone pay serious attention to anything they say? For that, I have no quick answer. My guess is we are easily bored and just as easily, albeit temporarily, entertained. That doesn't say much for those who invest themselves in entertaining us with what are often factually incorrect or entirely made-up political positions. And, let's face it -- that doesn't say much for us either.