If ever there was any doubt about the enormous influence of talk radio in American politics, that's now gone the way of the belief that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around it. Remaining doubts were put to rest by the furor over Rush Limbaugh's disgraceful branding of a woman law student as "a slut" and "a prostitute" because she spoke out for health insurance coverage of birth control.
Politically, the fuss over a talk host's words reached all the way to the top with President Obama's phone call supporting the woman. Mediawise, it's still making headlines and soundbites. And the fact that so many advertisers -- more than 140 by one count -- at least temporarily dropped their commercials from Limbaugh's top-rated program, was the talk of the business community. It's even led to wishful thinking that Limbaugh's career is finally over. Or that the more genial Mike Huckabee might provide him some conservative competition.
Still, there are those who continue to mouth the old nonsense that Limbaugh and his ilk are nothing more than entertainers. Rick Santorum called the broadcaster's remarks "absurd," but immediately pooh-poohed them by adding that "an entertainer can be absurd. He's in a very different business than I am."
No he's not! He's in exactly the same business. With the power Santorum and other top Republicans fear could destroy them. Which is why they're so careful not to disturb Limbaugh, even when he's at his most hateful. That fear extends to Mitt Romney, who limited his reaction to Limbaugh's hate speech by lamely remarking:"[I]t's not the language I would have used." As conservative commentator George Will observed about Republican leaders: "They want to bomb Iran, but they're afraid of Rush Limbaugh."
That fear hasn't eased since 2009 when several Republicans -- including then-National Chairman Michael Steele -- acknowledged it by humbly asking for Limbaugh's forgiveness after making disparaging remarks about him. Ever since, President Obama and other Democrats have cited this as proof that Limbaugh is the real leader of the GOP. "[H]e says jump and they say how high," one liberal spokesman claimed back then.
Of course, Limbaugh is far from the only influential right-wing talker. Over the years, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck and dozens of others have made a big political difference. Both former President Clinton and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said talk radio made the difference in the GOP's 2002 congressional victories. A grateful Hatch told Hannity:
I thank my Father in heaven every day for people like you, Rush Limbaugh and others.
The late Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former press secretary, was emphatic in arguing that Limbaugh "made the difference" in the 2000 election of George W. Bush, the 1994 Republican takeover of the House, and GOP majorities since then. In his book Rushed to Judgment, political scientist David Barker reported his study showing that new listeners to Limbaugh became nearly six times as likely to vote Republican for Congress as their non-listening counterparts -- even controlling for ideology.
It's hard to overestimate the influence of Republican talk radio. Forty-eight million Americans are listeners, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. That's a far bigger audience than television or cable TV news viewers. Far bigger than Fox News, a relative latecomer to the right-wing propaganda scene. Its founders "began with a single concept: build a network based on the triumph of conservative talk radio," write the liberal authors of the new book, The Fox Effect. People need a TV or computer to watch Fox. But people can listen to radio all day and night, while jogging, driving, or in bed without waking their partner.
And if they're listening to political talk on commercial radio, about all they can hear are far-right Republicans. A study of 257 stations of the top five commercial owners done five years ago by the liberal Center for American Progress showed 91 percent of weekday talk programming was conservative. The ratio of conservative to liberal hours per week was 10-to-1. And that was when a liberal talk network, Air America Radio, had programs on dozens of stations. Air America died in 2010, so today right-wing dominance is even greater.
Limbaugh is estimated by Talkers magazine to have more than 15 million weekly listeners. His website lists almost 650 stations that carry his program in all 50 states and the nation's capital. Sean Hannity is second with more than 14 million on more than 500 stations in all but one state, and Michael Savage has over 9 million listeners on some 400 stations nationwide. Dozens of local right-wing hosts are matched by few local liberals. While conservative talkers blanket the airwaves -- listeners in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, for example, can hear Limbaugh live on four stations -- my count showed that the top half dozen liberal talkers combined are heard on fewer than five stations in 28 of the 50 states.
Not one liberal host is among Talkers' top 15. Thom Hartmann is carried by only about 80 AM-FM stations in 34 states, according to my count. Runners-up Alan Colmes and Ed Schultz are each broadcast on just over 70 stations in about 30. Stephanie Miller has about 50 stations in 27 states. Talkers estimates from industry data that each has a weekly audience of between 3 and 3.5 million listeners. Two others, Randi Rhodes and Bill Press, have smaller audiences.
The overwhelming dominance of conservative talk radio means that "one third of the American public are never exposed to progressive ideas or even to facts that are incompatible with the right-wing narrative," according to Danny Goldberg, onetime CEO of the late, liberal Air America. With talk radio almost uncontested, too many of today's conservative talkers take advantage of the fact that if you tell a lie big enough, and repeat it often enough, people will believe it.
Is it any wonder that large numbers of Americans still think the president is a Muslim or a foreigner or worse, when the influential Limbaugh refers to him as "Imam Obama," questions his proven U.S. citizenship, compares him to Hitler and asserts that "he loathes America?" Or that Limbaugh's racism encourages racism in others, when he sings "Barack the Magic Negro" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," or accuses the president of conspiring with others to train "young black kids to hate, hate, hate this country." Limbaugh's hate apparently extends to tens of millions of his fellow citizens regardless of race. On Obama's inauguration day, with Americans suffering through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Limbaugh infamously remarked: "I hope he fails."
Another prominent hater is Savage, who once asked his audience whether "Hussein Barack Obama is going to take our side should there be some catastrophic attack on America?" adding "I don't think so." Savage has denounced African immigrants by sarcastically urging: "They can't reason. But bring em in..." He explained the 9/11 attacks as divine retribution for growing homosexuality and sex change surgery ("that was God speaking,'I'm gonna show you I exist'"). An autistic child is an "idiot" and "a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out." That, Savage says, applies to "99 percent" of autistic kids.
Radio hate speech is widespread. Glenn Beck would like to strangle liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. Michael Reagan says a man who said the U.S. government was responsible for 9/11 is a traitor who should be shot. Neal Boortz referred to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as "a city of parasites" who are "useless" and "worthless."
All this vicious nonsense is taxpayer-subsidized. The airwaves are owned by the American people. They are licensed, for eight years at a time, to broadcast station operators. And, for peanuts -- the most the biggest, most profitable radio stations pay in government fees is $11,000 annually. Until 1987, Congress mandated the FCC to enforce the Fairness Doctrine requiring stations to provide a balance of views on controversial issues. But President Reagan ended that, Limbaugh went national in 1988, and Republicans have had a stranglehold on talk radio ever since.
One big reason is that only Republicans understood its importance as a political tool. "Conservative talk radio got an early start. Republican politicians supported the heck out of it," Talkers publisher Michael Harrison told me." The Democrats don't." And former Air America CEO Danny Goldberg writes:
While liberals ignored AM radio, viewing it as a passé medium for troglodytes, conservatives honed their skill at talk radio and by the '90s, most liberal moderate talk hosts had been taken off the air because they did not fit into what was now the "conservative talk" format.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democrat Bill Clinton, made things worse by abolishing limits on the number of stations one company could own and making it next to impossible for the FCC to revoke station licenses.
Effective ownership of hundreds of stations, including the biggest, shifted to half a dozen large corporations, most of them right-wing, which now hold more than 15 percent of commercial stations. The largest, Clear Channel, owns 850. The vast majority of the large-ownership talk stations have become a sounding board for conservative hosts who, as noted, have helped elect Republicans.
It wasn't till 2004 that liberals tried to get into the game in a major way with Air America Radio, whose programming was carried by more than 100 stations at one time or another, but which proved disastrous almost from the start of its six years in business. Its co-founder, Sheldon Drobny, a Chicago venture capitalist, later wrote in his book Road To Air America: "We sincerely believed wealthy progressives would write checks as readily as leaves fall in autumn." But that never happened.
Unable to raise enough money, Drobny unwittingly turned the company over to a crooked investor who tried to fund it partly by fleecing a charity. The investor, Evan Montvel Cohen, was later convicted of felony theft. As for Drobny, his continuing efforts to promote liberal talk radio resulted in a reported suicide attempt and hospitalization for a nervous breakdown in 2009.
Despite continuing financial disasters, smaller audiences and ultimate collapse in 2010, Air America did demonstrate that there is a national audience for liberal hosts. It also spawned several important talkers like Al Franken and Rachel Maddow, and gave added prominence to others like Hartmann and Rhodes. Two other successful liberal hosts, Schultz and Miller, were developed by another, smaller network, Democracy Radio.
But, apart from Drobny, few liberals have been willing to put their money into talk radio, as right-wing multimillionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon have put into money-losing newspapers like the New York Post and Washington Times, and Murdoch's Fox News, which took six years to become barely profitable, but earned $816 million in 2010.
However, Goldberg urges wealthy liberals to look at talk radio not as a moneymaker, but as a vital political contribution. I agree and wish they'd heed Bill Press's words in his book Toxic Talk.
Only when they control, through ownership or long-term lease, a network of stations across the country, will progressive talk show radio ever be close to competing with conservative talk.
Unfortunately, there's no sign that will happen. And, to complicate matters, the means of delivery are rapidly changing. Traditional AM-FM is losing ground to satellite radio, and Internet radio may soon be available in cars. But political talk radio, however delivered, is certainly not going away. And unless Democrats finally stake a serious claim to it, it'll remain a powerful weapon against them in election after election.