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Why the Right Rules the Radio Waves By: John Leland
New York Times | Tuesday, December 10, 2002


THE traffic is murder out there, and Ed on the car phone wants to know: Why can't those liberal weenies mix it up?

Translation: when you're backed up on the expressway and a radio voice is howling at you, why isn't that voice ever a liberal?

For much of the last decade, conservative talk radio hosts built carnivorous empires by gorging on the foibles of Bill Clinton. Now, two years into the Bush administration, liberals and Democrats are still waiting for a syndicated carnivore of their own.

As Mr. Clinton said in a speech last week, referring to a range of conservative media: "They have a destruction machine. We don't have a destruction machine."

What Democrats do have is a yammer gap.

At a time when the public is pretty evenly divided politically, conservative talk radio, long led by Rush Limbaugh, continues to grow.

New or newly syndicated programs featuring the conservative television talk show hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity made their debut on 200 to 300 stations in the last year. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, G. Gordon Liddy and other conservative hosts are still going strong. Meanwhile, one of the few longrunning liberal hosts, Gloria Allred, was sacrificed to poor ratings in October after 14 years in Los Angeles, joining Jim Hightower, Mario M. Cuomo and Alan M. Dershowitz.

"I can't think of a single card-carrying liberal talk show syndicated nationwide," said Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of Radio & Records, a trade magazine.

The question is: why can't liberals create blast-furnace entertainment for their causes? The answers may inhere in the nature of liberalism, said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. Where radio conservatives have thrived by drawing hard distinctions between right and wrong, he said, "the liberal tradition as we understand it acknowledges a diversity of people and values." In the heat of drive-time squawk, he said, "That's easily thrown back in their face by making them look mealy-mouthed."

Like other forms of news and entertainment, talk radio is a numbers game. Conservative talk radio, which arose from the Federal Communication Commission's 1987 repeal of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, releasing stations from the obligation to provide balanced opinion, "is a result of radio being a niche medium," said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, a trade magazine. Stations look for heat, not breadth.

"The hosts that light the fire tap into a vein of consciousness that is not given the proper attention elsewhere," said Phil Boyce, program director of WABC in New York, which carries both Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Hannity. "When conservative listeners first heard Rush Limbaugh, they said, `Eureka, someone is finally saying what I think.' "

Mr. Limbaugh has had the most popular radio program since the early 1990's. Heard on more than 600 stations, he reaches about 14.5 million listeners each week, according to an analysis of Arbitron ratings by Talkers magazine. Mr. Hannity, a rising second, reaches about 10 million. "That's not a mass audience when compared to other media," Mr. Harrison said. "More people watch the World Wrestling Federation." But for niche media, being small is part of the appeal. The bond listeners feel to their favorite talk show is that of members of an aggrieved minority.

Even with a Republican administration, liberals will have a hard time claiming this same grievance. As long as network sitcoms, mainstream movies, public radio and some major newspapers are identified with liberal views about sex, family and tattoos, conservatives can cast themselves as outsiders, no matter who is in the White House, said John Mainelli, a talk radio consultant and former program director.

And this tilt may be politically significant.

David C. Barker, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, is the author of a new book, "Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion and American Political Behavior" (Columbia University, 2002), which surveyed listeners and non-listeners. While he could not measure the impact of Mr. Limbaugh's program on elections, he said, "If you take a group of people who never listened to talk radio before, and then look at their attitudes six months later, you'll see a clear change" reflecting the views of Mr. Limbaugh.

And not just more conservative -- more specifically like Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Barker said. On topics that Mr. Limbaugh generally doesn't address, like gay rights or abortion, his listeners were indistinguishable from Republicans at large. But on the host's pet topics, like health care or John McCain, the listeners were much more conservative than other Republicans.

Whatever the effects of the conservative dominance of the radio dial, there's no one on the left who can carve meat like Mr. Limbaugh or Mr. Hannity. As for the earnest Ivy League variety, ever eager to engage in serious debate over significant issues, they can always go write for "The West Wing." Its ratings have been falling, by the way.


John Leland writes for the New York Times.


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