Talking Back To Talk Radio - Fairness, Democracy, and Profits

"All Democrats are fat, lazy, and stupid," the talk-show host said in grave, serious tones as if he were uttering a sacred truth.

We were driving to Michigan for the holidays, and I was tuning around, listening for the stations I'd worked for two and three decades ago. I turned the dial. "It's a Hannity For Humanity house," a different host said, adding that the Habitat For Humanity home he'd apparently hijacked for his own self-promotion would only be given to a family that swears it's conservative. "No liberals are going to get this house," he said.

Turning the dial again, we found a convicted felon ranting about the importance of government having ever-more powers to monitor, investigate, and prosecute American citizens without having to worry about constitutional human rights protections. Apparently the combining of nationwide German police agencies (following the terrorist attack of February 1933 when the Parliament building was set afire) into one giant Fatherland Security Agency answerable only to the Executive Branch, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its SchutzStaffel, was a lesson of history this guy had completely forgotten. Neither, apparently, do most Americans recall that the single most powerful device used to bring about the SS and its political master was radio.

Is history repeating itself?

Setting aside the shrill and nonsensical efforts of those who suggest the corporate-owned media in America is "liberal," the situation with regard to talk radio is particularly perplexing: It doesn't even carry a pretense of political balance. While the often-understated Al Gore recently came right out and said that much of the corporate-owned media are "part and parcel of the Republican Party," those who listen to talk radio know it has swung so far to the right that even Dwight Eisenhower or Barry Goldwater would be shocked.

Average Americans across the nation are wondering how could it be that a small fringe of the extreme right has so captured the nation's airwaves? And done it in such an effective fashion that when they attack folks like Tom Daschle, he and his family actually get increased numbers of death threats? How is it that ex-felons like John Poindexter's protegee Ollie North and Nixon's former burglar G. Gordon Liddy have become stars? How is it that ideologues like Rush Limbaugh can openly promote hard-right Republicans, and avoid a return of the dead-since-Reagan Fairness Doctrine (and get around the desire of the American public for fairness) by claiming what they do is "just entertainment"?

And, given the domination of talk radio by the fringe hard-right that represents the political views of only a small segment of America, why is it that the vast majority of talk radio stations across the nation never run even an occasional centrist or progressive show in the midst of their all-right, all-the-time programming day?

Even within the radio industry itself, there's astonishment.

Program directors and station managers I've talked with claim they have to program only hard-right hosts. They point out that when they insert even a few hours of a centrist or progressive talk host into a typical talk-radio day, the station's phone lines light up with angry, flaming reactions from listeners; even advertisers get calls of protest. Just last month, a talk-radio station manager told me solemnly, "Only right-wingers listen to AM radio any more. The lefties would rather read."

How could this be? After all, an "environmentalist" Democrat - Al Gore - won the majority of the popular vote in the last presidential election, with a half-million more votes than any other presidential candidate (of any party) in the entire history of the nation. How could it be that there are only two Democratic or progressive voices in major national radio syndication, and only a small handful in partial syndication or on local shows?

The issue is important for two reasons.

First, in a nation that considers itself a democratic republic, the institutions of democracy are imperiled by a lack of balanced national debate on issues of critical importance. As both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia learned, a steady radio drumbeat of a single viewpoint - from either end of the political spectrum - is not healthy for democracy when opposing voices are marginalized.

Second, what's happened recently in the radio industry represents a business opportunity of significant proportions. The station manager I talked with is wrong, because of something in science known as "sample bias." He was assuming his radio listeners represent all radio listeners, a critical error.

Here's why the talk radio scene is so dominated by the right, and how it can become more democratic. First, a very brief history:

When radio first became a national force in the 1920s and 1930s, most stations programmed everything. Country/Western music would be followed by Big Band, followed by Mozart, followed by drama or comedy. Everything was jumbled together, and people needed the newspaper program guides to know when to listen to what.

As the market matured, and drama and comedy moved to television, radio stations realized there were specific market segments and niches within those segments to which they could program. And they realized that people within those niches had very specific tastes. Country/Western listeners only wanted to hear Country/Western - Big Band put them off, and classical music put them to sleep. Classical music fans, on the other hand, became irritated when Country/Western or the early versions of Rock 'n Roll came on the air. And Rock fans clicked off the moment Frank Sinatra came on.

So, as those of us who've worked in the business saw, stations began to program into these specific musical niches, and it led to a new renaissance (and profit windfall) in the radio business.

But to make money in the new world of radio that emerged in the 1950s, you had to be true to your niche.

When I was a Country/Western DJ, if I had tried to drop in a song from The Rolling Stones, my listeners would have gone ballistic, calling in and angrily complaining. Similarly, when I was doing morning drive-time Rock, it would have been suicide to drop in four minutes of Mozart. Smart programmers know to always hold true to their niche and their listeners.

At first, radio talk shows were seen as a way of fulfilling FCC community service requirements. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was a reporter and news anchor at WITL-AM/FM in Lansing, Michigan, we had an afternoon talk show that ran from 2 to 3 pm. Usually hosted by the station's general manager, the late Chuck Drake, and sometimes fill-in hosted by us in the news staff, the show was overtly run to satisfy the FCC's mandate that stations "serve the public interest." Thus, our talk show focused mostly on public-interest issues, from local and national politics to lost dog reports, and we tried hard to present all viewpoints fairly (as was then required by the FCC's Fairness Doctrine).

In that, we were following a long radio tradition. Modern talk radio as a major force in America started in 1926, when Catholic priest Father Charles E. Coughlin took to the airwaves. By the mid-1930s, as many as a full third of the entire nation - an estimated 45 million people - listened to his weekly broadcasts. His downfall, and the end of the 15-year era of talk radio he'd both created and dominated, came in the early 1940s when the nation was at war and Hitler was shipping millions of Jews to the death camps. For reasons still unknown (Alzheimer's is suspected), Coughlin launched into hard-right anti-Semitic tirades in his broadcasts, blaming an international Jewish conspiracy for communism, the Great Depression, World War II, and most of the world's other ills. His sudden shift to the radical right disgusted his listeners, and led his superiors in the Catholic Church to demand he retire from radio and return to his parish duties where he died in relative obscurity. Many say the Fairness Doctrine came about in part because of Coughlin.

A generation later, a new Father Coughlin emerged in the form of Rush Limbaugh, an articulate and talented talk-show host out of Sacramento. Joe Pyne (a conservative who almost always had a liberal with him on the air) was dead, and conservative investors and programmers were looking to unseat the fabulously popular liberal talker Alan Berg and bring "balance" to America's airwaves. (In June of 1984, the year Rush began "issues talk" on Sacramento's KFBK, Berg was machine-gunned to death by right-wingers claiming they were from the Aryan Nation.) Within four years, Rush rose to national status by offering his program free of charge to stations across the nation. Station managers, not being business dummies, laid off local talent and picked up Rush's free show, leading to a national phenomena: the Limbaugh show was one of America's greatest radio success stories, spreading from state to state faster than any modern talk show had ever done. (Such free or barter offerings are now standard in the industry.)

And, station managers discovered, there is a loyal group of radio listeners (around 20 million occasional listeners, with perhaps one to five million who consider themselves "dittoheads") who embraced Rush's brand of overt hard-right spin, believing every word he says even though he claims his show is "just entertainment" to avoid a reemergence of the Fairness Doctrine and the political-activity provisions of McCain/Feingold. The sudden success of Rush led local radio station programmers to look for more of the same: there was a sudden demand for Rush-clone talkers who could meet the needs of the nation's Rush-bonded listeners, and the all-right-wing-talk radio format emerged, dominated by Limbaugh and Limbaugh-clones in both style and political viewpoint.

Thus, the extreme fringe of the right wing dominates talk radio not because all radio listeners are right-wingers, but, instead, because the right wingers and their investors were the first to the market with a consistent and predictable programming slant, making right-wing-talk the first large niche to mature in the newly emergent talk segment of the radio industry. Listeners always know what they'll get with Rush or one of his clones, and programming to a loyal and identifiable audience is both the dream and the necessity of every radio station's management.

Which brings us to the opportunity this represents for Democrats, progressives, radio stations, and those interested in supporting democracy by bringing balance to the nation's airwaves.

Going back to the music radio programming analogy, think of Rush and Rush-clone-right-wing-talk as if it were Country/Western music. It's unique, instantly recognizable, and has a loyal and definable audience, just like any of the specific music niches. This explains why it's nearly impossible to successfully program progressive talk in the halfway fashion that's often been tried (and often failed) up to today.

The rules are the same as in music programming: any competent radio station program director knows they'll get angry listeners if they drop an hour of Rock or Rap into a Country/Western programming day. It's equally easy to predict that if you were to drop an hour or three of a progressive talker like Mike Malloy or Peter Werbe into a day dominated by Rush and his clones, the listeners will be outraged. After all, those particular listeners thought they were tuned into an all-right-wing station.

But that response doesn't mean - as conservatives in the radio industry suggest - that there is no market for progressive talk radio. What it means is that there's not yet an awakening in the broadcast industry to the reality that they're missing a huge unserved market. But, like with right-wing talk, for balanced or progressive talk radio to succeed it must be programmed consistently throughout the day (and with talent as outrageous and interesting as Rush and his most successful clones).

Most stations who today identify themselves as "talk radio" stations are really programming the specific niche of "hard-right-Republican-talk-radio," and the niche of "progressive-and-Democratic-talk-radio" (which would speak to an equal sized market) is just beginning to emerge and mature. Only a small handful of stations have made a serious effort to program progressive talk, and the only national network to offer any of it in a serious fashion, the "i.e. America Network," hasn't yet made the distinction between "progressive talk" and "soft/advice talk," and, thus, doesn't offer a full day and night's lineup of "hard" progressive talkers along with their "soft" talkers who break up the day.

The key to success for both radio stations and networks is to realize that talk radio isn't a monolithic niche - it's matured into a category, like music did in the 1950s - and within that category there are multiple niches, including the very large demographic niches of conservative talk, relationship-advice talk, progressive talk, and sports talk, and smaller niches of travel talk, investment talk, medical talk, local talk, etc.

The station programmers I've talked with who've tried a progressive or centrist talker for an hour or two, only to get angry responses from dittoheads, think this means only extreme-right-wing talkers (and, ideally, convicted felons or those who "declare war on liberals") will make money for their station. And, because they've already carved out the hard-right-Republican-talk niche and alienated the progressive/Democrat niche, they're right.

But for stations who want to get into talk in a market already dominated by right-wing talkers on competing stations, the irrefutable evidence of national elections and polls shows that believing only right-wingers will bring listeners (and advertisers) is a mistake. All they need do is what anybody with music programming experience would recommend: identify their niche and stick with it. (Cynics say stations won't program Democrats because owners and management are all "rich Republicans": to this, I say they should listen to some of the music being profitably produced and programmed by America's largest publishing and broadcasting corporations. Profits, for better or worse, are relatively opinion-free.)

By running Democratic/progressive-talk in a programming day free of right-wing talkers, stations will open up a new niche and ride it to success. This is a particularly huge opportunity for music stations who look with envy at the success of talk stations in their market, but haven't been willing to jump in because all the best right-wing talkers are already on the competition: all they need do is put on progressive talkers, and they'll open a new, unserved, and profitable niche.

And, with right-wing ideologues now in charge of our government, the time has never been better: as Rush showed during the Clinton years (the peak of his success), "issues" talk thrives best in an underdog environment. It's in the American psyche to give a fair listen to people challenging the party in power.

Those stations that take the plunge into progressive talk will serve democracy by offering a loyal opposition (which Americans always appreciate), and earn healthy revenues in an industry where it's increasingly difficult to find a profitable niche. And whichever network is first to realize this simple reality and provide stations with solid progressive or Democrat talk programming will build a strong, viable, and financially healthy business.

If you're in the business, consider seriously this advice from an old radio station programmer. And if you listen to radio, call your local stations (both talk and music) to let them know that you want to hear progressive or Democrat voices, and will even patronize the advertisers of such shows when they run them.

It's time to revitalize democracy and rational political discourse by returning balance to our nation's airwaves, and the profits to be made in this huge unfilled niche may be just the catalyst to bring it about.