We'll Talk About That: Can Liberals Do Radio?

Welcome back to the Talk Radio story that challenges all that right-wing nonsense on the air!! Did you see that Rush Limbaugh now claims to have 20 million listeners to his daily show?!


I don't believe it! It's another one of Rush's tricks. Just not true. But say it's only 12 million! Shouldn't there be limits on how much power one man--who's never even been elected dogcatcher, who doesn't have to disclose a single thing about his finances--I mean, do you want this guy telling even 12 million Americans what to think?! We'll talk about that. And what about these radio stations that feed the public an unbroken stream of conservative hogwash?! Should they be free to make profits with your airways like this? I think maybe they should be required to be balanced. What do you think?


Give me a call.


And I really think we should talk about this!


What in the world is the matter with people who believe this crap? I mean, the Oklahoma City Federal Building blown up deliberately by federal agents?! Bill and Hillary ordering the murder of Vince Foster?!! Secret black helicopters?!!!


What's wrong with these people?


We'll talk about that.


In talk radio, it's called a "churn," or sometimes "the monologue,"--a teasing free-form poem designed by a talk show host to get the juices and phone calls going. It's a pudding of wisecracks, tidbits, and irritations.

Maybe someday the Internet will be the medium, but right now the interactive communications tool of choice is radio: not right-wing conservative, conspiracy-mouthing, ranting, ex-felon-host talk radio--but the whole rich range of news, news talk, medical advice, faux shrinks, arrested-development sports blather, politics, computer and car chat, and general venting.

Cheap, low-tech, free, democratic, mostly AM radio is ground zero of the political discussion explosion. From the point of view of millions of Americans trapped in their cars for hours each day, it is the alternative to brain death. For many owners of AM radio stations, it is turning business disaster into profits. For some hosts it is big-time money, fame, and influence instead of small-market obscurity and a second job. For the ongoing American dialogue, on the other hand, well, it may not be what Rush calls "a thing of beauty." For the public, the body politic, the electorate, talk radio is doing for the quality of information what tabloid TV did to TV news. Too bad.



"I never listen to these guys. I read about them in the papers."

--a Washington politician on talk show hosts


The problem for politically progressive Americans is why the airwaves seem to have filled up with Rush and G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North and Ken Hamblin ("The Black Avenger") and all the rest of the right-wing wackos (as Los Angeles-based host Tom Leykis likes to call them; he points out he isn't one himself). Does this medium just happen to attract angry white men? Do liberals, who excel at sitcoms, feature films, rock and roll, and a great deal else in the popular culture, have some odd blockage when it comes to talk radio? Or is this the voice of the true America?

But is there a problem, really? Not according to many in the radio business who contend that this is more entertainment than politics.

"One, the premise is false," according to radio consultant Walt Sabo, impatience rising in his voice. "Throughout history, to this day, many of the local talk show hosts are liberal. In fact most are." He lists some of them: Jerry Williams in Boston ("a proud liberal"); Lynn Samuels at WABC in New York; Ed Koch at KABC ("the big gest liberal of all"); Ronn Owens in San Fran cisco. "There isn't any lock. There's Rush, who is doing very well, and a couple of others. But most of the successes in local talk--Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Miami, San Fran cisco--are liberals."

Sabo, a deity in the eyes of radio station managers, has been asked about conservative domination of Talk many times and he is annoyed, in a practiced sort of way. I'm slightly intimidated by his tone and back off. He's acting like a talk show host and it works. He's in control.

Chris Lydon on Boston's WBUR is one of those liberals with a show. Relax, he advises liberals. "You have to understand that Rush Limbaugh is humor. It's in this venerable line of American political humor from Mark Twain, Will Rodgers, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl. Most of them on the left. It's `Look at what these damn fool politicians are doing now!' It's just entertainment." You have to think like radio people. Walt Sabo's quick list of cities with big liberal mouths--Los Angeles, New York, and so on--to a broadcaster is a sample of the major American media markets, pretty much the only places they care about.

Get on the air in LA and forget the 65 podunks out there in rectangular states. Total audience, fella. In this view, broadcasters are really no different than politicians counting votes. From an advertising sales point of view, getting Los Angeles, New York, and Miami is like winning California, Texas, and the Northeast. Add up enough victories in big states and you can forget most of the flyover ones.

In his book The Way Things Ought To Be, Limbaugh says that when he was making the move from Podunk--Sacramento, in his case--to a national show in 1987, he put the deal with ABC together only by agreeing to do a two-hour New York local show, for free, and only then ABC threw in the support for the two-hour national program feed that followed. "It is just a fact," Limbaugh writes in his autobiography, "that national advertisers and their agencies will not consider advertising in a show which is not aired in the nation's largest market." Rush Limbaugh got on the air because programmers and time buyers in Manhattan--most of them liberal Democrats, I'll bet--decided to put him there. The problem, if you will--saturation of the radio waves by Rush Limbaugh--was created by buck-chasing New Yorkers. This at least is what radio people, to the last man, say. Rush and Oliver and G. Gordon, on the air, coast to coast, day and night is not politics, they say, just good business.


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Ronn Owens, one of Walt Sabo's "liberals," is the king of talk radio in San Francisco. He rules the nine-to-noon shift on KGO, the market's top-rated radio station; he narrowly beats Rush Limbaugh in the time slot. "It's tight. He destroys me in men and I destroy him in women." Radio talk again, but in the ratings books Owens gets more highly desirable 25- to 54-year-old ears, largely by beating Limbaugh two to one among women listeners. Owens knows these figures like you know your ZIP code, and he thinks constantly about how to organize his show to massage them. When he talks about what works on talk radio, it is an expert opinion. "You're asking me, why aren't there any liberals on talk radio? The main reason, without question, I'm going to tell you, is that they're not entertaining."

Owens's churn is a ten-minute mix of current news items drawn from half a dozen papers, the wires, and CNN. The politics are there, but sugar coated. Should Jerry Falwell's Christian college football players be prevented from kneeling in prayer after a touchdown? "I'm personally insulted at having religion forced upon me at every turn, including those who peddle it at my front door," he says on the air. Off-mike he says, "There's got to be a little bit of baiting, if you're going to do a successful talk show."

More churn: A black man is petitioning to change his name to Mister Radical Adid Super Nigger. Owens is vastly amused. He mentions Devine Brown, Hugh Grant's date, and her brief celebrity, and a bill to require medical insurance to pay for up to 48 hours in the hospital after the birth of a baby. Mark Fuhr man and the Los Angeles Police Depart ment are low on the list. "We're spending too much time on this, folks." The abortion pill: "The bottom line is this: It's a woman's body. She can do what she wants." A news story claims that someone has animated the letters S-E-X into The Lion King.

In the San Francisco environment, Owens is moderate; nationally, Sabo is probably right calling him
liberal and his stripe becomes even clearer if you've listened to him for many hours, as I have. Owens insists he has "no political ideology." This allows him the latitude to be flip and funny on the air, to be entertaining. This, he says, is the key to his success and, by the way, to Rush Limbaugh's. "By and large liberals tend to be very, very serious, very self-righteous, very little self-deprecating humor. The result is they come off dry and unlistenable."

In The Way Things Ought To Be, Lim baugh writes, "The fact is that there aren't too many funny liberals out there, save for most comedians. Most liberals are too busy mired in misery and hand-wringing and doing what they can to spread it."

Owens adds: "It is easier to be entertaining when you don't have crocodile tears to be shed all the time, where you feel every hurt, and you're just barely politically correct. It's very hard to be entertaining when you're in that little box."

Owens says the current fad among talk programmers is "you have to be confrontational, you have to be excessive, that you have to take really extreme points of view to generate the kind of calls that they want." Be Howard Stern, in other words. It is a complaint I've heard from other hosts. Owens, on top of the ratings, can do what he wants. When he hangs up on a caller he is more or less polite about it.

During his show, between traffic reports and commercials, Owens chats with callers--about a dozen calls an hour. He is personable and informal, a neighbor. The talk is of sex, religion, politics, abortion, and race, the subjects that were and are considered dangerous and impolite in the home I grew up in and that still cause fights at dinner tables and bars and offices around America. A "born-again Christian" calls Jerry Falwell a "lunatic right-wing crackpot." Timothy from San Jose calls to say he has just gone all the way through The Lion King and located S-E-X, "when Simba is being chased by three hyenas and jumps off a cliff and rolls down a hill. As he appears from the other side of a rock it's right there [S-E-X], in the dust." I'm actually charmed to learn that the story is true.

A nurse from Santa Cruz talks about "corporate greed" and the California assemblywoman sponsoring the 48-hour hospital stay for new moms calls in to talk to Owens about it. She's extremely earnest and boring. A missed chance for her to win hearts.

"The problem with people who take talk radio too seriously," says Owens, "is that they [think] somehow that it should replace newspapers or magazines. . . . I don't have any high purpose. I do a good, entertaining, positive show. I'm not changing the world."



ABC didn't fire me. Mickey Mouse did.

--Jim Hightower, former talk show host


The ax came down on Jim Hightower last September 5, shortly after he pointed out, on the air, that Michael Eisner's salary was $78,000 a hour and then aired a skit in which Mickey Mouse sang "I'd love to own the world." Eisner runs Disney. Disney was about to own ABC. And ABC was Hightower's employer and syndicator of his radio talk show.

The whole business proves to Hightower that under present circumstances of ownership, there may be room on talk radio for "liberals"--he says there are lots of them, and holds them in disdain--but for populists, voices that would stretch the political imagination, broadcasters have zero tolerance. "The media conglomerates aren't necessarily conservative, or the people who run them aren't. They're liberals. They take delight in talk about immigration, abortion, and welfare, but they don't want you to talk about Big Money. That's too close to home."

"The debate, the national discussion, is so narrow! It's an embarrassment. It's between the wacko right and corporate centrism," he adds. Hightower, a Texan with a background in elected office and journalistic hell-raising, broadcast on ABC for two years from a studio in Austin taking calls on 1-800-AGITATE. He called his work "investigative radio" and he pressed listeners to "track power and follow money." In the national Babel, at least the parts of the tower where Hightower's show aired, he stood out.

"The political spectrum in this country is not right to left, but top to bottom," he says. Clinton is a "corporate centrist," Gingrich "just another political whore."

"I was rallying people to stand up against global greed-heads who are running away with our country and our money and our environment. Mickey [Mouse, that is, Disney/ABC] didn't like that. What other reason could there be [to be fired]?"



Put Hightower on hold there, Leslie. Get ABC's Frank Raphael on the line.


"I take sole credit for the decision to fire Hightower." Frank Raphael is vice president for programming at ABC Radio. Were Hightower's politics the reason? Raphael says no. "The reason was audiences were precipitously declining. We lost Los Angeles, Minneapolis. . . ."

Hightower's business manager, Rae Briggs, admits the show lost markets: "San Diego, Milwaukee, a couple of others." But she also says, "The devil with Frank Raphael. He's just wrong. I personally do not blame Frank Raphael. I rather like him. But he's a company man." She says ABC was pressing Hightower to do a different act, "a more raw discourse. `Just get on the air and shout.' Well, Hightower is a southern gentleman. He's not a shouter." It is the same complaint--be more confrontational--I hear from other hosts.

Just business, says the ABC man. "He [Hightower] was not entertaining. He was dogmatic. His passion and humor, that I know to be present, didn't come over."

Turn down the radio, let the argument continue. In brief, Hightower says "did so," and Raphael, "did not." It is true that Jim Hightower, a warm, very funny man, seems to lose his sense of humor when discussing this subject, and Raphael, a widely admired and liked corporate executive, cannot possibly be taken seriously when he claims to have pulled Hightower's plug without a look over his shoulder.

Into the Hightower slot Raphael programmed a San Francisco liberal named Bernie Ward. "I look for people who primarily are entertaining, who have a unique intelligence and passion, regardless of political persuasion or stripe. This is radio, not politics." Ward adds, "They tell me to be funnier, which is really tough."



Okay, dear bleeding hearts, we're back! Ever wonder who you are? The collective you, out there in listener land? All Ditto Heads? All Angry White Men? Not by a long shot. Grab hold of the steering wheel. I think you're going to be surprised.


In the summer of 1995, Adams Research of Arlington, Virginia polled 3,000 listeners to political talk radio. The results were used to promote the launch of Talk Daily, Adams's fax newsletter. Adams found that nearly half the adults in the country tune in to political talk at least occasionally; one in six seem to be regulars. And they're not all angry men--40 percent are women, and male and female regulars alike are better educated, more affluent (30 percent earn more than $60,000 a year), and are dramatically more engaged in the political process than the average American. A full 90 percent--90 percent!--are registered to vote. Twenty-three percent of them told Talk Daily they were Democrats, 39 percent Independents or "other." This is a population of millions of Americans no political person should ignore.

But what about the information, the propaganda, the agit-prop they're being fed? How important do the regulars find the political information on talk radio? "Very important," 33 percent; "moderately," 34 percent; "slightly," 20 percent; "not at all," 13 percent.

We've slipped into poll hell here, of course. Important is not the same thing as convincing. I, for example, find the political information on Talk "very important," but that's because I'm intrigued that someone could actually say the Oklahoma Federal Building was deliberately blown up by federal agents and not be hauled off to the farm . . . or lynched by the good people of Oklahoma City. I find Talk very important because it's C-Span from outside the Beltway, CNN with feedback. And a hell of a lot more stimulating while I'm driving than Great Hits from the Sixties. Do I believe everything I hear? No. Does anybody you know?

And who are these millions listening to? Rush. Rush is the Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, of political Talk. Thirty-seven percent of the regulars in the survey group tune in to Limbaugh, nearly four times the numbers of second-place G. Gordon Liddy. The top nine political talk hosts reach 60 percent of the daily audience. Of the nine, only two--LA's great Michael Jackson, and Tom Leykis who has a national show--are considered liberals by Talk Daily.



Hello again from your Host. How you doing out there so far? Tough to be a liberal, isn't it? Turn on the radio and there's Ken Hamblin, who actually calls himself "the last colored man in America," calling you "egg-sucking, liberal socialist dogs." Young Mikey Reagan has a national talk show, for God's sake. So does Oliver North, who should be in prison, and G. Gordon Liddy, who was. We've got a president who even we can barely stomach, a Congress that won't return our phone calls, Democratic governors are hard to find, and now you can't turn on the radio without being insulted.


Worst of all, everywhere you go, there's Rush. We'll talk about that.


Take a look at the numbers, courtesy of John Switzer's terrific "Unofficial Rush Limbaugh" web site. Rush is on 660 radio affiliates (with more than 20 million listeners weekly worldwide), 210 television affiliates (with a national rating of 3.7), and his newsletter has more than 500,000 subscribers.

Rush has a larger audience than any elected politician in America, and many of those listeners are proud to call themselves Ditto Heads, of all things. It gives Limbaugh a kind of political power, the ability to generate phone calls or turn out troops that seems unique, not only now, but in modern history.

Hard as it may be to swallow, Rush--this whiney, rude, baiting, one-name, one-note Newt sycophant--has earned the ear of millions of Americans because they enjoy listening to him, not because he is being forced on them by right-wing jerks who own the airwaves. He is a gifted entertainer, and broadcasters--even some who hate his politics--argue it is his talent as much as, or more than, his convictions that make Rush Limbaugh the phenom he is. Too bad for us he didn't learn how to sing. Or juggle. Or paint. Something--anything!--other than Talk.




Talk radio is an anti-Clinton medium. And it was needed, let's face it.

--Christopher Lydon, Boston talk show host


Put yourself in the mind of an honest conservative in 1992, Chris Lydon suggests. America, no fault of yours, has elected a smart, charming Arkansas jerk with a string of girlfriends, weird financial deals, and an arrogant, dissembling wife. The elite media--not to say "liberal" media--is saying "Gennifer Flowers is no big deal, Roosevelt and Kennedy had mistresses," and Whitewater is not worth space in the paper. The "elite media," says Lydon, who used to be part of it, "ignored fundamental problems with Clinton, and with his wife, even after it hit the fan."

Lydon, based on listening to his own callers, says "people are wildly hungry for a general conversation in the media that doesn't talk down to them, which even the newspapers do." Talk, he says, "is a wonderful democratic medium." Limbaugh "is very, very good, very clever. I don't think it's a perilous thing. I know people who thought when Rush came on, `Oh, here come the Brown Shirts.' It's just not."

Radio consultant Walt Sabo accuses liberals of "profound and dangerous arrogance" in their obsession and fear of Limbaugh. "Rush is successful not because he's conservative. If conservatism alone got ratings, George Bush would have gotten a 40 share and been reelected. Liberals think there's some kind of Vulcan Mind Meld going on. `Yes, we will do what Rush says. We will do what Rush says.' Well, so what? It's not happening, but if it does, this is America!"

Sabo argues that the good liberal on the radio can cut it. He cites Jim Phillips, who gets incredible 12-plus ratings in Orlando, a stronghold of the religious right, while advocating legal marijuana and so on. In spite of his politics, "he's simply entertaining to the people of Orlando," Sabo says. Sabo may be right. You must know some politically correct women who buy Rolling Stones records, overlooking the band's legendary and lyrical misogyny?

Ask the shrink, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who has 250 U.S. stations taking her daily advice call-in show. "He [Rush] is responding emotionally and his listeners respond back. . . . What he has to say and how he says it reinforced what people were thinking. It made them feel they had a home, a voice, a representative for their way of thinking. It's very important, like finding a church or synagogue." Dr. Laura isn't a Ditto Head; she's not even exactly a supporter. She says she rarely agrees with what Rush has to say. But when I seem to deprecate Rush's audience, she snaps at me: "They are not fringe. That's insulting. They are mainstream."

If you prefer not to appreciate him, there are also ways to get to Rush, of course. One day I heard him absolutely cowed by some guy talking about the environment. It was quite startling. The caller was running the basic liberal line about the threats to life, health, and various species, and the Great Mouth, who usually talks about eco-Nazis, Tree Huggers and so forth, was essentially shut. I hadn't ever heard anybody control Rush before. After a commercial break, when the caller was off the line, Limbaugh admitted it had been one of the Kennedy boys. Apparently Rush, like the rest of his generation, is impressed by the Kennedys.

Rush also makes mistakes. Anybody who talks off the cuff, in public, three or four hours a day, is going to muff it once in a while, even the Great Ditto Master. But Rush is as thin skinned as any politician about having his slips pointed out. He was fact-checked two summers ago by his enemies at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which found so many assertions to challenge they called it a "reign of error." (You can buy FAIR's book, The Way Things Aren't, from FAIR or sample it on the Web.)

Limbaugh typed back, also on the Web, with thousands of defensive words, a rabbinical battle over the style and history of feminism, the acts of Hillary and Bill, the state of the world environment, the efficacy of condoms, and so on. Rush is as easily wounded as a schoolyard bully. And not a few think Rush will tire his audience. "After a while the act wears thin," says Ronn Owens of San Francisco. "There's no real variety in the program. You know exactly what he's going to say every single day."



Welcome back to the Progressive Broadcasting Network, the voice of common sense for the common person. The radio talk show intended to cast light, not spread darkness. The place for reason, not dogma. The spot to square the record with the Fruitcake Right. The site where we goose the liberal pretender from Hope. Can't stomach Newt and can't swallow Bill?


Give us a call.


The radio guys counsel optimism. A progressive can make it on the radio. Broadcasters will put the devil herself on the air if she can make a buck. Why do you think Howard Stern has a job? Because he's likable, because broadcasters love what he says? If a person of progressive politics can pull the numbers, he'll stay on the radio. The people who promoted, supported, and defended Gangsta Rap will put a pedophile on the air, and come up with a story of why it's a good idea.

But bland and boring is out the door before the fall ratings book.

So what, finally, to do?


Rule One: Talk radio is an entertainment medium--and a profit-making one. The people who run mass media expect it to stay that way. So progressives have to be interesting to get on the air, and they have to value amusement as an end in itself. Car Talk, the fabulous Saturday show from Boston, "is not an auto repair show," says stablemate Chris Lydon. "It's a humor show." Listen very hard, and you will hear progressive politics in Car Talk, a conviction that the automakers will screw the unwary consumer. But the hilarious tone is a far cry from Ralph Nader.

Norman Lear made All In the Family a great show; good politics were there, but they came second. Electronic media communicate largely on emotional terms; that's one of the ways it differs from print. Being nice, getting along, is emotionally flat, bad politics, and bad radio. "Liberals won't go for the jugular," says Michael Krasney, a talk show host who will. Fear of offending--anyone, ever--got us where we are today, and is played out as a political stance.

Rule Two: Don't obsess about talk radio--learn from it. Talk radio is just one outlet among many in the popular culture. It happens to attract more than its share of conservatives, especially cultural conservatives who are white and male. But other realms of the popular culture--Hollywood, popular music, and sitcom and talk show TV to name just four, are culturally liberal. They make fun of big shots, break icons, and preach general rebellion, albeit rebellion of an individualist sort.

The trouble, however, is that culturally left
doesn't add up to politically left. Worse, in fact, it mainly energizes the political right, which demonizes Hollywood and pop music. The talk radio guys like Limbaugh, meanwhile, appropriate the cultural backlash for fairly ordinary political conservatism. It's not at all clear that this adds up to a conservative revolution, but it does mean that the right is better than the left at translating free-floating populist discontent into politics. In that respect, talk radio, far more than polling and focus groups, could be a handy reality check for liberals who spend too much time talking to each other. It would be a sign of political recovery if more liberals could score with an AM talk radio audience.

Rule Three: We lost, they won. But the right is superb at pretending--believing--that they're still the outsiders, arrayed against an all-powerful liberal establishment. Though the media gives vent to outrageously avant-garde notions of sexuality, rebellion, violence, in the talk shows and the sitcoms its corporate ownership structure is safely conservative. So liberals lose both ways: The apparent cultural radicalism fuels conservative anger about femi-Nazis taking over, and gives the right a populist, insurgent outsider aura--while business runs the country. Ordinary folks who resent that status quo find their gut-anger articulated by conservative populists, not liberal ones.


Liberals should start talking like outsiders, because face it--that's what they are. And that's also better radio. It's simply not interesting radio to hear the winner (the right) complaining all the time. The winners can hardly whine about what the rulers are doing . . . because their friends are in charge now. There is an opening here, and the guys who run radio know it. One hears around that even the man who discovered Rush is looking for a good Lefty to put on.

Let's face it: Old-fashioned liberalism isn't selling in the present packaging. The packaging lost us control of the hearts and minds of the voters, and then of the government. Why would it work on the radio?

If you consider everything from bumper stickers to T-shirts to the Internet, we are awash in information. Much of it is raw, and talk radio is part of the angry, inchoate noise. It is certainly accessible and democratic, which is not true of most mass communication tools. It is one place where the sound bites are getting longer, not shorter. It is not unduly influenced by City Hall, not inside the Beltway, and it takes politics seriously, though not politicians. So liberals ought to give it a try.

Rule Four: Everything is harder than it looks. When Jerry Brown decided to be a talk show host, Michael Krasney says Jerry called for advice. "I told him to be funny, and to listen well," Krasney told me. A moment later, we both started to laugh. Jerry Brown can do neither. The right worked really hard to take over America. Talk show hosts are generally talented to begin with, and work hard on top of that. Nobody--nobody--is giving anything away these days. Not control of Congress, not talk show jobs. Jerry's show, of course, failed.

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