Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Americans' Exposure to Political Talk Radio and Their Knowledge of Public Affairs

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Americans' Exposure to Political Talk Radio and Their Knowledge of Public Affairs

Article excerpt

Although call-in programs have been on radio since the 1930s, talk shows emerged as a new medium for political communication during the early 1990s (Davis & Owen, 1998). Yet, the size of political talk radio's audience has declined since the early 1990s (Hollander, 1999). In April 1993, for example, 23% of the public claimed to listen to political talk radio shows "regularly," and 22% said they "never" listened. But in April and May, 2000, 14% of adult Americans said they "regularly" listened to political talk radio, and 40% said they "never" heard these shows (Pew Center, 2000).

The reasons for this decline are not obvious. As Hollander (1999) showed, there is a good deal of turnover in talk radio's audience, and the net result is a smaller listenership. Another explanation is generational preference (Putnam, 2000). As members of younger birth cohorts who are disinterested in politics and less likely to partake of any form of news media (Delli Carpini, 2000) replace older, more politically engaged cohorts, a decline in listening to political talk radio would follow. The Pew Center's Spring 2000 media exposure poll shows that members of younger birth cohorts, who were born after 1965, are slightly less likely to say they "regularly" listen to talk radio than members of birth cohorts who were born before 1945.

An important question about political talk radio is whether it contributes to citizens' knowledge about public affairs. Political knowledge is an excellent measure of the public's political sophistication (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Luskin, 1987; Mondak, 2000; Neuman, 1986). Theorists have argued that citizens should be well informed about public affairs if democracy is to succeed (Thompson, 1970). Although some have disputed the notion that democracy depends on an informed public (Popkin, 1994; Page & Shapiro, 1992), the "low information rationality" argument denudes democratic citizenship of its vitality (Herbst, 1999).

This is a study of listening to political talk radio shows and knowledge of public affairs. Are talk show listeners better informed than non-listeners as the medium's supporters have claimed (Rehm, 1995), or do these shows appeal primarily to the politically unsophisticated as their detractors have alleged (Kurtz, 1997)?

Along with the Internet and the World Wide Web, talk television programs, television news "magazines," electronic "town meetings," electronic and print tabloids, and MTV, political talk radio shows constitute the "new media" of political communication in the U.S. Davis and Owen (1998), along with other researchers (e.g., Graber, 1997; Neuman, 1991, 1998) have noted that "the new media are quantitatively and qualitatively different from the mainstream press" (p. 7).

One feature that distinguishes political talk radio from other forms of the new media is its greater involvement in the public opinion process (Glynn, Herbst, O'Keefe, & Shapiro, 1999). As Levin noted in 1987, when as the medium was assuming a new importance, "Talk radio is now a significant vehicle of public opinion in America" (p. xii). Moreover, as Davis and Owen (1998) wrote, "Talk radio has taken a lead role in fostering a nexus between citizens and politics" (p. 5). Hence, it behooves public opinion researchers to explore the medium's connection to the citizenry.

Several studies have linked exposure to talk radio and political information levels (Bennett, 1998; Davis & Owen, 1998; Hofstetter, Barker, Smith, Zari, & Ingrassia, 1999; Hollander, 1994, 1996; Owen, 1996; Rubin & Step, 2000; Traugott, Berinsky, Cramer, Howard, Mayer, Schuckman, Tewksbury, & Young, 1996). These studies typically found that exposure to political talk radio shows resonates with knowledge about public affairs. Based on these studies, one would hypothesize a statistically significant, positive relationship between listening to talk radio shows and political knowledge. …

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