Magazine article The American Prospect

Reclaiming the Air: Rush Limbaugh Created the Model for Conservative Talk Radio. Now a New Network Hopes to Use Comedy-Liberally-To Build an Alternative

Magazine article The American Prospect

Reclaiming the Air: Rush Limbaugh Created the Model for Conservative Talk Radio. Now a New Network Hopes to Use Comedy-Liberally-To Build an Alternative

Article excerpt

THIS SPRING, IF ALL GOES ACCORDING to plan, a new radio network with programs modeled after Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will make its debut. The viewpoint of the venture is the big news. Air America Radio, as it's now being called, promises to be the first commercial network with a liberal political outlook in a medium that for years has been dominated by conservatives.

Of all the media, radio has undergone the most decisive shift to the right during the past two decades. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative

talk-show hosts do not merely outdraw and outnumber liberals; they have hardly any progressive competition at the national level. Although public-radio stations broadcast liberal voices, they do not offer a counterweight to the hard-right slant of talk radio and the express support that its biggest stars provide the Republican Party. Limbaugh played a critical role in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and in George W. Bush's defeat of John McCain and Al Gore in 2000. The Democrats have no one on the air who can rally their troops.

Two aspects of radio make it difficult today to redress the political balance. People generally listen to stations for their format--Top 40, country, rock, news, talk--rather than a specific program. Radio stations are "mood buttons," as Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications, calls them. Once Limbaugh and others established the conservative talk format, other shows along similar lines fit readily into that model and mood. But liberal talk shows on the same buttons haven't succeeded--the audience wasn't theirs. A serious liberal enterprise in radio now faces the challenge of creating an entire lineup for a new format--a far more expensive proposition than producing a few hours of programming.

But getting this new lineup on the air is also harder today than it was even a decade ago because of the changed structure of the industry. Since Congress eliminated limits on station ownership in 1996, large chains with centralized decision making have taken over a growing share of commercial stations, including many of the strongest and most desirable ones in top markets. "You can't rely on a syndication strategy because of central decisions about programming," argues Kaplan, who has been involved in Air America's development. National distribution, in this view, requires full control of a network's major-market stations by leasing them or buying them outright. That means a liberal network has to jump over an even higher investment hurdle.

Conservative domination of talk radio seems so well entrenched that many take it as an unalterable part of the political landscape. To conservatives themselves, it's proof of popular support, as if the country weren't split nearly down the middle in elections and opinion surveys. And even some liberals wonder whether there isn't something about radio as a medium that lends itself to the right.

History doesn't support that interpretation. In the United States, radio has twice served as a critical medium of progressive change. During the 1930s and '40s, when conservative publishers dominated the press, Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal agencies reached the public directly through the airwaves. Although right-wing figures also got on the air, radio was a political equalizer for liberals. Surveys from the period show that Democrats were more oriented to radio, Republicans to newspapers. Radio, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld wrote in 1941, "is probably at this moment the most neutral and fairest institution in the country" because of the balance between "the businessmen who own it" and the New Dealers who regulate it.

During the 1950s and '60s, radio played a key role in progressive change for a second time, even as the medium underwent a transformation after the advent of television. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.