Political Talk Radio: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

By Hofstetter, C. Richard; Gianos, Christopher L. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Political Talk Radio: Actions Speak Louder Than Words


Hofstetter, C. Richard, Gianos, Christopher L., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Tom Shales, the Washington Post's television critic, labeled the 1992 presidential election "the talk show campaign" because of the influence of radio and televised talk shows (Jost, 1994). During the past ten years the number of all-talk radio stations or news-and-talk stations has more than quadrupled to about 850 stations in the United States. The flamboyance and surge in the popularity of the format has led commentators to speculate about its impact on the political process (Katz, 1991; Page & Tannenbaum, 1996). Even on talk radio programs, the effects of political talk radio on politics have been widely debated.

Political talk radio is a forum used by politicians and political candidates to discuss policy issues and broader philosophical issues pertaining to government, often in a controlled environment without serious challenges from the media or opposing views (Carlson, 1993). From their pulpit, talk radio hosts and guests attack government, specific policies, and opposing leaders while using this position as a way to advance their own ideologies. There is no dearth of commentary about the impact of political talk radio. Perhaps because its growing popularity as an information and entertainment source, rigorous scientific studies of talk radio are beginning to appear, although the studies still raise many questions. This study examines political talk radio listeners by focusing on specialized groups of passive, active, and non- listeners and describing associated political behaviors.

Background

Concern about political talk radio expressed by many commentators parallels anxieties about other electronic technologies. Although the most dire consequences have not been realized, new technologies have vastly increased the amount of information available and have enhanced the role of mass media as the major distributor of political information to Americans (Weaver, 1996; Dalton, 1996: 21-24; Graber, 1993; Herbst, 1995; Schement, Belay & Jeong, 1993; Meehan, 1984; Zukin, 1981). The medium has been described as a mechanism that can focus popular uprisings against social and political elites under the appropriate conditions (Page & Tannenbaum, 1996), although one recent analysis documented an absence of mobilization messages in manifest content (Davis, 1996).

A vast literature suggests that television may have decreased the trust Americans have in government (Ansolabehere, Iyengar, Simon, & Valentino, 1994; Patterson, 1993; Zukin, 1981; Robinson, 1976), increased and altered political participation and psychological involvement, increased the level of factual and other information available about issues, personalities, appeals, and controversies (Weaver, 1996; Mondak, 1995; Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993), and informed persons who might not have had access otherwise (Qualter, 1989; Herman & Chomsky, 1988), albeit in ways that may be unintentionally (Qualter, 1989) or intentionally misleading (Herman & Chomsky, 1988).

Political Talk Radio

Chasing audience ratings no less vigorously than television (Prato, 1993), radio stations typically operate with much smaller, more closely targeted audiences and therefore are more substantively specialized than television, often focusing on a mix of local and national issues (Schement, Belay, & Jeong, 1993; Broadcasting, 1990). Some syndicated commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, focus on highly ideologically charged national issues that usually have implications for local politics. Most talk stations also present programming by local commentators concerning local issues, sometimes with a flamboyant and ideological coloration mimicking that of the national hosts. In San Diego for example we found Roger Hedgecock, former mayor of the city, mimicked national hosts but focused on issues of concern to the San Diego region.

Three decades of episodic talk radio research has summarized thematic and stylistic content of what is said and how it is presented (Crittenden, 1971; Avery & Ellis, 1977; Murray & Vedlitz, 1987), surveyed talk radio station callers (Armstrong & Rubin, 1989; Tramer & Jeffres, 1983; Bierig & Dimmick, 1979; Turow, 1974; Crittenden, 1971), studied community populations that include non-listeners as well as listeners (Hofstetter, Donovan, Klauber, Cole, Huie, & Yuasa, 1994; Surlin, 1986) or national populations (Traugott, Berinsky, Cramer, Howard, Mayer, Schuckman, Prieto, Tewksbury, & Young, 1996). …

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