The New Politics of Radio Talk Shows
Over fifty years ago, Frank Capra brought to the motion picture screen images of ordinary Americans finding their political voice outside of formal governmental and corporate institutions. The message that common folks could reassert their place in a democratic system that had become inaccessible to them, and corrupted by elites, resonated loudly with depression-era audiences. In films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe, mass communication played a pivotal role in effecting change. Populist heroes used alternative media, including radio and newsletters, to compete with the mainstream press in their crusade to put politics back into the hands of the people. Although the good guys did not always win in the end, their efforts generated hope and energized a discouraged citizenry.
Until very recently, however, alternative sources of political information were oriented so as to exclude, rather than engage, the mass public. In keeping with the tone of privileged cliquishness set by government leaders in the 1980s, especially, the "highbrow" nature of most nonmainstream political media (e.g., Meet the Press and The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour) discouraged citizens from seeking more comprehensive information than they received from nightly network television news programs. As a result, Americans earned a reputation for being poorly informed about politics ( Bennett 1988).
Yet there is evidence that Capra's vision of a media-supported populism is not entirely lost in today's political environment. Since the 1992 presidential election, Americans have been turning increasingly to nontraditional channels of political communication to learn about government leaders and issues, and to make themselves seen and heard. Entertainment programs have developed into political forums that offer the public fresh access to the polity. Talk radio and television talk shows, in particular, have become mainstays of many average citizens' political media diet. In the process, politicians are finding it difficult to avoid engaging the public in political dialogue.