By Alan Caruba
In the wake of the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama, I began to wonder how influential conservative talk radio is.
Serendipitously, I received a copy of Fred V. Lucas’ new book, “The Right Frequency: The Story of Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment” ($18.95, History Publishing Company).
Throughout the 1980s and 90s I was a guest on television and a lot on talk radio thanks to a popular media spoof, The Boring Institute, that offered lists of The Most Boring Celebrities of the Year, the Most Boring Films, et cetera. After 9/11 I put the Institute on hiatus and then ended it.
This was, coincidently, the same era that saw the rise of talk radio and, in particular, the rise of conservative talk radio stars such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others with audiences in the millions. What has me wondering about their influence, however, is the latest election in which Obama gained a sufficient margin to defeat Mitt Romney despite what is arguably the worst economy since the Great Depression, the passage of Obamacare over the protests of millions of Americans, and similar issues that would ordinarily have rendered him a one-term President.
Perhaps the 2008 election was just an anomaly, given the novelty of a Black candidate and the intense support of the mainstream media. But that pattern repeated itself in 2012 and, despite the 24/7 conservative radio chatter, it did not sway voters.
As Lucas noted, “Of listeners to the news talk format of radio, 77 percent voted in the 2008 presidential election, according to the 2010 Talk Radio Research Project conducted by Talkers Magazine, which covers the talk radio industry. That does not mean Limbaugh or for that matter Ed Schultz is the reason certain people vote…it is quite likely that the entertainment value of talk radio—a mixture of satire and commentary—has made ordinary Americans more engaged in politics than they would be if talk radio did not have such a large reach, even if some of those listeners are just tuning in to argue with the host.”
Some statistics are helpful. According to the 2010 Talk Radio Research Project, 81% of all news talk radio listeners are 35 years or older. “Interestingly, just 28% identify themselves as Republicans, while 54% identify themselves as independent.” Politically, 40% identified themselves as either conservative or ultra-conservative, while just 15% identified themselves as liberal or ultra-liberal.” Talk radio is essentially preaching to the choir.
The lack of liberal talk radio suggests that liberals are less involved with the medium and the failure of Air America Radio with hosts that included Jeanine Garafolo and Al Franken was impressive. Lucas said it was “a chaotic mess from its launch with changing ownership, a revolving door of management, and worse yet, a corruption charge.” In 2005 it filed for bankruptcy.
For my part, I make a point of listening to the first ten or fifteen minutes of Limbaugh, knowing that he will spend the next three hours exploring a particular theme on any given day. Where I live on the East Coast, WABC radio provides lots of conservative talk and, in the evening, I watch Fox News, but often do not watch for long. Most of the news I absorb daily comes from Internet news sites and my daily reading of The Wall Street Journal.
Is Rush Limbaugh influential? Obama seems to think so because Rush has now replaced George W. Bush as his favorite bogyman and punching bag.
It’s worth noting that Rush does not endorse candidates and was lukewarm towards both McCain and Romney during the past two elections. Lucus quotes him as saying “I don’t say that I have influence. I was totally opposed to the 1990 budget deal and it still happened. I am not an activist…this is entertainment.”
That, I suspect, is Limbaugh’s great appeal. He is very entertaining. It does not, so far as I can see, translate into influence at the polls because many of Rush’s devoted “Ditto Heads” may, as they did in the last election, decided to stay home.
The Obama White House knows it has the mainstream media in its pocket. They have become little more than a megaphone for its policies and, these days, an instrument of liberal propaganda. The White House political agenda is advanced by a no-holds-barred attack on anyone who oppose their policies and, of late, a deliberate effort to undermine the Republican Party that is still reeling from the 2012 loss.
Obama’s thuggish politics these days involves attacking the leading conservative news outlet. In an interview with The New Republic, Obama continues to denigrate Fox News and Limbaugh, claiming that “the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word.” This is a President who has demonstrated no inclination to compromise on anything and a disdain for Congress and the Constitution.
The end of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 that required equal time for opposing political views marked the rise of conservative talk radio. Today it can be heard locally and in syndication from coast to coast. Reagan vetoed legislation to make it the law of the land calling it unconstitutional.
That does not mean, however, that conservative talk radio is influential because it appeals to an older, better educated audience, a demographic that leaves out those under 35 and low income listeners, an increasing percentage of whom are on some form of government dole.
A significant portion of “low information” voters who elected Obama were not listening to conservative talk radio. The popularity of Fox News does not appear to translate into any effect on Congress or the White House. They were all over the Benghazi scandal and it has fizzled.
Despite dwindling newspaper circulation, despite the rise of the Internet as a provider of news, and despite the popularity of conservative talk radio, it would appear that the mainstream media is winning by parroting the daily White House “talking points” and by burying White House scandals such as the Benghazi cover-up. The recent Sunday “Sixty Minutes” interview with the President and out-going Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is testimony to the slavish support of the mainstream media.
It does not help that the Republican Party is struggling to put forth a cohesive and persuasive agenda or that it lacks the kind of leadership that reflects the kind of adulation and support the President continues to enjoy.
The numbers that do listen and watch to conservative talk radio are impressive, but it is not translating into an impact on Capitol Hill and none in the White House. And that is the definition of influence.
© Alan Caruba, 2013