Talk Radio: A Very Powerful Political Force
Talk radio is a very powerful political force. And millions of people are listening. We can tune in on AM radio any day or night to hear a talk show. Some stations, such as ABC and WOR, the two biggest in N.Y.C., broadcast live 24-hours a-day, weekdays, while others only part of the day.
The beginning of talk programs dates back to the earliest days of radio itself, in the twenties. The first talk programs featured hosts offering advice on such topics as health, farming, and science, as well as discussions on the latest current events. They included the political and religious rantings of Father Charles Coughlin and the political round table discussions on America's Town Meeting of the Air. Although these early programs lacked the live, on-air interaction with listeners that is the hallmark of today's talk radio, some programs would answer listener mail on the air.
Then, in the midfifties, a FCC ruling allowed stations to broadcast phone calls, and the current...format was born. Among the earliest practitioners...were Joe Pyne and Joel Spivak in Los Angeles and Larry Glick in Boston. Talk radio as a full program format has been around since the early sixties, beginning on stations such as KMOX in St. Louis and KABC and KLAC in Los Angeles.
The format has been enormously successful in many incarnations, but in 1992 was a watershed year as presidential candidates began using talk radio...to get their message directly to voters. Since then, the shows and the hosts have received increased media attention, and the format has become not only a forum of discussion, but the topic of discussion on a national level." [i]
Whatever they do, the one thing we know for sure is that people are listening. Not just in the U.S., but worldwide. The most listened-to host, by far, is Rush Limbaugh. He is from Cape Girardeau, Missouri and began his illustrious career, in the mid 1980's as a disc jockey on a very popular local show in California. First he "conquered" Sacramento. He jokes, "I wasn't just a 'big fish in a small pond, Hell, I was a whale in a bathtub'"! (Limbaugh 90) Then he expanded to San Francisco.
Now he broadcasts live from WABC's studio, in Manhattan, weekdays, from 12:00-3:00 PM, on the Excellence in Broadcasting Network. He began with a two-hour local and two-hour national show in 1988. Then in 1990, he expanded the national show to three hours and phased out the local. Soon he became so popular that some restaurants opened "Rush Rooms": a room specially designated for people who want hear his radio show while eating lunch. By the summer of 1993, his popularity grew so, that he began broadcasting internationally by bouncing off a satellite to Hawaii, Europe, Australia, the South Pacific, Samoa, Guam, on Short Wave and Armed Forces radio.
That helped create a new word for talk radio listeners: infomaniacs. It is somebody such as me with an insatiable thirst for information. In my case it grew into one for wisdom and knowledge too.
Among the local hosts such as the late Barry Gray are some seasoned veterans. He hosted a very successful daily call-in show here in the NY, metropolitan area. It was broadcast on WOR-710 AM, weekdays from 7:00-9:00 PM. Others such as Bob Grant have done the same and is now hosting a four show (three national and one local). He is on weekday afternoons, from 3-7, on WOR.
Grant is more famous for his volatility than his tremendous vocabulary. He often screams at callers, "Get off my phone, you jerk! I gotta get out of here; I can't take this anymore! I can't stand stupid people and despise it when callers waste my time with chit chat by asking me how I am!" (Grant 90)
Talk radio appeals to people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia because the disorder often makes reading difficult. Others listen while driving and many listen at home while doing other things because, unlike t.v, they can move around. I listen because it is thought provoking. I can access a forum of ideas and opinions from people across the country.
It has become the subject of many articles and books. As a major part of his research, Murray B. Levin listened to over 700 hours of talk-radio to learn and understand everything about this powerful phenomenon. He then wrote a book entitled, "Talk Radio and the American Dream." [ii]
It is no surprise to most Americans know that the 1960's were a very social conscious raising era: the civil rights movements, protests on college campuses and public burning of draft cards and bras. For the first time ever reality was in our face. Television brought Vietnam into our living rooms every night.
According to Levin, "This era many used talk radio as a pressure valve. It was a place to vent. This all led to discussions on the radio. It became a forum for the discussion of ideas and opinions." (Levin 15)
Talk radio is potentially democratic and it can be a real forum and a window to the world. Day in and day out, from morning till night listeners call-in because it offers a chance at education and self-improvement. A good host can have an open and remarkably democratic exchange. The lines are open to all. There is no color line, political test, qualification or revelation of income or class, and no charge for access. Callers are protected by their anonymity. (Levin 15)
Another great thing about it is that despite living in a high-tech, computerized world you can "log-on" and "surf" this "Internet", 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, free. You do not need a computer and best of all can do it anywhere! Batteries make it portable. The only hardware needed is an AM radio.
Some hosts use it advance their ideology or political candidate. They are professional talkers and manipulators. The callers rarely match skill. Many are nervous, unsure of what they have in mind or how to express it, especially since the situation is one-sided. Despite this, working-class listeners are often encouraged to participate. It is the only medium providing an audience for them that is not dominated by established figures, romance, cops and robbers, or celebrities. It is informal, free of the restraints imposed by television's structured panel of experts, where established guests are expected to deserve the protocol of propriety and time is limited. (Levin 16)
Many radio shows broadcast four-hours daily. This allows time to develop some serious conversations. But quality rests on the host. His personality attracts listeners. Like millions, I tune into Rush Limbaugh for his wit and very irreverent sense of humor. He mentions Hillary Clinton and plays, "Here she comes. Watch out, she'll chew you up. She's A Man Eater." [iii] He put a condom over the microphone and called it safe talk to protest distributing condoms in schools. One day he broadcast, "I'm a male lesbian: I'm a woman trapped in a man's body. That's why I'm attracted to women." (Limbaugh 93) He said he does these things because in order to illustrate absurdity, you must be absurd.
Political talk radio is structured by the host's ideology. Freedom of speech can be instantly denied. The host provokes, soothes, encourages, condemns, forecloses options, and often avoids equal time. His style and worldview can promote a real interchange or create an illusion of one. The talk show has its own theatrics. ...Many hosts are a master of the verbal martial arts...(Levin 17)
Hosts build audiences discussing the daily news. But they must make the show versatile and entertaining, many become an agent provocateur. (Levin 19) Radio stations are in business to make money. If the host does not get ratings that will bring in advertisers she'll be fired. So she must never forget the bottom line.
The shows are semi-realistic: speech is spontaneous and crafted. A host quotes an inflammatory article such as Reagan's administration designating ketchup as a vegetable for school lunch programs, or the Defense Dept. paying $500 for a hammer. He seeks outrage and usually gets it. But the conversation can mature if a host or caller relates the issue to more national concerns. Ketchup sparked a discussion of class bias by Reagan's administration and offered a meaningful remedy to the poor. One sophisticated caller said nutrition was maldistributed among classes and food was used in national and international policy. The $500 hammer became a conservative attack on bureaucracy and a liberal critique of bloated defense budgets. It is a forum for the alienation and anger of the working class is documented daily. This is not unusual, but the presentation by the abused on radio, heard by tens of thousands, is. No mass medium in America is as available to the disenchanted as it is. (Levin 19)
The subversive effect is often reinforced by guests; it's crown jewels. They excite and authenticate the show as entertainment and education. Their importance reflects/enhances the host's prestige. The array of guests is amazing: Secretary of the Interior James Watt; Ralph Nader; the Ku Klux Klan's Imperial Wizard, Senators Paul Tsongas, Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole and Barry Goldwater; Representative Barney Frank; civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz; former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill; columnist Pete Hammill; the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency's assistant director, the Council on Foreign Relations' director, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's President, the A.C.L.U. chairman, N.Y. Times television critic, Gay Task Force Chairman, many authors, foreign correspondents, scientists, economists, etc. (Levin 22)
The expertise and controversiality of the guests often generate a richly discursive and interactive response. This further enriches dialogue and generates a reflexive, evolving opinion unavailable to the rigidity of pollsters. Because shows air daily, it is possible to see quick and spontaneous shifts in public opinion, to record immediate responses to significant events, and to hear current reactions. (Levin 23)
A great host creates...resonance...and the guest helps in many ways... It feeds the desire for instant-gratification... (Levin 24) Something we have come to demand much more as technology advances.
The show is a unique means of educating the masses. It provides a relaxed and permissive center of learning, with open enrollment. There are no requirements or exams. People learn simply because they want to. Unfortunately, this educational process is fragile. The host can end class anytime. But despite this, radio exposes millions of people to serious talk daily. Thousands of hours are available. People share expertise and opinion. This is a unique American institution-a remarkable gift to those unwilling or unable to read. (Levin 26)
It is a barometer of discontent. In 1977, it publicized the Democratic Party's disarray. There were many angry Democrats waiting for an alternative. They spoke about people's powerlessness and the power of corruption of the government and big business. The drive for equality convinced callers that something was drastically wrong with social justice. (Levin 27)
Political talk radio of the late 1970's and early 1980's are a signal at the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. It is a catalog of the despair, hope, and remedy that became Reganism... (Levin 53)
Not surprisingly, among the topics of discussion on it is crime. Some callers just want to vent. But others seek genuine discussion and are disgusted by the fact that criminals have so many rights. They feel that it's easy to overlook some. They fear that if they do, a liberal judge will release them upon an unsuspecting society to continue preying. They know that Democrats keep appointing liberal judges and the crime rate keeps rising. (Levin 61)
Occasionally, a host would invite a guest and devote a portion of the show exclusively to one topic. But not Limbaugh: he never has a guest. He says the show is all about what he thinks.
Gays in the military was a hot topic when Presidents Clinton wanted to change policy. It grew into a discussion of gay rights on marriage and adopting children. Many opinions and ideas such as a separate platoon of gays was discussed.
So Levin wrote, "The fear and loathing of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles evoke more venom on talk radio than the welfare state or any other issue. The threat to America posed by deviance is apparently beyond calculation. The liberal host is bombarded by his more rigid callers when the subject arises." (Levin 63)
"If a Conservative host entertains a guest who discusses alternative lifestyles, the callers are not cordial. Only a minority of callers are tolerant toward homosexuality." (Levin 64)
"Callers on conservative shows are more strident than their liberal counterparts. Their disgust with the sexual revolution is clear." (Levin 65)
"A separate platoon of gays would defeat the purpose of segregating the sexes in the first place." (Howard) "The military is not the place for social experimentation!" (Powell, 93) A good point on the topic was "the main purpose of the military is to break things and kill people!" (Limbaugh 93) President Clintons settled the issue by adopting the motto, "Don't ask or tell!"(Frank, B.)
That was one of many discussions on the radio that people are listening to. So many people are listening that 770 AM, News-Talk Radio had the highest Arbitron ratings of any radio station in the tri-state area since Fall, 1994, for the first time in 20 years. Listeners tune in to hear political discussions and bashing of politicians such as former NJ Governor Jim Florio. He believes in the power of talk radio. In his concession speech he blamed relentless daily attacks by Bob Grant and slogans like, "Make NJ Florio free in 93," (Grant 93) at least primarily, if not totally for losing his reelection bid.
In his submission speech Florio angrily complained, "It's not fair that Bob Grant can bash me day after day on the radio." [iv] Whether it is fair, or not is debatable. But there is no doubt it was a major factor in his loss.
Grant spent many afternoons from 3:00-7:00 and his protege Jay Diamond spent most nights from 10:00 P.M.-2:00 A.M. giving people reasons to vote Cuomo out of office. They called him, "The Mighty IL Supremo and sfacciemo" (Italian for shameless) (Grant 91) and "Coumo's out the door in 94" (Grant 93). Grant even made up a nasty song about Cuomo in Italian. A caller put it to music and made it an opera, which he plays regularly for his listeners.
Among the many talk radio listeners is Charles Sanchez. He was a pothead (daily smoker) until becoming a fan in 1988. It changed him for the better. He now listens faithfully and feels he is a "young skull full of mush" turned into a Conservative Republican thanks to Limbaugh and now only smokes a little on weekends. Sanchez, like many, is very passionate about his political and social views. He was livid after calling Limbaugh to explain why he was pro-choice and was told his problem was that he thought the wrong people were being born.
He still listens, though and when Grant's protege, Jay Diamond, was rehired in 1994, Sanchez called to welcome him back.
"I'm glad you're back, Jay. This is where you belong: where the rubber meets the road. Not on WOR, that's a station for old farts." (Sanchez 94)
Although Rush Limbaugh is not known for his modesty he accurately said it all, "I am talk radio and my many fans picked up the nickname Ditto Heads" (Limbaugh 92). Love him, hate him, or in between, he put talk radio over the top. He was also instrumental in making it a very powerful political force and paved the way for people like Ed Koch, Ross Perot, Michael Reagan, Gordon Liddy, Mario Cuomo, Gary Hart, Jocyelyn Elders and Curtis Sliwa.
Millions of people listen. Presidents Reagan and Bush, Vice-President Quayle, doctors, lawyers, college professors and lay people all listen to talk radio at least occasionally.
Talk radio is a springboard for Limbaugh. He published two best-selling books and now a monthly newsletter. But the first book entitled, "The Way Things Ought To Be", 1992, was done very reluctantly. No one ever dreamed it would be a best seller in hard cover and paper back.
The NY Times did not even review it because they never expected it to sell. Shortly after that, in 1993, he wrote a second best seller, "See I Told You So". The first printing alone was an unheard of, record 20 million copies! Then in September, 1992, he started a national television show. One day Dan, a caller said he could not afford the newsletter. So Limbaugh said that if he had a bake sale to earn the money, he would come. It was a huge success, thousands came to "Dan's Bake Sale" just to see Limbaugh. Now people only have to go to Times Square, Manhattan to see a giant picture of Limbaugh smiling. This all comes full circle, raising his popularity, income and political influence.
Then one day, Limbaugh read a fan letter on the air: "I'm writing this to pass the torch of conservatism to you," it said. [v] President Bush enlisted Limbaugh's aid in 1992 during his reelection campaign by inviting him to the White House. Limbaugh told his listeners that he spent the night in the Lincoln bedroom and how exciting it was. He broke his rule of not having guests on the show by interviewing VP Quayle in an attempt to help them win the election.
Even though Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992. Many people know that Limbaugh was a major factor in the Nov., 1994 elections: a Republican House and Senate were elected for the first time in 40 years. They sometimes say they're Limbaugh's Congress and elected him an honorary member to show their gratitude. When Pat Buchanon was running for president in 1996, he used a cell phone to call various shows from every stop to gain listener support and votes quickly/cheaply.
Don't think that Republicans are the only ones listening to Rush Limbaugh and talk radio. It crosses all political, social, class, racial and economic lines. And appeals to the grass roots, middle-class, working people such as Mrs. Boyle. She is Irish-American, and proud Ditto Head thanks to me and said, "You're right Mitch: I tuned into Rush Limbaugh and he's very provocative!" (Kathy)
Mr. O'Rouqrue is American and a blue-collar worker and A Ditto Head.
He said, "Rush Limbaugh 'turned the country on its ear.'" (Kevin)
Mr. Leifer is American and a civil servant with considerable free time at work. He is my best friend, "latest partner-in-crime" and a proud Ditto Head thanks to me. He even "spread the gospel of Limbaugh" to his parents (got them interested in Limbaugh) and feels that, "Talk radio's harnesses legitimizes and reinforces the public opinion that today's news is shaped on. It also puts America on trial." (David)
Mrs. Bittar is an American, a college secretary and listener. She said, "I know many people who spend a lot of time on the road. They used to listen to the CB (Citizens Band Radio), but now listen to talk radio." (Helen)
My friend Ray is American, a college graduate and proud Democrat. We often discuss politics, talk radio and how influential Rush Limbaugh will be in the 1996 presidential election. He said, "I listen occasionally and while I disagree with him I feel that Rush Limbaugh is very intelligent, especially compared to an idiot like Bob Grant." (Raymond)
Mr. Collins is Irish-American, manages a bookstore, has a Bachelor's Degree in Radio/TV and is an occasional listener. He also read both of Rush Limbaugh's best-selling books and said, "I think Rush is 80% common sense. He succeeds largely by ridiculing radical liberals. I also feel that he is very well marketed. That's vital because if you reach a point of over saturation you're through. I think if Rush ever hit that high note he'd fall flat." (Shawn)
It does not just appeal to uneducated people. Many college professors and administrators are avid listeners too: Professor McKinney is British, teaches Logic, Philosophy and Ethics. She answered, "Limbaugh is a cross between Morton Downey and William Buckley Jr." (Daphney)
Her colleague, and my friend, Professor Karfunkel is Hungarian, teaches World History/Political Science and is a talk radio fan. He said half-jokingly, "Rush is a one man industry and jolly, but cruel when ridiculing Robert Reich's height! Reich was very sick as a child and left back a year! I do not put Rush on much anymore because sometimes he's intolerant. And if there's one thing I cannot tolerate, it's intolerance!" (Tom)
Professor Broer is also my friend, American, teaches English and dislikes talk radio and Limbaugh. He feels that I listen to it/Limbaugh too much and said, "It's sensationalism, not journalism and pretends to be for adults. The goal is to entertain, using the lowest common denominator. Hosts distort reality for dramatic purposes like the afternoon talk shows on t.v.
"I dislike the fact that people like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh cross over from entertainment to politics. The Republican Party has been kissing up to Limbaugh since the 92 election. Just look at how the congresswomen were gathered around Limbaugh like a bunch of teenagers at a rock concert asking him for his autograph. All he does is use slogans." (Paul)
His partner, Professor Hanley is Irish-American, teaches English too and is an occasional listener. He feels that, "It could be educational. But it isn't. The dialogue has given way to diatribe." (Richard)
Mrs. Schlien is American; a college administrator and an avid talk radio listener. She said, "I find it very interesting and get hours of listening pleasure from it. It's also interactive: unlike other forms of media you can call in and respond to what's going on!" (Michelle)
Professor Valle is Puerto Rican. She teaches Spanish and literature. She got very angry when the subject arose and said, "I can't listen to Rush Limbaugh! He makes my blood boil!" (Carmen)
Professor Malonowski is Polish-American, teaches computers and is an avid listener too. He knows that I am a big Limbaugh/talk radio fan too and calls me Rush Jr. He said, "I always listen to talk radio in the car. I prefer Bob Grant to Rush Limbaugh. But I can't listen too long. It gets me too 'wired'." (Christopher)
Dr. Cozzi is American and President of NYC Technical College. She is also a big talk radio fan and responded, "Talk radio is a very powerful influence, most people don't realize it though. People everywhere are listening to it: in cabs, warehouses, car washes and when driving long distances.
"It's very, very interesting. I listen to the various local shows when I drive across state lines to my cabin in the country. I have a radio there but no t.v." (Emily)
Her colleague, Dr. Quinones is Puerto Rican, a college dean and talk radio fan. She answered, "I don't want to stifle the First Amendment. But I wish people were more educated so they would be more discerning and not believe everything they hear on the radio." (Anisia)
Their colleague, Dr. Soiffer is American, a college dean too, but does not listen because he thinks that "It's 'black box democracy' and appeals to the lowest form of Democracy." (Steven)
Professor Hernandez is Puerto Rican, a college counselor and listener. She said, "Talk radio is good because it stimulates thinking. Unfortunately it lacks balance. Too many hosts have a monologue, not a dialogue and let it become a forum for spewing hatred. They should put more emphasis on respect for people and the values our Fore-Fathers based our great nation upon." (Carmen)
Professor Custis is my friend, black, an estate attorney, college counselor and ran a career placement program for college students with disabilities. She feels that, "People could get this from reading. But they don't, because talk radio listeners are not readers! That's not to say that they're not intellectuals! They're just not readers, talk radio is their reading!" (Thea)
Mr. Schlarb is German and an airline executive. He has a Masters Degree in Economics. He answered, "Talk radio is good because it helps people who can't or don't know to think. It also makes the news today." (Manfred)
Limbaugh cites articles from The N.Y. and Washington Times and plays sound cuts of people to make his point. In fact, he often quotes things few people know about: speeches by President Kennedy [vi] and Hubert Humpfrey. [vii] Limbaugh followed this by comparing Liberalism of yesterday to today. Perhaps this is why many liberals call him by his nickname, "The Most Dangerous Man in America."
Limbaugh and other hosts use things like this to make the news that journalists react to. He relentlessly helps Republicans get their message across to Americans in and out of the military for 15 hours a week, every week. That is a lot of time to push an agenda.
Many Liberals blame Limbaugh and talk radio for encouraging people to commit acts of terrorism. Acts such as the Oklahoma City bombing of a Federal office building that killed over 150 people, on 4/19/95. This stems from a comment President Clinton made just afterwards, blaming conservative talk radio shows and their hosts. He later said that he was referring to a radical short wave radio station, not Limbaugh.
But many liberals still lump all shows together in a sweeping generalization blaming Limbaugh and other popular Republican talk show hosts because they are convenient targets. They compare him, an honorary congressmen, to Gordon Liddy. Liddy told listeners on his national radio show that they should shoot Federal Agents in the head because they wear bulletproof vests.
I, like millions, worldwide, on commercial, short wave and armed forces radio, listen to Limbaugh. I listen for his wit, commentary and callers.
No one ever accused him of preaching hatred or violence. He preaches the Gospel without saying Christ, or quoting the Bible. He uses plain English to spread the word and invited God on his show.
He is so popular that in June, 1995 his hometown started guided tours of where he grew-up and went to school. His mother still lives there. He told his listeners to look for the bedroom window in the front of the house because when he and his brother David were kids they dropped water balloons on trick or treaters from it. Then he told listeners to look at the front doors of the school he and his brother went to because one summer they and some friends tried gluing the locks so school would not open that year.
There are also web sites for him: Rush Limbaugh Forum and WWW.NYSID.Com. Fans can log-in to chat rooms and talk to each other about Limbaugh or get the history of his hometown, including other famous natives. You can even buy a tie of scarf from his and his wife Marta's collections.
Among the many Ditto Head's is Ted Koppel and Senator Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas. In fact, when the Balanced Budget Amendment was failing Dole postponed a vote to ask Limbaugh's aid. There is no doubt that Limbaugh's support for his presidential bid in 1996 will be invaluable. In fact, when Pat Buchanan was running he carried a cellular telephone and called radio shows from every stop to try and increase his supporters.
I have no doubt that Limbaugh's success stems from the fact he is an alternative to the mainstream liberal media or at least the perception of that. Unfortunately, journalism is sensationalism today. The media focuses primarily on special interests. He taps into the silent, forgotten, mainstream, middle-class, majority. And is their spokesman because they share the same traditional Judeo-Christian family values as the founding fathers.
It is apparent to me, especially since I am a writer and Journalism major that, "Words do matter" (Limbaugh 92). That is why I felt it was necessary to interview both educated and lay people. I even interviewed people who do not listen, even though it varied from my theme so my readers and I would have more complete picture of this very powerful phenomenon. I think it proves my point better than citing various written sources. Common sense dictated that it was necessary to interview talk radio listeners to find what they think of it and why they listen.
I also felt that if I did not interview educated people, critics would say that it only appeals to uneducated or unsophisticated people who cannot think for themselves and if I only interviewed them I would feel that they do not represent mainstream Middle America. I wanted to prove that its power crosses barriers like race and education. It influences listeners when putting politicians' feet to the fire by reminding them of the things they need to remember on Election Day.