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"Don’t try to judge the future of conservatism by what happened to Margaret Thatcher," Rush Limbaugh warned liberals who were exulting over the Prime Minister’s fall in November 1990.
"Judge it by what happens to this show. And this show is going through the roof, which means conservatism will follow," he said.
Whatever becomes of conservatism, Limbaugh was certainly right about his show.
Today, it is the most-listened to — and talked about — radio show in America. According to the Arbitron Co., an average of 4.6 million persons 12 or older listen to it every quarter hour, and over 18 million listen throughout the week, a 78% increase from just a year earlier.
Indeed, talk radio in general has achieved a new status in recent years — and with it, some would say, new power.
Some have attributed both the defeat of President Clinton’s proposal on eliminating the ban on homosexuals in the military and the zapping of his nomination for attorney general, Zoe Baird, to talk radio.
Some find this power frightening.
ABC News’s Prime Time recently called talk radio "a medium dominated by the rantings of Rush Limbaugh."
Environmentalist author and commentator Donella Meadows has complained "the loudest mouths and most made-up minds dominate the air time," and "it’s a mistake to think that the blowhards who call in speak for the nation."
Still others, however, feel these are sour grapes on the part of those who don’t have the same political bent as those on talk radio. It’s a message that often seems to be conservative.
In addition, a third group believes that the ability of talk radio to shape policy has been greatly exaggerated.
Since it began compiling comparative figures in 1989, Arbitron has found that the news/talk share of the radio audience has increased steadily from 11.7% of all listeners to 15.4%, beating out both country music and so-called "top-40" stations.
Much of this phenomenon is attributable to the massive increase in dittoheads — a name given to Limbaugh’s fans because so many of them call in just to say "ditto."
But Limbaugh isn’t the only rising star on the scene.
G. Gordon Liddy, best-known for his role in the Watergate scandal but also a longtime commentator on national issues, took his highly successful Washington show national in April. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan will do the same on July 5, and other local and regional hosts are testing the waters, as well.
The increase in listenership of the news and talk radio format comes at the same time that the major network news broadcasts are losing viewers and newspapers are losing readers. Newspaper readership has declined from 78% of the adult population in 1970 to 62.6% in 1992, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Viewership of the network evening news broadcasts has also dropped steadily from the late 1970s.
Some in the radio business think that may not be a coincidence.
Charles Sykes, an author and radio talk show host at WTMJ in Milwaukee, said that at least part of the phenomenon is that listeners "have developed a healthy distrust of the mainstream media and look for someone they can trust."
Indeed, distrust of the more traditional media has been growing steadily.
Polling by Louis Harris shows that those expressing "a great deal of confidence" in TV news has dropped from 43% in 1973, the first year the question was asked, to just over 20% this year. Meanwhile, confidence in the press has dropped from 30% to half that.
Recent polls by the Los Angeles Times and Princeton Survey Research have shown that about two-thirds of the public believe the news media "give more coverage to stories that support their own points of view" and "news organizations do not deal fairly with all sides of political and social issues."
An even greater number believe "journalists let their own politics influence the way they report the news."
Speaking via satellite to the president at a May 27 meeting of CBS affiliates, Dan Rather said of himself and his new co-anchor Connie Chung: "If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we’d take it right now and walk away winners. Thank you very much and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her and we’re pulling for her."
Such sentiments convince many that the media is biased.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Times poll found that by 2-1, respondents thought the media’s bias is left-wing.
"Talk radio appeals to people who realize their voices are not heard and a lot of those people are conservatives out in hinterland," according to Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "Number one, they want to yell at journalists. And, number two, they want someone else to yell at them."
Lichter added: "So many of these hosts are of the populist right, not the George Will right. And Rush Limbaugh is by far the most successful in a long line of populist talk radio hosts." Liddy, who carries the reputation of a street brawler’s conservative, said he was apprehensive when offered the job as radio show host at WJFK radio in Fairfax, VA. Since then, however, he found he has tapped into a huge number of listeners "starved for something...other than the traditional, radical chic point of view."
Liddy says he frequently invites a liberal onto his show to provide a counterpoint to his views. Buchanan’s format will also include alternating liberal co-hosts.
Dennis Prager, a talk show host at KABC radio in Los Angeles who considers himself a neoconservative, said "Those who worry about (talk radio) are most likely people left of center, because this is the only area of the media they (don’t) control."
While it appears that no one has done a survey of talk show hosts’ political beliefs, numerous surveys by Lichter’s group and others have found that press and TV reporters are overwhelmingly self-professed liberals.
There seems to be a general impression among followers of talk radio that professionals in that field are more conservative. But Liddy says he doesn’t think that talk radio hosts are particularly conservative except in comparison to the print and television media.
"I can name plenty of liberals on talk radio," he said, noting that the self-styled "King" of radio, Larry King, is liberal.
But if talk shows are more conservative than other media, why?
"I think the key is not the host," said Liddy, "it is that the medium is interactive and gives (callers) a direct and immediate voice."
"Despite the popularity of Limbaugh (who only takes a few calls per radio show and none on his television show), I think the interactive aspect of talk radio is the key," he said.
Prager, a one-time liberal, says "liberalism (is)...a passion and not a thought-through world view. TV announcers’ influence is through the presentation of news. They’ll show a homeless family as representative of homelessness, when in fact very few of the homeless fall into that category. Now, if that were a debate, they’d lose their shirts, but images are all they need."
Talk radio, says Prager, allows that sort of debate. A talk show host who keeps getting shown up by his callers soon loses credibility and listeners.
"I’ve heard grumblings of politicians being worried because it’s a populist medium," said Lichter. "It’s backtalk from the public and they don’t want to worry about it. Journalists want to claim they speak for the public without being contradicted."
"This is the ultimate in interactive media. The public has its say unmediated through Dan, Tom, and Peter — none of this ’informed sources say’ stuff," he said, referring to the anchors of the three network broadcasts, Dan Rather of CBS, Tom Brokaw of NBC, and Peter Jennings of ABC.
Said Lichter: "(Talk radio) is like a never-ending town meeting. I think politically it’s a good safety valve."
But is talk radio just a safety valve, or does it translate into political action, as Newsweek suggested recently in its cover story, "The Power of Talk: How Call-in Shows are Shaking Up Politics."
Limbaugh seems to like both perceptions. Having said that conservatism will follow his ratings, he humbly refers to himself as "just a harmless little fuzzball" when somebody blames him for affecting policy in a way they don’t like — which is often.
Liddy believes that talk radio can have political power, but it is listener-driven.
After Clinton’s announcement on homosexuals in the military, said Liddy, "There was a firestorm of protest not from hosts but from listeners, including the military. This does have an impact on people from Capitol Hill who are too aware that they are already held by the public in low regard. They don’t like being called on to commit political suicide."
David Brudnoy, the libertarian host at WBZ in Boston, downplays the political power of talk radio.
"There are talk show hosts on many sides of many issues," said Brudnoy. "Larry King pushed Perot, Rush pushed Bush, and (yet) Clinton was elected."
He granted that it might be different "when somebody in Congress does something they don’t want us to know about, like raising pay." In that case, he says, talk radio gets out information no one has even heard.
For the most part, Brudnoy said, talk radio has "only a marginal effect. I don’t think anything Congress didn’t want to do they could be made" to do.
Some Clinton supporters have blamed Limbaugh for thwarting some of their efforts. And, indeed, much of what Limbaugh and other conservatives railed against, such as the Btu tax and the president’s "investment" package, were killed.
But Limbaugh also has been blamed for things he had no hand in, such as withdrawal of Judge Kimba Wood for consideration as attorney general. In fact, Limbaugh actually said the fuss over Wood not paying an employee’s social security taxes was silly.
Whatever the real power of talk radio, it has some worried.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, warns "There’s a phenomenon that moves people toward the consensus position...The danger is you may be creating a false consensus."
Lichter says there may be something to that.
"The benefit of talk radio is also the risk," he said. "Angry people have a chance to get in quickly. The founding fathers didn’t want pure democracy. This takes upwellings of public anger and deposits them in Washington at the speed of sound. Total democracy is not a good thing."
Still, he notes that the voices on talk radio are not votes and are thus tempered by the representative system. And the thing that helped foster the rise in talk radio, the perception of a biased media, is not good, either.
"People are saying the media are giving us their own point of view," said Lichter. "Journalism is getting out of the facts business and into the business of divining what they perceive to be truth."