Every once in a while, a man’s mind retreats from the banal details of daily discourse to dwell instead upon the “big questions” of existence: Where did we come from? What is God? Are we alone in the universe? And, of course, Why is talk radio so overwhelmingly conservative?
The mainstream media dwell on this question endlessly, whenever the subject of their broken stranglehold on all public debate is brought up. Whatever caused the rise of conservative talk radio, they are pretty sure it is a malevolent force, almost certainly conspiratorial in nature. But, alas, as my medication has finally convinced me, there are very few conspiracies in the world, and we have to look to more organic forces to explain most trends and events.
Many factors account for the rightward tilt of talk radio, such as: radio is listened to in cars and at work, both of which are not frequented so much by the unemployed clients of the welfare state that would constitute the natural audience for liberal talk radio. OK, that was a cheap shot and not entirely true, but I couldn’t resist. I’ll move on now and try to be good.
Another, more serious, factor is straightforward: America is, essentially, a conservative nation on most issues. Liberalism is an attempt to change the nation’s culture more than an attempt to accurately represent it. So the audience for conservative radio is naturally larger than that for liberal radio.
A second factor is that talk radio is slightly cheaper than dog poo to produce and is often made locally. This created the potential for a great deal of diversity in talk radio during the “dark ages” of television news, when America got all of its news from three identical sources, ABC, CBS and NBC—all of which were essentially the Cliff Notes version of whatever the New York Times had to say that week. I say “potential” diversity because, for many years, it was not realized. Talk and news radio merely aped (blindly, one might say) the style of television news, radio having accepted a role as a medium on the same uplifting level as television intellectually, but without any informative pictures.
But consider the number of radio stations in each city, and the number of cities in America, with each station producing programming and fighting for local market share. The potential for something different to arise was vastly greater in radio than in television. And compared to television, “something different” could only mean something more conservative. Thus, when something different did arise, it had a ready-made audience in the millions of people that were sick of the left wing axis of drivel, ABC-CBS-NBC.
So talk radio became conservative because it could, and because there was a market for it when it did. Dan Rather helped create Rush Limbaugh.
Essentially, the process was purely Darwinian. Radio had a larger, more diverse population of programs and a higher rate of “reproduction” of these programs, so radio naturally evolved into the unfilled niche of conservative programming before it could be filled by television, which was (in evolutionary terms) a rare asexual organism reproducing by infrequent budding.
But it wasn’t just television pushing talk radio to the right. It was also the fact that the government, in its eternal and unlimited wisdom, had created a huge government-funded monopoly of extremely liberal opinion radio, a.k.a. National Public Radio. NPR has something like 20 million listeners per week. It offers a standardized left wing programming package with high production values and little interruption by advertising. It pretty much sops up whatever market for left wing talk radio there is and leaves the remaining radio market disproportionately conservative in outlook.
Thus, any commercial radio outlet seeking to offer a liberal talk show would find that his natural listenership had its ears already suckling at the electromagnetic teat of government, or something like that. I can drive from Baja to Bangor and never be outside the broadcast range of two or three NPR stations along the way. That’s hard to compete with if you have nothing but a tiny local station and have to sell anti-fungal foot powder every ten minutes. So radio stations inevitably found conservative programming more profitable. Nina Totenberg helped to create Laura Ingraham. You see, sometimes quality programming really is inspired by NPR listeners like you.
NPR is also, by the way, one of the two major reasons that “Air America” radio is such a steamy pile of failed programming. (The other reason is that Air America stinks.) Air America’s natural audience is already in a very long-term relationship (a civil union, really) with NPR. To compete with a government-subsidized behemoth like NPR, Air America would need so much funding that they would have to steal the money or something.
Together, the twin forces of biased television news and socialized radio nearly ensured that commercial talk radio would become conservative. It was not, as is often implied, the result of some secret Rovian conspiracy in which political ideologues funded by billionaire megalomaniacs sought to propagandize listeners to their political agenda. That would be Air America.
Interestingly, this same sort of market-driven evolution can now be seen at work reshaping two other areas of the media. The proliferation of television stations via cable and satellite has finally created enough variation in news networks to allow viewers to select a non-liberal format from the mix: Fox News. Judging by Fox’s success, there is probably room for other such stations. One wonders why MSNBC insists on remaining CNN Jr.
And in the greatest example so far of low-production costs and diverse content knocking down a market-insulated monolith, the internet is busy destroying the newspaper business. Eat my digital dust, New York Times Corp. The Internet is somewhat more evenly split between liberal and conservative, however. But hopefully, the government will create National Public Internet News soon and destroy much innovation on the leftward side of the web as well.
In the end, the proliferation of new, more diverse, media will likely become so successful that it could do the unthinkable: create a niche for liberal talk radio. When conservatives have so many internet and television outlets that they are no longer artificially concentrated into the talk radio market, some experienced talk stations will find it more profitable to switch to a left-wing format.
But by then, the programming will all be in Spanish anyway. Viva Chavez!