Columnist: Why right-wing radio works |

Columnist: Why right-wing radio works

Why does conservative talk radio in America flourish while liberal talk radio fails to gain traction? I have my own opinion on the matter, but I think it’ll be much more fun to read the Wisdom from the Web comments and Letters to the Editor which surely will follow my observations.

Conservative talk radio flourishes because its listening audience buys the products its sponsors advertise. No one is compelled to listen to conservative talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham; just as no one forces people to watch liberal television personalities such as Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Bill Maher.

Whether talk radio’s subject matter is politics, sports or advice about marriage, a talk-show host has one clear purpose ” to keep the listening audience interested and entertained long enough so the show’s sponsors can play commercials between the chatter.

Advertisers understand that listening audiences will purchase products if they tune in long enough; and people will stay tuned only if they perceive a value to what is being discussed on a particular show. Conversely, without a perceived value, people won’t tune in, sponsors will go bye-bye and that air time will be filled by different programming.

To quote successful radio talk-show host, Neil Boortz, “Talk radio listeners will accept and tolerate any position on any issue if it’s presented with rationality and a modicum of logic. They’ll also tolerate irrational and illogical banter provided it’s presented with a sense of humor.”

Most Americans reside in the broad center of the political spectrum, therefore, when a radio talk-show host offers an opinion on a politically charged topic, chances are there are as many listeners in disagreement as there are those who agree with whatever position the host takes. And because these listeners have access to the telephone, talk radio hosts must be able to explain their respective rationales while on the air.

Political talk radio deals with ideas, which means that unless the talk-show host is able to support his or her positions against reasoned contrarian arguments, he or she will lose the audience, then sponsors and eventually the show itself.

Many on the left decry the preponderance of conservative talk radio, but those who do should keep in mind that neither the federal government nor the Republican National Committee subsidize Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. The American consumer supports them by buying the products their advertisers hawk.

On the other side of the political spectrum, liberal talk radio’s grand experiment, Air America, is billed as an alternative to the likes of Rush and Sean by offering progressive programs mixing provocative conversation, challenging interviews, and biting political satire. But the network has failed to break into the top 20 in any major market (24th place in Denver, 25th in San Francisco, etc.) in spite of significant financial backing. In fact, it actually paid for its own air time in some markets when it was unable to find sponsors.

Perhaps Air America’s hosts are unable to offer reasoned arguments to support their positions or maybe the listening audience doesn’t find them funny or entertaining ” only Arbiton, the company that measures radio audiences and tracks consumer, media, and retail activity knows for certain. But regardless of the reason, the reality is that Air America hasn’t met expectations and was forced to file for bankruptcy protection last October.

In light of the above, it appears that the marketplace is the ultimate arbiter of who remains on the air and who does not. However, this could change in 2008 depending upon which party wins the presidency. While it’s unlikely that a Hillary, Edwards or Obama victory will change America’s radio listening habits, a Democrat in the White House could embolden the left to attempt reinstituting the inappropriately named and insidious Fairness Doctrine.

In theory, the Fairness Doctrine was created to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance over America’s airways. But the doctrine was overturned and discarded by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987 because contrary to its purpose, it failed to encourage the discussion of more controversial issues.

This should be of concern to all of us because unlike the print media, whose opinions are guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC (1969) that print media and broadcast media were inherently different. The court reasoned “the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters … is paramount …”

However, five years later in a separate case, the court came to a different conclusion and said that the Fairness Doctrine “… inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.” Broadcast media in the 21st century, cable TV’s virtually unlimited programming potential and the ubiquitous use of the blogosphere with its two million postings per day creates a very different media landscape from what it was when the Supreme Court made its rulings almost 40 years ago.

In today’s world, if there’s a willing audience, a venue for that audience will manifest itself, however, as always, the operative words remain, “a willing audience.”

Quote of the day: “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.”

Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at

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