“Something is happening here, but we still don’t get it…” NYT/Wapo take on conservative talk radio

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Tower of Babel, circa 1563.

In the last three days, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran articles on conservative talk radio. The February 9 Washington Post story, “Rush Limbaugh is ailing. And so is the conservative talk-radio industry,” gloats at what it thinks is a likely collapse of the medium. Author Paul Farhi makes some good points about the aging demographic: “Fewer than 8 percent of those who regularly listen to talk radio (including public radio) are 25 to 54, according Nielsen’s research.” That’s still 8 percent of 123 million people. There isn’t any comparable competition to conservative radio from a left/liberal perspective. And while the younger audience might be more enticed by newer and slicker media like podcasts and video, the Post doesn’t explore what could happen when the more popular hosts eventually migrate to other formats: in this scenario, the more extreme voices might find more room to grow. A similar thing happened to shortwave radio in the 80s-90s, as more spaces opened up, the lack of regulation attracted all manner of virulent and bizarre voices

The piece ends by quoting media historian Nicole Hemmer,who warns: “Right-wing media is still a massive growth industry . . . When Limbaugh’s show goes dark, it will be the end of an era. But it’s hard to imagine that too much will change: It will take a while for [new] outlets to gain the type of trust that Limbaugh has . . . but all in all, we’re living in a political culture Limbaugh helped create, and it’s likely it will continue to exist long after his show ends.”

The New York Times piece (2/10) on conservative radio, How Right-Wing Radio Stoked Anger Before the Capitol Siege deals with the influence the medium had in influencing the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The Times dispatched five reporters (!) to tell us “Talk radio is perhaps the most influential and under-chronicled part of right-wing media, where the voices of Mr. [G;enn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and other star hosts waft through the homes, workplaces and commutes of tens of millions of listeners.” And: “Before the riot, the shows were often unrestrained forums for claims of rigged voting machines and a liberal conspiracy to steal the presidency for Joseph R. Biden Jr.” This is all true, though it’s hard not to be skeptical of claims that the format is “under-chronicled,” considering the Times, itself one of the most influential news platforms on earth, has largely ignored the format. (Our own recent take on this same issue can be found here).

The article also states, “Unlike cable TV, talk radio is difficult to monitor — broadcasts often vanish into the ether and transcripts are scarce.” Radio is one of the most accessible media formats in existence, anywhere. People listen to the radio in hospitals and prisons, on park benches, in cars. Or, as one prophet once put it: “in the dime stores and bus stations”—pretty much any place where people can be found.   

The Times’s recent forays into conservative radio have been pretty good, if over-reliant on automated transcripts. (How hard is it to turn the radio on and listen, or is that seen as a uncouth, a potential source of contamination?) What outlets like the Times largely miss is the reasons so many people are drawn to right-wing radio. They do consult a professor (of course) to explain the appeal. But they really miss much of the nuance, the dialogue, the language itself—all the sticky, messy bits that keep listeners coming back. Some degree of the appeal of this stuff is that the hosts and callers seem relatable on some level. I listen to outlets like NPR and Pacifica quite a bit, and huge portions of the programming teeter between sanctimonious and dreadfully boring. The NPR coverage of the latest Trump impeachment is a case in point. There are good people working in radio bringing crucial information to listeners in a vital, non-condescending manner. Just don’t expect to read about them in the Times.  

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Published by Frequency and Amplitude, an NYC Radio Roundup

Surveying what's left of the analog NYC-area radioscape.

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