This week, Liberal Talk Radio took the air in the form of Air America. The effort, CEO’d by Mark Walsh, a former America Online executive and adviser to the Democratic National Committee, is resting its hopes for success on the backs of left wing humorists such as Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo.
The question on everyone’s mind: Is it radio, or is it just politics?
Walsh and his partners argue that Air America is a necessary platform for combating a conservative dominated radio environment. Such statements have been met with skepticism by members of both the right and the left, who correctly point out that there are already liberal talk radio hosts with large followings, many of whom work for large radio networks such as Clear Channel. Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, the leading trade publication for the talk radio business, has pointed out that the only obstacle for liberals in the talk radio business is the same obstacle faced by conservatives, namely getting a profitable audience size. The business is, after all, a business.
To many political skeptics, the unsubtle launch of Air America smacks of political contrivance.
Conservative talk radio came about in the 1980s as a completely unplanned phenomenon. In fact, the label “Conservative Talk Radio” is largely misleading. There was no political movement to get conservative viewpoints onto the radio airways, no overarching political action committee buying radio channels in order to provide a platform for right-wing talk hosts.
The fact that conservative viewpoints largely dominate the radio dial has far less to do with organized political action than it does with demographics. Daytime radio listeners are disproportionately male, and further, they tend to share philosophical views related to basic conservatism, such as individual responsibility, a respect for greater liberties, and generally a Judeo-Christian ethic. In a sense, the demographic was already conservative; it simply hadn’t been given a product that fit its needs. It was this demographic that provided a receptive audience for early talk radio pioneers such as Rush Limbaugh. The explosion of conservative talk radio was already well underway when Limbaugh gained a national audience in 1988. His subsequent success encouraged the further growth of similar talk formats across the nation. Talk radio, as we know it today, was born.
A Key Difference
The major difference between Air America and conservative talk radio, outside of the content, is the manner of emergence. Conservative talk radio emerged as a result of a largely grassroots, market driven process. Conservative talk hosts began appearing on radio stations across the nation, springing up randomly and separately. Listeners embraced some, others faded into obscurity.
Most liberals who do not listen to conservative talk radio habitually make the mistake of assuming that conservative radio is monolithic in tone. Even members of the media, who should know better, tend to frame conservative radio as an echo chamber in which Republican talking points are simply repeated ad nauseam. Sadly, only long-term listeners can rightly point out how untrue this assumption is.
Many liberals are surprised to hear that Rush Limbaugh has been extremely critical of the Bush administration, and that the criticism predates 9/11. Similarly, members of the media appear to be genuinely confused when up-and-coming conservative radio personalities such as Glenn Beck actively encourage listeners to stop embracing political parties and to reject partisanship. Such information is difficult for liberals and independents to digest because of an underlying belief that conservative radio is somehow an apparatus of the Republican Party. The Catch-22 is that in order for anyone to learn the truth, they must pay attention to Talk Radio for more than a few minutes at a time, a task that most liberals would like to actively avoid.
The situation is indicative of the highly choreographed political world that we live in. The left finds it hard to believe that such a popular format could be free of political orchestration, or that conservative listeners might actually embrace viewpoints that fall outside of the Republican Party line. Yet, that is exactly the truth. Far from being a drum for the GOP, talk radio often sets agendas rather than obeys them. There are no Republican puppet masters who control talk radio; in fact, it is talk radio that often pulls the strings.
An Orchestrated Response to a Grassroots Phenomenon
The left also has its grassroots speech movements. The Internet has become fertile ground for a new generation of left leaning, citizen journalists. Liberal blogs are just as common as their right leaning counterparts, and online magazines such as Salon.com have sprung up to offer “alternative” coverage of news and events, ostensibly to offer an objective answer to FoxNews and “Corporate Media.” Disregarding the fact that it is also a corporation, Salon at least represents a bottom-up voice in politics. Like conservative radio, Salon can be argued to come from the people as opposed to having been constructed by a political committee.
Of Course, Salon itself peddles bias for profit, all the while lambasting “slanted” media sources in its advertising. Ironic that people like the readers of Salon.com are the primary targets of the highly orchestrated, explicitly biased, specifically anti-conservative, Air America. If Air America succeeds, we might conclude that liberals aren’t angry about the bias in talk radio, they are angry because they don’t control it.
This is the central problem with Liberal Talk Radio. In contrast to its grassroots counterparts, Air America isn’t the result of a groundswell, nor is it an ad-hoc collective of individuals who all share a basic set of philosophies. Air America is product, pure and simple.
Air America’s brand of Liberal Talk Radio is Liberal precisely because it has a mission and because it is a tool. It is not a result of free expression, or of a grassroots movement. It is a platform, envisioned and designed by liberal power brokers, created with the specific goal of supporting the left, combating the right, and funneling support towards liberal positions.
Is it radio, or a propaganda machine? For the moment, it looks as though Air America is propaganda. It is organized by Democrats from the ground up and has a specific political mission. Unlike Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts, the hosts of Air America –do- report to someone, and they have all been hired with a specific purpose in mind.
Air America may very well prove to be a success, but it will have to work hard to show that it is anything else but a marketing arm for the Democratic Party.