When talk radio king Rush Limbaugh commented on Sandra Fluke’s desire to have free birth control, many thought the days were numbered for the conservative icon, and his medium, talk radio.
When Phil Robertson made his comments about sexual orientation and faith, many thought his days in television were over.
But Limbaugh remains the king of the hill in talk radio, and Robertson’s back on the screen, freely dispensing his advice on life and liberty.
James Hirsen, a media and legal analyst, reports hit shows with a conservative message, like Robertson’s “Duck Dynasty,” are destroying their competition.
For example, Fox News, the most conservative of the majors, recently was reported as having almost double the viewers of its liberal sisters, CNN and MSNBC, combined.
On the other side, the news isn’t quite the same.
The New York Daily News recently published the headline “What killed the liberal radio star?” and said, “When WWRL 1600 AM flips its format from progressive talk to Spanish-language music and talk, New York will have no left-leaning commercial talk station(s) for the first time in decades – an ironic development just as an unabashedly liberal mayor and city council are set to take office.”
Daily News columnist Errol Louis noted that in Los Angeles, “The last remaining all-liberal talk station, KTLK, will do an about-face and start airing only conservative talkers…” and said KNEW in San Francisco is moving the same direction. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, progressive stations switched to sports formats.
So why is talk radio with one perspective a hit, and with another perspective a flop?
The Huffington Post blames the relationship between conservatives and Wall Street for the failure of liberal/progressive talk radio, quoting LGBT host of “Out and About” John Campanario, who said, “The antics of people like [right-wing talk show hosts] Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have put advertisers off talk radio, across the spectrum. This is happening nationally.”
But Joe Cunningham at RedState suggests it’s not all that complicated.
“Have you ever listened to a damn liberal talk show? Whine and whine and whine and moan and grumble. For hours on end. No one at all seems to be looking at these guys and saying ‘Uh … this is a business built on entertainment.’ They whine about how unfair the world is, and then they scream into their microphones ‘ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!’ even though Ed Schultz is nowhere near in shape enough to fight in the Coliseum.”
He suggested that those shows that have what people want to listen to – are successful.
Talk radio consultant Holland Cooke told WND that it is a programming failure.
“Air America,” he cited as an example, “struck me as doomed all-along. Various financial backers seemed more about message than media.”
He cited Limbaugh’s unabashed commitment to “attract as many ears to as many commercials as possible” as evidence that those on the left might be less concerned with profit, and might have been more “eager to set the record straight.”
Cooke noted the importance of the entertainment element of radio, however crass he thinks that is. “It’s a show! Air America didn’t have that same P.T. Barnum mojo.”
Cooke also noted technical and capital limitations.
“Most (progressive) affiliate stations were weak signals, high-band directional AM stations with footprints less-tenable than bigger signal Limbaugh/Hannity stations,” he said. “Ownership agenda was also evident. 1996 deregulation run amok resulted in consolidation by big publicly traded owners whose interests were more in tune with radio righties’ narrative.”
He says that when Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced for president, he received a FedEx from the CEO of the Texas-based owner of a client station elsewhere. Inside of that package, Cooke says, was an envelope and a letter inviting him, (and other vendors) to contribute $1,000 to the Bush campaign.
“Ownership has its privileges,” says Cooke.
Phil Boyce, vice president of spoken word format for Salem Communications, said the issue strikes him as even simpler.
Owners, no matter who they are, like to make money, he said.
“If their station is not doing so, they will move on to the next hot format that might,” Boyce told WND. “Unfortunately, making money in today’s economy has become even more difficult, and I believe some of these stations failed because the people running them did not believe in the format or the power of their own audience. If they did, they would not have pulled the plug.”
Boyce admits that talk radio learned some tough lessons from the “great Rush advertiser boycott.”
He says they knew that the funding behind the boycott was substantial, and they knew that if the boycott were successful, the whole format of talk radio would have been in jeopardy.
But Boyce doesn’t buy the leftist indignation over the Fluke incident. He believes that if the whole talk format went down with Rush Limbaugh, that would have suited the anti-talk people just fine.
“It was not really about his Fluke comments, it was about silencing voices on the right with whom they disagreed,” he said.
Boyce contends that the boycott is a product of the social media age.
“You can launch a protest in a matter of minutes and start pummeling some company’s email address with threats of fleeing customers.”
But he says his company learned something very valuable, and that others are waking up to the reality that he sees: “The truth was, they (boycotters) weren’t customers.”
He says Salem Radio learned that there were many more un-boycottable advertisers out there who do not care about getting a slew of angry emails because they know they are moving product and the protesters were never customers.
He says that advertisers have become more sophisticated, rather than reactionary to such boycotts. Now they have databases to cross check if protesters are actually customers, or just loud, letter writing small groups of activists who don’t really affect their bottom line.
He notes that Rush, Hannity, Levin, and countless others had “banner years in 2013″ following the boycott over the Fluke/Limbaugh incident.
Does this mean that the political wind that gave America arguably the most left-leaning administration in history is changing direction?
Michael Harrison is the publisher of Talkers Magazine, an online industry publication for all formats of talk radio.
He says the reasons for the disparity of success between conservative and liberal talk radio in the modern era are “many and complex.”
Harrison says the problems come down to the structure of big-time broadcasting and advertising industries, and he doesn’t believe that they are a reflection of the political disposition of the population at large.
“Perhaps if progressive hosts focused on creating radio that is targeted to super-serving the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and the displaced and actually helped them instead of targeting the same audience (or choir) served by conservatives and attacking their sensibilities (and media), they would build a significant audience of their own,” he said.
But he doesn’t know if that would “sell to Madison Avenue” since they operate, Harrison contends, “under the misguided premise that we are a totally prosperous nation whose teenage children should be given brand new luxury cars for Christmas and high school graduation.”
Some of those conservative talk show hosts feel differently.
“Look, this is why liberals hate capitalism,” said Joe Messina, host of The Real Side, a conservative radio show. “It’s too much of a fair playing field for them. In capitalism, you have to have a good product for success. You have to work hard and keep it fresh and truthful. In liberal radio, you just spew what Comrade Obama and the Democrat Party tell you to say, and it gets stale.”
Messina told WND that just won’t fly with audience members, because they are sophisticated consumers who need to find value in the programming they choose, because there are so many options these days.
David Spady, director of government affairs for Salem Communications, told WND that it comes down to competition, and content.
“Like any business, commercial radio stations must be profitable or go out of business. Liberal radio shows clearly don’t have the commercial appeal of a conservative radio show. It’s the format’s fault. Talk radio is about exploring ideas, challenging ideas, and defending ideas. Liberals prefer to feel something about ideas and are not interested in having those feelings challenged or debated.”
Spady says that the only liberal shows that have had any commercial appeal with an audience are those that relied on humor. He cites Air America’s flagship program, The Al Franken Show. He says its brief success was because “Franken’s humor allowed the audience to feel something.”
He contrasts the basic personality of conservatism vs. liberalism. Conservatives like to debate ideas, but liberals, he says, are more drawn to emotions and feelings.
“When liberals scan the radio dial they are much more likely to stop on a station that makes them feel something than a station engaged in debate about ideas.”
Even the Daily News admitted there was truth in the emphasis on the business side.
“The biggest pressures squeezing liberal talk radio are commercial ones,” the report said. “Deregulation of the airwaves allowed conglomerates like Clear Channel to borrow billions from Wall Street and begin buying up stations by the hundreds. Saddled with debt, Clear Channel has ruthlessly standardized its 840 stations and squeezed each for maximum profit. That meant eliminating progressive talk from its stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.”
The report said the most likely culprit is “the hard economics of persuading businesses to advertise on local radio.”
And the report noted that the need for commercial liberal influences in talk radio is being undermined by National Public Radio, which now offers “a liberal take on the news.”
Wrote RedState, “Liberals are entertaining in Hollywood. Not so much behind their microphones or news desks.”