I remember 1994, after the Republicans took over Congress, when the new freshman class started referring to Rush Limbaugh as the “majority-maker”. I’ve heard it suggested that talk radio would drive this gubernatorial race. And I’ll tell you, in my one foray onto the airwaves — right after the Ben LaGuer $#!+ hit the fan, the right-wing talk radio guys went nuts. This was bloody meat to them, their moment to whip up public hysteria, to drive the agenda.
So what happened? The public shrugged:
Talk radio only has a slice of the general public listening to it, said Michael Harrison, publisher of the Springfield-based Talkers Magazine. Rush Limbaugh beat up Bill Clinton for eight years and Clinton got elected twice.
Harrison said its not the role of talk radio yakkers to get people elected – or unelected. Its the role of talk radio to have listeners and to make money, he said. Healey might lose by less than she would have. Can talk radio turn an election? Only if its close.
Harrison said theres a tremendous conservative element in current news talk radio. . . . but you cannot make the public change its mind if the public is set on something.
Now, we can complain about the fact that talk radio is near-exclusively rabidly conservative. (Rockefeller Republicans don’t get ratings, apparently.) Or … we can be happy that the rest of us don’t care to tune into lunacy and venom, and that they’re getting their information someplace else. The question then is: How worthwhile and reliable is that “someplace else”?
I’m happy that Air America (including our own Boston’s Progressive Talk) tries to provide the public with a lefty alternative to right-wing yakkers; but folks who reject the Howies and Severins are looking for something different in quality, not merely the same thing with swapped-out ideology. Liberals stereotypically listen to NPR; conservatives to Limbaugh. Maybe it says something about the liberal temperament. Or maybe not.
But I can’t help but think that the apparently limited grasp of right-wing shoutfest radio, and the deteriorating circulation figures of the dead-tree dailies, leave a gap to be filled by vital, engaging and serious discussion. High-falutin’ vs. lowbrow is not really the issue; the question is whether the content is relevant to people’s lives, such that folks prioritize and make an appointment with that medium.
Talk radio has been in its own self-created bubble this year; as Adam says, the newspapers may have blown their chance to dial up the Zeitgeist and be relevant again. Doesn’t it seem like there’s a big gap to be filled by someone, somewhere? Hey, maybe it’s the blogs. Maybe Jack Welch and Co. know. Maybe Chris Lydon’s gonna do it. It sure seems like there’s an opportunity out there.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that Eileen McNamara said much the same yesterday. Originality is hard, folks.