Talk Radio Slowly Dying

ImageThe slow motion sinking of once vaunted, and incredibly lucrative careers on gabfest radio, like that of Rush Limbaugh, continue to get some press when news of his declining ratings come out and elicit great schadenfreude. Due to the ongoing consumer efforts to boycott him since his Sandra Fluke outrageathon in March, 2012, all talk radio has declined. The iceberg that has laid low the foremost bully in radio also pushed Glenn Beck to the web and Hannity to smaller, weaker stations.

Less well known is how the boycotts of irresponsible (and often reprehensible) broadcasters like Limbaugh has effected even the few liberal outposts of chatter. While ratings for liberal stalwarts have stayed steady, many advertisers have made the choice to just stay away from controversy period. So yeah, Limbaugh and Hannity get pushed from 50,000 watt flamethrowers to struggling second rate stations that get out rated by Spanish language stations, the few liberal talkers get pushed out entirely.

KTLK-1150 in Los Angeles was the home of Bill Press, Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes, all thriving liberal talkers in the liberal talk ghetto, until owner ClearChannel needed to move former behemoths Limbaugh and Hannity to smaller stations because of their tanking ratings. You see, conservative talkers never get cancelled no matter how bad their ratings and conversely liberal talkers never get promoted despite earning it. So the mostly liberal KTLK gets converted into the hard right conservative KEIB (excellence in broadcasting, get it?) and the new home of Hannity and Limbaugh in LA. While Press, Miller, Rhodes and others lose their LA station (Miller lost her studio entirely as she had broadcast out of KTLK for 10 years). The upshot for Limbaugh is he’s now on the 37th rated station in the nation’s second largest market (ratings are down since the format change, by the way) and Los Angeles joins San Francisco, Boston, Washington D.C., Seattle, overwhelmingly blue cities, that have NO liberal talk radio at all. Just for context, Los Angeles, one of the bluest cities in the country has 4 conservative talk radio stations between LA and Orange County and no liberal ones. You say the market created that situation? Bullpucky.

New York also has no progressive radio.  In this case the humiliating moves of Limbaugh and Hannity from WABC to smaller WOR didn’t push any liberals out.  That happened when the last liberal talk station (WWRL) switched to Spanish language broadcasting. The market may be responsible for that as the Spanish speaking audience is the fastest growing in NY and other large cities. But again, how is it that a station like WABC can’t find one spot for a liberal talker? It’s all conservative all the time in a city that votes 75% Democratic. 

Another theory behind the collapse of commercial liberal talk radio is that it has gone mainstream. Some of the most popular personalities from the now-defunct liberal Air America radio network — Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz — now command much larger audiences on MSNBC every night, as does the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is syndicated on dozens of black talk radio stations. Air America’s biggest star, Al Franken, is now a U.S. senator.

Well, that’s a positive spin to put on it. but if you admire radio it’s distressing to think that 10 years ago Air America broke ground by creating a progressive network of talkers and stations that reached a peak of 75 stations with a lineup that consisted of the then unknown Rachel Maddow, Sam Seder, comedians Lizz Winstead, Mark Maron, Janane Garafolo and Al Franken with long time radio pro Randi Rhodes anchoring. Of that group none are on terrestrial or satellite radio today. Only Sam Seder has a daily podcast – the terrific Majority Report.  Sure Maddow and Franken are more influential today with their moves to TV and elective office, respectively, but damn, they did good radio shows for a period. 

Whether by the fiat of big naturally conservative networks like ClearChannel or the invisible and palsied hand of the market, the decimation of liberal talk radio is lamentable for me, an ardent listener.  After the death of KTLK, Randi Rhodes moved her show online and then more recently got out of the business entirely. Ed Schultz also has dropped his 3 hour radio show in favor of a 1 hour a day online subscription program. Stephanie Miller, who has one of the best rated morning shows wherever she’s broadcast, as well as very popular live shows (the Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour), is broadcasting from her home and fortunately has a home on Sirius Progress Channel. But even she has recently suspended efforts on the comedy tour to concentrate on the radio show because of the depressed radio atmosphere.

Now, practically speaking, the death of talk radio in toto is clearly a positive given how monumentally influential conservative talk radio has been (along with Fox News) in moving the dial of ideas rightward, and arguably stupidward, over the last 20 years. Angry white males are demonstrably less angry when they turn off the outrage machine that is talk radio. So the loss of liberal radio would be a small price to pay if the annihilation of right wing radio is complete.


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