seanhTalk radio fills the southern airwaves, in cars and trucks, at construction sites and in offices.

Like a crazy uncle it’s always around: lovable and embarrassing, full of life and largely forgotten in a digital age.  But it still makes a difference.  If you know where to look.

For the last couple of months conservative talk radio hosts have hammered away at a single theme to describe President Barack Obama.  He’s a socialist.  Delete that word from the dictionary and talk radio/Fox News talkmeister Sean Hannity would have a lot of empty air time to fill.  Rarely has one word, repeated so often, had such impact on how people evaluate a new president.

Follow me on a trip down survey lane.

In September 2008, the Pew Center asked people for the one word that sums up Obama.  Socialist came in tied for #16.  That was long before the talk radio hosts turned up the heat, back when Obama was a mere Democratic candidate for president.

Three months ago people were asked the same question.  Socialist shot up to a tie for #7.

Last month, socialist hit #3 on the charts.  You can see the report here.

ink_blot_3_by_darkness76Imagine America lying on a couch.  Nearby a psychiatrist scribbles on a pad as he shows us ink blots on paper, probes our relationships with our mother, and asks us for the first word that comes to mind about a president who has been in office about a hundred days.  The survey results tell us a lot about the crazy uncle power of talk radio.

Last September the most popular word to describe then-candidate Obama was inexperienced, a logical result given that Obama was, well, relatively inexperienced.  Other top impressions of Obama were change, intelligent, young, again all logical.  Of the top 19 words provided by those in the survey, only four were negative (unless you consider different and liberal to be negatives, and some do).

By February 2009, just a few months ago, inexperienced slid to #4 and replacing it were intelligent, change, and honest.  In April, intelligent again led the way (people are so polite), followed by good and a conservative talk radio host’s best friend, socialist.

Before liberals and Democrats weep into their lattes about the dangers of Rush Limbaugh, I should point out that while socialist climbed to #3, the actual number of people giving this as their first impression is quite small, 20 out of 742.  Twenty?  That many also probably think the Holocaust never happened, that people never walked on the moon, and that unsweetened ice tea is worth drinking.  The explanation is simple.  Some folks simply can’t think of a word, some follow my grandmother’s advice about how if you can’t say anything nice about someone don’t say anything at all, and some offer random words like mackerel or skinny.

Yes, there is a “preaching to the choir” aspect to talk radio, but for tens of millions of folks told over and over again a single, powerful word like socialist will frame the way they view any Obama proposal – whether it makes sense or not.

Face it, even your crazy uncle still matters.

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Barry Hollander

Barry Hollander

Former hack at daily newspapers, now hack journalism professor at the University of Georgia, number cruncher and longtime Net user, caffeine addict, writer of weird fiction, and a semi-retired god in an online fantasy world where godhood suits him quite well, thank you very much. He also blogs at http://www.whatpeopleknow.com