Conservative talk radio never really disappeared.  We just stopped talking about it.

Until the last couple of weeks, that is.  And I’m glad to hear it’s back.

The Bush years of 2000 to 2008 were a sleepy time for talk radio.  Not in listeners, they were still there in huge numbers, but in something even more important in the media world – buzz.

A Republican administration, two wars, terrorists, the Internet, and an unfortunate growth in bad reality television programming had pushed talk radio out of the political limelight.

rush_limbaughAnd then along comes Barack Obama, along comes Democratic control of the federal government and plans to overhaul health care and spend our way out of a crashing economy.  And along with all this, surging back into the national conversation, comes Rush Limbaugh and a host of likeminded conservative talkmeisters.

As the kid in Animal House said when sitting on his bed reading a girlie magazine, after a half-dressed college girl flies through the window and lands next to him:

“Thank you God!”

Oh yeah, I love Rush.  And Sean Hannity, and Neal Boortz, and all the other talkers who chatter away on the radio dial.

I used to do a lot of research on talk radio.  I published enough to satisfy someone, somewhere, in the educational machine that is the University of Georgia that I was worthy of tenure, that I was a guy who knows how to put colons in the titles of his work (it’s real scholarship if it contains a colon, which is called – and I’m not making this up – titular colonicity).

Political talk radio has a funny history.  Once an outpost for disaffected liberals, in the late 1980s it morphed into a conservative stronghold partially in response to a perceived bias in the mainstream news media (note – a lack of a conservative bias does not equal a liberal bias) and partially because there was money to be made on that there radio dial (scratchy old AM radio, saved).

Conservative talk radio hosts flexed their political muscle first in 1989 as they urged listeners to mail tea bags (sound familiar?) to lawmakers as a protest of a proposed congressional pay raise.  Talk radio went from flying just under the radar to becoming a big fat blip the size of a B-1 bomber.  Soon it became a serious player, largely thanks to Limbaugh.  Its influence peaked with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

I tagged along for the ride.

Between 1994 and 1997 I published several academic journal articles about talk radio, research read by tens of people worldwide.  The gist of my work and that of others was simple, that such programs matter.  Listeners were not passive receptors of bile but rather people energized to participate in the political process, who actually learned from listening to such programs.  Yeah, some of talk radio is the self-righteous knocking down of straw men, if not outright misstatements of reality, but for many people such programs serve as useful, if not a bit screwy, sources news and information.

My point?

Limbaugh is back.  Sacked by the NFL, proclaim the headlines about his brief attempt to buy a football team.  A major player in the GOP, worry others as he squabbled with the party heads about who really represents Republicans.  While Glenn Beck sobs on Fox News, Limbaugh entertains and informs several million more on the radio every weekday afternoon.

Whether you believe 20 million or so listeners must be deaf, or insane, or both, is hardly the point.  Limbaugh, and talk radio in general, is back with not only a vengeance, but with a mission to save America.  As Hannity proclaims every afternoon on the radio dial, he represents “conservatism in exile.”

So is Limbaugh, and talk radio, really back?  Or is it only the buzz?graf1

The graphic to the right, based on Pew Center data, shows the percent of people who say they “regularly” or “sometimes” listen to Limbaugh and, as a wacky comparison tossed in for my own amusement, National Public Radio.  I recognize the apples and oranges problem here, comparing one guy’s three-hour program with a network like NPR, but the results suggest that in 1994 they had more or less the same size audience and then NPR went one way, Limbaugh another.  How can this be?  Well, it’s probable that more people say they listen to NPR than really do, giving a more socially desirable response.  It’s like saying you vote when really you don’t, or attend religious services when you only go on major holidays, or that you actually watch PBS.

These numbers are not Nielsen figures, they’re responses to surveys with all the error that comes with such efforts.  But having dealt with numbers like these for a long time, I’m confident in their validity.

So let’s move away from Limbaugh and to talk radio in general.  The buzz is certainly there.  CNN, for example, has been doing special reports this week on talk radio and what it all means – though they failed to interview scholars who seriously study talk radio, but that’s a minor quibble about me not getting face time on TV (note to CNN producers, call me!).

Buzz?  Yep, it’s there.  See all the Limbaugh noise, the CNN reports about talk radio.

Numbers?  Yep.  We’re tgraf2alking tens of millions of listeners.

But going up?  Not so sure.

Look at the graphic to the left.  The line represents the percent of people from 1993 to 2008, again from Pew data, who say they listen to talk radio “regularly” or “sometimes.”  If you fit a straight line to the data, you’ll see a shallow yet clear trend, and that direction is down.

What’s missing?  Numbers from 2009.  I expect to see a blip upward in 2009, in part as a response to the Obama administration and the subsequent wailing and gnashing of teeth, and flying saliva, and sobbing, and all the other emotional outbursts you find on talk radio in response to a Democrat in the White House.  Plus all that buzz can’t hurt.

Numbers from other sources certainly support the idea that talk radio is on the rise, but I’m waiting on that data to be convinced there’s not more smoke (and buzz) than fire.

The real problem for the talkers?  For most Americans, politics just isn’t all that appealing, especially in a non-election year, and talk radio depends – hell, relies – on anger and fear and frustration and a fascination with political culture that I’m not sure is there for most average people trying to make ends meet in tough times.  Then again, tough times might be exactly what talk radio ordered.

If the numbers are actually going down, then that presents Limbaugh and others with a problem.  How many professional sports teams can one propose to buy only to be rejected?  How many outrageous things can you say in a given week to generate buzz?

How long before people, even the ones who love your partisan or ideological position, just grow tired of the whole thing?

Obviously I’m hoping never.

Talk radio’s reappearance in the national conversation also  means I can return to an old friend in my research.

Because I’m really tired of Twitter.

###
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