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.

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

  1. Billy Howard

    He’s as socialist as that crazy radical FDR. Government should be for the rich, by the rich, and, oh yeah, paid for by the middle class.

  2. Yes. This is interesting. I was just having one of those (other article) “discussions” this weekend with a friend (with whom I regularly disagree) – and she used the “socialist” word very freely when referring to Obama and even added that “liberals” want to take away “free will.” I was genuinely perplexed and even amused at the choice of words and phrases which I just assumed were being bandied about on talk radio. Folks just don’t know what to say, do they?

  3. Forget talk radio. A lot of people have read Atlas Shrugged. Many more should. The parallels to what we’re experiencing today are astounding.

  4. Cliff Green

    Hannity also worries about “The Gay Agenda.” I expect someone to out him any day now.

  5. We probably were not paying attention as much as we should have, but I can remember a time when right-wing talk radio just seemed to erupt as a national force. The telephone for the National Desk at my newspaper used to ring on my desk, and the whole tenor of the calls we got changed after that. Has anyone written the great book that needs to be written on that phenomenon?

  6. Melinda Ennis

    The most irritating thing to me is that no one seems to pay attention or read what his tax policies actually are.
    He is simply taking the tax levels back to what they were pre-Bush and the tax on the rich will still be lower than it was during the days of that other great socialist—Ronald Reagan!

  7. Barry Hollander

    A book called “Rush to Judgment” is pretty good, about the Limbaugh effect, but there’s a lot of social science stats in it so it kinda loses its readability unless your a PhDweeb type like me. I might recommend “Terror on the Air” but that’s actually about the old horror shows they used to broadcast (close, but not quite the same as some of our favorite talk radio personalities).

    And of course you can pre-order “Censorship: The Threat to Silence Talk Radio” co-authored by Sean Hannity. Out May 5 and no doubt a fair and balanced treatment of the Fairness Doctrine and the secret society destined to bring it back (or is that the DaVinci Code? I get ’em confused).

  8. I once had the misfortune to ride in a car for several hours with someone who was a fan of conservative talk radio. Listening to it was like being attacked with verbal nerve gas. It is unbelievably mind-numbing. I began to understand how people who listen on a daily basis just repeat what they hear without question.

  9. Don O'Briant

    Talk radio is all about code words. They may rant about socialism, taxes and government spending, but the unspoken agenda is race, gay rights, abortion and welfare.

  10. I live in Atlanta and listen to a fair amount of political talk radio, which in Atlanta unfortunately means, since the departure of Air America, almost exclusively right-wing talk radio. And I think that Barry Hollander goes far too easy on these people when he likens them to a crazy but lovable uncle. I think Keith Graham got it exactly right when he said that the tenor of American political talk changed with the eruption of right-wing talk radio, which occurred in the late 1980s and early ’90s. I think that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have probably done more damage to our great country than any other two individuals outside government, by polluting and perverting political discussion into something dominated not by anything resembling reasoned argument but by sheer hate. (I don’t know which of the two is more dangerous — Limbaugh’s forte is to package hate as often artful comedy, while Hannity specializes in a naked, unadorned and unambiguously vicious variety. And I single them out as most dangerous only because they have the largest audiences — Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Tammy Bruce are, in my view, even worse.)
    Obviously there is nothing new about sharp and spirited political debate. But I would argue, with Keith, that something fundamental changed with the ascendancy of today’s brand of right-wing talk radio. Until not so long ago, it seems to me, liberals and conservatives believed, for the most part, that those on the other side were mistaken and misguided, sometimes grievously mistaken and misguided, sometimes even fatally mistaken and misguided, in the sense that their policies could destroy the country — but that they were honorable people who were doing what they honestly believed was best for the country. Obviously one could find exceptions, but that I believe was the norm. And all that has changed with today’s breed of right-wing talk radio. Limbaugh, Hannity et al. seem to believe that those who disagree with them are not merely mistaken or misguided, not merely even grievously or fatally mistaken or misguided, but either mentally or morally defective or both. And it is that condescension, that monumental condescending arrogance, that makes them so pernicious. I could give many examples that undoubtedly would make this reply run much too long, if it isn’t much too long already.
    In sum, it isn’t their political beliefs that are the problem. We need conservative voices and we need spirited political debate. The problem is that what we get from Limbaugh, Hannity et al. isn’t political debate in any meaningful sense of the term; for the most part, instead of argument, we get name calling, shouting, condescension, mudslinging (a Hannity specialty), vituperation and interruption. (Notice, if you listen, how seldom any of these people allow even the meaningful articulation of any view they disagree with; those who take telephone calls, when they detect an opposing view, typically start shouting and then hang up. This suggests that they are actually afraid of argument and are not only arrogant, but arrogant cowards. But that’s another discussion.) Barry Goldwater was a principled conservative with real beliefs other than in the moral or mental inferiority of his opponents, as was Ronald Reagan, and fortunately there are principled conservatives today, such as George Will and Pat Buchanan, who are able and willing to engage in intelligent and substantive debate. But they aren’t on the radio. Their followers number in the tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands, while the radio hatemongers collectively have, as Barry Hollander acknowledges, “tens of millions” of robotic minions who mindlessly believe their every word. (Limbaugh’s followers actually take pride in their mindlessness, referring to themselves as “Dittoheads.”) And this, it seems to me, is one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest problem, in American political life today.
    (The problem could be solved, of course, if we could administer IQ tests to prospective voters and require a certain minimum score for registration, which would disenfranchise most of the followers of Limbaugh, Hannity et al. But that prospect, as attractive as it is, clearly would be anathema to our democratic principles.)
    David Mann
    (Thanks to Tom Walker for directing me to this Web site, where I see that a number of great former AJC folks hang out! )

  11. Melinda Ennis

    While I agree with most everything David Mann posted, I have to say that “today’s brand of right wing radio”
    does have a precedent. Back in the 1930’s the airwaves were dominated by a character named Father Charles Caughlin who claimed as much as one-third of America as his listening audience. Originally an FDR supporter, he shifted to isolationism and anti-communism that was based on virulent anti-Semitism and the ever-popular “international Jewish conspiracy” theory. He sympathized with Hitler/Mussolini-style facism and supported Kristillnacht by saying it was a reaction to Christian persecution by the Jews (yes, really). His popular rants led to his promotion as an American hero in Nazi Germany by another guy who knew his way around talk radio as a propaganda tool, Joseph Goebbels. Something called World War II put an end to Caughlin’s hate mongering and he died, thankfully, in obscurity. Today he is remembered, if at all, by a verse in a Woody Guthrie song, “Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin’ the silver chain, Cash on his stomach and Hitler on the brain.” We can only hope for the same path to obscurity for Limbaugh, Hannity, et al. when America tires of Radio HATE (hopefully it won’t take a world war to put an end to them). BTW—my knowledge on this topic is thanks to a paper I wrote in college about media as a propaganda tool (glad to see my education has finally paid off).

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