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.

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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

21 Comments
  1. I used to listen to Sean Hannity 15 minutes every afternoon to see what offended him that day. Recently I discovered that XM Radio has a 24-hour Monty Python channel. Hannity lost his button on my radio.

  2. Interesting article. I had one question for the author though, after reading this statement:

    “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)”

    Do you deny that for a very long, long time, the major networks, NYT, AJC, etc., have unflinchingly advocated the liberal/Democrat position? To what extent was the “perceived bias” not, in fact, perceived reality when it came to politics and straight news reporting? And that folks like Rush and Fox simply, being good capitalists, responded to fill a market niche that was lacking in the media landscape? I guess to be more specific: do you really think there are/were **objective** news organizations whose ethos was somehow subverted by the Rushes, Foxes, et. al.?

    Obviously I’m a hard-core free market, somewhat social conservative. I’ll cop to that shocking disclosure. But I also think the New York Times in its day with all its bias and blithering Maureen Dowd nonsense (and not just in the opinion pages) committed some excellent journalism. I also think Fox, too, does some excellent journalism as well. I mean really: if it weren’t for them would we know about Anita Dunn (and Mao), Van Jones, ACORN, etc.? No, we would not. Many of the usual NYT, AJC, CNN suspects deliberately ignored these stories and their journalistic obligations as well.

    I’m tempted to expouse upon the political coverage during the recent presidential campaign, but I’ll withhold further commentary to discover whether I’ve started yet another interesting conversation or not.

  3. Doug Cumming

    Tempted to expouse?
    Brenden: The arguments about media bias run in circles, circles as numerous as Dante’s circles in hell. The laity see bias – yes, it’s all over the papers – but usually fail to make any distinction between opinion writers like Dowd and what reporters write in the news pages. Those of us who have been reporters and news editors for newspapers know that, yes, reporters tend to be liberal on most issues, and newspaper owners tend to be conservative except as family tradition dictates loyalty (a good conservative virtue) to certain principles of the Democratic Party of FDR and JFK. But those personal tendencies are not inconsistent with the ideal of journalistic objectivity. In fact, that ideal is not a claim of personal neutrality, but the opposite – journalistic “objectivity” was worked out a long time ago specifically because journalists were NOT objective. It is the practice, borrowed from the social sciences (which borrowed it from the hard sciences), of getting and verifying the facts (as best we can) and letting the chips fall where they may, in the face our own prejudices. Alex S. Jones, in his new book “Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy,” does a good job of describing how this “objectivity” ideal came about, how valuable it is (or has been) for our democracy, and what we stand to lose when it is de-funded by the current market stresses on newspapers.

    Barry: Having moved from journalism to the scholarly study of mass communications, I appreciate your jazzy take on the academic study of the media. Getting my Ph.D. in this field, I was appalled by the things that you laugh about here – that our work has about 10 readers, at best, that our paper titles (and much else) can be pseudo-science formulae (titular colonicity, indeed!), and that the tenure process at a big research university tends to be like an “educational machine.” Fortunately, at a good, small liberal arts college like Washington & Lee, I don’t suffer these complaints. And having gravitated toward journalism history – which is really just a way of studying American history – I avoided all that quantitative work. I can see value in some of it, but then I get stumped when researchers say things like this: The difference between the Rush Limbaugh numbers and the NPR numbers is probably because more people say they listen to NPR. And then, in the next breath, you call the results “valid”? I don’t get it.

  4. Barry Hollander

    I agree the issue of “bias” gets messy. If you read careful, systematic studies of bias (not the pop books with badly done methdologies), the results are kinda mixed on whether such a bias truly exists.

    It depends on how you define it, how you measure it. I will say this — experiments in which you give the same balanced article to two sides on an issue find, every time, that both sides think the balanced article was biased against them.

    I suppose you could take Colbert’s approach and argue “the truth has a liberal bias,” but while funny, it doesn’t tell us a hell of a lot.

    Washington & Lee … great school. An old friend of mine is there, Brian Richardson.

    I agree Doug, on your last comment. On one hand I argue the numbers are valid while on the other I point out their weakness. That’s the academic in me (at the end of research papers we point out all the problems with our data, our analysis). A talk radio host would never do that. Clearly I have no future in talk radio. But my gut feeling is even though people may overestimate their listening to NPR, it’s not by a lot, and that doesn’t change the trend from year to year — assuming people overestimate by roughly the same amount every year, which seems a safe assumption.

  5. ” newspaper owners tend to be conservative except as family tradition dictates loyalty (a good conservative virtue) to certain principles of the Democratic Party of FDR and JFK. But those personal tendencies are not inconsistent with the ideal of journalistic objectivity.”

    Doug, I am confused: so you’re equating the advocacy of New Deal/Great Society policies of gov’t economic control to the “unbiased” steady state position of neutral objective reportage? Well, that’s a real showstopper. I don’t think anyone who is well versed in history or economics would take seriously the notion that these measures were not without controversy and perhaps highly destructive. Many, such as myself, consider the advocacy of those policies as the very definition of liberal bias.

    Speaking as some who has advanced graduate study in applied statistical modeling, it’s good to recognize the limitations of the numbers presented here. I hope you would admit, Barry, that you do not have real “control” and “experiment” groups here for valid statisical measurement, because of the interaction between them. But from a more basic perspective, I wonder that the whole inquiry doesn’t rely upon some very tendentious assumptions. For instance:

    “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.”

    This statement implies that you began your investigation with the assumption that listeners WERE de facto passive receptors of bile, which I believe is a false premise. Further, that they “learned” also comes as a surpise to you. You may not recognize it, but folks like Rush actually present data — that is, gathered and reported facts from others — that simply does see the light of day in “traditional” media. Your statement above suggests you assumed the informational content was solely “self-righteous knocking down of straw men, if not outright misstatements of reality”.

    Rush often gathers quotations and data from politicians, Congressional inquiries, reporting from WSJ, etc. Sure, he adds bloviating, biased commentary. Yet traditional CNN-NYT-AJC media deliberately hide and ignore such information because it would endanger the New Deal/Great Society policies they support in their selection of facts/data they publish. This refusal to report such information is itself a form of bias. That’s fine but it’s intellectually dishonest as an investigator to not recognize that bias when attempting to “measure” the impact of conservative media. If you further began your investigation to disprove a series of tendentious assumptions, well, that’s problematic.

    The interaction between the conservative and liberal/traditional media invalidates rigorous statistical measurement and proper experimental design. I think the only real “independent” measurement would be advertising, revenue and ratings. On these scores, the conservative media does quite, well, thank you. Ultimately it is their economic success, in my opinion, what investigators of conservative media bias seek to explain. It is this they really do not understand.

  6. Barry Hollander

    The early research on talk radio, mostly from the 1970s and a bit from the early 1980s, revealed a largely passive audience. Indeed, a lot of folks who listened to talk radio did not participate in politics all that much. The conservative takeover of talk radio in the late 1980s also coincided with a dramatic shift in the audience to one that was more active. How the cause and effect works there, I’m not sure, but my read of the data and studies over that time suggests conservative talk radio drew active folks in and energized them even more.

    Experimental studies of talk radio are rare — instances where you can control for all other explanations to study some result. Talk radio remains huge (bigger than Fox News in terms of raw numbers), and ratings are a better way of looking at this, but ratings rarely come with other measures so you can statistically control for some factors to tease out relationships among other factors. You can get those — but only if you spend a lot of money. And even then, remember Nielsen and Arbitron numbers are nothing more than surveys (but with gigantic Ns). Advertising is a tricky measure of anything, other than you can always get a sense of a publication or program’s audience based on the ads because media buyers pay very dear attention to market segmentation. That’s why it was so ironic in the early 1990s that one of Limbaugh’s big advertisers was a learn to read program. But that was early on when the program was hungry for any advertisers. Now they’re mainstream (except for the guy who tries to sell gold).

  7. I think it’s hilarious that on CNBC they have that “buy my product” guy who’s trying to teach folks how to use eBay and Excel. Sometimes I watch that “Options Action” show that talks about complex derivative trading and then on pops the “I can teach you how to use eBay” guy. That’s pretty ironic.

  8. Barry Hollander

    Okay, I just have to add this to the conversation:

    http://bit.ly/8W14Z

    Follow the link. Or below, a brief description of the research:

    The present study investigated voters’ testosterone responses to the outcome of the 2008 United States Presidential election. 183 participants provided multiple saliva samples before and after the winner was announced on Election Night. The results show that male Barack Obama voters (winners) had stable post-outcome testosterone levels, whereas testosterone levels dropped in male John McCain and Robert Barr voters (losers). There were no significant effects in female voters.

  9. I can validate that result. When President Barry won, my testosterone, blood pressure, temperature, mental function, vision, hearing, taste and ability to digest solid foods all fell. I suspect it’s merely a natural mammalian defense mechanism to lower body function to prepare for times of recourse scarcity and high taxes.

  10. Cliff Green

    Brenden finally came clean. He admits that his mental function fell when Obama was elected.

  11. Doug Cumming

    Barry,
    Sorry about those physiological problems you’re been having since last November, but if you read my comment again, you’ll see that I was suggesting that journalistic “objectivity” is NOT a claim of journalists being bias-free.
    Again: “In fact, that ideal is not a claim of personal neutrality, but the opposite – journalistic ‘objectivity’ was worked out a long time ago specifically because journalists were NOT objective. It is the practice, borrowed from the social sciences (which borrowed it from the hard sciences), of getting and verifying the facts (as best we can) and letting the chips fall where they may, in the face our own prejudices.

  12. I’m muddling through best as I can. I have good days and bad. At least all those winning voters now see the consequences of hard-left gov’t looting and plunder advocacy: failure and corruption. I take comfort in that.

    As to objectivity, I think many “mainstream” journalists selectively choose their facts. Case in point: ACORN. NYT refused to report on the controversies surrounding this organization until Fox forced their hand. What about Axelrod’s intrest conflict-riddled multi-million-dollar gov’t funded media organization, what about Anita “Mao Tse” Dunn, what about Car Czar Ron “Mao Tse” Bloom, what about Van Jones? These folks wouldn’t have lasted a second in gov’t if they were Republicans.

    The traditional news organizations don’t practice what you describe as quasi-academic “balanced” fact gathering. They deliberately ignore information that reflects badly upon the policies and politicans they favor in their NEWS pages. That’s bias. Fox does it too, surely, but that anyone would hold forth that they’re the sole practicioners of media bias is nuts. Fox is at least intellectually honest about their preferences.

  13. Doug Cumming

    Brenden (as I meant before, not Barry, sorry):
    There are two ways to criticize news organizations — as an insider, knowing how organizations like the NYT or AJC or NPR or the Pickens County Progress actually work. And as an outsider. You’re obviously an outsider, with your thinking strongly influenced by an economic theory, and a political slant. That’s fine. Without theory, there’s no real thinking. And without political slants of all kinds, there’s no fun in politics.
    As an insider, I find a lot of failings in the media — ACORN, the lazy adopting of a conservative blogger’s findings on Sotomayor (see good Atlantic Monthly piece on that this month), etc. But these failings are best identified against the standard of journalistic objectivity as Alex Jones defines it — not perfect or platonic objectivity, but “practical” objectivity, digging out the relevant and interesting facts not because they favor the reporter’s bias, but because they’re relevant and interesting. An example from Jones is from the partial-birth abortion flare up a few years ago. Anti-abortion groups provided statistics (those notorious lies!) saying the practice was common and often causual, while the pro-choice folks provide very different stats (also “factual”) saying it was extremely rare and only in late-term emergency cases. A female reporter at the Bergen (NJ) Record (who was personally pro-choice) took the trouble to talk to abortion doctors and an abortion clinic administrator. (That’s called reporting, something Fox and bloggers do not do, and increasingly, real news organizations have less time for.) She found that the number of late-term abortions in N.J. alone were greater than what Planned Parenthood said they were nationally. She wrote that story, and then a reporter for the Washington Post (who is also a medical doctor, and also pro-choice personally) did some more reporting and found the same thing — partial-birth abortions were far more numerous and casual than the pro-choice people claimed.
    That’s good journalism — and my critique is not that the NJ reporter or WP reporter are biased (pro-choice) but that the rest of the media simply reported the conflicting statistics (that’s what I’d call bad “balance”) and didn’t check out the facts — nor did they pick up the story from the Record or the Post.

  14. Terri Evans

    Doug, so glad you’ve jumped into this debate. Your comments make me want to come up to W&L and take a class from you!

  15. Lee Leslie

    Intellectually honest? Has the phrase been so corrupted as to mean just the opposite – neither intellectual nor honest and somehow makes it acceptable for conviction (or preference) to ignore fact or logic and allow distortion, gossip mongering and the knowing propagation of lies and hatred? What high standards you have.

  16. “Obviously an outsider…” This statement is not entirely true but the inside/outside criticism is irrelevant within the context of how news orgs inform the public. As for my insider criticism: it’s a lousy business that loses money.

    As a member of the reading public, all I’m simply saying is that NYT, AJC and NPR deliberately present certain facts in their news sections, hide others or don’t investigate them, based upon unstated political preference. They may not directly say, “vote for Obama!” on A1 but if they refuse to investigate the backgrounds of close advisors to same extent they would a Republican — that’s bias. Again, I don’t have a problem with that.

    My problem is the peanut gallery here and elsewhere who don’t recognize that there is and long been a demonstratively partisan reporting media comprised of major papers, networks and untold thousands of journalists whose reporting of facts reflects their biases. Then one day you have a slate of commentators and journalists filtering facts by another ideological prism. Then all of sudden you hear peals of, “Those biased hacks are ruining our profession!”

    No they’re not: they’re simply hewing to accepted standards and practices of daily journalism. That’s fine, too.

  17. Cliff Green

    No, Brenden, we are not saying , “Those biased hacks are ruining our profession.” We are saying, “Those biased hacks are not professional journalists.”
    One more thing: JFK is not generally associated the Great Society. That was LBJ.

  18. Tom Baxter

    “Political talk radio has a funny history. Once an outpost for disaffected liberals, in the late 1980s it morphed into a conservative stronghold…”

    This gives short shrift to Father Coughlin and Joe Pine. I was about to say I might be the only reader who remembers Joe Pine, but then I saw that Cliff Green had a comment.

  19. Cliff Green

    Hell, yes. I remember Joe Pine. He chain smoked on camera a died of lung cancer, as I recall.

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