Rough Road to Liberal Talk Success

A short history of radio bias

When Air America declared bankruptcy on October 13, conservatives who’d been predicting its failure since it launched 30 months earlier were afforded a new chance to gloat and scoff at the notion that liberal radio hosts could ever compete with what they see as the stunningly talented conservatives who dominate the medium (O’Reilly Factor, 10/13/06; AP, 10/14/06).

It may be too early to count Air America out—the network is still on the air and syndicating programming to other radio stations—but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t given liberal talk radio advocates a clear rebuttal to the conservative argument that says liberals just can’t compete in talk radio.

But what is the formula for success in talk radio? What has made it such an effective medium for conservatives and such a broadcast graveyard for liberals? In order to seriously answer the question of why progressives have not been more successful in talk radio, it’s necessary to deconstruct myths—embraced by both liberals and conservatives—that cloud the history of the genre and obscure the actual obstacles that stand between liberal talk radio and its emergence as a viable answer to conservative talk.

Conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, commonly argue that the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan’s FCC in the late 1980s was a watershed event in the ascendance of right-wing talk radio. They say the doctrine made programmers shy away from controversy; that its removal freed right-wing talk radio, which was stifled if not nonexistent, to seek its own natural, stellar level of popularity.

This argument pulls so much weight on the right that mere mention of the reinstatement of a fairness requirement causes many to denounce it as a “Hush Rush” law, a moniker first coined by Limbaugh himself in the early ’90s when reinstatement of the doctrine was gaining bipartisan support (Extra!, 11-12/94).

Many progressives likewise say the FCC’s elimination of the fairness requirement led to the explosion in talk radio. Of course, they see it as a bad thing, one that allowed conservative-leaning broadcasters to saturate their programming with corporate-friendly, right-leaning talk jocks. But conservatives and progressives alike exaggerate the role that abolishing the Fairness Doctrine played in the domination of talk radio by conservatives.

To begin with, the Fairness Doctrine was not as forceful a policy as it has subsequently been portrayed (Extra!, 1-2/05). It vaguely called on broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.” It did not require that programs be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn’t require that the balance of a station’s program lineup be anything like 50/50; talk radio featuring callers arguing with the host technically fulfilled the “conflicting views” requirement. In fact, not one Fairness Doctrine decision issued by the FCC ever concerned itself with talkshows.

Indeed, the talkshow format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation. Before the doctrine was repealed, right-wing hosts frequently dominated talkshow schedules, even in liberal cities, and none was ever muzzled (The Way Things Aren’t, Rendall et al., 1995).

Talk radio first emerged as an economically viable radio format in 1960, when KABC in Los Angeles and KMOX in St. Louis began regularly programming talkshows with listener call-ins. One of political talk radio’s first big stars was KABC’s Joe Pyne, who lashed out endlessly against Communists, the women’s movement and opponents of the Vietnam War. But Pyne was soon joined by many other talk radio rightists. Indeed, political talk radio was largely born in a backlash, with conservative white male hosts railing against the progressive movements for civil rights, women’s liberation and peace.

Pyne was temporarily removed from KABC’s airwaves on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, because station managers were worried he might say something untoward during a time of national mourning. Pyne’s replacement was KABC sports reporter Bob Grant, who would later credit Pyne for giving him his start in talk radio. Grant, who would become better known as a particularly racist right-wing talk host after moving to New York City in 1970 (Extra!, 1-2/95), was, in turn, credited as an inspiration by two younger ultra-conservatives who would become well-known talk hosts in the ’80s and ’90s: Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan.

In the ’60s and ’70s, talk radio was virtually all local, but hosts were well-known in their markets. Conservative hosts such as Pyne, George Putnam and Ray Briem in Los Angeles, and Grant and Barry Farber in New York, enjoyed notoriety in markets where conservatives were the exception rather than the rule.

But it made sense that political talk would grow up as primarily a preserve of conservatives. When talk radio started in the early 1960s, the U.S. was still in the fading shadow of McCarthyism; it was still dangerous to be associated with left-leaning politics, while conservative, staunchly anti-Communist views were always safe. American broadcasting predating Joe McCarthy had a tradition of tolerance for even extreme right-wing views. Radio haters, racists and redbaiters such as Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and Walter Winchell were thriving on U.S. airwaves well before talk radio or the blacklists were established. (The blacklist was finally shut down in 1962 by a landmark lawsuit brought by radio host John Henry Faulk, a folksy populist who was blacklisted in 1957.)

By the late 1980s, when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, a variety of other factors contributed to the explosion of talk radio in general, and conservative talk in particular. As musical programming fled to higher-fidelity FM signals, AM programmers were left with schedules to fill. At the same time, improvements in satellite technology and cheaper 800-number telephone lines were making national call-in shows more feasible (“Talk Radio Culture,”

This confluence of factors created opportunities, and conservative talk radio, which was already going strong locally across the country, took advantage of them. (Limbaugh, who’d been getting good ratings on Sacramento’s KFBK, was just one of many conservative talk hosts who benefited; in 1988, he moved to New York to launch the syndicated show from WABC that brought him to national attention.)

Far from an isolated phenomenon, talk radio’s preference for conservative over progressive commentary is a bias that plays out throughout American corporate media. On broadcast and cable news alike, progressive voices are routinely excluded while the right debates the center (Extra!, 9-10/04).

And the industry isn’t exactly coy in its preference for the right over the left. In 2003 the trade magazine Ad Age (10/13/03) explained why Al Gore, who had intended to launch a liberal cable news outlet, was instead planning to create a channel aimed at a “more aware, younger, hipper audience.” Ad Age quoted an “insider” who advised Gore: “Liberal TV is dead on arrival. . . . You just can’t do it.” (see Extra!, 11-12/03.)

In 2004, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone candidly explained why, while he admired Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, he was compelled to support George W. Bush: “A Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one” (Extra!, 2/05).

The lesson for liberal talk radio advocates is that commercial political talk radio going back five decades favors corporate-friendly conservatives and generally shuns left-of-center hosts, Fairness Doctrine or no. That history, and persistent corporate bias, weigh heavily against progressive talk ever becoming the equal of its conservative counterpart. That doesn’t mean that the small foothold that Air America and other progressive radio enterprises such as Jones Media have established can’t be improved upon. But progressive talk advocates need to know what they’re up against.