Jan 1 2007

Sidebar: Liberals Can’t Cut Talk Radio?

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to Rough Road to Liberal Talk Success.]

One talk radio talking point for conservatives and establishment observers alike is that progressive politics don’t “work” on talk radio because they are too nuanced and therefore not reducible to the sort of clear-cut moral terms that get talk radio audiences fired up. Anyone who believes this has never heard the likes of Michael Moore, Barbara Ehrenreich, Molly Ivins or Michael Eric Dyson (himself a successful local talk radio host in Chicago).

While touring in support of FAIR’s book The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error in the mid-’90s, I was accosted by one talkshow host after another with another conservative talking point: Liberals can’t do talk radio because they’re too humorless to be entertaining.

My response was to ask them why they thought this was true of talk radio, since it was the only entertainment venue where liberals weren’t prominent. They usually accepted my point, but instead of explaining why talk radio was different from other entertainment settings, they would usually begin citing the short list of talk radio liberals who had failed over the years.

They were right in saying that liberal hosts like former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and former California Gov. Jerry Brown were not particularly adept at talk radio. But these and better liberal hosts who’ve been canceled over the years were generally given little time to succeed, assigned poor time slots, or had shows that were wedged in between conservative shows, where it is hard for a liberal to build an audience (and not particularly good for the conservative host who follows the liberal, either). Looking back on the brief and ungenerous tryouts offered to liberal hosts over the years, it’s important to remember that Rush Limbaugh failed at radio for more than a decade before developing his winning formula.—S.R.