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Talking Back

The coming rise of liberal talk radio.

EVERY WEEKDAY, FROM three in the afternoon until seven in the evening, Randi Rhodes delivers her brief against George W. Bush. Much of it is standard anti-Bush fare: He stole the 2000 election, he wrecked the economy, he led the nation into a disastrous war under dishonest pretenses. But sometimes Rhodes takes her critique into less familiar territory. Citing a book titled George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, Rhodes alleges that in the 1940s Prescott Bush, the president’s grandfather, sold raw materials to the Third Reich. And then there are the Bushes’ business ties to the bin Ladens, which, Rhodes says, go back decades and even involve the president himself, who as a young oilman in Texas was partners with Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother. Indeed, Rhodes contends that it is the Bush-bin Laden relationship—not an anti- American jihad—that accounts for the September 11 attacks. According to Rhodes, Osama bin Laden, disgusted with the corruption of his own family and the Saudi royals, decided to seek revenge against their most prominent American partners: the Bushes. Bin Laden, in other words, doesn’t want to destroy the United States; he just wants to destroy Bush.

Crazy as Rhodes’s theories may sound, they do not just disappear into the ether. Broadcast by WJNO, an AM news and talk radio station in West Palm Beach, “The Randi Rhodes Show” is the highest-rated program in the local market’s afternoon drive-time slot. Rhodes has more Palm Beach listeners than even Rush Limbaugh, whose show immediately precedes hers on WJNO. 

And it’s likely that Rhodes’s anti-Bush brief will soon reach audiences well beyond Palm Beach. In the past year, two groups have formed to develop national liberal talk shows—and both are interested in Rhodes. One, a nonprofit outfit called Democracy Radio, wants to syndicate Rhodes’s show across the country. The other, a for-profit venture called Progress Media, is creating a national liberal talk radio network and is considering Rhodes for its lineup. Either way, Rhodes hopes that, sometime in the next few months, listeners from New York to Los Angeles will be able to hear her smoky, Brooklyn-accented voice rail against the president. 

One afternoon last fall, I visited Rhodes at WJNO, which broadcasts from a low-slung concrete building in an industrial section of West Palm Beach. Rhodes often jokes on air that she works in radio because of her “bad hair and blotchy skin,” but, in person, she turns out to be an attractive bottle-blond who wouldn’t look terribly out of place in the front row at an Aerosmith concert. (This is perhaps unsurprising given that, before she became an AM talk-show host in the early ‘90s, she’d worked a dozen years as an FM rock deejay and managed bands on the side.) As a radio veteran, Rhodes knows that each hour on the air requires at least another hour of preparation, so about two-and-a-half hours before airtime, she was sitting in a darkened studio, poring over a sheaf of articles she’d printed off the Internet. The clip that had her most excited— and agitated—was the transcript of a press conference President Bush held earlier that morning. “These are clearly scripted news conferences,” she complained, waving the transcript in the air, “and that’s dangerous, because there are a lot of serious questions that need to be asked.” Rhodes didn’t say what these questions were; instead, she proceeded to read some of Bush’s answers aloud in what can only be described as a doofus voice, chuckling to herself. 

A couple hours later, Rhodes was still on the same topic, this time with a microphone cradled in her right hand, addressing not just me but thousands of listeners throughout Palm Beach. “You had to actually be married to the Republican Party to believe the president today,” she declared. She ridiculed Bush’s explanation that the people attacking American troops in Iraq “hate progress”: “People are willing to strap bombs on their bodies because they hate electricity ... and they hate school?! This is the explanation we’re getting?!” Then she raged over the president’s contention that it was the crew of the U.S. S. Abraham Lincoln, not the White House, that hung the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner as a backdrop for his May speech aboard the ship: “Today, he even went as far as to blame the troops for putting up an off-message sign! I can’t believe he does that, using the guys that really fought.” As she neared the end of the show, Rhodes was still rolling: “The president is a bald-faced liar. Even about little things like a banner, he can’t tell the truth.” 

RANDI RHODES WOULD seem to give lie to the hoary notion that liberals are constitutionally incapable of succeeding in the rough-and-tumble medium of talk radio, that they are, as more than one talk radio host has proclaimed, “mealy- mouthed wimps.” As Rhodes demonstrates every afternoon drive, a liberal talk radio host can be just as bombastic, hyperbolic, and plain old nasty as a conservative one. 

But Rhodes is the exception that proves the rule. While she has achieved relative success, most liberal talkers—including such celebrities as Mario Cuomo, Alan Dershowitz, and Jim Hightower—have proved to be failures, their shows canceled after drawing atrocious ratings. The result? An almost top-to- bottom roster of conservatives on talk radio. According to one recent study of the 45 top-rated AM talk radio stations in the United States, conservative talk accounts for 310 hours of airtime each week; liberal talk just five hours. 

Explaining this imbalance has long been a parlor game of political and media analysts, giving rise to some entertaining theories. One relies on the work of Carl Jung to argue there is “an insufficient psychographic base for liberal talk radio to succeed and grow the way conservative talk radio has”—in other words, liberals think and communicate in ways that are a bad fit for the medium. Another posits a vast right-wing conspiracy among radio-station owners and radio conglomerates, such as Clear Channel, to hire only conservative talkers. Yet another theorizes that the Reagan administration, in a remarkable bit of foresight, got rid of the Federal Communications Commission fairness doctrine in 1987 to make way for conservative talkers. Some simply argue that the cultural makeup of the left—as opposed to that of the right—is too diffuse for radio programmers to target successfully. 

But, in the past year, as efforts like Democracy Radio and Progress Media have gathered steam, the question of why liberals have been unable to match conservative talkers’ success has become more serious, more focused—and more urgent. After all, if liberals can’t figure out the cause of the talk radio imbalance, how can they ever hope to correct it? 

OF ALL THE EXPLANATIONS offered for the conservative dominance of talk radio, the most persuasive can be summed up in two words: Rush Limbaugh. 

In 1988, former ABC Radio President Ed McLaughlin was looking for a talent around whom to build a nationally syndicated show, when a friend pointed him toward Limbaugh, then a 37-year-old relative unknown working at a news/talk station in Sacramento. Limbaugh, a radio veteran who had started his career as a music deejay after dropping out of college at the age of 20, was doing an unusual talk show for that time in two respects. One, it broadcast during the day; at the time, most talk radio was broadcast at night. And, two, Limbaugh’s show focused on politics; talk radio then consisted primarily of interview and personal-advice shows. 

McLaughlin traveled from New York to Sacramento and listened to Limbaugh’s show in his hotel room. He wasn’t impressed, thinking that Limbaugh was too pompous and too loud. But, on a subsequent trip out West, McLaughlin put Limbaugh on as he cruised around in a rented car. It was then that he realized that what had annoyed him in the hotel room—Limbaugh’s arrogance and his volume—captivated him as he drove. Limbaugh made all the distractions of the road fade away. “Limbaugh being a conservative was almost beside the point,” says Jon Sinton, a radio executive now working for Progress Media. “He was just a phenomenal radio talent.” 

Later that year, McLaughlin took Limbaugh’s show national, using what came to be known as the barter model. In exchange for a percentage of advertising inventory, McLaughlin offered AM stations Limbaugh’s noon-to-three show for free. Fifty-six stations—most of them desperate to fill airtime, especially if they could do so at no cost—took McLaughlin up on the offer. Before long, Limbaugh was a hit, and the talk radio landscape was radically altered. 

The success of Limbaugh’s show, which is now broadcast on some 600 stations and heard by an estimated 14.5 million listeners each week, spawned legions of imitators—ranging from national personalities like Sean Hannity and Oliver North to local talkers whom no one outside of their markets has heard. “The radio industry is a reactive industry,” explains Tom Athans, a Democratic media consultant who is now spearheading Democracy Radio. “Radio executives saw Limbaugh’s format—he’s wild, he’s entertaining, he’s conservative—and saw that it was successful, and that became the template.” Or, as Sinton explains a bit wistfully, “If Limbaugh had been a flaming liberal, then today there’d be a bunch of conservatives complaining about all the liberals who are on the radio.” 

The Limbaugh theory, then, gives the boosters of liberal talk radio hope. If it’s true, it means that conservatives have succeeded not because of their politics, but because they have a functioning model for how to present their views in an entertaining fashion. Progress Media CEO Mark Walsh believes that, if his company can just find the right entertaining liberal hosts—comedians like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo or radio vets like Randi Rhodes—and not, as he puts it, “finger-wagging, eat-your-veggies, liberal talk-show hosts,” then liberal talk radio can succeed, too. The conservative dominance of talk radio, according to the Limbaugh theory, is a supply-side-driven phenomenon. “The country ideologically is pretty much split fifty-fifty,” says Democracy Radio’s Athans. “It’s just an issue of supplying good and entertaining personalities who happen to be liberal.” 

But, while there’s no denying Limbaugh’s talent as an entertainer, it would be foolish to discount the role his politics played in his success—and the success of his imitators. Limbaugh grew up in a solidly Republican family in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, but, as his liberal detractors never tire of noting, he wasn’t terribly political before the birth of his show in Sacramento. Indeed, as Paul D. Colford reported in his unauthorized biography of Limbaugh, in the first twelve years the radio host was eligible to vote, he never even registered; he only did so after a Sacramento newspaper reporter inquired about his lack of a voting record. So it was likely something other than personal conviction that motivated Limbaugh to adopt a conservative persona for his show- -for example, a sophisticated understanding of the radio genre he was working in. 

LIBERAL TALK RADIO boosters are right that talk radio is not inherently conservative. But it is inherently anti-establishment. “Anything that flies in the face of the establishment works on talk radio,” says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the industry trade magazine Talkers. “That’s true for talk radio about business and talk radio about medicine. It’s even true for talk radio about gardening. [You hear things like], ‘People say you’re supposed to water the lawn in the spring, but that’s bullshit!’” 

A savvy radio veteran like Limbaugh undoubtedly realized this. “The reason Limbaugh didn’t become a liberal is because there wasn’t a need for a liberal host when he came up,” says Harrison. “Not only was Limbaugh the right singer, he was singing the right song. There were lots and lots of conservative people in the country—enough to constitute a radio niche market—who were angry and disgruntled about politics and who wanted to hear a conservative view.” 

At first glance, that might seem odd. After all, when Limbaugh started his show in Sacramento in 1984 and then took it national in 1988, Ronald Reagan was president. Conservatives were in ascendance; liberals were in retreat. But it was nonetheless conservatives, not liberals, who felt more angry and marginalized. And their greatest grievance was against the media, which they perceived as overtly hostile to their views. (A 1987 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of Republicans thought the press was biased toward liberals; 48 percent of Democrats actually agreed.) Limbaugh happily reinforced that perception, telling his listeners that the mainstream media constituted “a daily assault on what you and I believe” and that “the dominant media culture” was complicit in an effort “to impugn ... the things that most people in this country hold dear.” While liberals trusted the newspapers and Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather to give them the news, conservatives, by and large, did not. So they tuned into Limbaugh—and later his imitators—to get the news from someone who they believed shared their values. “Many people say I need to be balanced with equal time,” Limbaugh frequently told them. “I don’t need to be balanced with equal time, because I am equal time!” 

The crucial role that the perception of liberal media bias has played in the success of conservative talk radio can especially be seen today. Despite the fact that Republicans wield even more political power than they did under Reagan and conservatives have essentially created their own talk radio media establishment, conservative talkers continue to portray themselves as embattled rebels. “Please!” Limbaugh has responded to liberals’ complaints about the conservative dominance of talk radio. “On TV you own C-SPAN, PBS, C-SPAN 2, CNN, ABC, CNNfn, CBS, MSNBC, CNN Headline News, NBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, Lifetime, Oxygen, etcetera. Simply for giving the conservative point of view equal time, you call Fox ‘conservative.’ You have radio guys on NPR twenty-four/seven!” It’s almost as if conservative talkers and their listeners need to envision themselves as lone voices in the media wilderness. 

BUT CONSERVATIVES HAVE not been the only people who believe that the mainstream media is hostile to their views. But conservatives have not been the only people who believe that the mainstream media is hostile to their views. Many African Americans have long felt that way, too, which is probably why the genre called “urban talk” has proved the one area of talk radio in which liberal hosts have tended to succeed. Many major cities, particularly on the East Coast, boast thriving urban talk stations on which liberal, rather than conservative, views hold sway. And no urban talk station has been as successful or as important as WOL in Washington, D.C. 

In 1980, an African American woman named Cathy Hughes bought the 1,000-watt WOL and changed its format from soul music to news/talk. It was not, initially, a successful shift, and the station and Hughes almost went bankrupt. But, in 1986, Hughes, who in addition to owning the station hosted its morning show, found ratings gold. The Washington Post, a long-standing source of grievance for many black Washingtonians (who perceived the paper as catering to the city’s white residents), relaunched its Sunday magazine with an issue that featured a cover story on a black rapper charged with murder and a column by a white writer sympathizing with local merchants who locked their doors to bar young black men. Hughes pounced. Using her morning show, broadcast from a storefront studio in a blighted section of Northeast Washington, she launched a protest movement, urging black Washingtonians to dump their copies of the paper at the Post’s headquarters each Sunday. They did so for 13 weeks, until the Post capitulated by sending its editor and publisher on Hughes’s show to apologize. 

The Post controversy made WOL a must-listen for many black Washingtonians; the next year, the station turned its first profit. Moreover, Hughes learned a valuable lesson: In order to keep ratings and profits high, she needed to, as she would later instruct her employees, “find causes and talk about them”— something she most frequently did by denouncing the Post and other parts of the city’s white establishment. In 1990, for instance, Hughes went to the mat for embattled Washington Mayor Marion Barry, telling her listeners that they must support Barry because his arrest on drug charges was just another example of the white system targeting a powerful black man. Her listeners responded, contributing so much money to Barry that the “WOL family,” as Hughes called her listeners, ultimately covered nearly the entire cost of Barry’s imprisonment, for which, as part of his sentence, Barry was responsible. 

Today, Hughes is too busy running Radio One—the $3 billion, 67-station radio empire she has built on top of WOL—to host a show herself. But her old morning drive-time slot at WOL is held down by Joe Madison, who has carried on her rabble-rousing tradition. Known as the “Black Eagle,” Madison began his radio career in the 1970s as a weekend sidelight to his regular job as a political organizer for the NAACP. When Madison went into radio full time in the ‘80s, he considered it an extension of his political work. Over the years, he has used his talk show as a platform to launch a campaign to end slavery in Sudan, promote the conspiracy theory that the CIA introduced crack cocaine to Los Angeles, draw attention to incidents of police brutality, and generally complain about the white establishment’s mistreatment of African Americans. “We as black people are undervalued, underestimated, and marginalized,” he frequently tells his listeners. 

One morning late last year, I went to see Madison at the modern office building in Lanham, Maryland, to which WOL (and Radio One’s corporate offices) relocated a few years ago. Madison does his show from a new state-of-the-art studio that, in addition to sending a signal out on WOL, now also beams his voice over “The Power,” a national urban talk station broadcast on XM satellite radio. Although Madison has long had close ties to a number of black politicians, his national reach has brought him more clout. On the morning I visited him, he hosted Jesse Jackson, Wesley Clark, and Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members Donald Payne and John Lewis. Indeed, hardly a show goes by when a CBC member doesn’t join the Black Eagle on the air. “Charlie Rangel drives around in his gray PT Cruiser, and he listens to the show, and he’ll call up,” Madison boasts. “The other day, he called to say he was going to ask for [Donald] Rumsfeld’s resignation. He said he wanted to give my listeners the first word. Now I’m feeling good, and my audience is feeling good, because we heard it first.” 

Still, despite his growing clout, Madison won’t give up the anti- establishment mantle. “Limbaugh once told a black caller that African Americans only make up fourteen percent of the population, so who cares what you think? I honestly think that perspective, that comment, reflects a culture that exists in the newsrooms across this country,” Madison says. “I read ten papers, I get on the Internet, and I see the way they culturally condition people to believe that white is superior and black is inferior. ... Therein lies the success of black talk radio. We have a perspective on everything, and it’s usually counter to the mainstream.” 

OF COURSE, EVEN white liberals are seething with anti-establishment anger these days. First they were frustrated with the Florida recount, and the war in Iraq has driven many over the top. And, while countless political commentators have noted the left’s near pathological hatred of President Bush, they generally overlook the fact that the press is also becoming a target of liberals’ wrath. After all, Bush may have stolen the 2000 election, liberals believe, but the media let him get away with it; and, while Bush lied about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, liberals argue, the press didn’t subject his claims to sufficient scrutiny. 

To see that liberals harbor a growing grievance against the media, one need only glance at recent books popular with liberal readers (such as Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them) or visit one of the more heavily trafficked liberal bloggers (such as Atrios or DailyKos) or tune into one of the handful of successful liberal talk radio hosts (such as Randi Rhodes, who tells her listeners, “The media is so hypocritical because you know and I know that, if any of the stuff that’s happening now had happened when Clinton was president, that people would be excoriating” him). And polling data is beginning to bear this out, too: According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of Democrats believe the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign is tilted toward Republicans—up from 19 percent in 2000. This is presumably why, during his rise to temporary Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean spent almost as much time bashing the establishment media as he did attacking the White House: It worked. 

Why does the charge of conservative media bias now resonate so much more with liberals? To put it bluntly: the Fox News Channel. Fox makes up a tiny fraction of the mainstream media, averaging about 1.7 million viewers in its most watched hours, compared with the 30 million or so people who tune in each night to one of the three network newscasts. But its meteoric rise (the network only began broadcasting in 1996) and pugnaciously conservative slant (masterminded by its chairman, former Republican strategist Roger Ailes) casts a disproportionately large shadow on the media landscape. Moreover, many liberals believe that Fox has caused competing media outlets, perhaps unwittingly, to tilt to the right—particularly in their coverage of Bush and the war in Iraq. “The conservative orientation of Fox is invaluable to the right,” Alterman writes in What Liberal Media?, “not merely because Fox offers the spin on reality conservatives prefer to have people see and hear, but also because it helps pull the rest of the not terribly liberal media in its direction.” Adds Marty Kaplan, an associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication: “More and more progressives and liberals are feeling as though the Roger Ailes school of news is the only one that’s out there.” 

This growing liberal anger at and alienation from mainstream media is just one reason why the latest liberal talk radio efforts are far more likely to succeed than past ones. In the conservative media—be it real or imagined— liberal talkers finally have a suitable foil, a new media establishment against which to cast themselves. “The notion that the folks on Fox are the marginal types trying to fight their way back in isn’t going to wash,” says Kaplan. “They’re the priesthood.” Liberal talk radio, he adds, will serve as “a way for a flea to bite the butt of the king”—something Kaplan hopes to do himself, having recently signed on with Progress Media to host his own media affairs show once the network is up and running in the spring. 

The liberal talk radio shows will likely vary. Progress Media, with its signing of Al Franken and hopes of landing Janeane Garofalo, is relying on Comedy Central’s satirical TV newscast “The Daily Show” as a model for much of its content. “If we do liberal analogues to [Hannity and Limbaugh], I think we’ll have failed,” says Walsh. By contrast, Democracy Radio is basically looking for liberal Limbaughs. But, whether it’s a comedian or a ranter behind the mic, liberal talk radio’s overarching message will be angry, aggrieved, and anti-establishment—and therefore, quite possibly, successful. 

BUT SUCCESS AT what cost? Talk radio can perform the valuable service of providing aggrieved people with an arena in which to vent their frustrations and air their complaints. It can function as a voice for the voiceless. 

The problem is, talk radio can never effectively answer those frustrations and complaints, because, for a talk radio show to succeed, it must keep those frustrations and complaints alive. After all, without a simmering source of grievance, people won’t listen. In this sense, then, talk radio is the quintessential “arena for angry minds” that Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style In American Politics.” Although Hofstadter was writing a quarter-century before Limbaugh took his show national, the hallmarks of the paranoid style that Hofstadter listed—”heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—read like a perfect description of talk radio’s most relevant characteristics. 

It is this paranoid style that makes talk radio such a difficult—not to mention dangerous—political force for politicians to try to harness. Just consider what happened to Republicans in the ‘90s when they rode the talk radio wave. With conservative talk radio assuming new importance after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election, Newt Gingrich and his fellow House Republicans turned to it as a base of support in the 1994 midterm elections. When Gingrich announced the Contract with America two months before the midterm elections, the Republican National Committee lined up 300 talk radio interviews for its signers, and, when the GOP subsequently swept the midterm elections, much of the credit went to talk radio. Limbaugh, former Republican Representative Vin Weber said at the time, was “really as responsible for what’s happened as any other person.” 

But conservative talk radio was a double-edged sword for Gingrich and other House Republicans, because, while it put them in the majority, it was a beast that continually needed to be fed. The political compromises necessitated by being in political power were greeted with howls of protest by talk radio hosts and listeners. Threatened by their backlash, Gingrich and his fellow Republicans in Congress engaged in increasingly aggressive, and irrational, behavior—shutting down the government, promoting wild conspiracy theories, impeaching the president. Eventually, that behavior proved their downfall. This outcome was hardly surprising, given that, by its very definition, the frustration that talk radio taps into can never actually be satisfied. As Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style, “Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. ... This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.” 

But Democrats appear to have learned little from the Republicans’ cautionary talk radio tale, because they appear intent on hitching their wagons to talk radio to an even greater extent than the GOP did. While Republicans in the early ‘90s tapped into a talk radio phenomenon that had developed organically, Democratic politicians are trying to jump-start the process on their own. Both of the groups currently working on liberal talk radio ventures deny any formal affiliation with the Democratic Party. But Progress Media’s CEO Walsh recently served as the DNC’s technology adviser; and Democracy Radio’s Athans is a longtime Democratic activist who’s married to Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. Moreover, the desire to create viable liberal talk radio programs goes all the way up to the top of the Democratic Party. “[I]f we’re going to try to break through as Democrats, we have to have the same edge that Republicans do,” Tom Daschle said of the need for liberal talk radio shows shortly after the 2002 midterm elections. 

Which is why, last November, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu hosted a fund- raising lunch for Democracy Radio at her Capitol Hill home. Together with about 20 other Democratic senators—including Stabenow, Daschle, and Hillary Clinton— Landrieu fted Rhodes and a North Dakota liberal talker named Ed Schultz, both of whom Democracy Radio hopes to syndicate nationally. Though the fund-raiser was closed to the press, Rhodes later recounted for me what transpired. After lunch, Florida Senator Bob Graham introduced Rhodes to those assembled. According to the talk-show host, Graham told the crowd about the many Democrats who had replaced Republicans in elected office in South Florida since Rhodes went on the air there; Graham went so far as to proclaim that no Republican could win wherever Rhodes was heard. It wasn’t long before the money was rolling in. “I heard people yelling out dollar amounts,” Rhodes remembered. “I thought it was two hundred and fifty dollars, but it wasn’t. ... They were pledging two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” 

These are obviously large sums to wager on a talk-show host who, following the capture of Saddam Hussein a few weeks later, would tell her listeners that American forces had had the former Iraqi dictator in custody for months and were only revealing him now as a “Christmas present from the president.” Why are Democrats willing to make this gamble? For Rhodes, the answer is simple. “Our purpose as talk-show hosts is to say things you can’t say,” she recalled telling the senators gathered at Landrieu’s house that day. The question Democrats need to ask themselves is, are they sure they want people to be saying those things on their behalf?

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.