Boston Globe: Talk Radio Now 'Irrelevant'?

Looks like a couple of fellows pushing a book were able to convince the Boston Globe to let them contribute some soothsaying about the future of talk radio. Scratch that, they are talking about today, here and now -- and it's all bad. In the Boston Globe, Steve Elman and Alan Tolz have proclaimed "the rising irrelevance of talk radio," so Rush... fuggedaboutit. Hannity... go back to house painting. Michael Savage... go back to whatever the heck it was you were doing before you were "Michael Savage." It's over. Just like when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor (excuse my John Belushi). Finis ( a little French lingo there).

Unfortunately for Elman and Tolz, though, it appears that they don't even have their main facts straight, much less a crystal ball successfully tuned into the state of talk radio today. In fact, they get something wrong in their very first sentence.

One more note on the significance of the presidential election of 2008: It's the first one in more than 30 years on which talk radio had no major impact.

First of all, there has been some sort of talk radio around just about since the first radio station signed on the air. Still, Elman and Tolz' "30 years" time line is a ridiculous measurement. In the case of national politics, where things have heated up for talk radio the most, their "more than 30 years" is a timeline that is off base.

30 years ago and more there weren't any talk radio shows that had a national impact on politics. The misleadingly named Fairness Doctrine was still in force strangling radio personalities and station programmers and it wasn't repealed until 1984; less than the "more than 30 years" timeline the authors pegged as significant. Rush Limbaugh didn't revolutionize talk radio until late in the summer of 1988, again less than 30 years ago. His many current compatriots didn't begin to show up until the early and mid 1990s. All the shows that focus on politics now are not "more than 30 years old" so there is no way that this election is the "first one in more than 30 years on which talk radio had no major impact."

Talk radio had no impact at all on either Reagan term, nor George H.W. Bush's first election because there just weren't many talkers on the market and only Rush Limbaugh had a national show that focused solely on politics at some point. Political talk radio as a major, national influence was just a budding phenomenon until the Clinton years were well under way, really.

Oh, sure there were regional guys and local guys talking politics on the air but local shows have never had the impact that the big nationals have had. Earlier, there were a few national guys like Larry King, Michael Jackson, even Morton Downey Jr. that occasionally touched on politics. But it’s an overstatement to say that any of them had "impact" to the point where major elections were swayed by their words or their medium was a focus of TV and the print industry in the same way it has been for the last 15 years. I agree that they had some small impact, of course, but to the point where these two book hawkers can say that talk radio was an important aspect of political success for "more than 30 years"? I just don't see it. So, they are really off with that claim. Way off. By at least 10 or even 15 years.

They go on:

Perhaps the Carter-Ford contest in 1976 was the last in which talk radio was so irrelevant to public opinion on candidates and issues. In retrospect, 1979 (the year the Iranian hostage crisis began) and 2004 (the year of George W. Bush's reelection) may well be regarded as bookends of talk radio's greatest influence on American politics.

Again, absurd. There was no real impact by talk radio during Ford's, Carter's Reagan's, and H.W. Bush's (first) elections. But, let's even take closer consideration of what "impact" they could even mean?

The only interpretation one can garner from their claim of “no major impact” must be the fact that Barack Obama handily beat John McCain at the polls. With that assumption, Tolz and Elman must be focusing on conservative talk radio. They also focus on Rush Limbaugh, further cementing that they are talking about a perceived failure of conservative talk radio in the 2008 election cycle.

Of Course, conservative talk radio is the battleship that cruises the talk radio airwaves these days. Yet, let's face facts. Talk radio does not have tremendous record of success at the polls. If you want to claim that it might be responsible for the outcome of elections talk radio is nothing to write home about. Talk radio twice could not beat Clinton and it couldn't beat Obama. If there were radio shows with national reach in 1976 (and there weren't) it didn't beat Carter, either. Even in the case of G.W. Bush -- if it even makes sense to ascribe his win to talk radio -- it was only by a slim margin, so “success” is relative there. Barely winning is not much of a success story to showcase the supposed power of talk radio.

So, what are these guys chortling about here? Their whole premise seems to be based on the "fact" that conservative talk radio has a long record of winning elections but even if we accept their claim at face value, the evidence is lacking. At best it has had but moderate success.

Tolz and Elman then go on to completely miss the meaning Limbaugh placed on his own efforts during the 2008 cycle to buttress their claims that talk radio somehow failed this time.

Consider some of the major stumbles this year by the medium's 800-pound gorilla. Rush Limbaugh vigorously promoted three separate political objectives over the past year, all of which failed: derailing John McCain's quest for the Republican nomination, sabotaging Barack Obama's drive for the Democratic nomination by fomenting Republican crossover votes for Hillary Clinton, and ultimately stopping Obama's march to victory in the general election. Contrast this with the impact talk radio once had on local taxes, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, congressional pay raises, a mandatory seat belt law, etc.

They get Rush's actions quite wrong here. Rush never once said that he wanted to keep John McCain from office. In fact, if that was his goal, why didn't he campaign for another candidate? Rush only highlighted when McCain was right and when he was wrong according to Rush's view of conservative principles. He obviously didn’t like McCain, but he announced no “get” McCain movement. Further, these guys completely misstate what Rush did with Hillary vs Obama. Rush repeatedly said he didn't give a flying burrito about which one of them was the Democrat nominee. Whether you agree with his actions or not, his goal was to create as much chaos in their Party as he could not to support or defat either of them.

Also, what "impact" did talk radio have on Clinton's impeachment, congressional pay raises and seat belt laws? Clinton wasn't convicted, pay raises always happen anyway, and seat belt laws are practically universal now. Looks like fail, fail and fail, to me. (In 2006, for instance, the Democrats tried to tie the pay raise to a raise in the minimum wage so no pay raise happened that year because the GOP opposed the minimum wage increases. It had zip to do with talk radio!)

Then we get another silly claim. Elman and Tolz lament that talk radio is no longer a "town meeting of the air." Gentlemen, talk radio has not been a "town meeting of the air" at least since Limbaugh debuted! Nor was it ever, really. Talk radio has always been about the host, not the callers. That perception, I think, is more gauzy nostalgia than reality on the part of the anthors, in any case.

I do have to say, however, that they might be onto something with one of their points. Just as newspapers are losing an audience to the wide diversity of news sources available out there, talk radio could soon find a similar effect hitting them. But, that is a might be. Most national talkers still enjoy strong ratings. So, even that point hasn't actually come to pass.

As to the rest, it seems pretty wide of the mark. In fact, the author’s overstatement seems geared solely to impute more importance to the subject of their book: Boston talk show host Jerry Willaims (Whose talk career started in 1960. Williams passed away in 2003).

Now, I have one more thing to say about these guys. I don't know if Tolz and Elman are liberal, conservative or other. And, while they may have been in talk radio, they sure don't seem to get talk radio.

National conservtive talk radio shows are not a direct political force. It never was. Conservative talk radio does serve to disseminate the meme, the conservative narrative or agenda. But talk radio does not push "politics" itself. To push politics is to push candidates, win elections, organize around local and national issues, become involved in door-to-door canvassing, ply the phones, email... all those things are real politics. Talk hosts do none of that. They develope a general political tone, yes, but politics is done by others. This is mostly because talk radio is first and foremost about the host (and his ratings), the general narrative comes second, and politics comes in a distant last. This is why I find it hard to say that talk radio is such a major player in politics directly. It is important for the conservative message, yes, but it is more around politics than in it.

In fact, I'd say that conservative talk radio only treads water trying to undue the damage that our schools cause in the American electorate. Conservative talk radio only puts Americans in touch with their conservative ideas. It's up to the listeners to then translate that into actual political action. It’s also up to the party to capitalize on it. And since talk radio is the most utilized source of conservative narrative today, I'd say its days are hardly numbered.

But, winning elections just isn’t a specific goal for national talk radio. Most especially because just focusing on a presidential election doesn’t a winning party make. Talk radio doesn’t control the Party and if the Party fails to act, elections get lost. We saw that this time.

Anyway, to say talk radio is finished as having some influence on national politics is just not right. But it also hasn’t the force that the authors ascribe to it. Talk radio never was the sort of power player that Elman and Tolz seem to think it was in the first place. So, since they start out with a misconception, it's easy to reach the conclusion they reached.

(Photo of Limbaugh: Lighthouse Patriot Journal)

(H/T the Mike Gallagher Radio Show)