America; Right-wing radio stations

by Andrew Stephen

This week I did something that very few Americans do: I listened to "liberal" talk radio, the supposed antidote to the jungle of right-wing broadcasting that deluged the nation from the moment Ronald Reagan forced the end of the "fairness doctrine", which had governed US broadcasting since 1949. And I came to a sad conclusion--that the middle and left are incapable of producing radio that can compete with the daily outpourings of the right.

Why this should be so is intriguing. The facts are inescapable: Richard Nixon began the process of putting TV and radio into the hands of the right, and Reagan vetoed an attempt by Congress to make balance in broadcasting mandatory. This process of "deregulation" speeded up under George W Bush, and helps explains much of what I call the right-wingisation of this country: today, 22 per cent of Americans get their news mainly from talk radio and Rush Limbaugh has 15 million listeners a day. Democracy Radio Inc, the nonprofit organisation, says that right-wing programming now dominates over the middle and left by a ratio of 10:1.

You may have heard that Air America and its star Al Franken are making inroads, that they have 2.5 million listeners and are now syndicated in 65 cities. This may sound impressive, but the reality is the audience figure is exaggerated and the list of stations much less impressive than it seems. I live a few minutes' walk from the White House but can barely pick up the station that carries Air America in Washington. WLIB, Air America's flagship station in New York, is 24th in the league table in the area and has an audience smaller than when it was in its previous format as a Caribbean music station. The right-wing pundit and former member of the Reagan and first Bush administrations Bill Bennett is a middling radio star--but is still broadcast by more than 120 stations every day.

I can reveal at least part of the reason for all this: Air America is truly terrible, amateurish and sometimes downright embarrassing. It sounds like University Radio Essex did in my student days--paved with good intentions, but lacking in technical expertise or professional flair. Limbaugh, by contrast, is a brilliant performer who instinctively understands the rhythm and pace of radio. His show crackles, while Air America sounds as though it is struggling for air. Even the ads seem to scrape the barrel, with Franken wretchedly recommending some brand of mattress.

The likes of Limbaugh are broadcasters who drift into right-wing politics once they discover that their fortunes lie there; their "liberal" counterparts tend to be the reverse, already politicised people who set out to become progressive talk-show hosts. Franken, now 54, started as a performer on Saturday Night Live, but then began writing books such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. He is planning to run for the Senate and may move his show from Manhattan to Minnesota. Where Limbaugh rants and raves, knowing the value of dramatic silences, Franken whinges.

So why is it only the right that is successful? Part of the reason, I think, is that its broadcasters tend to be bullies who use scorn and belittlement as their primary weapons of ingratiation; they goad and jeer at those who have differing views, and there is some deeply ingrained characteristic of the human condition that makes people want to be part of the jeering mob.

Most of all, Limbaugh and his imitators are determinedly simplistic. They thunder with contrived anger, while "liberals" try to engage listeners with argument. For them, life is black and white and rarely clouded by facts or complications. Mario Cuomo, the Jesuitical former Democratic governor of New York, has been among many on the centre left who have tried and failed in the talk-show format; the reason, he says, is that the right-wing broadcasters draw with crayons while the rest try to conjure up more complex worlds with quill pens.

The sad truth, though, is that facts do not matter very much in American broadcasting these days. Alternative realities are created and go unchallenged. It was the Terri Schiavo saga last spring that brought this home to me: a woman who had been repeatedly diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state over 15 years and who was unable to see, eat or think for herself was transformed into a living, breathing cause celebre who was not only "responsive" (Bill Frist, Republican Senate leader) but even "lucid" (Tom DeLay, the party's leader in the House).

And so the right-wingisation of America continues apace, the far-right hegemony unchallenged in most radio and many television stations across the nation. Air America is now well into its second year, but even in Washington its audience is too small to be measured; it is, it seems, simply incapable of taking on the might of the right. I suppose I am becoming more American: after just two or three days my brief flirtation ended, and I no longer listen to liberal talk radio.