CNN's Reliable Sources jumped on the bandwagon a short time later, devoting an entire show to the supposed clout of call-in radio. And when Zoe Baird's nomination as Attorney General died in a late-January firestorm of public outrage over her nanny-employment practices, the mainstream media credited talk radio with the kill and buzzed anew with reports detailing the format's role as megaphone to the alienated, disenchanted masses. A window on the nation's soul! An awesome shaper of public opinion! A wellspring for grass-roots activism! A powerful new forum for national political candidates.
Enough already. Talk radio is none of those things, at least not on the scale suggested by the media. True, call-in talk is an extremely popular format that has played supporting roles in some high-visibility political dramas, including the Baird affair. But the idea that America's radio gabbers are wielding some broad new influence over the nation's political process and policy agenda is simply unsupportable. Indeed, the spate of stories making that overblown claim says more about the media's pack mentality--and the self-pro- motion skills of certain talk hosts--than it does about the format's true impact on society.
Talk radio burst into the mainstream media's consciousness during the 1988-89 House of Representatives pay-raise debate. Egged on by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a group of radio yappers in several major cities launched a campaign to stop the salary hike by encouraging listeners to send protest messages-- accompanied by tea bags--to their members of Congress.
When the pay raise died in an avalanche of public protest, the pressies began wondering and fretting about talk radio's "new power." Washington Post political wise man David Broder decried its "know-nothing demagoguery" and New York writer Joe Klein predicted talkers would be the "political organizers of the '90s." Publications as diverse as the Chicago Tribune, Time, American Enterprise, The New York Times and Penthouse mulled the capacity and possible threat of talk radio's alleged political clout.
They needn't have worried. While talk radio did play a notable role in defeating the House pay hike, close examination of that episode and its aftermath reveals much about the limits of the medium's political influence.
Since the "tea-bag revolt," talk radio is batting about O-for10 on national political crusades. Among the highly publicized efforts that fizzled: an attempt to mount a nationwide boycott of Exxon after the Valdez oil spill; a move to stop the government bailout of the savings and loan industry; and a dual-purpose 1990 campaign to oust incumbents and roll back all taxes. Most embarrassingly, the House gave itself a pay raise in 1990 with nary a peep from the talk hosts.
The electronic crusaders have had a bit more success on the local level, where host-led campaigns blocked toll-road fee increases in Florida and Norfolk, Va., and crystalized opposition to tax hikes in New Jersey. The conclusion is that talk radio's political influence can only prompt action on those rare populist or pocketbook issues where the public has already reached a broad, visceral consensus-and on those issues which can be boiled down to good-vs.-bad arguments.
Thus, while talk hosts can mobilize the public to act on its resentment of a Zoe Baird, a sneaky Congressional pay grab or a local toll hike, even strident New York-based talkers like Howard Stern and Bob Grant are powerless to influence significantly such remote or complex issues as gun control, abortion, Congressional term limits or even local elections.
Talk radio's power is further limited by the format's need to both entertain and inform. Haranguing listeners about one side of an issue for days or weeks does not make for captivating or informative radio, and the best hosts and stations understand this. Why else did talk radio ignore the second Congressional pay raise? As Rush Limbaugh has noted in expressing his disdain for crusades: "If I wanted to shape public policy, I'd become a Senator or go to work for a think tank in Washington."
As much as radio talkers hate to admit it, their ability to prompt public action on any issue is highly dependent on whether the other media pick up on their message and run with it. The teabag revolt was a classic example of this symbiotic relationship at work. The talk hosts' ranting--and the public's response to it--provided a perfect humanizing hook for television and print coverage of the proposed pay raise, which might otherwise have been dismissed as a dull inside-the-Beltway story. That coverage spread word of the protest well beyond the talk stations' own comparatively small audiences, extending the stations' perceived influence and attracting some new listeners in the process. In short, talk radio's greatest power may lie not in its ability to influence its own listeners, but to spark media coverage of the issue at hand. That's fairly significant clout--but it's never mentioned in stories about the format.
As the 1992 election heated up, coverage of talk radio shifted from its sway over issues to its unique ability to give voters access to the candidates. Again, things were overstated. For all the hoopla that surrounded Bill Clinton's appearance on Don Imus' New York morning show and George Bush's chat with Rush Limbaugh, talk radio was not a major forum for the three Presidential candidates. Clinton, Bush, and Ross Perot appeared on fewer than a dozen talk radio stations--and then for only a few minutes.
Many of those gigs--including the Limbaugh and Imus interviews--were audio/photo opportunities aimed more at the media than the radio audience. "Bush didn't go on Rush's show to talk to his 3.3 million listeners," observes one radio network executive. "He did it so he'd get on the CBS Evening News," which has an audience of 13 million.
If a 1992 Roper Organization survey conducted for the Columbia Journalism Review is any indication, that's smart thinking. Only half of the 2,000 respondents said they listen to talk radio. Just 21% of those who do listen consider it a "primary" or "important" source of information about national candidates, while 53% labeled it a "minor" source of input. The results were similar when respondents were asked about talk's value in local races.
Since discovering talk radio, the media also seem to have accepted the curious notion--fostered by talk hosts themselves-that the format is a two-way Radio Free America. It has been portrayed as a place where harried, fretful Americans--isolated from their leaders, Big Media and each other---go to speak their minds and hear what their fellow citizens really think. Local television stations race to the local talk-radio station for "public reaction" stories on major events, the prestigious daily papers write articles detailing what talk-show callers around the country are saying about the issue-of-the-moment, and C-SPAN takes its cameras into talk-radio studios on Election Day. Listen long enough, these reports suggest, and the voice--or at least the mood--of the people will emerge.
But it doesn't. What emerges is the mood of a statistically minuscule group of people who are hardly representative of the public-and whose thoughts have often been filtered and massaged every bit as much as a letter to the editor or a man-on-the-street interview.
The typical talk station attracts roughly 2% to 5% of the local radio audience. According to one recent study, over one-third of those listeners are 65-plus, and just over half are 55 or older. People between the ages of 18 and 34, by contrast, account for just 14% of the audience.
A widely accepted industry rule of thumb says just 1% of those listeners-- a majority of them men--ever phone in to express their opinions. And just who are these callers? Well, they are obviously folks with the motivation, time and ability to hang on the phone in the middle of a workday--retirees, homemakers whose kids are either at school or sedated, the unemployed, the selfemployed, shift workers, college kids and, increasingly in recent years, people with cellular car phones.
Of course, not every caller gets on the air. Respectable talk stations screen out those who sound too old, too young or too crazy, as well as those who simply want to reiterate the dominant opinion. Calls are placed on the air not in the order of receipt, but in such a way to create a sense of balance--or conflict. In keeping with current conventional wisdom that the callers are there to make the host look good, some screeners, including Limbaugh's, conduct pre-interviews with callers--sometimes even coaching them on which of their points they should emphasize.
Is there anything wrong with such practices? Of course not. Talk radio doesn't exist to monitor the public pulse. It's the original infotainment programming, where callers are but ingredients to be combined to create an entertaining melange of news, views, drama, and humor. As Limbaugh himself has often noted: "My goal is to capture the largest possible audience for the longest possible time, so we can charge confiscatory advertising rates." Nothing there about reflecting the public mood or giving voice to the great unwashed.
But Limbaugh is certainly in the right medium to meet his commercial objective. According to the Simmons Market Research Bureau, the talk radio audience indexes well above the general population in number of college graduates (1.55), professional managers (1.43) and households with incomes over $100,000 (1.62). There is also a widely held perception that by virtue of its maturity, the talk audience has more disposable income than fans of other radio formats.
And, unlike most music formats, talk is a foreground medium that requires listeners to be mentally involved. If they are paying attention to the programming, there's a better chance they are paying attention to the spots. As a result of these factors, talk stations have a high "power number"--the ratio of their percentage of available radio revenues to their share of the total audience.
Virtually every media story touting talk radio's arrival cites the format's recent growth in stations and listeners as evidence of its rising importance. True enough. The number of talk-radio outlets has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the M Street Journal, an authoritative radio trade publication, there are currently some 650 commercial "news/talk" stations, up from 527 in 1991 and 360 in 1990.
Impressive numbers--if you don't look too closely. For openers, M Street's total includes news and talk stations of every stripe including all-talk, all-news, all-sports and all-business. According to M Street editor Robert Unmacht, 30 of the 648 are all-business and 37 are all-sports. Another 135 are stations that simply carry the audio portion of CNN Headline News.
What's more, the overwhelming number of new all-talk stations have popped up in small markets where desperate AM owners ditched dying music formats for inexpensive, satellite-delivered talk lineups featuring the likes of Limbaugh, touchy-feely Dr. Joy Browne or liberal Limbaugh-wannabe Alan Colmes. Meanwhile, there has been very little growth in the number of talk stations in the top 50 markets. Most of the handful of "new" talk stations to appear in those cities in the past few years were chat-and-news heavy music outlets--such as Washington's WMAL and Pittsburgh's KDKA-- that simply ditched the few songs they were playing to become all-talk outlets. Some low-power suburban stations in the largest markets have recently turned to various forms of talk, but they typically are not competitive in the ratings race.
And while talk radio's overall share of the national audience has increased-thanks to the flood of small stations--talk listenership in the top 75 markets has not skyrocketed. The Katz Radio Group, which represents radio stations to national advertisers, found that news/talk stations--outlets that feature both talk programs and lots of long-form news--accounted for an average of 7.3% of radio listenership in the top 75 markets during the fall 1992 Arbitron ratings period. Although that was the format's best fall performance since 1986, it comes on the heels of record lows in fall 1991 (6.0%) and fall 1990 (6.6%). Katz attributes the fall ratings jump to the public's interest in the election.
So what's the real scoop on talk radio? Essentially a deflated version of everything you've heard from newspapers and television. Many talk stations are doing very well, especially those that do a good job of providing people with the news and information, and/or feature powerful personalities whose views are so unique and compelling that people just have to hear what they think about the day's events.
Properly done, the format can be informative, thought-provoking, and absolutely captivating. It can reveal what a few of your more outspoken fellow citizens think about the issues du jour, and may even help shape your opinions on those matters. And it can certainly help an advertiser move product.
In short, talk radio can make your day--but it can't change the world.
Randall Bloomquist writes about radio from Washington, D.C.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)