Why Is Liberal Talk Radio Nonexistent?
Liberal talk radio seems to be on its last legs. Air America is struggling financially, lost its biggest star when Al Franken decided to quit and run for the Senate, and the network has seen the number of stations carrying it plummet. Recently, Air America fired its last remaining star (using the term “star” loosely), Randi Rhodes, for calling Hillary Clinton a “f*cking whore”. Air America is probably facing collapse, and when it ends, liberal talk radio will be virtually nonexistent. The only two prominent leftist commentators remaining will be Ed Schultz, who is heard on relatively few stations, and Alan Colmes, who is even less significant than Schultz. For all practical purposes, liberal talk radio is dead.
Why can’t liberal hosts find success in talk radio? Talk radio has hundreds of voices, and intelligence isn’t exactly a requirement. In my hometown of Cincinnati, there are at least five stations that only broadcast talk radio. Many of these hosts are excellent (Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham), others are dreadful (Michael Savage). None are liberal.
It certainly doesn’t help that so many liberal hosts are completely untalented. I listened to the unlamented Randi Rhodes a few times—she came across as a boring and unfunny liberal version of Ann Coulter. Al Franken, who hosted the flagship show on Air America, was remarkably untalented—even most liberals agreed.
In addition, Air America didn’t seem to exist to entertain, but existed only as a reaction to George Bush and Rush Limbaugh. Al Franken called his show the “O’Franken Factor” (get it? O’Reilly Factor, O’Franken Factor?) solely to tweak Bill O’Reilly. He implied that he would be willing to leave the network if George Bush was defeated. Air America seemed to be built solely to counter Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.
Contrast that approach to the approach taken by most successful conservative hosts. They take their conservative beliefs seriously—but they do not exist solely to counter liberals. Their primary goal is to advance their conservative beliefs. Had Air America billed itself as something other than the liberal version of Rush Limbaugh, they might have a larger audience today.
Air America’s lack of talent hurt liberal radio, especially as their size ensured that the network would be seen as the representative of the format. But it isn’t the only reason. Talk radio has been around for years. Many liberals, even before Air America existed, attempted to break into talk radio. Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo, Al Sharpton, and Ed Schultz are all well-known, talented liberals who attempted to break into talk radio. None of them made it.
Liberals often explain this away by claiming that talk radio is so dominated by conservatives that the rare liberal voice is overwhelmed. Except that fifteen years ago, there was no cable news channel that catered to conservatives. So when Rupert Murdoch attempted to found such a channel, it…uh…became the highest rated news channel on television. The liberal explanation doesn’t quite hold up.
Many conservatives claim that this disparity is due to the fact that Americans are so overwhelmingly conservative that liberal points of view are simply not tolerated. This does seem to have some validity—liberal voices are also significantly less popular than conservative ones on cable television. However, this explanation by itself is not sufficient—the nation is split between liberals and conservatives. So shouldn’t liberal hosts get a portion of audience share?
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that liberalism is not so much a political movement, as conservatism is, but a confederation of allied causes. Blacks, environmentalists, antiwar groups, feminists—they all agree on most issues, but their pet cause comes first. Many liberal identify themselves as liberals second, and support their favorite cause first.
In contrast, most conservatives consider themselves conservatives first. They believe that government should be as small as possible, that it should uphold traditional morality, and that it should provide a strong defense. Conservatives can be divided into categories (social conservatives, neo-cons, libertarians, etc.). But these categories overlap to such a degree that a host can talk about taxes, for example, and still know that the social conservatives and the hawks will listen and enthusiastically agree. Liberal hosts, on the other hand, do not have that luxury, as each constituency in their audience is interested primarily in its cause of choice.
This puts liberal hosts at a disadvantage. They do have a single, common audience. Instead, they must speak to each groups’ specific concerns, a near impossible task.