Talk Radio As Marketing
After the Republican party’s election embarrassment, there has been a dispute over the coming direction of the party. At present, talk radio in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular, wields most of the power in what is left of the conservative movement. But many people feel that that is a bad thing; that talk radio is useful only for inflaming the base and useless, and indeed counterproductive, apart from that.
These people usually believe that talk radio is a least common denominator sort of activity, and that few if any talk radio hosts attempt to logically persuade the other side or engage in intellectual arguments. Rather, they see Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as rabblerousers, irresponsibly inflaming the passions of the base rather than engaging in sophisticated, rational arguments. We need more William F. Buckleys, this line of thinking goes, and fewer Rush Limbaughs.
Of course, this ignores the fact that Buckley was a big fan of Limbaugh, and Limbaugh admired Buckley immensely. But this thinking does hit upon a difference between the two styles. Buckley and his emulators engaged in debate, in which the two sides took turns alternately making their points while finding the weak points in those of their opponents. And seen as a debate show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and most other talk radio programs, isn’t very good. There is an occasional bit of real debate to be found, but most talk radio is far from being real debate.
But Rush Limbaugh isn’t into debate. Seen a debate show, his show is pretty poor. But seen as advertising, his show is absolutely brilliant. It is literally impossible to imagine a better way of marketing conservatism to the largest possible audience. Rush Limbaugh’s, and talk radio’s role isn’t debate—its marketing.
Consider a talk radio show—say Sean Hannity’s, because he is the best illustration of talk radio as pure political advertising. He’s an attractive person with a good radio (and TV) presence, and a strong, trustworthy voice. He delivers the same messages over and over (and over and over) in an interesting, entertaining way. He even has callers who attest to the brilliance of his product, and the occasional liberal who gets on his show invariably loses (invariably, since Hannity doesn’t play fair when he argues) to Hannity’s reasoning. So the audience member is left with a) a favorable image of conservative thought, b) the knowledge that many other people share conservative views, and c) the perception that the liberal counterarguments have been utterly destroyed by Sean Hannity. As marketing, it’s brilliant.
Not all radio hosts are like Sean Hannity, of course. Some, like Rush Limbaugh, do inject a great deal of interesting thought and insight into their show, while others are extremists (Michael Savage; while it was quite wrong of Britain to ban him from the country, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of them) who do the conservative movement more harm than good. But generally, Sean Hannity is a good template for talk radio as marketing.
This fact is no slight on talk radio—after all, the art of oratory has been used for persuasive purposes for a long time, and talk radio has a lot in common with, for example, Mark Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar. Marketing is a legitimate job, and a tough one, Republicans should be glad that they have such talented people backing them up.
Nor is it a bad thing for conservatism to have its leader come from the ranks of talk radio; if Rush Limbaugh leads the movement, that’s not a bad thing. If anything, it is beneficial that the man who sells the conservative movement should also be one of those most influential in shaping it.
But if talk radio is good for the Republican party, then it doesn’t follow that debate isn’t beneficial as well. It is, and it is necessary. At present, there are few if any radio or television shows that provide rational, ordered debate, rather, most so-called “debates” consist of angry pundits flinging insults at each other across the studio, or increasingly (as in the case of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann), across networks. Talk radio’s template is a good one—but debate is important too, and is too often neglected by conservatives.