May 8 - 15, 1 9 9 7
[Talk Radio]

The death of talk radio

Talk radio was on a roll. Media execs loved it, politicians feared it. Some even credited it with re-energizing American democracy. What happened?

by Dan Kennedy

The cover of Time magazine for January 23, 1995, was graced, if that's the word for it, with a photo of Rush Limbaugh, combat-readiness etched in his features, a plume of cigar smoke wafting upward from his most valuable asset: his mouth. The cover line -- IS RUSH LIMBAUGH GOOD FOR AMERICA? -- was answered by the subhead inside: "The explosion of radio call-in shows has created a new form of electronic populism and demagoguery."

Talk radio was triumphant. The freshmen House Republicans made Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress. Talk-radio targets such as Joycelyn Elders, Tom Foley, and Dan Rostenkowski were gone. And the media and political establishments were reeling, with Bill Clinton complaining about the medium's "personal, demeaning attacks," and the Washington Post weighing in with a page-one piece headlined THE POLITICS OF HATE the morning before the 1994 election.

Little more than two years later, the mediascape has changed utterly. Talk radio, hailed as a new, populist force by firebrands ranging from Ralph Nader to Newt Gingrich, has gone soft, with political agitation giving way to entertainment.

Boston was arguably the hottest talk-radio market in the country during the 1970s and '80s, a place where hosts such as Jerry Williams and Gene Burns demonstrated years before Limbaugh that an agitated, plugged-in populace could shape the political conversation. Indeed, with the Republican Party virtually having ceased to exist in 1980s Massachusetts, talk radio was, in some ways, the sole opposition. "We were on talk radio all over the state," recalls Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government, who credits the medium for the passage of Proposition 21/2, a 1980 ballot question that slashed property taxes.

Now the local airwaves are filled with the likes of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a nationally syndicated shrink, and Two Chicks Dishing, a local show that revels in gossip and trivia. And Anderson has been virtually shut out of the major stations. These days, she says, the only way she can reach people over the airwaves is to book herself onto small stations in outlying areas.

"I wouldn't call it the demise of democracy," Anderson says, "but it's a crying shame."

Granted, it's tempting to say good riddance to political talk. Steve Rendall, who follows talk radio for the leftist media-watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), calls the medium "three and a half decades of white guys on the right railing against the women's movement, the civil-rights movement, and just about any peace movement that you've got."

But as conservative and simplistic as many of the political talk shows were, they taught their lower-middle-class and working-class listeners, folks not accustomed to being taken seriously, an important lesson: that they could take charge of their own lives and influence the political system. By contrast, the new breed of talk shows encourages little more than cynical apathy.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.