The death of talk radio
by Dan Kennedy
Talk radio's slide began months after Gingrich was sworn in as Speaker of the
House, an event that marked the apotheosis of Limbaugh and hundreds of local
After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton and liberal commentators, to smear
the entire medium, made deft use of incendiary comments by talk host Gordon
Liddy about the best way to shoot federal agents. It was, for the most part, an
unfair attack. "Mainstream media had grossly exaggerated the amount of hate on
talk radio," says the Annenberg School's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies
talk radio. But it worked. Talk radio was still popular, but it was no longer
the Next Big Thing. "Civility" became an important new catchword. Liddy's still
around, but his paranoid ravings now seem more comic than menacing.
Limbaugh continues to dominate with his 21 million weekly listeners, but the
buzz is long gone, and a few stations have even dropped him. The one-time
revolutionary with a sense of humor now offers little more than a stream of
dreary insider observations. His main shtick now is sucking up to the man he
obsequiously refers to as "Mr. Newt." And look who else is hot. The number-two
talk-show host, according to the trade magazine Talkers, is Dr. Laura,
with 14 million weekly listeners, followed by shock jock Howard Stern (number
three, with 12 million listeners), funny guy Don Imus (number six, with eight
million), and financial expert Bruce Williams (number seven, with seven
Just a few years ago Boston's only all-talk station, WRKO (AM 680), broadcast
nothing but local, politically oriented talk shows from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.
and beyond. Now the line-up is dominated by nationally syndicated programs
(Schlessinger and Limbaugh), locally produced entertainment shows (Two
Chicks Dishing), and local hosts with political smarts who nevertheless
favor lighter fare over hard-nosed politics (Marjorie Clapprood and her
departing co-host, Pat Whitley, as well as Howie Carr and Jeff Katz).
"It's business," says Carr. "I don't think people are as interested in
politics as they used to be. There aren't the great cartoon-type figures of
yesteryear -- [former House Speaker George] Keverian and [former State Senate
president Bill] Bulger, the people they'd see on TV and get pissed off at."
Indeed, the only talk-radio outlets remaining for serious discussion of local
issues are The Connection, on public station WBUR (90.9 FM), and The
David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ (AM 1030). But The Connection's eclectic
host, Christopher Lydon, is trying to take his show national, and he's as
likely to talk about poetry or world history as local politics. And Brudnoy,
whose signal reaches most of the eastern half of the United States, frequently
focuses on national topics or on one of his various other interests: movies,
the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of "Bubba" Clinton, and his loathing for
"It's a cyclical thing," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of
Talkers. "Much of it has to do with a cynicism that has settled over
grassroots America, that there are no answers. Advocacy is only good when
there's a vacuum for it. Otherwise it becomes a contrivance. You come across as
a drum-beating crank."
Adds Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, author of Hot Air:
All Talk, All the Time (Times Books, 1996): "I think there's a diminution
of politics, period, which has cooled off talk radio since the days when the
Republicans were storming the gates of Capitol Hill."
Now, instead of political outrage, we have the Two Chicks begging men to call
in and tell them which male celebrities they consider attractive ("We won't
think you're a homo! Not that there's anything wrong with that."), Howie Carr
lampooning a government regulation extending the Americans with Disabilities
Act to the mentally ill ("Can I call them nuts? They're not retards. I'll call
them nuts."), and Marjorie Clapprood (one of the few genuine liberals on talk
radio) and Pat Whitley telling drivers to beep their horns if they're having
Granted, some of this can be pretty entertaining. But it's offered up with a
streak of cruelty and a deep undercurrent of cynicism that is antithetical to
the empowerment theme that once vaulted Jerry Williams and Gene Burns to the
top of the ratings.
"Boston was at one time the best talk market in America," says the cerebral
Burns, who hosted WRKO's 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. slot until the early '90s, and who's
now a talk-show host at KGO Radio, in San Francisco. "I think what's happened
in Boston is a tragedy."
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Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.