Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, discusses recent trends in the talk radio industry, and the prospects for a new liberal radio network.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Harrison, tell me how big a universe
this is of news or political talk radio shows -- how many hosts?
So, it's hard to say exactly how many stations there are,
but at this time, there are approximately 1,300 radio stations, commercial
radio stations in the United States, that we would categorize as talk
or news talk, and I'd say there are several thousand people who work
doing at least one talk show a week, you know, one hour a day as a talk
show host in this country. I'd say several thousand. It's, it's pretty
Thirteen hundred stations, that's approximately 10 percent
-- between 10 and 15 percent of all commercial radio stations in America
program some kind of talk format.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet it seems, because we pay most attention
to the biggest names, that they are predominantly conservative and on
the right side of the spectrum. Is that so?
MICHAEL HARRISON: The biggest names in talk radio who do politics, political talk radio, are conservative. However, you've got to remember that talk radio is a niche medium. No one in talk radio has a mass audience. There are no Uncle Milty's or I Love Lucy's or Friends in talk radio.
And, Rush Limbaugh, who's the biggest talk show host in
America, we estimate he has approximately 14-and-a-half million listeners
per week, which is a complex number in terms of how it's done, but it's
sort of a thumbnail measurement.
Fourteen-and-a-half million out of a population of 250 million is not a mass audience.
Most people in the United States have never heard Rush
Limbaugh. Most people do not listen to him, and most people listening
to the radio at any given moment are not listening to him.
Approximately, maybe 5 to 6 percent of the entire radio
listening audience at any given moment that he's on the radio is listening
to Rush Limbaugh. So, the point you've got to remember is that radio
is a niche medium. To be number one in radio, doesn't mean you have
to have a majority of the population listening.
Now, that gives you a little bit of a base to start to
analyze why is conservative talk radio so big? Because there's a very
large, active niche, a large, active but small segment of the population;
large by radio audience terms, small in terms of the actual universe
that loves conservative talk radio, and they listen loyally.
This audience has been developed over the past 15 years. The people who are its major purveyors are extremely talented, and it's developed into a thriving scene that, within the numbers of the radio business, the economics of the radio business, can bring a sizable audience to a radio station and enough numbers to make money, and that's why, that's why it exists.
|Examining the popularity of right-wing radio|
TERENCE SMITH: And yet the country as a whole, politically,
if we were to judge by recent elections, especially, the 2000 election,
is pretty evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, those who
might self-label themselves liberal and conservative. But talk radio
is over here to the right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Well, talk radio hosts are not running for office. If Rush Limbaugh ran for president, he probably wouldn't be elected.
People often ask me, how does Michael Savage have such
a large radio audience in San Francisco? He's the number one talk show
host in San Francisco, which is one of the most liberal markets.
I say, well, he's not running for mayor. If he was running
for mayor, he'd lose. He's only doing a talk show. He only has a very
large audience of people who, because they live in a city where there
are so many liberals, love to hear a guy who talks their language; whereas,
the liberals, they don't need anybody to talk their language because
it's--they're, they're totally immersed in it.
The newspapers are liberal, TV is liberal, their friends are liberal. It's all around them. But the conservative who lives in San Francisco feels like a disenfranchised victim.
So, when they have this guy on the radio who's talking
to them, they become loyal, and that loyalty coalesces into the kind
of critical mass that's necessary to create a viable radio audience,
not a viable electorate, not a reflection of the public mood on a mass
level, but just enough numbers to give you a four share or a five share,
which means five percent, five out of 100 that will help you sell radio
spots to a local restaurant.
TERENCE SMITH: I can understand every part of that, that it's a niche, that it's not of course the total population, it's a fragment of it, and I can understand everything you said about building that audience over 15 years, and the definite entertainment value and skill of the principal practitioners.
But I still don't understand why it's necessarily grouped
politically on the right side of the spectrum.
In other words, all of that being equal, everything, every
point you just made, couldn't it also apply on the liberal side of the
MICHAEL HARRISON: Absolutely it could, and it yet may.
It may yet apply.
TERENCE SMITH: But it doesn't now.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Because times are changing. You have to look at radio in the big picture to understand the medium. Radio is very street. Radio is very niche, as I said.
Look at the difference in radio between 1965 and 1958.
Talk radio wasn't big then. Music radio was big. Disc jockeys were king,
and they spun records on the air.
Look at the difference in popular culture in 1958, when they were playing Frankie Avalon records, and 1965, when they were playing Beatles records. That's only, what, seven years. My goodness, it could have been 100 years. A total different demographic shift, mood shift, and yet even when the Beatles were very popular, most people in America did not buy Beatles records. Same thing with radio.
We now have a conservative president, we have a conservative Congress, we have a conservative Supreme Court. All of a sudden it's a very different world than it was when Bill Clinton was first elected.
The conservatives are having their chance. Suddenly, most
of American foreign policy, American economic policy, American popular
culture, in many ways, is being driven by a conservative establishment.
The time is right for a liberal Limbaugh to come along,
and if that liberal Limbaugh is as entertaining as Limbaugh, is as articulate
as Limbaugh, captures the attention of the people who might be disenfranchised,
it could happen again.
But just as Limbaugh didn't happen in one week or one month or one rating period, the corporations and the money people, the business people, Wall Street, that controlled these big radio empires, would have to give it a chance to develop, and I wouldn't be surprised if that happens, but everything is time and place.
And you said something before that shouldn't be dismissed.
You said, well, granted, there's the talent, but that talent is key.
Why is suddenly there is so much interest in golf, since
Tiger Woods came on the scene? Well, maybe because guys like that don't
come along every day. Guys like Rush Limbaugh don't come along every
day. This is not a man, and people like Sean Hannity, and even a Michael
Savage, and some of these names, this handful of people we're talking
about -- we're not talking about thousands of people --this handful
of performance artists, which I tend to view them as, these people are
historic broadcasting figures that they'll be talking about maybe 50
years from now as having been, whether you like them or not, extremely
And I personally believe the trends go where the talent lies. If somebody were to suddenly pop up tomorrow, a brilliant soccer player -- say, this guy Beckham that suddenly we're hearing about him in the United States, big in Europe -- suddenly there could be interest in soccer.
The trends go where the talent lies, wherever there's
a big personality. If tomorrow some folk singer were suddenly to be
so brilliant that people say, did you hear that? Folk music would be
TERENCE SMITH: But you think it's cyclical, if I follow
you, and that's why you think it's ripe now for a liberal Limbaugh?
MICHAEL HARRISON: It's very cyclical. Everything is based
upon the social circumstances of the times, not just radio talk show
hosts, television shows, authors, books, movies, politicians, for good
and for bad.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes.
MICHAEL HARRISON: And it's exactly the same thing, especially
when you're talking about something that's such a delicate balance between
entertainment and politics.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Social conditions. This is a very exotic blend, and on top of that, you're dealing with a time, culturally in the history of the United States and the world, where that line, that very important line between what we consider to be entertainment and journalism, entertainment and reality, to be even more precise, is getting blurrier and blurrier.
|Can Democrats run a successful radio network?|
TERENCE SMITH: There is now a serious, well-financed effort to create
a liberal talk radio network -- not just a show -- but a network. Tell
me what you, and I know you follow this, tell me what you think of this
effort to date and what its prospects are.
MICHAEL HARRISON: I think the only forces in the world that create
or drive the way radio goes are radio companies, are radio broadcasters,
not Democrats, not Republicans, not public service groups, not political
TERENCE SMITH: The guys who own the microphones.
MICHAEL HARRISON: You got it. They are the ones that drive it. So I
don't hold much credence in statements or premises that a group of wealthy
Democrats have decided that they want -- only wealthy broadcasters can
control which way it goes.
So if, in fact, what I said before, the potential for a big Democrat-leaning,
liberal-leaning moderate progressive, if you will, movement in talk
radio is to emerge in commercial talk radio, I do not think it's going
to be the idea of or the product of political groups. So I don't necessarily
take that terribly seriously.
TERENCE SMITH: But we're talking about the same thing here, right?
MICHAEL HARRISON: We're totally talking about the same thing, and I'm
being diplomatic because I don't want to cast disparaging remarks at
any individuals or certainly dampen anybody's chances of being successful.
I'm the publisher of the leading trade magazine in this industry and
I want to see everybody succeed.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: But I'm answering you honestly, that if these people
present themselves as wealthy Democrats, which is the way the press
has presented them from the very beginning, "A group of wealthy
Democrats in Chicago are putting a lot of money into starting a liberal
Well, where are they going to get stations to run these shows? They
have to get stations that are not owned by wealthy Democrats or wealthy
Republicans, but rather wealthy broadcasters who don't care about whether
you're a Democrat or a Republican, only care about ratings and revenue.
Where are they going to get these stations to run their shows?
No one is going to run a show because of its political content. There's
only one thing that drives commercial radio today, and that is a bias
toward ratings and revenue. And although some of the owners of today's
major corporations, personally, the owners, chairmen, major stockholders,
might coincidentally have Republican Party leanings, ties, connections,
I assure you that their ties to their own stockholder interests and
to their stock value is greater than their support of the Republican
And as one of the leading observers of this industry over the past 15 years, during the ascent of Rush Limbaugh, the four consolidations reduced the number of owners. When there were more owners of radio stations in America than there are today, and there were many, many stations, like wildfire, adding this loud-mouth, wild man, which he was considered at first, countless owners told me personally, "Michael, I can't stand this guy. I, personally, I vote Democrat. I'm a liberal. I can't stand what he stands for. I disagree with everything he's saying, but by golly he's getting us numbers. He's making money for us, and we're running him."
|Can liberal talk radio become popular?|
TERENCE SMITH: But if you are right in what you said earlier, that
the time is right, in the normal cycle of things, for a liberal Limbaugh,
a liberal star to come along, then wouldn't those same bottom-line-oriented
radio broadcasting companies be interested in such a product?
MICHAEL HARRISON: Eventually, when they start to see proof of that.
When the numbers, when the numbers bear it out. These are bottom-line
people. These are not people that sit around a living room and say,
you know, the time is right. Let's do it. They look at the numbers,
and they look at the next quarter, and as long as it's working now,
that's the way they go.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, how do you get numbers if you can't get on the
MICHAEL HARRISON: Well, how does it happen? You have to have underground scenes. You have to have satellite radio.
You have to stop going around and saying that there are no liberals on the radio, which is a falsehood.
There are liberals on the radio. There are networks that do liberal
radio, there are liberal talk show hosts all over the place.
TERENCE SMITH: Just not many of them.
MICHAEL HARRISON: They're just not big stars like Limbaugh.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: But the very premise of the media saying it's all conservative, it's not liberal, there are no -- I hear this all the time --
I'm asked every day by the press, "How come there are no liberals?"
"Well, how come there are no liberals?" (the press asks.)
"But there are liberals."
"Well, how come there are none?"
TERENCE SMITH: Name some.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Alan Colmes is a liberal. Alan Colmes is not only
a liberal on the radio, he's a liberal on the Fox News Channel. They
go, "Hey, the Fox News Channel has Hannity." Well, it also
has Colmes. I mean, he's right there with him. They're on together.
TERENCE SMITH: All right give me some more names of liberals.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Down in Florida there's a woman named Randi Rhodes
in West Palm Beach. You never hear anything about this woman. She's
getting huge ratings, and she's a liberal.
There's a fellow in San Francisco by the name of Bernie Ward, who gets
huge ratings at KGO. I mean, you hear about Michael Savage. You don't
hear about Bernie Ward.
There's, gosh, there's Ellen Ratner. Ellen Ratner is a phenomenon.
This woman is the bureau chief of the Talk Radio News Service. She's
on stations all around the country. She doesn't have a show of her own,
but all of the conservatives love booking her to argue with her. She's
on the air.
There was Victoria Jones, who was on the air in Washington, D.C., till
recently. She works with Ellen Ratner now.
I can go on and on and say names, but none of the names -- there's
Ed Tyll at WLIE -- I could start naming -- there's Rosenberg at WGN
in Chicago -- there are people all over the country, but none of them
are huge icons the way Rush Limbaugh is.
But now let's shift categories. Let's look at radio in general because
conservative talk radio is, in fact, a format, just like football talk
shows are a format within the larger genre of sports talk.
TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Howard Stern, he's a talk show host. We just don't
consider him news talk, but that's only an artificial category. He's
a talk show host, and he's pretty darn liberal.
You could look at almost every black talk show host in America that's
under the category professionally of urban talk; they all lean Democrat.
They lean liberal. That ain't chopped liver. They're on the radio, but
they're not Rush Limbaugh.
TERENCE SMITH: But is it true, comparatively speaking, that the liberals
that you have just ticked off are on far fewer stations than the conservatives
you're talking about?
MICHAEL HARRISON: Yes. Yeah. So what?
TERENCE SMITH: And why?
MICHAEL HARRISON: I just told you why. I've--
TERENCE SMITH: Okay.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Not only have I told you why, I've given you the
best explanation you've ever heard.
TERENCE SMITH: A very good one.
The people who are trying to launch this liberal network have some experienced people to put on the air, Al Franken, apparently Joe Lockhart is interested, Garofalo.
I mean, they have people who are entertainers, or who are at least
very experienced in front of a microphone. So does that sound like a
good line-up to you?
MICHAEL HARRISON: Time will tell. I don't know. To be a start in radio,
you have to have more than just entertainment skills, which of course
is one of the basics. You have to have radio skills. Radio is a unique
medium that has its own set of obstacles, its own set of demands.
Limbaugh was a disc jockey. He came up through the ranks of radio.
He knows the maneuvers. He knows the timing. There's a way of talking
into a microphone on radio that's different than talking into a camera
and a microphone on television. They are very different media.
So, I don't judge everything, knowing radio as well as I do, on that academic, quantified level.
Until Al Franken or any of these names actually go out on the radio
and sit in that room for three hours a day without a window, talking
to nobody, and dealing within the specific nuances of that medium, I
cannot say, based on anything about them, their track record, their
oratory skills, their politics, how they did on TV, I cannot even begin
to guess how they'll do in radio.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, I can understand that because, because of all
of the ephemeral and --
MICHAEL HARRISON: It's proven. That's why people, so few people succeed
who go from one medium to the other. Very few people make it on both
Sean Hannity seems to be the only one who's making it very big on both. He seems to be the right chemistry for this new "kissin' cousin," if you will, of talk radio called cable news talk television, and he also is incredibly successful on radio.
But Limbaugh was not able to successfully go to television, as great
a communicator as he is, and as great an original thinker he is -- whether
you agree with him or not, he's very original -- Laura Schlessinger
didn't make it for various and sundry reasons, Jerry Brown didn't succeed.
Now, O'Reilly is trying to go from television to radio. He's doing
all right, but he's certainly not the 800-pound gorilla on radio that
he is on television. So getting a bunch of entertainers, a bunch of
Hollywood entertainers, and putting them on the radio to be the sociological
and political antidote to the power of Rush Limbaugh is a giant challenge
and not something that's going to be easy to do.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the most articulate liberal political figures in this country, certainly, has been Mario Cuomo for many years. And yet when he tried to be a liberal talk show host, it was not a great success.
Tell me about that, and what happened, and why you think it happened.
He went on the radio at a time when it was the, it was the real ascent
of conservative talk radio, and that niche was getting bigger, and bigger,
and bigger, and everyone was gravitating to it, and liberals really
weren't all that interested in talk radio because they didn't need a
spokesperson at that time.
There weren't a bunch of angry liberals running around, and there were
a lot of angry conservatives, disgruntled, disenfranchised conservatives.
Liberals were relatively happy about their position in the world. So
Cuomo didn't have the benefit of the times being right.
Plus, Cuomo is not a broadcaster. What I said about broadcasters having
to have a specific set of skills is something that fell outside of Mario
Cuomo's realm. He's professorial, he's academic, he's a little bit pedantic,
he's not necessarily a good listener, and he wasn't a very good talk
show host, and it failed. But that doesn't mean he's not a good liberal,
and it doesn't mean he's not a good guy.
TERENCE SMITH: There was a liberal talk show host with the wonderful
name, The Lone Liberal. Tell us who he was, what about that.
MICHAEL HARRISON: The Lone Liberal was one of the most fun things I've ever had a chance to do.
During the height of the conservative movement in talk radio, when
there were a lot of people, as you've asked me, you know, where are
the liberals? Where are the liberals?
It started with news talk television, and some newspapers and radio stations which call me all the time for advice on who to go to in radio to get different points of view, talking heads, talkers. We advise where they are. And one of the things that they like to do is they like to have arguments. We all know that the commercial media is quite polarized. The guy in the middle doesn't get much chance. You're either a bad guy or a good guy, you're either left or you're right, and they couldn't find enough liberals to argue with the conservatives. So we created one.
We created a character, and I played the role of The Lone Liberal,
a Lone Liberal war costume. We wore a baseball cap, a red cap with an
"L" on it. He wore a mask like Zorro. He had a, like a working
man's jumpsuit, like he could have been a Federal Express or, you know,
a UPS delivery man, carried the flashlight of truth, and basically reflected
-- because I'm in a really good position of knowing all of the angles;
I listen to everybody. I basically know every position because that's
my job. Plus, I'm not a bad talk show host myself, having done broadcasting.
We sort of compiled it all into this great liberal in the sky, who is so free-thinking that he doesn't even like the Democrats.
In other words he, my personal view fell into that a little bit, that
all talk show hosts should be politically independent. You could be
conservative, you could be liberal, but you shouldn't be a Republican,
you shouldn't be a Democrat. I don't think anybody in the media serves
their interests in the long term by seeming to be a party hack, but
this is my personal view.
And The Lone Liberal just simply said anybody who's not as conservative
as you conservatives is liberal. So I'm liberal. And went out and started
to do a couple of shows basically as a joke, but it grew into something
that was, just about every day there were two or three interviews on
the radio, and it made its way to television.
The Lone Liberal -- I'll speak in the third person -- The Lone Liberal
debated with Sean Hannity on Hannity and Colmes. And The Lone Liberal
was on basically all of the shows, and we got some fun pictures, and
TERENCE SMITH: And what was the reaction?
MICHAEL HARRISON: The reaction was all over the place. The conservative
hosts loved it business, well, first of all, they know me, so it wasn't
-- I don't know if somebody off the street could suddenly get on radio
as The Lone Liberal. I have good relationships with these people, so
it was, it was fun. They love to have somebody with whom to debate,
and it was always good-spirited.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: It was never, it was never ugly.
TERENCE SMITH: Even if you had to create the person by being it.
MICHAEL HARRISON: But I want to tell you something, but how do you know that the people that you see who don't wear masks are not created?
You know, I don't know whether this is a revelation to you or to your
viewers, but radio is show business. This is really an important part
Killing him off was one of the hardest things I ever did, you know,
because it had took on a life of its own.
TERENCE SMITH: But there was a serious point of The Lone Liberal. You
had fun with it, but there was a serious point.
MICHAEL HARRISON: There were many serious points to the Lone Liberal.
First, the one serious point is that the Lone Liberal wasn't the only
guy on television with a mask. Just because he was wearing a mask and
the others weren't wearing masks, doesn't mean that because everybody
you see on television, on talk shows or on radio, that they're necessarily
what they seem to be.
Radio is show business, and I wouldn't be totally sure, I wouldn't
bet my bottom dollar that Rush Limbaugh really is a conservative or
that Sean Hannity really is a conservative or that Michael Savage is
really a conservative. I'm not totally convinced of that. Radio is show
business, and you know back to Shakespeare --
TERENCE SMITH: So it's a pose?
MICHAEL HARRISON: It's possible. I'm not saying--
TERENCE SMITH: They're attempting a pose?
MICHAEL HARRISON: I'm not saying they are. I'm not accusing them of
it, but I'm not saying that I necessarily believe they're totally sincere.
Radio is show business, first and foremost. And if you don't realize
that, then you're naive. Then you're more -- I don't mean you, personally
-- one is naive if one takes any kind of commercial media at face value
and doesn't think that perhaps there's a degree of pizzazz playing to
the audience, playing to what people expect.
So that was one of the main points of The Lone Liberal, when they say,
"Well, you're up here with a mask," and The Lone Liberal would
always say, "I'm not the only one with a mask. As a matter of fact,
with the mask, I'm able to say more truths than perhaps you can with
your face showing." That was one major point that I think, you
know, I can't say it enough. It's show business, too.
It's vital in this country that we never reach the point that we believe
any one political point of view is the only point of view. Immediately
by becoming the only point of view, it invalidates itself. It -- human
nature is larger than any political philosophy because all political
philosophies are just temporary formats by which we channel human nature,
and human nature is the beast that has to be corralled, and goodness,
and badness, and evil, and virtue, all of these are, these are much
deeper concepts than any Rush Limbaugh or any Alan Colmes could possibly
embody into some simplistic commercial media spiel or even a Bill Clinton
or a Bob Dole.
So that was what The Lone Liberal was about; that, hey, we need to,
you know, a bird has to have two wings. I'm here only to balance it
out. And The Lone Liberal would always say, "If radio were dominated
by liberals, I'd be The Lone Conservative -- and be equally effective."
That was the message.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there, among the entertainers and radio personalities
you know, that you can think of, a potential liberal star?
MICHAEL HARRISON: I think there already are liberal stars. I mentioned
some of them.
TERENCE SMITH: Another one -- one that could achieve some of the national
status of the conservative hosts have.
MICHAEL HARRISON: I think that Alan Colmes comes about as close to it as anybody I could think of.
But the fact is, beyond Alan, and with all due respect to all of the
other fine liberals in radio, I do not see any one person in the business
at this moment who could become a liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh
and that -- and I say this with a degree of resignation because I'd
love to see talk radio get bigger, and bigger and bigger -- Rush Limbaugh
may historically prove to be the peak of radio personalities in this
particular era, and it just happens he was a conservative.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
MICHAEL HARRISON: It may never be this big again.
|Radio's impact on voters|
TERENCE SMITH: As an analyst of this industry and the phenomenon, and
it certainly is that, do you have any way of assessing the political
impact of these top conservative talk show hosts -- Rush Limbaugh, whomever?
I mean, what actual difference do they make in public discourse and
in the ballot box? Do you have any way of judging that?
MICHAEL HARRISON: No one is intelligent enough to academically and
specifically quantify the political impact of talk radio or talk shows
because a lot of it has to do with the fact of whether they are preaching
to the choir or converting people who were predisposed to think otherwise
about any given issue.
So this is, this is a very nebulous, abstract, amorphous arena.
TERENCE SMITH: I accept that it can't be done in a choir.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Okay. However, in general, here are the facts. The
talk radio audience, whether they're liberals, conservatives or just
people that like gardening shows, per capita, are more inclined to be
voters than any other radio audience out there, starting with radio
because we're dealing with radio, or taking it one step further, most
mass appeal audiences, in terms of the entertainment scene. Okay. So
talk radio is where the voters are.
So, even though any radio show might have a smaller percentage of the
population than the whole population at-large, within that listenership,
you've got a tremendous concentration of politically active voters and
people with big mouths.
So, as a result, I would say that talk radio has an influence over
elections more so than music radio, more so than maybe general entertainment
media, maybe even movies, but I don't think you could get anybody to
do anything that they are not either a little bit predisposed toward
or that is wrong. I think that the, I think that there's an ex-factor
in terms of the American consciousness, and a morality in the fiber
of America that will eventually reject something that is not ultimately
good for the country.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you believe that talk radio hosts had an impact in
1994, let's say, when Newt Gingrich led a revolution in elections on
Capitol Hill and took over the Congress?
So I think they, I think they played off each other, and to a certain
degree, talk radio played a role, but it wasn't the cause.
TERENCE SMITH: And, of course, that revolution burned itself out fairly
quickly. Would you ascribe a role in that to talk radio?
MICHAEL HARRISON: The Gingrich revolution burned itself out due to
-- the primary thing that burned out the Gingrich revolution was the
arrogance, the ego, and the lack of intelligence of Newt Gingrich. He
burned his own revolution out. He shot himself in the foot.
TERENCE SMITH: And you don't think it was that talk radio was over
MICHAEL HARRISON: It had nothing to do with talk radio, it had nothing
to do with the media, it had nothing to do with anything. Gingrich,
Gingrich let that movement down through his own human frailties.
TERENCE SMITH: And talk radio couldn't save him.
MICHAEL HARRISON: No, talk radio -- as I said before, talk radio cannot
make something happen that's larger than talk radio.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. But you believe it can influence voters and influence
MICHAEL HARRISON: No question, if it's a close election.
TERENCE SMITH: Yeah.
MICHAEL HARRISON: It can't turn the country around, not in any one election. Maybe over 20 to 30 years it can.
Maybe Limbaugh, over 15 years, has created some kind of a critical
mass of converts to his position, but, no, Limbaugh was not able to
get Bill Clinton unelected in the second bid for election. Limbaugh
was not able to keep Clinton from being elected. Clinton was elected
two times, even though Limbaugh was out there railing against him every
So the, the impact is hard to measure, but you'd have to be, I'd have
to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to admit that it has an impact. Everything
has an impact. We wouldn't have Madison Avenue. People wouldn't buy
commercials. They wouldn't be watching the news, they wouldn't be judging
news people. Newspapers have impact. Everything has impact.
TERENCE SMITH: But like so many things, it's on the margins.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Yes, it is on the margins. The American consciousness
operates in mysterious ways that none of us, none of us in commercial
media can control because the checks-and-balance system within commercial
media that keeps it from suddenly making something happen that maybe
shouldn't happen or wouldn't happen is commercial media's need to play
to the crowd.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Finally, give us a sort of a fearless forecast
of this industry and this business -- and not in business terms -- but
in political and directional terms. What do you envision in the next
year or two or five?
MICHAEL HARRISON: I envision the growth of satellite radio, and I even
envision, to a certain degree, the Internet playing a role in terms
of communications, but in terms of radio, I think talk radio will continue
to grow. As I say all of the time, there's more to talk radio than just
politics, and that whole scene will continue to widen. You'll have shows
for women, and shows for young people, and shows about specific niches,
medicine, health, gardening, cooking. All of that will continue to grow.
In terms of political talk radio, I think it's going to follow the
trends. I think that if, in fact, the country swings liberal, and there's
a need for liberal activists, and liberal anger, and liberal outrage,
someone is going to come along and serve that market.
And the same radio stations now that are all conservative, will suddenly
be all liberal, and they'll be equally biased and equally closed-minded,
and equally numb to the virtues of conservatism as they are to the virtues
of liberalism because that's the way they are in the movie business,
that's the way they are in the fashion industry. It's always whatever
the hot thing is, that becomes the only thing. And we don't have as
much diversity in this country as we could, as we should, but that seems
to be the nature of our system.
TERENCE SMITH: Good answer. One thing we didn't touch on earlier, though,
earlier, it occurs to me now, is a theory that people have put out about
explaining why so many talk radio hosts are conservative and why they're
so popular and so successful is the theory goes roughly like this: That
conservatives or at least conservative talk radio hosts tend to present
opinion, present conclusions, in dogmatic, emphatic terms, that liberals,
by their very definition and their mental approach to things, are more
wishy-washy and -- on one hand and on the other hand -- that by the
nature of liberal versus conservative discourse, it's more emphatic
on the right than on the left. Do you buy that?
MICHAEL HARRISON: Only circumstantially, based upon what's happened
in the last 10 years, that there's been a small niche of people that
love this conservative position because they identify with it.
Stepping back, and hopefully having a broader picture of what really
is and what could be, you could have an equal presentation of closed-mindedness,
and dogma, and simplistic thinking on the left. It could come from any
direction. It's just that the conservatives have done it successfully
to create a niche at this particular time. There's nothing inherent
in liberalism versus conservatism that makes one simpler than the other.
That's a myth, and it's not true.
MICHAEL HARRISON: I've heard it said that they think liberals might
be anti-business, but that's a conservative position that doesn't hold
water when you look at the nature of American business.
Ratings and revenue drive radio decisionmakers, not politics. And although
you might have a station that their format tries to appeal to the more
conservative elements of the community, where they fear controversy
or they fear certain social liberal positions that might offend the
church members or a specific business person, it's more likely that
they'll offend a conservative, that's more on an esoteric level than
it is on a whether you vote Democrat or vote Republican, because, if
I recall, the Democrats have not done so badly in terms of numbers of
voters, and a lot of these people are in business. There are unions.
There are many, many Democrat-leaning business people, and many Democrat-leaning
It's not true. It really -- or if it is true, it's only on that social
acceptability level, that you don't want to offend the conservative
element -- not meaning the political conservative element, but the social
TERENCE SMITH: What has happened to the notion behind, and the specific
policy known as the Fairness Doctrine, in terms of having balanced opinion?
MICHAEL HARRISON: The Fairness Doctrine was thrown out, was rejected
in 1987 by the FCC for being unconstitutional. When the Fairness Doctrine,
basically, as simply as I could present it, was a rule that if you presented
controversial political discussion, you had to present the other side
in equal time. But, in practice, it was very difficult to do, and the
penalties were also vague. The penalties were you could be fined, you
could lose your license. It was never clear-cut, as are, unfortunately,
most of the FCC's rules about content are not clear-cut.
So, to make a long story short, radio stations avoided doing any kind
of political or controversial conversation, rather than run the risk
of having the very politicians that they're criticizing get back at
them by fining them or losing their license, and the word that's often
used is a "chilled" political discussion. So the FCC got rid
When they got rid of it, it opened the door to being able to have people
like Rush Limbaugh or Alan Colmes do shows that were political, that
were freed of any kind of, you know, restraints of, oh, my gosh, you
know, what are we going to do, and, thus, it was probably, in my opinion,
the leading cause of the talk radio phenomenon of the late '80s throughout
the '90s and into the new century.
But there's even a deeper level here. The notion that you could take
a social issue and have one side or the other. It sounds fair. But when
you look at it and examine it under the microscope, and you apply it
to any real issue, you find that most people lie in the middle and that
there are many different angles on it.
How do you slice fairness, like bologna, like bread? I mean, where
does one side begin and one side end? And that made it even more difficult.
Well, who is the other side? Maybe there are three sides. Maybe there
are five sides, you know, and it just was too unwieldy. So there's no
way the Fairness Doctrine can lead to what its proponents say would
be a diverse marketplace of every idea would have its shot. It's so
unwieldy for poor beleaguered broadcasters to endeavor to do that under
the threat of death, they chose to have cooking shows and interviews
with people from Venus. And the most exciting thing you heard on the
radio during the Fairness Doctrine era was women talking about their
sex lives, and that was about it.
TERENCE SMITH: Finally, Bill O'Reilly maintains that, to some degree, the conservative emphasis among talk show hosts is counterbalanced by National Public Radio.
National Public Radio insists it doesn't adopt a posture. What's your
MICHAEL HARRISON: My view is that today's conservatives on commercial
media -- talk television and talk radio -- consider anything to their
left liberal. So, by that, by that position, everything else is liberal,
and that was back to the Lone Liberal. The Lone Liberal used to say
Compared to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, National Public Radio
is, indeed, liberal. It's moderate to National Public Radio, but then
again Fox News Channel considers themselves fair and balanced. It's
difficult to say, but my opinion is that NPR is a liberal alternative
to Limbaugh and Company, not even an alternative.
It's a liberal something else. It's like I said before about urban
talk radio, and shock jocks, and all of the other things that are on
radio, you can't judge talk radio, the kind of talk radio that this
particular piece is analyzing as a universe. It really is a segment
of a universe, and that universe is radio, what's on the dial. That
dial is the universe.
Limbaugh and Company are just one segment of the dial, and the dial
does have political points of view that are elsewhere on the spectrum
than that narrow right position that the right wing believes is the
center, but that's their belief.
I mean, what political group really believes that they're a fringe?
Everybody sees themselves as the center and everybody else is radical.
It's a very subjective thing. Only the most objective political scientists
can step back and, and hopefully make some clarity of it, and it isn't
until historians look at it that we really know whether they were all
out to lunch.
So I think that there's truth to what he says, because I believe in radio as the universe not talk radio as the universe.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet people on NPR will argue that they don't present
their own views. They solicit views of their guests.
MICHAEL HARRISON: It doesn't matter whose views they present, it's
what views are presented. The proof is in the pudding, not the feelings
of the broadcasters.
TERENCE SMITH: And I think they would argue that their guests reflect
both liberal and conservative points of view.
MICHAEL HARRISON: And they're more liberal, perhaps, than the ones
that just reflect conservative. The point is, the point is, again, it's
not academic. It's very subjective.
TERENCE SMITH: And in the ear of the listener.
MICHAEL HARRISON: Always is, and that's why they have different audiences.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Right. That's good. That's great. Thank you.
That was excellent. Very, very good.
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