NOW Home Page
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
TV Schedule
For Educators
Topic Index
On the Air sign
Politics and Economy:
Talk Radio
More on This Story:
Kathleen Hall Jamieson on Talk Radio's History and Impact

Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson talked with NOW producer William Brangham about the impact of talk radio then and now. The following excerpts are taken from that interview.

The Origins and Evolution of Talk Radio

"In the 19th century we had a partisan communication model. Newspapers were owned by political parties and candidates. The stream of communication came from a clearly identified source. And it was all on one side or all on the other side. There may be a revival of that now in the form of talk radio. Political talk radio may be doing the equivalent for political parties that the papers did in the 19th century, the partisan newspapers. And there may be an advantage to that. The disadvantage comes if those who are getting that perspective don't ever hear the alternative side framed and understand it is an alternative and aren't able, as a result, to make a choice, once they have enough understanding to be able to handle two-sided communication.

You see this large swath of conservative talk radio that emerged as the opposition party when the Democrats controlled Congress, and when Bill Clinton was in the White House. And so, if you had to ask ideologically how did it start, it started as an opposition when the Republicans were in disarray, and power was consolidated in the Democratic party."

  • Milestones in the History of Media and Politics

  • The Talk Radio Landscape

    "If you look at political talk radio across the country, what you see is a landscape that's largely conservative. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's mainstream, Bush, Republican. The conservatism is a Ronald Reagan, fiscally-conservative conservatism. Which means that there are times in which the bulk of conservative talk radio is saying Bush administration, we don't like what you're doing today. If you looked at the WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial page in the ten years before the emergence...of Rush Limbaugh, you would have found...the philosophy that is now embodied in the bulk of conservative talk radio.

    There are some moderates. The moderates in general, are two sided. They're trying to weigh both sides equally. And then there are a few that you might reasonably call liberals. Although they probably don't often call themselves that. More likely to call themselves progressives. Then if you look below those big, ideological divides, you see something that's also very interesting. In the local markets, you often see African-American hosts, who are talking about the needs of the local community, and have a sizeable black audience, that pays attention, not about the national issues so much most of the time, as what's going on at the community level."

  • Talk Radio Online

  • The Talk Radio Listener

    "Three out of four of Rush Limbaugh's listeners are listening because they already agree with Rush Limbaugh. They're more likely to be voters. They were more likely to be voters before they started listening to Rush Limbaugh. Part of the reason they're listening is because they're politically interested. They're high consumers of media, including high consumers of mainstream media. And they're much more likely to be politically active. That is, write letters, make phone calls, and participate in the political process by voting. The person who listened to political talk radio as a conservative is more likely to be a consumer of mainstream media than a person who isn't a high consumer of political conservative talk radio.

    Talk radio in this country is commercial. And if you have to draw advertisers in, the attractive audience for you is going to be an audience that has more money, is going to tend to be a little bit older as a result, and has the discretionary time to permit it to listen to talk radio. Now let's think about those for a moment. If you have to have more discretionary income, rather than less, are you more likely to be a Republican or a Democrat? If you gotta have more time that you control, are you more likely to be richer or poorer? If you're the person who's a day laborer, how much time are you gonna have to be able to listen to talk radio? On the other hand, if you're driving to and from a job, in a major, metropolitan area, you're probably going to be listening to something on the radio."

  • Where Do Americans Get Their News?

  • Coherent Message — The Secret of Talk Radio Success

    "One of the things that conservative talk radio does for Republicans is creates a coherent, conservative ideology that is reinforced hour after hour, to fairly large audiences every day. The problem for the Democrats is figuring out what that coherent ideology would be if it were offering the alternative point of view.

    The talk radio host is trying to instruct an audience, in lines of argument, that can be marshaled in defense of the ideology expressed by the host. And under that is a coherent set of arguments that the person who's listening hears again and again. And as a result when the person confronts a person who ordinarily he wouldn't engage, he's now prepared to engage in the argument and make the conservative point of view salient to that individual.

    What political talk radio hosts do is pick the facts that advantage their case and then make those facts the most salient facts for their audience. They fall within the range of omission that characterizes contemporary politics. When you look at political debates, for example, Republicans, Democrats, both do it. The biggest sin is a sin of omission. They don't tell you what would hurt their case.

    Well, that's what political talk radio does. It selectively moves to feature the facts that best make the case for the ideology that advances the candidate in the moment that supports the agenda of the conservative talk radio host. So, the notion that talk radio hosts are just up there polluting the political process by egregiously lying is simply not true."

  • Talk Radio Online
  • Talk Radio's Impact

    "There's a really important question out there, which is does talk radio produce votes for the Republican candidate? And I think the answer on election day is no. Three out of four of Rush Limbaugh's listeners are listening because they already agree with Rush Limbaugh. They're more likely to be voters. They were more likely to be voters before they started listening to Rush Limbaugh. Part of the reason they're listening is because they're politically interested.

    But that doesn't mean that political talk radio is not producing an effect that helps Republicans. If on a daily basis, a part of the electoral is exposed to a coherent, philosophical position that explains how the Democrats aren't doing what they ought to do, and the Republicans are, or could do it differently, and here's how they could do it differently, and day after day, you hear that coherent philosophy, you are prepared to counter argue against the Democrats in your life, the Democrats you confront, or more importantly, the undecideds the people who are wavering.

    So, if you are armed with a coherent message, and you believe it's a dominant message, you're more likely to talk about it to other people. One of the characteristics of political talk radio listeners is they're more likely to talk politics. And political talk radio increases the likelihood that they don't simply have an argument. But they have a second argument, and a third argument, with carefully selected facts to back up each.

    Talk radio both articulated a point of view that was out there and gave it a form that was readily accessible. And by giving that point of view coherence and ongoing expression, reinforced in an audience its own sense of what it ought to believe. And so you can't say, 'Did talk radio create an audience or did it find an audience?' Because both of those two things are true."

    Rush Limbaugh and The Making of a Successful Host

    "At the end of the day [talk radio hosts] do have some independence from their own party. And part of the reason that's important is because it increases their trustworthiness. You wouldn't trust a conservative political talk radio host to unmask the external world if you thought the person were essentially the mouthpiece of someone in power. But you will trust that person if the person demonstrates independence.

    There's one more dynamic underlying talk radio that is often ignored. The successful talk radio hosts are funny. No one wants to listen to three hours of a political diatribe. In fact, no one wants to listen to two minutes of a political diatribe. The parody, the asides, the self-effacing humor, the bluster are all part of the packaging that makes the political message palatable.

    The most successful conservative host, Rush Limbaugh, does this very successfully. The show has a rhythm and a pace to it. It has predictable segments. It has parodies. Some of them way over the line. But-- that also gives Limbaugh the ability to say, when someone offers a critique of something outrageous, 'I'm just an entertainer. It was just a joke,' essentially saying, 'Will you please get a sense of humor.' So, talk radio, in the form of Limbaugh, the most successful host builds in the guaranteed rebuttal to anything that offends. On the other hand, underneath all of that, the humor, the parodies is a very serious political content.

    But one shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of that feat. People think that Rush Limbaugh just emerged out of nowhere. Rush Limbaugh lost radio job after radio job as he learned how to become the Rush Limbaugh who now reaches 15 plus million individuals on political talk radio articulating a point of view."

  • American Political Satire

  • Which Media? Liberal, Conservative, Mainstream?

    "One of the things that we found in experiments was that one-sided communication, that is communication framed from one side, from one perspective, was far easier to digest for the audience than was two-sided communication. There is a real advantage to having communication framed from one side if what you're trying to do is give people, coherence to understand structures, to make sense of politics. And part of our problem may be that traditional media in the United States has balances and norms. So, you have this side and you have the other side.

    One of the important changes in the media landscape occurs not in direct public view with the rise of political talk radio but in the rise of conservative think tanks. When something is put out by one of the conservative think tanks, it moves onto the editorial page of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. And it moves on to Rush Limbaugh... But when something gets into mainstream media, it has a half-life of about 30 seconds. Where something that moves into talk radio can have a half-life of two or three years."

    Kathleen Hall Jamieson

    Kathleen Hall Jamieson is one of the nation's preeminent scholars of political advertising and political analysts. Dr. Jamieson is Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and also serves as Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.


    Dr. Jamieson was one of the authors of the first major scholarly study of talk radio in the United States, "Call-In Political Talk Radio: Background, Content, Audiences, Portrayal in Mainstream Media," published in 1986 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. At that time one voice was so prominent that the study's respondents were divided into four categories, Limbaugh, Conservatives, Moderates and Liberals. (Read the study. PDF file)

    Related Stories:

    about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
    go to the full archive