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The Right Talk: Conservative Talk Radio

Terence Smith explores the success of conservative talk radio shows and the failure of liberal programs, and talk radio's increasing importance in politics.

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  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The message on most talk radio is the same every day. The left is wrong, the right is right.

  • RUSH LIMBAUGH:

    The people on the left hold that as a fundamental belief that people can't be trusted, people aren't smart, people don't have any judgment. I mean, that's the essence of liberalism in the first place.

  • MICHAEL SAVAGE:

    Every stinking, rotten left winger in this country poses a far greater threat to your freedom than does al-Qaida.

  • SEAN HANNITY:

    The regulations, the law, the Constitution means nothing to these Democrats when it comes to maintaining power.

  • G. GORDON LIDDY:

    President Clinton cut the armed forces of the United States so deeply and severely, that we don't have enough troops.

  • JON SINTON, CEO, Anshell Media:

    Every day in America on the 45 top-rated talk radio stations, there are 310 hours of conservative talk. There is a total of five hours of talk that comes from the other side of the aisle.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Talk radio's overwhelming rightward slant exists, despite the fact that the nation is almost evenly divided politically — as was demonstrated in the 2000 presidential popular vote, and the 2002 congressional elections.

    Even the most successful Democrat in recent history grudgingly credits talk radio hosts as contributing for last year's Republican successes.

  • BILL CLINTON:

    Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity — who are very outspoken on the right wing of the Republican Party. We don't have that.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the conservative Washington Times, is even more emphatic about the political importance of talk radio.

  • TONY BLANKLEY, The Washington Times:

    Starting in 1994, with the Republican election of Congress, I think Limbaugh made the difference in electing the Republican majority. In the following three elections he made the difference in holding the majority. And in 2000, in the presidential race in Florida, he was the difference between Gore and Bush winning Florida, and thus the presidency.

  • RUSH LIMBAUGH:

    Talent on loan from God.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    For 15 years, Rush Limbaugh has been the undisputed king of political talk radio. With an estimated weekly audience today of more than 14 million, on 600 stations, he is syndicated by the premiere radio networks.

    Many say Limbaugh is personally responsible for talk radio's popularity, its conservative direction, and for pioneering the path for others.

  • MICHAEL HARRISON, Editor, Talkers Magazine:

    The trends go where the talent lies.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Michael Harrison is editor and publisher of Talkers, the talk show industry's trade magazine.

  • MICHAEL HARRISON:

    Talent is key. Why is suddenly there so much in 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, Rush Limbaugh don't come around every day.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Jon Sinton is a veteran radio executive and a liberal Democrat.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Why are the most successful and the largest number of talk show hosts on the conservative side of the spectrum?

  • JON SINTON:

    It is all due, and all credit due, to Rush Limbaugh.

    Rush could just as easily have been a flaming liberal, and the other side would be complaining that this is, you know, well, "how come all these liberals are on the radio?"

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    That explains Rush Limbaugh, but does it explain the whole phenomenon?

  • JON SINTON:

    Oh, I think it does. It became very easy to replicate the success of a Rush Limbaugh and come up with a G. Gordon Liddy, and come up with a Sean Hannity, and come up with a Michael Savage.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So, it's not a vast right-wing conspiracy?

  • JON SINTON:

    I wish it were because it'd make better copy, but I really don't think it is.

  • SEAN HANNITY:

    You never hear liberals complain about spending unless it has to do with our military.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Sean Hannity is second only to Limbaugh as a talk radio host. His weekly audience is more than 10 million people. He's on nearly 400 stations, and is syndicated by ABC Radio. Hannity is a great admirer of Limbaugh.

    But he says there's also another big reason for talk radio's right wing bent.

  • SEAN HANNITY:

    Most of the major newspapers in this country slant solidly to the left. I'd argue the three major news organizations — ABC, NBC, and CBS — slant solidly to the left. You have two cable channels that slant solidly to the left. I think it's fairly obvious.

    Talk radio's rise is in part to the mainstream media being solidly to the left.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Mainstream news executives deny any such bias. Hannity also argues that conservative talkers like him are often wrongly stereotyped.

  • SEAN HANNITY:

    Liberals want to paint conservatives as angry white men on the radio. No, we're not. We're happy normal, law-abiding taxpaying, wonderful people. They love to play tennis with us on the weekend.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Hannity and other political talkers owe their existence largely to Reagan-era deregulation.

    In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission repealed the so-called "fairness" doctrine. That policy required stations — because they use the public airways — to present differing views on controversial issues. Since repeal, there's been no requirement to balance talk radio's conservative voices.

    Talk radio's audience has not been kind to liberal hosts. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, one of the Democratic Party's most articulate leaders, ended his weekly program after it failed to get ratings.

  • JIM HIGHTOWER:

    You and me drive the establishment crazy.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Another liberal, former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, also lost his program.

    Conservatives dominate talk radio to such an extent, that even in liberal San Francisco, where Gore outpolled Bush 5-1, the top-rated afternoon talk radio host is Michael Savage, a conservative screamer so outrageous, he got fired from his own cable TV show.

  • MICHAEL SAVAGE:

    You're a moron. It's idiots like you who cause this country to go up in flames. Moron, moron, moron.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Some liberals argue that politics and ideology are one reason for the right wing dominance of talk radio.

    They cite the case of the Dixie Chicks. Many stations stopped playing their music after one member criticized President Bush. And some stations even sponsored pro-war rallies. Liberals often contend that station owners and advertisers, being businessmen, prefer to promote a conservative message. But the people in radio reject that. They insist it's all about money.

  • MICHAEL HARRISON:

    Ratings and revenue drive radio decision-makers, not politics.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Bottom line or not, liberal hosts are so rare, that Harrison jokingly created one, playing a costume character he called the "Lone Liberal," brandishing the searchlight of truth. The Lone Liberal debated conservative talk show hosts to laughter all around.

  • MICHAEL HARRISON:

    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 the late Lone Liberal may soon be replaced by some live ones.

    Jon Sinton has been hired by some wealthy Democrats. They've put up more than $20 million to start a liberal radio talk network they hope will tap a largely unserved audience.

  • JON SINTON:

    Just from a pure business perspective, it appeared to us that you could drive a truck through this hole in the market. So it became very clear to us that from a business perspective, the opportunity was huge.

    But it's also clear to us, civically I think we feel, that balancing the discussion would be good for the democracy.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    He says liberal talk radio failed in the past because people won't tune in to a liberal on a conservative talk station any more than they'll tune in for rock 'n roll on a country music station.

  • JON SINTON:

    People tune in to hear Rush or Sean, and they want to hear them rant and rave about Bill Clinton. When you plop a liberal host down in this very hostile landscape, he is going to be like playing Led Zeppelin records on a country station. It just doesn't make sense.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So it's crucial then to have it all of the liberal tone?

  • JON SINTON:

    I believe so, yeah.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So, Sinton's network will offer liberal programming 24/7, with an emphasis on humor and satire.

    Al Franken, the comedian, will be one of his headliners.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    We have to fight back. We all have to fight back. All of us here.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Franken has been making a good living lately bashing conservatives. More than 600 people showed up at this bookstore when he came to plug his best-selling satirical new book that attacks talk radio and other conservative media.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    We have been taking it and taking it on the left.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The left versus right war of words can get downright ugly at times.

    In May, Franken battled it out with conservative talker Bill O'Reilly at a book-and-author luncheon in Los Angeles. Franken accused O'Reilly of repeatedly lying about a journalism award won by a program O'Reilly had anchored.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    So, Bill, I'm sorry I called you one of the many people who do lie in my book.

  • BILL O’REILLY:

    I could go on all day.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    I know you could.

  • BILL O’REILLY:

    And I know you could too.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    You just about have.

  • BILL O’REILLY:

    We're supposed to be on here 15 minutes. This idiot goes 35. All he's got in six-and-a-half years is that I misspoke, that I labeled a Polk Award a Peabody. He writes it in his book and tries to make me out to be a liar.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    No, no, no, no, no.

  • BILL O’REILLY:

    Shut up. You had your 35 minutes. Shut up!

  • AL FRANKEN:

    This isn't your show, Bill.

  • BILL O’REILLY:

    This is what this guy does.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    O'Reilly's employer, Fox News, sued Franken over the book, but the judge dismissed the suit.

    Franken says he's going on talk radio for the same reason he wrote his book: To battle the right-wing media.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    I'm a liberal, and I'm not going to stand for this baloney that's coming from the right. I just won't stand for it any more.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What can we expect from you in talk radio?

  • AL FRANKEN:

    Some commentary, some ridicule. Some comedy, more ridicule. How Bush is lying on whatever he's lying about that day or that week. Then probably a little analysis of what we've been hearing from Rush and what we've been hearing from O'Reilly and what we've been hearing from Hannity — and then maybe a little music. I have a beautiful voice.

  • AL FRANKEN:

    Fight! We're gonna get this guy outta there!

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The new liberal radio network, starring Franken and others, is scheduled to begin broadcasting in January, in time for the presidential primaries.

    Conservatives and many others in radio doubt it will succeed. Liberals are keeping their fingers crossed.

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