Building on yesterday’s Steve Gill post, I thought folks might be interested in this November column, “Talk Must Expand Beyond Politics To Survive.” Doug Stephen hosts a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, and he writes about the fallout experienced across the talk radio spectrum following Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke:
I’m not here to argue the point, but rather to tell you what this ONE incident has cost me as an independent in a sea of big corporate operators, who are obviously losing tens of millions of dollars due to this one event.
So far this year, my losses are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cancellations, avoidance and decisions to just not buy across the whole format, no matter what the content, have led to this rude awakening.
I’m not looking for Limbaugh to send me a check (although that would be nice), but I do think we have to let it be known that his actions have been devastating to our survival. I do think we have to do what we can to expand the format and let agencies know that their message can be safe with those who produce good programs that are fun, relevant and aimed at a different audience. Letting the news media, and even agencies, get away with lumping all hosts and content together is irresponsible for them and their clients because they know they get the best results from spots delivered in the spoken word formats.
What he’s saying is, Limbaugh’s inflammatory style has driven advertisers away from talk radio programming in general, and it’s hurting smaller players as well as the big guys. I’m not surprised, are you? So much political talk radio is toxic, and no advertiser wants to be the target of boycotts, constantly drawn into one national battle after another, forced to pick a side in the culture wars or debates over climate change. That’s the very stuff advertisers want to stay away from — at least publicly. Big corporate advertisers keep their political actions off the national radar, spending millions on lobbyists and shadowy front groups like ALEC or the American Enterprise Institute. Publicly it’s all hugs and lollipops.
I’m reminded that last summer, Ed Schultz and Sean Hannity told people to back off the boycotts because “a lot of people are getting hurt.” Awww. You know who else gets hurt by the toxic talk radio? Our democracy. Our political process. The nation as a whole, frozen in gridlock, where any timid step in one direction gins up howls of protest from the base on either side of the political spectrum.
People are burning out on politics, and I have to think talk radio is a big reason why. The conventional wisdom was always, inflammatory talk drives ratings and ratings are what advertisers care about. Neither of these suppositions appears to be true. I’ve always thought that negative talk and stuff like inflammatory campaign ads turns people off, and certainly major corporate advertisers are more concerned about their company’s image than anything else. If it’s not driving ratings or advertising revenue, then maybe the days of Limbaugh and the rest are waning.
For me, personally, I do listen to talk radio and watch cable television, but I avoid the political opinion stuff like the plague. I crave news and discussion of issues, not opinion. I have XM/Sirius in the car and at the house, but I rarely listen to the Talk Left channel. I listen to the BBC, World Radio, and the public radio channels: PRX and NPR. These channels don’t shove opinion and politics at you, it’s news and discussion of current events. When I watch TV it’s usually local news. If I watch MSNBC it’s not for Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz, it’s for shows like Melissa Harris-Perry or Up With Chris, where they discuss issues, not repeat talking points. I think this is the future of news and talk radio.
Does this mean all our problems are solved and we can return to having sane national conversations? No. Rush, Hannity and the like are way too important to the Wingnut Welfare Machine to go away. They’re the grease that keeps the right’s political grift machine moving. But I think that machine has taken a big hit, and will have to find another way to evangelize to anyone not already under the conservative rock.