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Talk Radio's Voice Booms Across America

75 years after the first radio broadcast, its newfound influence is felt in Washington

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1995


'YOU don't like it? Turn it off!" bellows Edward Koch, a politician turned radio talk-show host, about his new profession.

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Outrageous, irreverent, obnoxious, and sometimes even enlightening, national talk radio emerged from the dark of the night in the early 1990s and, some claim, transformed the American political landscape.

Its savvy, sharp-tongued ideological hosts take credit for opening up an electronic grass-roots town meeting where, they brag, good old-fashioned American bellyaching about everything from big government to O.J. Simpson can be vented in an open, freewheeling style.

Critics charge that talk radio has poisoned the national debate with divisive, mean-spirited ideological distortions that feed cynicism and undermine genuine efforts to restore the American dream.

Love it or hate it, you can't discount it. Talk radio is now what is known in Washington as "a player." That's made all the more ironic by the fact that most radio talk-show hosts consider themselves entertainers.

"My goal when I came to New York was to become the most listened-to radio talk-show host in the country so we could charge confiscatory rates for advertising," says Rush Limbaugh, the passionate, chubby conservative ideologue who took talk radio from its low-rated, late-night roost to the brilliant midafternoon with mass audiences.

With his high-energy mix of irreverence and impassioned political proselytizing, Mr. Limbaugh is now the undisputed king of talk with 660 affiliates and more than 20 million listeners. His success has spawned dozens of imitators.

His daily attacks on the Clinton administration, which he calls the "raw deal," and his fervent calls to his loyal, frustrated conservatives to defeat the liberal establishment are often credited with putting Republican Newt Gingrich and his band of freshmen zealots at the helm in Washington.

But such analysis, like many things in talk radio, suffers from a touch of hyperbole.

"Talk radio has as much impact on politics as any accurate reflector could or would - no more, no less," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine. "It doesn't create the public's mood; it reflects it."

While many other analysts agree, they also contend the hosts can galvanize opinion.

"Talk radio has the ability to take dispersed public feeling, particularly floating ill will, and coalesce it, concentrate it like a laser beam, and shoot it off the mirror of talk radio and blind Congress with it," says Randall Bloomquist, news/talk editor for Radio & Records magazine.

But Mr. Bloomquist, like many of his colleagues, is also leery of exaggerating talk radio's political power. For instance, despite radio talk-show hosts around the country beating the drum for term limits, the issue quietly died this year.

In 1992, Limbaugh was just as popular as he is now. But if he and his listeners had the power many suppose, the vote would have resembled Limbaugh's straw poll that gave George Bush 89 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton's 6 percent.

"Talk radio is a refracted mirror that's curved and distorted, like a fun-house reflection," says Cliff Zukin, a professor of political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "It gives a larger voice to conservative, hostile, angry, antigovernment, and anti-institutional sentiment than is true in the public at large."

In a study of talk radio for the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, Mr. Zukin found that just over 40 percent of Americans listen to talk radio occasionally, with 17 percent listening frequently. While overall the listeners are more mainstream than one might think, he says, the core audience is primarily white, conservative males who are more affluent and politicized than other Americans.

"This is not a microcosm of the American public," says Andy Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center.

Mr. Kohut does credit Limbaugh, at least in part, for the Republican sweep in 1994. Because voter turnout was so low, it became a significant factor, and both Limbaugh and the Christian Coalition mobilized their followers.