Talk Radio's Voice Booms Across America

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

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

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.

"There are Americans who vote and Americans who don't, and the listeners to talk radio are primarily people who do," says Jay Severin, a Republican political consultant turned radio talk-show host. Mr. Severin says he always advises his clients to use talk radio, noting that any politician who can't survive in the rough-and-tumble talk-radio world has a problem.

"Guests who get asked back are guests who are smart and have a sense of humor," says Don Imus, an irreverent early talk pioneer. But he also points out that politicians can hurt themselves, like Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, who made what many people thought was a racist joke about Lance Ito, the Simpson trial judge.

TALK radio's rise to political prominence can be traced to 1987 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled back the so-called "fairness doctrine." Up to that time, national talk radio had been relegated to late nights where interviewers like Larry King carried on interesting but uncontroversial conversations with political leaders and celebrities. When the Reagan administration lifted the rules that required programming to be balanced politically, the lid was ripped off the talk.

At the same time, new technology made it easy and inexpensive to beam a Rush Limbaugh around the country. That was coupled with FM stations' finally coopting AM as the dominant source of music.

"Music just sounded awful on AM compared with FM," says Mr. Harrison. "So come the mid-'80s, about 5,000 AM radio stations had to do something to survive because the medium was all but given up for dead."

The human voice sounded just fine on AM, so people started talking and listening and talking some more. Slowly a populist forum developed. People who had felt left out or alienated by the mainstream media found a home. Others found companionship, a place to hear what others were thinking about the news and issues of the day.

"I think that talk radio functions as the last neighborhood in town," says David Brudnoy, a Boston-based talk-show host known for his thoughtful commentaries and libertarian views.

The Times Mirror study found that most people listen to become informed about the issues of the day. That alarms many analysts, particularly liberal ones.

"People think they're getting objective information, but they're not," says Lynn Samuels, a liberal host on WABC. "They're getting news wrapped up in opinion."

In a 1995 Times Mirror survey, 36 percent of talk- show hosts identified themselves as "conservative" to "very conservative," while only 10 percent characterized themselves as "liberal." None identified themselves as "very liberal."

An earlier study found of the 6 percent of the listeners who call in and get on the air, twice as many are conservative as liberal.

"It is a great advantage for the Republicans over the Democrats," Kohut says. "Who do the Democrats and the liberals have who are out singing their song to their constituents the way conservative talk-show hosts do for conservative candidates?"

A string of defeated Democratic politicians took to the airwaves to try to balance the debate, including former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. But so far, none has managed to electrify his audience enough to compete with Limbaugh.

"Liberal talk-show hosts have a tendency to start out weak and taper off," says Barry Farber, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host.

Mr. Cuomo disputes that. He says liberals will again begin to dominate the national debate, in part because the conservatives now in power have failed to deliver a constructive agenda.

"There's a new curve coming, and you'd better be ready for it," Cuomo says. "There's a fatigue with all this negativism."

Cuomo's view is clearly in the minority now. But if he's right, radio programmers are confident they can find a Limbaugh of the left to keep up the political entertainment.

"Nobody's married to Rush," says the owner of one of his affiliate stations. "If he starts to stumble, there will be another person to come along and replace him."

And then, just as now, people can take advice from New York's former mayor. If you don't like it, turn it off.

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