The Power and Danger of Talk Radio

Independent’s Eye by Joe Gandelman

What’s the real power in America? What has revolutionalized American politics, its direction, tone, even the way political parties interact and politicos talk on the stump, in Congress and in front of cameras?

The answer: talk radio, which some argue has become a partisan unifying political force in America. But it’s also a divisive force undermining America’s already-sagging political center.

Cartoon by David Fitzsimmons, Arizona Star (click to reprint)

Cartoon by David Fitzsimmons, Arizona Star (click to reprint)

Some argue that talk radio now virtually sets Republican Party strategy.  But it has revolutionized American politics itself ““ creating a talk radio political culture that nurtures confrontation, demonization, promotion of left and right extremes, and dismissive attitudes toward centrists, consensus and compromise. This goes for most right and left talk radio and cable shows.

Starting with Rush Limbaugh, who went from funny ideological gadfly talk show host to  self-serious GOP partisan after the first President George Bush invited him to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom in 1992, talk radio has become American politics’ ““ and entertainment’s –  powerhouse. Talk radio is to 21st century American politics what professional wrestling is to sports.

It’s the quintessential town hall, rallying the faithful. Talk show hosts give their versions of the party line or an actual party line or a party line feeler based on party bigwigs’ feedback and communicate it to their “troops” who pick it up and run with it. Talk show hosts bring down their wrath on those (particularly moderates in both parties) who seem “squishy” and don’t follow the partisan line thus making them 21st century versions of old city political party bosses.

Party bigwigs may ultimately adopt talk show hosts’ strategical advice. These hosts have access to listeners easily won over to the views of a host who they’ve spent X hours a day listening to and watching and who they view as a trusted, credible friend.

Talk radio has shoved center-right, center-left personalities further right and left as they seek bigger audiences, better ratings and fatter paychecks. After decrying Limbaugh’s conservative talk show model how did liberals respond? By trying to clone conservative talk shows and be the anti-Rush Limbaugh.

Air America was attempted left wing Limbaugh ““ minus Limbaugh’s broadcasting talent.

All of this takes the U.S. on a shaky political path. A talk radio broadcaster’s goals aren’t the same as a political party’s. Political parties traditionally value national unity and seek broad coalitions. The only consensus a talk show host seeks is his audience demographics’ consensus which he himself shapes.

A talk show host’s goal is to saw off a portion of the populace, capture and define that key demographic, keep it coming back, get more of that demographic then deliver it to advertisers. All in today’s era of “narrowcasting” versus the 50s and early 60s era of “broadcasting” which sought to piece together entertainment coalitions of different ages and groups. Talk radio encourages both parties to cater to their bases.

The talk radio style resulted in Mark Williams and his Tea Party Express being booted from the Tea Party Federation after he wrote a blog post related to his dispute with the NAACP that even a cabbage in a supermarket would consider “racist.”  Williams, in his blog posts and TV appearances, communicated like a typical combative, polarizing talk show host. Only this time, the red meat was judged rancid.

Where will this trend take American politics, the quality of debate “” and the ability of political parties to govern once they win power after their side’s talk shows  totally trashed, demonized and infuriated their foes?

Will it forever be (totally) good us against (totally) bad them each time a party now gets in power?

Or will it swerve back to “all of us” again?

Not if talk show hosts have anything to say about it.

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Copyright 2010 Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at [email protected]

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