How did Talk Radio Get So Politically Lop-Sided?
Brooke Gladstone: On this week's On the Media, 17 of the nation's top 20 most listened to talk radio hosts are conservative. Only one is progressive. How did the public airwaves come to be so politically lopsided?
Clip: If you turn the country station on and you hear Beethoven's Fifth, you're going to be confused. Radio executives think that people feel the same way about talk. [00:00:21][7.4]
Clip: Welcome to the Rush Limbaugh program, a program exclusively designed for rich conservatives and right minded Republicans and those who want to be either or both.
Clip: We sold it as news from a biblical worldview, but it was funny how that biblical worldview seemed to line up with Republican Party politics. Why would we want to have any Democrats on the right?
Clip: I'm never going to speak. I am a working mother. Yeah, my kids are fine. They have. They are not. Who's raising them? You don't have them. The baby sitters got up. You ain't no mother. Get off my program, you liberal.
Brooke Gladstone: It's all coming up after this.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York, This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week, in the first episode of our investigation into talk radio, we introduced you to Salem Media, a company that has deep ties to the Republican Party and who, thanks to its involvement with a secretive group of evangelical and conservative leaders, is tightly networked with right wing political strategists, pollsters and big donors. This week we take a detour from Salem's story and shine a light on the larger history of the right's ascendency on the air, which it achieved by simultaneously arguing that it was being silenced. It turns out that the boogeyman of liberal media bias has been animating conservative movements and conservative radio for nearly nine decades. Here's our guide through the series, reporter Katie Thornton.
KATIE THORNTON: By the 1930s, most Americans had a radio in the house. And a network of long-distance phone lines brought a select few programs to stations across the country.
NICOLE HEMMER: The radio dial really was the sort of cafe culture of the 1930s.
KATIE THORNTON: This is Nicole Hemmer. She is an author and historian who studies media and conservative movements.
NICOLE HEMMER: It was the place where debates about politics, debates about the future of the United States were all taking place. Because remember it's in the middle of the Great Depression and people are pretty panicked. They don't know that the United States is coming out of this.
KATIE THORNTON: From the left, Louisiana’s Huey Long roasted Roosevelt for not going far enough with the New Deal. And coming at Roosevelt from the right, blasting Depression-era efforts like the Works Progress Administration, was one Father Charles Coughlin.
[TAPE] CHARLES COUGHLIN: You people living on the WPA envelopes, WPA envelopes filled, partly, from the money confiscated from industry and commerce, and from the envelopes of those who are working…
KATIE THORNTON: The Catholic radio priest, once a supporter, became one of President Roosevelt’s loudest critics. He hated the New Deal, and considered Roosevelt a dictator. He was controversial — but controversy was allowed on the radio.
At least for a while.
[TAPE] PATHE PACIFIC: The shadow of the goose-step falls on Austrian soil. But in Vienna, Austria’s Nazi leader watches a gigantic parade…
KATIE THORNTON: Toward the end of the 1930s, the news focus shifted from the U.S. economy to the brewing conflict in Europe. At first, the idea of staying out of the war predominated — even Roosevelt didn’t want in. Popular sentiment shifted as news of German atrocities crossed the ocean.
[TAPE]: Hitler (German)
KATIE THORNTON: But not everyone changed their mind. And many who didn’t began lacing their anti-interventionism with vicious anti-Semitism. Here’s Father Coughlin in a broadcast from 1938, after the violent events of Kristallnacht.
[TAPE] CHARLES COUGHLIN: Students of history recognize that Nazism is only a defense mechanism against communism and especially that persecution of the Christian always begets persecution of the Jew.
KATIE THORNTON: In the late 1930s, Coughlin had an estimated 15 million people listening each month — almost one in every nine Americans.
NICOLE HEMMER: The FCC saw that in Italy and Germany leaders were using radio to propagandize to their people. And they were really concerned about that happening in the United States.
KATIE THORNTON: Fearing the spread of fascism, the FCC passed the Mayflower Doctrine, which prohibited broadcasters from sharing opinions over the airwaves. With this, anti-Semitic hate speech really was pushed off of radio. And many on the right felt that the die was cast: the media was a tool of the U.S. government, and the government was silencing conservative voices.
NICOLE HEMMER: They understood their loss of platforms as a kind of censorship of their ideas.
KATIE THORNTON: But Nicole Hemmer says that the effect wasn’t just quieting anti-Semites.
NICOLE HEMMER: Non-interventionist voices were finding it harder and harder to find a platform and particularly once the U.S. goes to war, there is no space in media for people who are arguing that the U.S. should not be involved in the war.
KATIE THORNTON: It wasn’t just non-interventionists on the right, like Father Coughlin, who were feeling the chill.
NICOLE HEMMER: There were socialists and pacifists who opposed the war.. There were communists who were for the war because the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union, but who had other opinions about the United States and about the U.S. economy that were not welcomed on air.
KATIE THORNTON: In truth, many on the left had found it hard to get on the radio long before the war. With the wartime restrictions on speech, it was the far-right's turn to feel the sting of censorship. But it didn’t last long.
In 1949, the FCC did a complete 180.
NICOLE HEMMER: The FCC says, actually, stations have an obligation to cover controversial issues. They have to. We give them a license. This is the public service that they provide.
KATIE THORNTON: And here’s the kicker: The on-air coverage had to be “fair.”
NICOLE HEMMER: It's kind of a compromise, that, alright, we're going to let you editorialize, but we still don't want you to turn into propaganda outlets.
KATIE THORNTON: This is the basis of what comes to be known as the Fairness Doctrine. It required stations to present multiple perspectives on controversial issues. And if a group felt maligned or under-represented, they could request airtime to refute the claims made about them — and that airtime had to be given for free.
But when the Fairness Doctrine first got going, it wasn’t a problem for conservatives.
NICOLE HEMMER: Conservative broadcasting really starts to take off after the Fairness Doctrine is implemented because they're considered to fulfill a public interest obligation. Or that they're introducing controversial ideas.
KATIE THORNTON: By the early 1960s, what was regarded as the “radical right” and their media mouthpieces were the hot gossip. Publications like Time and The Nation wrote about what one article called “Hate Clubs of the Air.”
Newly appointed President John F. Kennedy was no fan of these broadcasters. And in 1961, he worked with two friends of his, labor leader brothers Walter and Victor Reuther.
NICOLE HEMMER: Victor Reuther puts together this memo on how Kennedy can use the powers of the federal government that he's just acquired in order to battle back against this anti-labor radical right. There are things like the IRS, you can audit people. And there’s the FCC. And he talks about conservative and anti-union broadcasters and says, you can use the FCC to shut these voices down.
KATIE THORNTON: Kennedy’s FCC liked the idea and sent notifications to stations highlighting conservative talking points with a reminder that under the Fairness Doctrine such controversial opinions needed to be countered.
And when the Reuthers’ memo to Kennedy was leaked, conservatives used its existence to say...
NICOLE HEMMER:“Aha! We are victims of federal censorship, give us money, support our programs. This is evidence of what we've been telling you all of this time.”
KATIE THORNTON: While conservatives lamented the effects of the Reuther memo, there was a movement that was unequivocally finding it very difficult to get airtime.
[TAPE] BAYARD RUSTIN: The first demand is that we have effective civil rights legislation. No compromise, no filibuster …
MARK LLOYD The folks who had money and made determinations about what got on television or radio, they were not interested in the appeals of the Civil Rights Movement.
KATIE THORNTON: Mark Lloyd is a lawyer and former associate general counsel at the FCC. He says leaders of the Civil Rights movement were not always welcomed on the mostly white-owned stations which played primarily to white audiences, and appealed to white advertisers.
MARK LLOYD They weren't interested in what it was that Thurgood Marshall had to say about the Brown v. Board of Education and how it was being implemented in schools. That's not what they wanted to hear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These remarks about Brown v. Board that Mark is referring to ended up kicking off a long legal saga that would change the American radio landscape. That’s coming up after the break.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Before the break, we heard about the long legal saga that would change the American radio landscape. Reporter Katie Thornton picks up the story.
KATIE THORNTON: In 1955, after future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had argued the case that desegregated the schools, he went on NBC to talk about it.
[TAPE] THURGOOD MARSHALL: We do believe that this decision in itself will encourage people to take steps without litigation in many areas and that’s what I think is important.
KATIE THORNTON: But that didn’t go over well with the owner of an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi — at a combination TV/radio station called WLBT.
JOSEPH TORRES: Thurgood Marshall was on a national program and they cut the feed, you know, when he was on.
KATIE THORNTON: This is Joseph Torres, who co-wrote a book titled “News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.” And he says that, instead of playing the segment, WLBT’s TV station showed a slide reading “Sorry, Cable Trouble from New York.” And it wouldn’t be the only time WLBT cut the NBC feed during coverage of the Civil Rights movement.
JOSEPH TORRES: The general manager of the station was a member of the white citizens council. And he was, you know, a staunch segregationist.
MARK LLOYD Black folks in the Jackson Mississippi area, which were roughly 40% of the population, were not allowed to even buy time on the station.
KATIE THORNTON: Mark Lloyd.
MARK LLOYD The editorials that would come out from the station manager all supported the position of the white citizens council, which was against integration.
KATIE THORNTON: Throughout the Civil Rights era, a small number of very influential Black hosts were broadcasting on a handful of more progressive stations. But over the years, the KKK and other racist groups ransacked, bombed and destroyed offices, transmitters, and towers of some stations that played so-called “race-mixing” rock and roll or that broadcast left-wing content. And intimidation was commonplace.
[TAPE] CBS DOC: The Klan moved this year against radio station WBOX, whose owner invited former Arkansas congressman Brookes Hayes to make a speech on race relations. Klansmen made hundreds of calls to the station sponsors; the effect was immediate. Seventy-five percent of the commercials were canceled.
KATIE THORNTON: On many mainstream stations, the lack of media coverage of the Civil Rights movement was so pervasive that leaders like Martin Luther King started explicitly calling it out in the 1960s, and asking allies to help the movement get attention. And in the case of WLBT in Mississippi, a liberal-minded church group, the United Church of Christ, answered the call.
MARK LLOYD The United Church of Christ office of communication joined with a local Jackson, Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, and sued the federal communications commission. And won.
KATIE THORNTON: The years-long legal battle eventually ended with a federal court ruling that, under the direction of a dedicated white supremacist, WLBT was not serving their local community’s “public interest.” WLBT could stay on the air, but their license would be transferred to a nonprofit — a group made up of Black and white broadcasters.
But even before the WLBT case was settled, it was sending shockwaves through the media world. Just by allowing the case to move forward, the court had set an important precedent.
For the first time, members of the public could ask the FCC to investigate a broadcaster if they didn’t think their station was serving the public interest or being fair. Joseph Torres.
JOSEPH TORRES: It was monumental, right? The idea that U.S. citizens had legal standing to challenge a broadcast license.
KATIE THORNTON: Across the country, listeners filed hundreds of license challenges.
JOSEPH TORRES: The broadcast industry considered this an assault on them. They use that language, they're being assaulted.
MARK LLOYD The stations began to understand that if they did not begin to follow these guidelines, if they didn't follow the fairness doctrine, then local communities would challenge their licenses.
KATIE THORNTON: Broadcasters were panicked. So the FCC started laying out some guidelines of how they could avoid the same fate. How they could better serve the “public interest.” And they start pushing something they called “ascertainment.”
JOSEPH TORRES: Where the station had to go out and ascertain the needs of the community as part of its license renewal process.
MARK LLOYD This was done by radio stations and television stations, commercial stations, public stations across the country.
KATIE THORNTON: In fact, doing these “ascertainments” was part of Mark’s job early on in his career.
MARK LLOYD I had to go out and do migrant fields and church basements and women's shelters and ask leaders in their places of power what they thought were the important issues facing the local communities.
KATIE THORNTON: Though the Fairness Doctrine had been on the books since 1949, it hadn’t actually prevented stations from running racist, one-sided programming. But with the legal challenges of the 1960s, that started to change.
NICOLE HEMMER: Pro-segregation forces are right that they're on the losing end of that shift.
KATIE THORNTON: The decline in segregationist broadcasts led many on the right to double down on an old trope.
NICOLE HEMMER: As they're no longer seeing their viewpoints reflected in positive ways, they read that as liberal bias.
KATIE THORNTON: Although when some broadcasters asked the FCC to clarify the doctrine, the government made it clear that they didn't expect the stations to give airtime to some leftists like say, communists, or to atheists. But even so, all of the Civil Rights-era changes kicked off what Mark Lloyd refers to as broadcasting’s “public interest moment.”
MARK LLOYD We had an explosion of Sunday morning public affairs programs.
KATIE THORNTON: The FCC would come to require stations— even those that played mostly music — to run at least a little bit of educational programming. There were wellness shows…
[TAPE]: Guide to Good Living, a program designed to help you enjoy a full and healthier life.
KATIE THORNTON: Shows about social justice…
[TAPE RADIO FREE ALCATRAZ]: Indian Land Radio, Indian Land Alcatraz Island, on behalf of the Indians of all tribes.
[TAPE MPR]: We understand that the only thing that’s Black people down this long is rampant racism.
[TAPE KUT]: Probably my first step in becoming a separatist was realizing that I was gay and finding that the only literature on gays was about men.
KATIE THORNTON: There were shows about Farming and labor…
[TAPE RURAL AMERICA RADIO] My name is Ray Carr, I have a 280 acre farm, I would like to know how I could cut down on my harvest losses on corn.
KATIE THORNTON: And TV, also overseen by the FCC, had its own, huge public interest moment.
[TAPE 60 MINUTES]: This is 60 Minutes. It's a kind of a magazine for television. And if this broadcast does what we hope it will do, it will report reality.
MARK LLOYD This is, [laughs] this was the time when we really began to see news and public affairs programs become really important in the American culture.
KATIE THORNTON: Let’s make something clear: this sea change in the media wasn’t because the FCC was going around and punishing stations for not adhering to the Fairness Doctrine or not serving the public interest. They rarely actually enforced these policies. The threat alone of citizens taking legal action was often enough to get stations to change their coverage. In fact, only one radio station ever lost its license for falling foul of the FCC’s fairness and public interest guidelines.
KATIE THORNTON: It was WXUR, owned by fire-breathing radio reverend Carl McIntire. Carl McIntire repeatedly broadcast scatching screeds against the civil rights movement.
[TAPE] CARL MCINTIRE Then let the guilt lie squarely upon such philosophers as Martin Luther King and President Johnson.. What did the Negro apologist of our time expect?...
KATIE THORNTON: He espoused paranoid ideas of communist penetration into the U.S. government.
[TAPE] CARL MCINTIRE White Americans. What the world ought to see is that the Communists are so wicked and so evil that manners.
KATIE THORNTON: And trumpeted antisemitic ideas.
[TAPE] CARL MCINTIRE The Jews of the present time are in darkness…
KATIE THORNTON: But all of that was legal. What did his station in was his lack of ideological balance. And when the license came up for renewal, the FCC denied it. But while WXUR was deprived of air by the FCC, Christian broadcasting writ large was not in mortal danger. Just the opposite
TERRY HEATON: Hello, Katie?
KATIE THORNTON: Hi, is this Terry? How are you doing?
KATIE THORNTON: Terry Heaton is a TV guy, always has been. But a lot of the work he did on TV helped shape what was heard on Christian radio.
TERRY HEATON: Well, The 700 Club was — when I got there, it was just, it was a television talk show at the time.
KATIE THORNTON: The 700 Club was a little more than that — it was a wildly popular, early televangelist show.
[TAPE] PAT ROBERTSON: Well thank you and welcome ladies and gentlemen to this edition of The 700 Club.
KATIE THORNTON: Launched in 1966, it went national in 1974. And at its heart was minister Pat Robertson.
TERRY HEATON: Pat Robertson was the son of a U.S. Senator in Virginia. So politics was in his blood.
KATIE THORNTON: Robertson was an early mover and shaker in the Religious Right, a close confidant of many conservative politicians. He was also an early leader of the Council for National Policy — that secretive group of conservative strategists, donors, and media personalities, founded after Reagan’s victory, which would come to welcome the Salem co-founders into its fold. The 700 Club was a megaphone for the group’s goals even before Salem was.
TERRY HEATON: And I became the executive producer of that show during a time when it was transforming from what was a religious talk show into a propaganda sort of news organization with a conservative news bent.
KATIE THORNTON: Pat Robertson’s show was savvy and smart. And his Christian, conservative message broke through in a way no religious program had ever done before.
[TAPE] PAT ROBERTSON: Young people are bombarded by distorted visual images and twisted music messages that are saturating their minds and, yes, sabotaging their futures.
TERRY HEATON: We sold it as news from a Biblical worldview, but it was funny how that Biblical world view seemed to line up with Republican party politics.
KATIE THORNTON: The show didn’t just push conservative politics, it peddled in persecution.
[TAPE] PAT ROBERTSON: If you’re a feminist, if you’re a homosexual, if you’re any of those things, you can say what you want to about your preconceptions. But if you are a Christian and you write in favor of the Christian point of view, then you are considered a right wing and you can’t work any longer in a, quote, “objective” news orientation.
KATIE THORNTON: Pat Robertson pushed the idea that Christian producers needed to not just make media, but to own the means of distribution. He founded the first Christian TV network — which eventually helped spread The 700 Club across the country. And he owned a small string of radio stations, too. That network model was a blueprint for other Christian communicators.
TERRY HEATON: All the leaders of all of these organizations, they all looked to Pat, Pat knew them all. All of these Christian radio stations and other TV networks, they all had the gospel at core, but they also had this Republican, this “God needs us to take over the world” kind of mindset.
KATIE THORNTON: By the start of the 1980s, one out of every seven radio stations in the country was Christian. Though they pushed the idea that conservatives were being silenced, the Religious Right had established a comfortable place for themselves in the new media ecosystem.
And yet, they didn’t dominate. Thanks to the victories of the Civil Rights movement and that public interest moment, the radio dial was still a place that welcomed and protected a diversity of voices.
But all of that was about to change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those remarks about Brown v Board of Education that Mark Lloyd referred to kicked up a long legal saga that would change the American radio landscape. That's coming up after the break. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Before the break, we heard about the long legal saga that would change the American radio landscape. Reporter Katie Thornton picks up the story.
KATIE THORNTON: In the 1970s, talk and public affairs shows exploded. In part because of the FCC’s “public interest moment,” but also because of a great technological leap. “No static at all.” That was the promise of FM radio. The year this Steely Dan song came out, 1978, the FM band beat AM in listeners for the first time.
1960s RCA RADIO INFOMERCIAL: (0:14): The difference in reception will leap to the ear…
KATIE THORNTON: With AM, or “amplitude modulation” radio, there was always sort of an ambient hum. Lots of interference. Like looking through a dirty window. But with FM, or “frequency modulation,” sound was encoded into radio signals differently. And compared to AM’s muck, it was freshly shined glass.
NICOLE HEMMER: As the FM dial opens up, radio stations that play music are like we were, we're goin' over there, we're going to be an FM station now
KATIE THORNTON: Historian and author Nicole Hemmer.
NICOLE HEMMER:…And that actually leads to some languishing on the AM dial and for AM stations…
KATIE THORNTON: At first low-quality, old-timey-sounding AM struggled to find its competitive advantage. That is, until it landed… on talk.
SAFER: Talk and more talk. Advice to the lovelorn, to the investor, to the shopper…
KATIE THORNTON: Talk radio was AM’s salvation. And the special sauce was the listeners themselves.
SAFER: But among the most popular of talk is the invitation to the audience to talk back… "Hello, you're on the air" is as familiar a phrase on radio these days as the stations call letters.
KATIE THORNTON: In radio’s earlier days, it was awkward and clunky to get a listener on the air, with hosts either holding the phone up to the mic or… holding it to their ear and saying “mhmm mhmm,” before reiterating to listeners what the caller said.
But changes in broadcast regulations and improved telephone technology made it easier for listeners to get on the air.
NICOLE HEMMER: The idea that somebody can hear themselves on the radio by calling in and talking to the host -- it sounds so old school at this point, but it really was a revolution…. You could now be like a local celebrity because you're calling in and able to have your voice heard on a station. And it changes the medium because… it makes people feel invested in shows… Even if they don't call in, they hear people like themselves calling in and they feel like they're being represented on this new talk radio.
KATIE THORNTON: Around this time in the late 70s and early 80s, satellite dishes were also becoming more accessible, allowing some larger networks to beam a select few shows across long distances in real time. Combine that with easier and cheaper long distance calling...
NICOLE HEMMER: And once you have those two things, where I can make a toll free call to a show that is being aired around the nation all at the same time, so that people in Oregon and people in New York can... be listening to the same content at the same time can be calling in at the same time.... now you can have a national conversation on radio.
Mutual VO: Network radio’s most listened to coast to coast program...featuring guests from around the world, and calls from all across america...and now network radio’s number one interviewer..
KATIE THORNTON: National slots for talk radio were prized, going to the rare host like Larry King.
But in local markets, call-in shows with local hosts and local listeners ruled. And these call-in shows, while very egalitarian weren’t always the most civil.
Stern: You still got your teeth, the original teeth?
Caller: Of course.
Stern: Imagine this woman being your grandmother.... Something about old people -- when they get on the phone, they love to talk about their personal life. And I know it's real interesting to you, but we gotta move along....
KATIE THORNTON: The early 1980s saw the dawn of the “shock jock” era, with Baltimore’s Howard Stern, famously, at the helm.
Howard Stern: Man, when I get to your age, I hope they shoot me!
Caller: Oh, I hope so too.
Hosts like Stern and those who followed in his footsteps were usually confined to local markets early on. And their shows weren’t always political, mostly just… lewd, and abrasive.
But by the early-1980s, some shock jocks were adding politics to their shows.
Gary Dee: I have been called by my program director, God, to bring the truth to Washington DC!
Don Imus: Why would we have any democrats on? They’re losers
Caller: I am a working mother… And my kids are fine. They have -
Gary Dee: No they are not! Who's raising them? You don't have 'em. The babysitter's got 'em. You ain't no… mama. Get off my program, you Liberal. [Click]
KATIE THORNTON: And they weren’t just conservatives, there were liberal shock jocks too...like sharp-tongued, former-attorney Alan Berg who broadcast out of Denver on an AM station called KOA. Its powerful signal allowed Berg to reach listeners in about 30 surrounding states.
Caller: If you don't like it, you can move to Moscow. Correct?
Berg: In other words if, if you're not, if you're not a Christian, you're unAmerican. Is that your point, sir?
Caller: That's right.
Berg: Good point, sir. You and your redneck, go to bed.
VO: You're listening to Alan Berg on Koa. Alan Berg on KOA in Denver.
KATIE THORNTON: Berg was Jewish, and he goaded the right wingers, racists and anti-Semites who flooded his phone lines. In a poll, Denver residents were asked to name the city’s most beloved media personality, and it’s most despised. Alan Berg won both. And by early 1984, he was making a splash nationally. Here he is on 60 Minutes.
Safer: Isn't there something a little dangerous about this kind of broadcasting?
Berg: There is a danger. I agree with you, but I think that's the danger that we exhibit in all free, all rights of free expression. Be it columnists who write newspapers.
Safer: Indeed. But, but you say yourself, you often go on there, you don't know quite what you're gonna say.
Berg: Hopefully my legal training will prevent me from saying the one thing that will kill me. And I've come awfully close.
KATIE THORNTON: It was less than six months after that segment aired that 50-year-old Alan Berg was gunned down in his driveway by members of the newly formed white supremacist group The Order. The driver of the getaway car was a man who had previously called into Alan Berg’s show…
Caller: I think the Jews are just firmly in control of the Soviet Union. I think they’re responsible for the murder of 15 million white Christians.
Berg: You think so?
Caller: Yes, I do. And I think you’re sick. I think…
Hamblin: It's 10: 42 on a very, very, very blue evening.
KATIE THORNTON: There were other liberal talkers, but for Berg’s colleagues and his listeners… and for left-wing radio, this was a huge loss.
Hamblin: You're on the air. Go ahead.
Caller: I am so sorry for your grief. Um, I it's, I find it so hard to believe that that he's really gone.
Second Caller: I could not believe what I heard. I cannot believe how low people will go.
KATIE THORNTON: At the time Berg was murdered, radio was undergoing another colossal change — this one from the halls of government.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 he inherited a media ecosystem that was flourishing - buoyed by hard-won regulations. But....
MARK LLOYD The Reagan administration came in… and began to eliminate all of those regulations.
KATIE THORNTON: Mark Lloyd says that, not long after his inauguration, Reagan’s FCC started killing off the policies and guidelines that had been built up during the Civil Right Era.
MARK LLOYD We had ascertainment… we had a set of guidelines about how to serve local communities… It was an entire regime that enforced local service… Reagan came in, all of it was gone…
Newsreel: … the FCC made some major changes in how radio stations are run…
KATIE THORNTON: No more requirements to go out and find out what local residents want to hear. No more mandate to run educational shows. The FCC also made it harder for people to challenge broadcast licenses — like Civil Rights groups had done by the hundreds to get fairer representation. The long-standing Fairness Doctrine was still on the books — but without these other policies, it didn’t have as much bite.
MARK LLOYD You get rid of all that, the result is, um, Rush Limbaugh [laugh]
KATIE THORNTON: When broadcasting’s public interest moment was in full swing in the 1970s, Rush Limbaugh wasn’t really a part of it. He was on the air, but he was a deejay, cuing up songs and reporting on the weather and traffic in between.
Rush: 1360, Solid rock and gold. And for the morning rush hour, sunny and cold today. Radar says a near 0% chance of precipitation.
KATIE THORNTON: Limbaugh had been in love with the medium since he was a kid. His dad, who was once a part-owner of a station in their hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, got young Rush his first radio gig there in the 1960’s when Rush was only 16. But after that… he found it hard to keep a job. By the early 1980s, after well over a decade in the industry, Limbaugh had been fired from five stations — mostly for interpersonal reasons.
Rush: High temp below freezing at 31. Tonight's clear and cold. A low tonight down to 22 degrees. Nippy nippy nippy…
KATIE THORNTON: Limbaugh spent a few years working in sales for the Kansas City Royals. But he was back behind the mic in 1983 — now in his 30’s and trying his hand at news coverage. He lasted less than a year before being fired again. But the next year, 1984, a station out of Sacramento took a gamble on Limbaugh and gave him his own show. And it was here that Limbaugh really honed his pitch. Less weather and traffic...more politics and preening.
Limbaugh: Welcome to the Rush Limbaugh program, a program exclusively designed for rich conservatives and right-minded Republicans, or those who want to be either, or both…
KATIE THORNTON: And, the phones lit up. Whether callers wanted to argue or agree with Limbaugh’s right-wing hot takes, they all wanted to talk. Ratings soared. And advertising dollars poured in. For Limbaugh, who had made it clear that he was an entertainer and a moneymaker first, pundit second, it was a goldmine.
Limbaugh: The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the station, its staff, or the advertisers, but they ought to be.
KATIE THORNTON: Limbaugh was, in many ways, representative of the new, post-“public interest” radio dial of the mid-1980s. After deregulation began in earnest in 1981, the number of complaints to the FCC about racial stereotyping went up. So did complaints about a lack of programming for minority groups. And then of course, in 1987, Reagan’s FCC dealt the death blow.
C-SPAN: This week the FCC voted down the Fairness Doctrine by a vote of 4 to 0.
ANNE NELSON: The logic of doing over the fairness doctrine was, oh, well, now all of these towns have a hundred, 500 a thousand channels on their cable systems.
Anne Nelson is the author of Shadow Network, media money and the secret hub of the radical right”
ANNE NELSON: So anybody can find any opinion they want, and we don't need to have that requirement for individual broadcasters anymore.
But, she says, there were a couple issues with the FCC’s argument.
ANNE NELSON: First of all… you can't watch a hundred channels… In fact, this fire hose of information is going to be so overwhelming. You'll probably just stick to one or two channels
KATIE THORNTON: Also, not everyone had cable. And even if you did, you can’t watch cable while commuting to work. Or working on most job sites. Plenty of people still relied on radio, not television, for their news. And the existence of cable TV didn’t suddenly mean there were more radio frequencies.
The Fairness Doctrine had not been perfect. Adhering to it was a big logistical headache. Station staff had to monitor hosts for controversial material, and figure out how to make free airtime available to people who wanted to respond. Many scholars believe that it kept some broadcasters who didn’t want to do their due diligence from broadcasting controversial material at all.
But for many, including some conservatives, it had been an important means of getting ideas out.
NICOLE HEMMER: By the time you have the repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987, you have a whole cohort of conservatives, people like Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, who want to see the fairness doctrine kept in place.
KATIE THORNTON: The Democratic-led Congress, with the help of some of these conservative leaders, actually passed a law to codify the Fairness Doctrine — which had just been an FCC policy. But Reagan vetoed it. And as it turned out, it wasn’t a loss for the right.
Without the Fairness Doctrine in place, highly political, often vitriolic talk radio skyrocketed. And Sacramento area’s Rush Limbaugh was the breakout star of the moment.
KCRA host: It was a day of well-wishes and autographs and a limo ride to the airport. Limbaugh said goodbye to Sacramento this morning.(fade) He’s taking his act to New York City, where his show will be nationally syndicated.
KATIE THORNTON: Limbaugh quickly made a name for himself from WABC in New York. Limbaugh looked to get a rise out of listeners… including liberals who made up a quarter of his audience in the early days. But as time went on, he appealed more to those who felt that popular culture was edging toward greater representation of the marginalized - and, consequently, they felt, leaving them out.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: People start calling them and saying, thank God you're on the air Rush. We finally have a voice…
KATIE THORNTON: Brian Rosenwald is the author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: And it's ironic, right? Because this is the eighties… Ronald Reagan is still in office. They have the white house, they have the biggest platform in the world, but they don't feel that way. And it upsets the right to be honest, that the liberals are still winning the culture wars. Even as the conservatives are gaining more political power… And over time… they start to lose the liberal audience.
Eventually, even the skeptical conservatives came around on deregulation. Nicole Hemmer.
NICOLE HEMMER: It's not until Rush Limbaugh takes off and they see the power of this deregulated medium that suddenly the conservative line is yes, the fairness doctrine is bad. It only exists to shut up Rush Limbaugh, and we all oppose it.
KATIE THORNTON: But it wasn’t just political conservatives fueling Limbaugh's growth. It was also his large following of Evangelical Christians.
JOHN FEA: I was in seminary. Uh, this would have been 90, maybe 89, 90… And everybody on my floor, all these seminarians were listening to this new guy, Rush Limbaugh.
KATIE THORNTON: This is John Fea, the professor of history at Messiah Christian University in Pennsylvania, who in Episode 2 told us about the omnipresence of Christian radio in his childhood.
JOHN FEA: …and, you know, you'd go into the lounge or you'd go into the restroom bathroom or whatever… and they're talking, "hey, did ya hear what Rush said?" And I had no idea who this guy was and I started listening to him. … So I remember being quite entertained by Limbaugh in seminary.
KATIE THORNTON: John eventually grew to be a Limbaugh critic, but in the early days, he was on board. And not unlike his dad who evangelized with Christian radio blaring from his truck, John turned around and shared the word of Rush with his old man.
JOHN FEA: I introduced my father to Rush Limbaugh. …So I'll never forget this… My parents kind of convinced me to come home from Chicago for our annual trip to the Jersey shore. And I remember… I remember saying, dad, you gotta hear this guy. I think you'll like him. And I remember putting, you know, turning him on and, and he was hooked. He listened to him every single day that vacation, and then continued to listen to him. …This replaced Christian radio in his truck.
KATIE THORNTON: Years of well-organized Christian media networking and socially conservative programming — from the likes of The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, or Salem’s early teach and talk stations, — meant that, in content if not tone, Limbaugh wasn’t a giant leap from what a lot of Christians were already listening to.
JOHN FEA: Any historian would find the roots of Limbaughism in Christian radio, in the seventies and eighties.
KATIE THORNTON: It was around this time that Salem — then just a Christian network — surveyed their listeners, and found that when they turned the dial, they tended to stop at conservative talkers like Limbaugh. Christian radio helped prime audiences for Limbaugh… and Limbaugh, appealing to anxieties around cultural change, helped shape Christian radio.
John Fea: This anxiety and fear… turned Christian radio into a kind of political outlet…to serve the culture wars.
KATIE THORNTON: Republican politicians soon realized that getting in good with Limbaugh meant getting in good with his listeners. President George H. W. Bush literally carried Limbaugh’s bags into the White House when he came for a visit.
Limbaugh imitators abounded. And by 1995, about two thirds of talk radio leaned right. End of story. Right?
MARK LLOYD The story that's often told... is that the Fairness Doctrine ended and that made the way for Rush Limbaugh to come on the air and really reach an audience that had never been served before and provide conservative views… It’s nonsensical…
KATIE THORNTON: Mark Lloyd.
MARK LLOYD Rush Limbaugh was a very talented talker. But his talk castigating feminists, his talk about… people of color, uh, his talk, frankly, about people who were asking for better services from, uh, the government was nothing new…
KATIE THORNTON: So if it wasn’t just Limbaugh’s firebrand personality that drove his success, what did?
Brian Rosenwald: Syndicated shows, you know, starting with Limbaugh come along and their offer programs by what they call the barter method… Which essentially means that you don't pay for the show.
KATIE THORNTON: Brian Rosenwald says that with the barter method, Limbaugh’s group offered the show to stations across the country for free, just in return for ad time within the show, which they could sell to advertisers who wanted to reach a national audience.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: So essentially you're not losing anything if you're the station… You're not handing out money. You're not paying a salary, you’re not paying a flat fee or something.
KATIE THORNTON: Barter-based syndication is common practice now — and Limbaugh eventually went on to charge stations to carry his show — but as a business model, it was pretty new back then. And then there were those satellites.
As the cost of the technology went down, satellite transmission became more affordable… and going national wasn’t as big a deal.
But perhaps the single most important factor contributing to the right’s dominance of the radio dial was the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and its elimination of national ownership caps. Those were the longstanding legal limits on the number of stations that a single company could own. That number had been increasing for years under Reagan. But in ‘96, the national limit for radio chains was eliminated.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: And that ends up triggering massive, massive, like frenetic consolidation in the radio business in the late nineties, where companies are merging, companies are buying each other up. It basically becomes clear to most owners that you're not going to survive as an individual owner. You either need to get big or get out.
MARK LLOYD We ended up with an operation…. called ClearChannel that owned over 1200 radio stations… This is, uh, which was just unheard of in the night during the public interest moment. The idea that any one entity could own 1200 stations!
KATIE THORNTON: Before the ‘96 Act, ClearChannel — now called iHeartMedia — had just 43 stations. And starting in 1998...
MARK LLOYD Clearchannel owned premiere networks…and guess who Premiere Radio Networks owned? They own the Rush Limbaugh show. And guess what ClearChannel and the Premiere Radio Networks promoted and put on every station they could? Well, they put on the show that they owned — Rush Limbaugh.
KATIE THORNTON: And while no other company got as big as ClearChannel, others, like Entercom — which soon acquired Sinclair’s radio stations — and Salem, grew exponentially. Cumulus, a media giant, was formed in the wake of the Act. And all of this economic consolidation changed what could be heard on the airwaves.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: Why does this affect programming? Well, it affects programming because you end up getting these companies that become vertically integrated. …For one set of talent... and one set of production costs, you can program a show that you can then air on... a huge chunk of your... stations…
KATIE THORNTON: It was cheaper for a company to invest in one big host they could blast out across the country than it was to hire local hosts in every city. And as the higher-ups were programming for their newly expanded networks they stuck to tried and tested formats.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: Consolidation and these big corporate ownerships... create risk adverse companies, risk adverse executives, executives who want to program something that they know will work. And... conservative talk is it.
KATIE THORNTON: In the 90s and early 2000s, more and more talk stations switched from showcasing a variety of opinions to airing one political perspective all day, mirroring an approach called “format purity” in music radio.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: If you turn the country station on and you hear Beethoven's fifth, you're going to be confused… Radio executives think that people feel the same way about talk — that if you turn on the conservative talk station and there's a liberal guy on you're like, well, did I turn the wrong station on? That there needs to be predictability.
KATIE THORNTON: From a station managers’ perspective… platforming talkers like Rush Limbaugh was predictable, and also safe.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: What is dangerous is raunch.... Stuff that's going to threaten your FCC license… Conservative talk, for as harsh as it can be, is largely safe… So it's one decision upon one decision upon one decision that makes this make more and more and more sense, um, to the point that you get to the 2000s, and then they're like, okay. Yeah. All conservative, all political, all nationally syndicated, or mostly nationally syndicated. That's how we make our money.
MARK LLOYD There were no progressive or liberal talkers on commercial radio in Philadelphia… And certainly there are liberal and progressive people in Philadelphia. There were no progressive or liberal talkers on commercial radio in Houston. And certainly there are liberal and progressive folks who were interested in that programming, but nah… They were not being served by commercial radio stations in those markets.
KATIE THORNTON: In 2007, Mark Lloyd worked on a study that looked at news/talk radio stations owned by the country’s five biggest commercial radio companies — including Salem.
MARK LLOYD What we found was that…conservative talk, dominated liberal, or progressive talk by 10 to 1…
KATIE THORNTON: The study also noted that, in some markets where left-leaning talk was aired, it could bring in money and ratings. But the big conglomerates hardly bothered. They could afford not to.
The only real attempt by liberals to give conservative radio a run for its money. … came in 2004.
Air America Air Check: “With even more intensity!” “Politics and cultures.” “[Laugh] We need them!” “I believe that they did succeed…” “Air America radio! Real facts in a filtered world.”
KATIE THORNTON: Air America had hosts like Al Franken,
Al franken tape: …today is both an ending and a beginning...an end to the right wing dominance of talk radio...
KATIE THORNTON: Public Enemy’s Chuck D., and Rachel Maddow. But, from the get-go, there were some issues: A lot of the hosts were new to radio and just… weren’t that great. But importantly, Air America lacked the structures that had benefited Limbaugh. Air America didn’t own any stations, they just made shows. So they had to convince existing stations to run Air America programs. Not easy in this era of format purity and big, chain ownership.
Air America was off the air by early 2010. Brian Rosenwald.
BRIAN ROSENWALD: What happens is that a lot of people in the radio business take the air America failure and say, see, liberal radio won't work.
KATIE THORNTON: The 1996 Telecommunications Act was an economic decision, not one that regulated content. But in practice, it hit both. It meant that the loudest voices didn’t have to be the most representative ones.
Extreme rhetoric like Rush Limbaugh’s might have remained on the fringes if his ideas and attitudes hadn’t been echoed by host after host on station after station. Because with the infrastructure working in your favor, you can bring the extreme into the mainstream… and make it look organic.
KATIE THORNTON: Rush Limbaugh was not the first to do what he did… but he was the right guy at the right time when years of deregulation were coming to a head.
But because the narrative is that conservative talk radio started with Limbaugh and in many ways was Limbaugh a lot of people predicted it would end with Limbaugh, too.
PHIL BOYCE: I've heard this narrative now several times since Rush has passed… that talk radio is over without Rush Limbaugh…
KATIE THORNTON: Salem’s senior vice president Phil Boyce.
But as Phil Boyce knows well, radio still has an enormous reach — and today, without Limbaugh on the dial, it's still the case that 12 of the top 15 talk radio hosts are right wing.
PHIL BOYCE: Talk radio will go on. Those of us here at the Salem Radio Network, uh, we've built the strongest conservative radio platform on the planet. this, this battle will continue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next week, in the final installment of our series, we go in search of possible legal and legislative solutions to the rampant dissemination of election denial and other misleading discourse on the air and hubris of Salem Media Group, the leading media corporation serving American Christian and conservative communities. And, after a lot of unanswered calls, emails and some rejections, Katie finally got to hear directly from someone at Salem. Someone with a lot of sway.
This week's show was written and reported by Katie Thornton with production help from Max Balton and fact checking by Graham Hacia. Music and Sound Design is by Jared Paul. Jennifer Munson is our technical director. The show is edited by OTM executive producer Katya Rogers. This series is a production of On the Media and WNYC Studios with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.