How the journey of the most-listened-to national radio talk show host in America may have changed US politics forever.
From long before the rise of Fox News, talk radio has been the essential medium through which millions and millions of hard-core conservatives comprehend the world.
From its inception, talk radio has been built around codes of tribal identity, grievances, and scorn. Originally tapped as entertainers, talk show hosts soon learned to mobilize public anger in ways that boosted their listenership enormously. Talk radio’s modern era began 30 years ago this month, with the national launch of Rush Limbaugh’s show.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with Michael Harrison, founder and longtime editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, often referred to as “the bible of the talk radio industry.”
Schechtman and Harrison discuss how talk became big business by giving us an unparalleled group of personalities who thrived in an atmosphere — that they helped drive — of personal and political divisiveness. In a way, Limbaugh begat Fox News, MSNBC, the Tea Party, and, finally, Trump. All without ever losing his own audience or identity, which was overwhelmingly conservative. The Economist said last year: “[T]o understand the Republican party, get in a car, turn on the radio and drive.”
With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 — the FCC policy that had required the holders of broadcast licenses to present matters of public importance in a fair and equitable way — all aspects of politics became fair game. And in 1988, a little-known Sacramento, CA, sports host moved into politics.
The way he caught on was dramatic. Love him or hate him, it became clear, as Harrison points out, that Rush was a once-in-a-generation talent.
Harrison and Schechtman chat about the early days of talk radio, and how Rush changed it. About the difference, initially, between Rush’s idea of entertainment and how his audience often took him very seriously. Harrison speculated that, in the early days, Limbaugh was a kind of right-wing Jon Stewart.
He combined everything that had come before in talk radio. He was conservative, he was angry, he was well-informed, and he had humor. In his early years, before he began to take himself too seriously, you never knew if his vitriolic flights of rhetoric were real or shtick.
Starting with just 56 stations in 1988, he was heard on 800+ stations only three years later. In 2008, he signed a $400 million eight-year deal and his success inspired many imitators.
The roll call of clones he spawned includes Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Dennis Prager, Michael Savage, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin. To say that Limbaugh and his emulators made possible Trump’s election may be hyperbole. Or maybe not.
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. It began as a crazy idea. DJs would get bored with music and start talking to the audience. They would take calls, tell stories, and even talk a little politics, sports, and pop culture. Early on, it produced some enduring national personalities like Jean Shepherd, and Brad Crandall, Long John Nebel, and Larry King, and Barry Gray, and Joe Franklin. It was known first as Spoken Word Radio. Later, it would give way to an even more colorful and cantankerous cast of characters like Joe Pyne, and Alan Berg, and Morton Downey Jr. Late night talk radio was long before Alex Jones, the home of conspiracy theories about crop circles and animal mutilation.|
|Talk radio moved to the big cities with folks like Don Imus and Howard Stern. In New York, Bob Grant would redefine the formula beginning in the early 70s as he was literally the radio soundtrack that Trump grew up with. In fact, Trump’s early racial attacks came directly out of the Bob Grant playbook, and then things changed. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the FCC that “required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.”|
|The Fairness Doctrine would be repealed in 1987 and suddenly radio would be set up to have political power. Then in 1988, a little known Sacramento newscaster and controversial talk show host named Rush Limbaugh would be let loose nationally. He took the freedom of being untethered from the Fairness Doctrine, combined it with the formulas that had already proved successful in talk, added conservative politics in a sardonic and entertaining tone, and the rest is radio history.|
|It began 30 years ago this week, and it certainly changed the entertainment, news, and political landscape. We’re going to talk about that 30-year anniversary of Rush Limbaugh now with my guest Michael Harrison. He is the editor and publisher of Talkers Magazine, but he really is the go-to voice for understanding talk radio in America. Michael, thanks so much for being here with us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Michael Harrison:||It’s a pleasure to be with you Jeff. Thank you very much for having me on the program. It’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by. It seems no longer than maybe 28 or 29 years, amazing how time goes so fast when you’re having fun.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Indeed. Talk a little bit about your memories of how talk radio was different before Rush, before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.|
|Michael Harrison:||Before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio was not as controversial and not as politically combative. There were very interesting subjects and talk radio did exist. It was a small sideshow in the radio landscape. When Talkers started in 1990, we called it the talk radio industry, and even then in 1990 it was just a handful of stations because doing talk radio was not something everybody could do. There was no mold. There was no formula. So, you had interesting characters around the country.|
|They certainly weren’t defined by their politics. They were defined by their individuality and their uniqueness. They were curmudgeonly and they had a lot of life experience, and they were storytellers. They talked about everything from women’s sexuality. That was something they used to talk about. They talked about visitors from Venus who were disguising as humans. And basically, lifestyle stuff, celebrity gossip, recipes, gardening tips, money. It was the Fairness Doctrine, when that was repealed, it gave everybody the opportunity to talk about politics.|
|Now, why they didn’t talk about politics before? Because it was kind of vague and if you talked about politics, you had to give the other side equal time. You had to cover all the issues from both sides and that proved to be something that was very difficult to measure, so people avoided it. The Fairness Doctrine, as a result, didn’t create more diversity, it basically chilled discussion about politics. So before the Fairness Doctrine, lots of interesting topics and interesting people. After the Fairness Doctrine, the birth of news talk, political radio, and eventually station formats being basically described by the kind of politics that they carry.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s interesting in looking at talk before the Fairness Doctrine, some of it was political but the political nature of it was almost personal. They were more ad hominem attacks for exactly the reason you talk about. You couldn’t really talk politics because you had to represent the other side, but if you attack somebody personally, you could kind of get away with that. There was almost more meanness for a while.|
|Michael Harrison:||Yeah. Well, I mean that’s an interesting aspect. I don’t personally recall that being prominent. I’m sure that existed, but there wasn’t this ideological pounding that we hear today or its general partisan ideological preaching to choirs. That’s another thing: targeted audiences, since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. Audiences are targeted by what their predisposition already is and then the radio show is a confirmation of that predisposition. We’re seeing that in newspapers, and we’re seeing that beyond talk radios. As a matter of fact, talk radio inspired that approach to commercial news organizations all across the board where you target your readership. You target your viewership. You target your listenership, tell them what they want to hear, and then just preach to the choir. It wasn’t that way back before. Before it was, you tell them what you think and you hope that enough people find it interesting to follow you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||When Rush started, there was also a way in which he made politics entertaining. There was a sardonic nature to what he did, which was political and partisan but it was also fun, particularly in those early days.|
|Michael Harrison:||He was a comedian. Rush has over the years taken himself far more seriously as his influence grew and as the nation became increasingly polarized and politics went from a spectator sport to a blood sport. So Rush is still humorous but just slightly, but when Rush first started, humor was a major part of what he did. He could even be described somewhat as a conservative Jon Stewart. He was a comedian. He was very funny, and a lot of the things that he said were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. They were later interpreted as either arrogant or just him describing himself, here with one half of my brain tied behind my back. That pompousness, that arrogance was meant to be funny.|
|Some of the terms that he created were meant to be humorous. Even Excellence in Broadcasting, the EIB network, that was meant to be a joke. Excellence in Broadcasting network, it was a pompous type of a humor, but it became very much what they call The Network. It’s not a joke anymore. So, it’s changed. But yeah, he was a funny guy.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk about his audiences because a lot of the audience early on didn’t necessarily take him with the same kind of humor. They took it seriously. They took the politics and what he might have meant as tongue-in-cheek or sardonic, they took it as the real thing.|
|Michael Harrison:||Yeah they did, and that happens. You can never assume that people understand nuance in emails or on radio. Some people take things very seriously and things today, my gosh, things are taken out of context. People make jokes and they’re taken out of context because… See what’s happening now, Jeff, is that people, news organizations, radio stations, political parties, candidates seek victory at the expense of truth. So, people will take anything they can out of context, or if it was meant differently, or it was a nuance thing, or it was a joke, and they will do everything they possibly can to make it look like it’s real.|
|You’re right. A lot of people took it seriously and I think Rush was probably surprised to a certain extent at the power of his words, and the following that he created, and the influence that he began to wield not just as an attraction on entertainment radio, but as a news maker himself.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What is your sense? What do you remember about how seriously politicians took him in the late 80s?|
|Michael Harrison:||The late 80s through the 90s, politicians took talk radio very seriously. Talk show hosts on small stations were getting major interviews with big politicians. Presidents of the United States were showing up on shows, candidates for president. It really was very, very exciting in the early 90s, through the 90s. Talk radio had a big buzz about it. Talk radio has been usurped to a large degree now by cable news talk television, which now has the big buzz. It’s much harder now for talk show hosts to get the kind of traction, the kind of attention, and the kind of buzz, and the political support that they got back in those days, and also a case could be made before it really became the stationality, the branding of stations based upon ideology and partisanship when it was more populist.|
|The Republican Party candid to support talk radio and pay attention to the talk show hosts much more so than the Democrats did. That’s one of the reasons that led to talk radio in the commercial band being increasingly conservative. There’s a lot of things that led to that, but one of them was that the Republicans got a jump on it and the Democrats did not.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s interesting too that you talk about the difference with television today. Even still to this day, even Rush who some people claim is less relevant today still has huge numbers and huge numbers of listeners compared to for example Fox News.|
|Michael Harrison:||Rush is very relevant and it’s just that Rush has been around for 30 years, so he’s not the new kid in town and he’s not the rising star, but Rush is extremely relevant. It is interesting that television has this psychological advantage over radio. I call it screenis envy. Everybody in radio thinks television is bigger, but in some cases there are far larger radio audiences than some of these cable shows have on television. That’s something that’s always astonished me that the power of television goes beyond just the numbers. It’s television, ooh big deal. You’re right. It’s not quite the way it seems in many cases.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Gore Vidal once said in an interview that the two things you should never turn down is sex and going on television.|
|Michael Harrison:||Well, I could certainly understand why he might think that.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the other things that Rush did is he really created an industry. He spawned so many imitators, so many people that really… and a lot of them that took hold in the talk radio business.|
|Michael Harrison:||Yeah. If talk radio were rock and roll, he would have been Elvis Presley. If talk radio were golf, he would have been Tiger Woods. The trends go where the talent lies. There’s no question that the popularity and the sheer magnitude of his personality became a magnet for AM radio. AM radio was having a terrible time competing against FM when it came to music. Rush Limbaugh and talk radio came along at the perfect time to fit the need of AM radio stations. And the older demographic Baby Boomers grew up with AM radio, the generations that follow them didn’t.|
|So, there were a lot of reasons why talk radio blossomed on the AM dial, and it’s unfair when you hear the statement that Rush Limbaugh single-handedly saved the AM dial and single-handedly set the tone for talk radio. That’s not totally fair. Just as it would be unfair to say that Elvis Presley was completely responsible for rock and roll or the Beatles were totally responsible for the 1960 peace movement and psychedelic movement. They were major, major, major components of it and Rush was the biggest player, but a lot of things happened simultaneously with Rush Limbaugh that set the stage for him as well. And a lot of people filled out the gap and turned it into an industry, and turned it into a scene, and turned it into a genre of radio that not only saved the AM dial. A case could be made, it saved radio! Because while Rush Limbaugh and all of his imitators, and all of these great talk show hosts of the 90s were rising to prominence and becoming household names, FM radio was giving up the franchise on personality.|
|It was telling the disc jockeys to shut up and play the records, to read liners, and basically forego personality. As a result, we see the results of that today. Music radio plays a very minor role in the music culture and in popular culture, whereas talk radio, although people are always proclaiming that it’s dead, hah-hah, talk radio is where the radio stars are household names. It’s not just Rush. There’s Sean Hannity. You have Michael Savage. You have Dave Ramsey. Even Alex Jones created a radio style format on his online, and he’s on radio to become a big name.|
|You have all the people at Salem Broadcasting. You have Mike Gallagher. The personalities, Dr. Laura Schlessinger. I can go on and on. The biggest stars in radio are talk show hosts. Name a big disc jockey, Ryan Seacrest? I mean with all respect to him, it’s a basically canned Hollywood-type product. It doesn’t play a role in the culture.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What is your sense of how much Rush really created the business? If he hadn’t existed, what would have happened with talk radio even after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine?|
|Michael Harrison:||It would have happened anyway. It just would have happened without Rush Limbaugh. These are questions that are what ifs. If you’re into quantum physics, there are parallel universes where there isn’t a Rush Limbaugh. What would have happened to baseball if there were no Babe Ruth? What would have happened had Kennedy not been shot? Rush Limbaugh played a major role on it, but there’s something… It’s kind of mystical how these things work. It’s like fire was probably invented all over the world at the same time. The wheel was probably invented all over the world at the same time.|
|There’s something in the human DNA. There’s just something in the way things unfold that the time comes for something, and the time is right and it happens. So, I believe that talk radio would have happened anyway. However, it certainly did a lot better and made a lot more impact having Rush Limbaugh in the scene.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that people talk about a lot with respect to Rush and conservative political talk radio is the way in which things have shifted over the years and you’ve covered every step of this, the degree to which talk radio was influenced by the politics of the time, or the way in which politics influenced what was happening on talk radio. Talk a little bit about that kind of symbiotic relationship.|
|Michael Harrison:||Well, that’s the relationship between the media and the news, between the messenger and the message. This is deep media theory and there is no clear-cut answer. It’s like the mirror. You hold the mirror up and you look at the mirror and you see yourself. Then, you say, “Hmm, my hair needs to be combed.” The reflection you see of yourself causes you to comb your hair, brush your teeth, take a shave. For a woman, putting on makeup. The reflection changes the thing that’s being reflected, and the media is a reflection of society. It is a reflection of the news, and in reflecting it, it influences it.|
|You put a bunch of television cameras in a baseball game, and suddenly the baseball game becomes a television show. As a matter of fact, the presence of cameras anywhere turns whatever is happening into a television show. Look at the awards ceremonies. They’re not television shows. They originally were news events covered by TV. So, the relationship between talk radio and politics is a great example of the two-way street of art imitating life and life imitating art, and the power of media, but there is something else always going on that the media can’t take it unto itself to control everything. You have to give and take, otherwise the public will leave you behind. The news will unfold. The river will turn, and the media will be left behind. That’s why media does research. That’s why media tries to figure out what the public wants.|
|Radio is fascinating medium and as much as it’s extremely grass roots, it reflects the street going back to music radio when rock and roll radio was really happening. They went to enormous efforts to know what are the kids listening to. What are the kids saying? We want to reflect that. We want to play songs they like. Then of course by playing the songs, they would sell them and they would be able to make a hit, but we used to have a saying in music radio, “It’s got to be in the grooves to be a hit.”|
|If you’re preaching something, or you’re saying something, or you’re playing a record, or you’re talking about a political opinion and it doesn’t have it in the groove, it’s not already in the public consciousness, you can talk till you’re blue in the face and no one’s going to follow you. So, it’s a fascinating two-way street and it’s been at the very heart of what I’ve studied and talked about for my entire career is that magical relationship between the media and the message that it carries.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It’s also different. You and I have talked about this a little bit in the past, different between radio and television. That there are very few guys that can be successful in both.|
|Michael Harrison:||Yeah, because it takes two different parts of the brain. The audio and the visual aspects of these media make them very philosophically and theoretically from a media perspective different. They are not the same game. It’s like one is basketball and one is football. You could be athletic, but to be a major leaguer in both football and baseball, or hockey and basketball, that’s kind of rare. They all involve goals. They all involve speed. They all involve muscles, but they’re different games and they affect the psyche differently, and it takes a different mix of chemistry and abilities to do it.|
|That’s exactly the case with radio and television, and that’s why when you get a double threat like Sean Hannity who at the moment is on top of the cable news talk television world, and on top of the talk radio world, that’s an amazing thing. That’s an ambidextrousness that is very admirable and very rare. Rush Limbaugh wasn’t able to really make it on TV. He did not translate to TV very well. Whereas on radio, it works perfectly. Other people can do both but they’re stronger in one than the other.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Yeah. I mean Bill O’Reilly is an interesting case in point who worked on television but not so much on radio.|
|Michael Harrison:||It worked pretty well on radio but because it didn’t work as well on radio as it did on television, it was deemed a failure. He got a bum rap on that. He was not as good on radio as he was on television. Again, there’s a visual aspect to TV. You see who’s talking to you. You can look into their eyes. You could see what color their tie is. You could see whether the woman is good looking or not. There’s a charisma, an X factor, but in O’Reilly’s case, I don’t think he put the kind of work into his radio show that he put into the TV show. I think he thought it would be a lot easier and the show was fairly successful. He wasn’t number one. He was far from number one, and I think that didn’t play well with his ego, and he fell short of expectations, but he wasn’t a failure. He quit and he stopped. He could have continued. He was doing well enough to continue.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Given how successful Hannity has been at doing both as you’ve talked about, is that going to be the new paradigm? Will that have an effect on talk radio going forward that people will have to be good at both?|
|Michael Harrison:||I think so. I think that the screen which is located on every communications device we have today begs to be used. Audio media, music, and talk radio has a very, very special place in my heart and a very, very important place in human society. I hope it doesn’t get trampled into the dust with this multi-platform convergence that’s going on with visual because it would be a shame. Because as I mentioned earlier, there are two different games and there’s something very, very powerful about audio media for listening to music, for listening to the radio.|
|When MTV came on and they started to make music videos, a case could be made that that was the beginning of the end of really great music, and the reason for that was the record companies would never sign any musicians that weren’t good looking. If you were ugly, you couldn’t get a record contract once MTV came on. Let’s face it, a lot of the greatest musicians that have ever lived were not that good looking. It’s like suddenly you had to be attractive. It’s the same thing with television. Some great speakers, some great storytellers, some great thinkers would be eliminated if they don’t translate to the fact that there’s a screen component and more and more radio stations are putting cameras into their control rooms and remember what I said about the camera, you put a camera into something, it becomes a TV show.|
|When you think about the fabulous production that Hollywood can do, a lot of these people have gone from making great radio to making cheesy television. This is a very peculiar and interesting juncture, and I’m concerned about it because I don’t want to see music for its own sake, and talk for its own sake, basically left behind because of people’s obsession with video.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It also is a reflection I think of a broader trend that starts at the top in terms of politics, starts in the White House in this case. So much of talk radio has been a reflection of who is in the White House. When we talk about those earlier limbo years, the early 90s into the mid-90s, it was so much a reaction to the Clinton years. As we’re seeing Hannity’s success now, it is so much in sync with and a reaction to Trump and his fascination with television.|
|Michael Harrison:||Yeah. There’s no question. The President of the United States is one of the major pillars upon which modern talk radio and cable news talk television, which I consider to be two aspects of talk media. They’re built upon that and Trump especially. Trump is the most talked about person of our lifetime. We’ve been studying this very carefully and more people talk about Donald Trump in the last two years than any two-year period people have talked about anyone. Maybe O.J. Simpson had it for a while in the 90s. Certainly, Clinton was talked about a lot on talk radio but we’re talking about every format, gardening shows, local shows, everywhere, it’s very hard to do a show without talking about Donald J. Trump, whether you love him or you hate him.|
|This guy is addictive when it comes to copy and content. Just forget the politics of it, and forget about how wonderful he is or despicable he is, he certainly is gigantic when it comes to his hold over the attention of a society that basically suffers from attention deficit disorder. It’s miraculous.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What that says finally about the future of talk radio when the president himself, the White House itself is a reality TV show? When that sucks up all the air, what does it mean for talk entertainment and talk radio?|
|Michael Harrison:||It means that they’re going to be talking about the White House, and they’re going to be talking about Trump until Trump runs his course. And then, they’ll be talking about something else. Jeff, this is a key question because when I started Talkers Magazine, it was right before the first Persian Gulf War. When that war ended, people said to me, they asked me, “What’s talk radio going to talk about now? The war is over.” Then when the big election of 92, that was a really colorful election. When that was over, “What’s talk radio going to talk about now that the election is over?” It’s always what’s talk radio going to talk about now that whatever it is, it’s over.|
|You know? When Trump is over and Trump will be over, it will either be one minute from now, two years from now, or six years from now, or any number in between, but Trump will eventually become yesterday’s … that happens, there’ll be new stuff and talk radio will be there because talking… and when I say talk radio, I mean talk radio, and talk television, and talk internet, and talk satellite, and broadcasting, and all the different permutations of talk shows. It will still be around because the human being, Homo sapiens is the animal that talks, yak-yak-yak. We are talkers, and we are listeners, and that’s what we do and this is a format that will never run out of material.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Michael Harrison, it’s always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio, WhoWhatWhy.|
|Michael Harrison:||Pleasure. Thanks for some really good questions, Jeff.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|