By Brian Rosenwald (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2019, 358 pp.)
In March 2020, as the coronavirus was rapidly spreading throughout the United States, President Trump strode into the Situation Room for a meeting with his COVID-19 task force. According to sources in attendance, the President excitedly announced that he wanted to start a 2-hour, daily White House talk radio show to provide a regular opportunity for him to update Americans, quell fears, and answer listener questions. Ultimately, the President quashed the idea, giving as his reason that it would compete with Rush Limbaugh, whose legendary talk radio program was the gold standard among conservative supporters. When aids suggested the White House program might air at a time that did not conflict with Limbaugh’s broadcast, the President demurred, choosing not to ruffle the feathers of right-wing radio’s Big Bird. The talk radio maestro was held in such high regard that, just a month or so earlier, the President used the solemn occasion of his State of the Union address to announce that he was giving Mr. Limbaugh the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This decision would not surprise Brian Rosenwald whose book documents Limbaugh’s formative role in turning an old technology into an instrument of power that transformed the Republican Party and political discourse in the United States.
The book documents Limbaugh’s formative role in turning an old technology into an instrument of power that transformed the Republican Party and political discourse in the United States.
The story begins in August 1988 when Limbaugh, at the time nothing more than a failed disc jockey turned sales executive for the Kansas City Royals baseball team, tried out a new format on a floundering amplitude modulation (AM) radio station. Rather than preach to the audience, as predecessors had done (including outright bigots like Morton Downey Jr., whose behavior cost him his job), Limbaugh’s talent was, in Rosenwald’s words, that “he could reach through the radio and grab people, making them feel like he was their partner in an intimate conversation.” Specifically, that meant channeling the anger of conservative listeners against what Limbaugh saw as mounting liberalism in America and the failure of the Republican Party to do much to reverse course. The talk-radio host proved to be a success as both a propagandist and a ratings builder. As a result, station owners, especially those holding AM radio licenses, saw opportunities to boost revenue and political influence. With the expansion of television and frequency modulation (FM) radio, whose clearer signal made it the choice for popular music programming, AM had been floundering for years. Limbaugh provided the template for reviving the old medium. Station owners were quick to join his syndicated network and to hire personalities who combined Limbaugh’s smooth delivery, ability to empathize with his audience, biting humor, and relentless attack on all things liberal—real or imagined.
The talk-radio host proved to be a success as both a propagandist and a ratings builder.
In an engaging style, Talk Radio’s America documents the mainly successful parade of programing that built on the master’s success. What makes it an important book, however, is Rosenwald’s recognition that this transformation in American media was about much more than finding the right talent. In fact, the foundation for the format’s triumph was established years earlier in the media deregulation policy of first the Carter Administration and then, more completely, under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. These governments rolled back rules requiring stations to broadcast a range of viewpoints as a condition for license renewal. Once they knew that regulators would no longer hold them responsible to air different perspectives, station owners were free to turn their outlets into organs of uniformly conservative thinking. Not all owners followed this script, but since most were business people who lined up with the Republican Party, the vast majority were relieved to be free from what they saw as big government telling them what to do with their property. They were even more grateful when rules were rolled back that set limits on the number of stations and the mix of media properties (newspapers as well as radio and television stations) one owner was allowed to hold. This enabled owners to bring together hundreds of stations across the country under one umbrella, thereby lowering the costs of production and amplifying their mainly conservative message. When requirements to broadcast news and to reflect the needs of the local community were also eliminated, stations became vehicles for pretty much whatever their corporate owners and their advertisers—increasingly large, national businesses—chose to promote.
Station owners were quick to join his syndicated network and to hire personalities who combined Limbaugh’s smooth delivery, ability to empathize with his audience, biting humor, and relentless attack on all things liberal—real or imagined.
Rosenwald is also careful to demonstrate that the impact on politics was complex. Although the primary beneficiaries were those promoting conservative messages, Democrats caught on to the renewed power of radio in the 1990s and began making use of it effectively too. He cites especially President Bill Clinton who used radio (and, of course, television) to, as he liked to put it, “feel your pain.” Democrats, according to Rosenwald, did not lack for opportunities to turn the media to their advantage. However, they were not as likely as conservatives to unite behind one or a handful of simple messages that could mobilize an audience intellectually and, more importantly, emotionally. Moreover, led by Limbaugh, talk radio hosts often saved their most strident attacks “to hunt RINOs,” a common acronym for Republicans In Name Only. With support from and for the Tea Party movement of grass roots radical conservatives and with the backing of big money conservatives like the Koch brothers, talk radio activists were determined to move the Republican Party to the right by making it practically impossible for moderate party members to run successful campaigns. Once the RINOs were hunted into near extinction, the Grand Old Party (GOP) would become the party of its most conservative members. Rosenwald concludes that the movement which united conservative media and politics was largely successful. However, he is not so sure that it succeeded in undermining American democracy and, if it has, whether the success it has achieved will be long lasting.
Profit mattered but winning the “culture war” counted for as much if not more than Rosenwald cares to consider.
Talk Radio’s America makes for compelling story telling, but there are gaps in the story that need to be addressed. Although it is largely accurate, media historians will wince at some of the inaccuracies. For example, early in his book, Rosenwald makes the inaccurate assertion that FM radio was “introduced in 1961,” presenting a fresh challenge to an AM radio system barely surviving the onslaught of television. In fact, FM radio had been around since the 1930s and by 1940 was already demonstrating its superior quality in a network of five model stations. Despite attempts by AM radio station owners, led by the legendary David Sarnoff of RCA, to eliminate the challenger, FM persisted. By 1961, AM owners had already given up the battle to destroy the competition and, instead, had begun to buy up FM stations to expand their programming and to duplicate their own AM fare with a better signal. Moreover, in his effort to make it appear that the rise of right-wing talk radio had much more to do with profit than politics, Rosenwald minimizes the political motivations of radio station ownership, along with other media executives, and corporate America as a whole, including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Profit mattered but winning the “culture war” counted for as much if not more than Rosenwald cares to consider. Finally, it is not enough to argue that liberals failed because they did not share the media skills of their more adept conservative media counterparts. With right-wing owners controlling more of the media, Democrats lacked the easy access that conservatives enjoyed. They also represented constituencies that were more diverse, sociologically and politically, making it difficult to unify the liberal base. Shortcomings aside, Talk Radio’s America goes a long way to documenting how an old medium helped create a new politics in the United States and paved the way for Donald Trump’s presidency.
Vincent Mosco is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada, where he held the Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society. His most recent book is The Smart City in a Digital World (London, U.K.: Emerald, 2019).