Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio

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This is excerpt No. 30 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Over America, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

We looked at many explanations of why liberals have failed to succeed in talk radio, while conservatives dominate the medium. In this excerpt, we present two of the most cogent explanations we found.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says liberals rely too much on National Public Radio. We add that when you rely on federal subsidies rather than the marketplace for your support, those federal subsidies become a crutch or even a straitjacket.

And talk show host Neal Boortz notes that liberals fare best in places where they can state their opinions without direct confrontation from their audience. For better or worse, radio is the most intimate of the alternative media, providing direct contact with listeners. For conservatives, that’s better, for liberals that’s worse. 

Why Liberals Fail on Talk Radio: Overreliance on NPR

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told Inside Talk Radio author Peter Laufer that part of the problem is that the Left has abandoned talk radio. “I think there is a sense in the liberal community that they have their radio in National Public Radio, that that belongs to them.” And, at this time (1995), Lynn was not impressed with NPR:

I suppose if you like to hear six-minute pieces about ballet on radio, which frankly has never turned me on, if you like that, then NPR is just for you. I don’t think NPR is as innovative as it could be. It has enough staff to do almost any damn thing it wants, yet it doesn’t produce extraordinary investigative pieces…. But liberals still think if they can listen to it, they’ll get their side of the news. I don’t think there’s much evidence of that. I think increasingly even the commentators on National Public Radio are moderate to conservative.

Our reaction: Forget his very last sentence, and Lynn’s point about overreliance on NPR is valid. That’s what happens when you rely on federal subsidies rather than the marketplace for your support – federal subsidies become a crutch. Maybe even more of a straitjacket. Rush can say anything he wants, but the NPR folks have to maintain some semblance of objectivity. That’s why even so many liberals find NPR to be disappointing.

It’s the same situation that the Democrats face with another alternative media: They’ve relied on the labor unions and government agency funding for so long that they’ve never developed the potential of direct mail fundraising the way Republicans have. The Republicans had to – there was no equivalent of the labor unions on the Right. For the Democrats, the unions became a crutch, to their long-term detriment.

Why Liberals Fail: They Are Too Insulated to Succeed in Talk Radio 

One of the most intriguing analyses comes from Neal Boortz, a libertarian/conservative talk show host on Cox Radio. We’re going to quote extensively from his article in Talkers Magazine, “Why liberals fail in the talk business.”

Boortz begins by conceding that liberals obviously thrive in other media – as editorialists, columnists, reporters, TV anchors and reporters, and elsewhere. “So,” he asks, “why do liberals thrive – even dominate – in these areas while they just can’t make the grade on talk radio? The answer? One word. Insulation. They are protected and isolated from the readers, viewers, and listeners.”

Boortz explains:

A leftist editorialist can write his piece, see it published, and then retreat into the safety of his office surrounded by his like-thinking colleagues who proceed to slap him on the back for a job well done. The columnist doesn’t have to discuss the contents of his column, his philosophical base, or his ideas with the readers. He doesn’t have to defend his logic or substantiate his position. He writes, they read, and that’s about as far as the interaction goes. He is, if he desires it, completely insulated from his readers. Ditto for TV anchors, reporters, and commentators.

It is this ability to avoid direct, in-your-face interaction with readers and listeners that protects leftists in the media….

Liberals thrive when the communication of ideas goes only one way. Open a dialogue and they wither. The liberal ideology is, after all, based principally on emotion. Logic and fact are to the liberal what salt is to the slug…. If [a dialogue] happens, liberals are going to come out on the worse end.

That brings us to talk radio and the failure of liberals in this medium. Sadly, for the Left, you just can’t do commercially successful talk radio while seeking to avoid interaction with your listeners. They’re there and they must be engaged. The talk show host presents an idea, states a position, and then sits there waiting for the telephone calls to begin.

Examples: Tom Daschle can slam Bush’s tax cut proposals because they favor the rich. He doesn’t have to respond to a housewife from North Zulch, Texas asking him if he happens to know what percentage of all income taxes is paid by the top 1 percent of income earners. Let a liberal talk show host adopt the Daschle line, and the well-informed North Zulch matron becomes a telephone threat. Dick Gephardt can brag that the majority of Americans aren’t concerned about a tax cut. Try and see if you can get through to tell him that’s no surprise, since his party has managed to free the majority of Americans from any real income tax liability at all. Gephardt can hide from the question, the talk show host can’t.

So, here comes the hot shot liberal ready to do his talk show. The 50,000-watt signal carries his leftist ideas to the listeners. The phone lines carry the listener rebuttals right back to him. Fact overwhelms emotion, logic trumps feelings, and the talk lefty starts to sputter and lose credibility. Without some unique “schtict” to sustain him, he’s soon gone, the victim of pitiful ratings.

Boortz ends with a note of consolation, however: “Despair not, my leftist friends. There will always be jobs out there for you…. There’s always that career journey into a world where logic, fact, and common sense have no place at all – you could always become a professor at some liberal arts college.”

Our reaction: Whew! We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, which is why we let him explain it to you at length.

The above statements provide a partial explanation for the dearth of liberal hosts on talk radio, though Neal Boortz’s comments seem especially to the point. Boortz’s analysis also explains why liberals fare better on cable TV talk shows, since most of those – while appearing on an alternative medium – still remain isolated from their viewers in the way Boortz describes. For better or worse, radio is the most intimate of the alternative media. For conservatives, that’s better, for liberals that’s worse.

What surprised us was the nearly unanimous opinion that there’s some inherent reason why liberals don’t do well on talk radio, and (the supposition goes) never will. You’d expect the conservatives we quoted to say something like that, but the liberals were equally damning of their colleagues.

America’s Right Turn serialization:

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