How did Limbaugh change the radio business? How did the conservative opinion media come to be? Who were the left‐wing talk radio hosts while Rush Limbaugh was gaining more and more listeners? Is NPR political advocacy media? What is media bias? Who is Howard Stern and what is “guy talk”? Why are liberal podcasts succeeding in the Trump era?
Conservative talk radio has become an assumed presence in American media and politics, but in this manifestation it is only about three decades old. Historian Brian Rosenwald joins the show to discuss his latest book, Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party that Took Over the United States, which explores the rise of entertainers like Rush Limbaugh from the margins to having incredible influence in national politics. That surprising story has implications for other media, including the future of podcasting, which is allowing previously marginalized voices, from socialists to libertarians, to have greater voice, for good or for ill.
00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome to building tomorrow, a show about how tech and innovation are making the world a better place. And building tomorrow is actually one of those innovations. As a podcast, we’re part of a new mass media form one that promises to disrupt American culture and politics in profound ways over the next several decades, but we don’t have to approach the question of what that world looks like blind, or might look like. Podcasts are not obviously the first ever disruptive new media. And so I though I’d bring on the fellow Historian who specializes in studying how on the last new media forms changed America, and among other things, give us Donald Trump. That Media was talk radio, and the historian is Dr. Brian Rosenwald, the co editor‐in‐chief of made by history, the daily Washington Post history section. His new book is talk radio’s America, how an industry took over a political party that took over the United States. Welcome to the show Brian.
00:57 Brian Rosenwald: Hey, I’m happy to do it.
00:58 Paul Matzko: So maybe to help our listeners understand just how dramatic of a change talk radio was in the late 80s and 90s. What was the media landscape before that? In the 70s, early 80s, if you’re a conservative looking for conservative voices on the radio, what were you gonna find pre‐talk radio?
01:17 Brian Rosenwald: So, let me get myself in trouble with our colleagues in the world of history. There’s stories we’re not supposed to talk about counterfactuals, things that might have been different. Well, if this happened, then this would have happened because at the end of they no one knows, but I’m pretty sure that if Rush Limbaugh never comes along, that We don’t get something that sounds like this in that moment. It might have come along later, but I’m not sure that we get it in the late ‘80s, early 90s. What the media was before then was something… First of all, AM radio is in bad shape. AM radio was struggling because FM radio sounds better for music and music is migrating to FM, and they have these path‐breaking rock stations that break out in the ‘60s and ‘70s on FM and with music. Because music sounds better, listeners are going to FM, and as listeners go to FM, so does the advertising dollars and that’s not good when you’re a business.
02:14 Brian Rosenwald: So, AM radio needs something different, and talk radio to that point, it goes back to 1960 in LA is the first all talk station. But it’s something that sounds very different. The paradigms are people like Larry King overnight on the Mutual Broadcasting System. Mutual doesn’t even exist anymore. So it tells you how long ago it was, but it’s an interview‐based program where a lot of the host actually lean left. But you don’t hear their perspective. Larry King might interview a news maker and then he turns around and he might be talking to a caller about the Abominable Snowman in a 3 o’clock hour or UFOs or whatever interesting callers came along to make for a good show.
02:55 Brian Rosenwald: And the local stars were people like guy named Michael Jackson, who I feel bad, I’ve been saying in interviews that he was British, he’s South African. And I’m not talking about, for everyone out there saying, “Oh wait a second, the singer?” No, no, no, I don’t mean the guy could moonwalk. I’m talking about the guy who… It was a South African gentleman who was left of center, but it was a very interview‐based programing, he interviewed presidents, he interviewed mobsters. He once asked a mobster about where he bodies were buried, very uncomfortably. It was a very big star for decades in LA.
03:26 Brian Rosenwald: And these guys fit the axiom that all talk radio to be successful except overnight had to be local, but it was this kind of milk a toast interview‐based format, color‐based format where you really didn’t hear the opinions of the hosts. One of the other stars was a guy in New York by the name of Barry Farber and Barry Farber was every bit as conservative as Rush Limbaugh was and when Limbaugh came along, Farber said to himself, he said, “Barry, why didn’t you think of that?” ‘Cause it just never would have occurred to him to criticize the present. I think he told me and this is one of my favorite lines, I picked up in hundreds of interviews, he said, “The one thing I didn’t want in a guest was someone who couldn’t ad lib a belt after a Bulgarian wedding,” or something like that.
04:11 Brian Rosenwald: Just a hysterical way of phrasing it, but he was basically saying I just couldn’t bore people, and those guys were the paradigms. And so this is the radio landscape and the broader media landscape, people forget that this is only three decades ago, but the media was three broadcast nightly news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS, CNN in 1988 is like eight, maybe, I always forget, they started 79 or 80, but it’s eight or nine years old. It’s pretty focused on hard news and it’s not a force politically, it has reshaped things a little bit, because we now have a 24‐hour new cycle, right?
04:51 Brian Rosenwald: If it used to be something happened at noon, if it didn’t rise to the level, the broadcast networks interrupting the daytime soap operas, it just sort of waited for the nightly news cast.
05:00 Paul Matzko: But that’s late too, there are [05:02] ____ first gulf war, it’s not really till the 90s they become a big force.
05:06 Brian Rosenwald: Right, that’s sort of what I’m saying. It’s more of the Clarence Thomas series and the gulf war in the early ‘90s where we start to really get this moment of, “Hey, the news now happens in real time,” and that’s actually… You set me up for a nice segue here. Because conservatives are frustrated because this media is dominated by CNN, those three broadcast networks, the New York Time, s The Washing Post, and maybe the Wall Street Journal and Walter Crone used to say famously and that’s the way it is. That’s how he closed his newscast and Laura Ingraham, the talk radio hostess told the story of how her father used to say back to the TV. No, it’s not Will.
05:42 Brian Rosenwald: Expressing your frustration where conservatives feel like their viewpoints are not represented, they feel like the issues they care about are not being covered, they feel like the questions being asked are not what they care about, and they see their values as kind of being marginalized in this world. And the best example happened across an interview. This is a great example of how you research talk radio. The Library of Congress started an archive in 2005 and they only really record one show a week, and you actually have to go the library to listen to these ships, they record them off the internet, but we have these copyright laws that say that they can’t then put them on like a web server. She actually have to sit there on a desktop computer, plugged to listen.
06:19 Paul Matzko: Well, I happened to listen to one show that G. Gordon Liddy did. And G. Gordon Liddy, for the younger listeners was one of the guys who became infamous from Watergate and then had a sort of second life after he gets out of prison, in the 90s, he becomes a pretty big nationally syndicated talk radio host. He went by the moniker The G‐Man. And he’d talk about how many different ways, you know, how to kill someone, you know, he was very interesting, entertaining, and he was pretty… He was eclipsed by the 2000s by the Sean Hannitys of the world. But for a while in the 90s, he’s probably the second biggest nationally syndicated conservative host. And I happened to cross this interview he did with… He had a guest on and then were taking callers. And this caller calls up and says, “You know, the moment that I understood media bias was the go for. I would listen to Norman Schwarzkopf’s press conferences which, you know, are being aired on radio stations, they’re being aired on CNN and people are seeing them in total.” And he said, “Then I watched the nightly news and what they’d be saying about what Schwarzkopf said was not what I took away from it. It wasn’t what I said it was because… I said, ‘Where do these people get this?’ It was just dripping with bias.” And that was how a lot of conservatives felt.
07:31 Brian Rosenwald: And Rush Limbaugh comes along, and even for conservatives who didn’t think that there was media bias, they say, “My god, this is what conservative media sounds like.” This is what media from my values and my judgments and my standpoint and my world view sounds like. And it’s refreshing to them, they feel represented. And Limbaugh, it’s important to note, Limbaugh sets out to be an entertainer. He’s a radio guy. He had been a DJ, you know, I think he’s fired four times as a DJ in the 70s. He’s spinning Elton John records and between it, he’s using some of the same shtick he uses in his talk show. He’s talkin’ about broadcasting excellence and with talent on loan from God and, you know, that kind of stuff. And he’s spinning records and he keeps getting fired because he had one very big flaw as a DJ, which was he didn’t particularly like to listen to his bosses and he likes stunts, he was the kinda guy who’s calling the pizza place and ordering 100 pizzas to be sent to the competitor’s station. You know, that kind of hijinks.
08:34 Brian Rosenwald: And he takes the fun of that and applies it to a talk show. He’s having a great time. He’s doing parodies, he’s got nicknames, he’s definitely crossing boundaries at times, but he’s just… Everything is with a wink and a nod, it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s unexpected, no one knows what he’s gonna say from day to day except to expect the unexpected. And yes, it’s conservative because that’s the values that he picked up at the dinner table from his father years earlier in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and he… But he’s melding that with the entertainment and the hijinks of a DJ. It’s… You know, I use the same examples, I try to rotate them when I’m talking to audiences ’cause there’s so many of them, they’re great but instead of warning about the perils of communism, and remember he goes on the air ’88 nationally, the Cold War is still a thing although it’s winding down, he talks about Gorbasms, which is the way the left and the mainstream media react when somebody brings up Mikhail Gorbachev. And Gorbasms have their own theme song and their theme song is the imperial march from Star Wars, Darth Vader’s music, because he’s signaling that Gorbachev is evil, communism is evil, and my God, these people are making fools of themselves, falling all over themselves to praise Gorbachev. And this is how he talks about the evils of communism.
09:53 Brian Rosenwald: Or he has wilderness updates where they’re signaled by the playing of Andy Williams Born Free that’s overlaid with mortar blasts and shotgun sounds and squawking animals and it was Limbaugh’s way to make fun of environmentalists. It was… He would then read this new story that he picked out about how ridiculous they were being. And this is right before like the Spotted Elk controversy and things like that, you know, it fits. Or, I’ll give you one last example ’cause this stuff is fun. He does this mini‐series thing. And again, I feel like half the time when I’m telling these stories, that half of the audience is like, “Well, what the hell is this guy talking about?” You know, this is like ancient history in a world that… Where everybody’s listening to things digitally in podcasts like this. But it used to be that on your three networks, when I was a kid, they would hype endlessly these mini‐series, something where it would be like two hours on Sunday night or maybe three, I think it was like 8:00 to 11:00 Sunday night usually, like, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday.
10:53 Brian Rosenwald: And Limbaugh does this teaser for one called Gulf War One. And it is, basically, they had this big theatrical music at the beginning and you would have like sort of a pre‐credit sequence and then it would go into this list and it would have this really uplifting music and theatrical music and it would list the cast. And Limbaugh does this whole cast and it’s definitely got a political perspective. Every conservative being cast is played by a tough manly actor or a leading gorgeous starlet. Limbaugh, I think was played by Sylvester Stallone and I think Limbaugh played like Norman Schwarzkopf or something like that, you know, but the casting was funny. He had… Betty White was Barbara Bush. I mean, Ringo Starr was Yasser Arafat and James Earl Jones was Colin Powell. Like, and I found that this trailer… I think I found it on a cassette in an archive somewhere but like Limbaugh was playing it back on like an anniversary show and he’s like, “I can’t believe we did this.” He’d even forgotten that he had done something like this.
12:02 Brian Rosenwald: But this is what it was, it was this great show. But what happens is that Limbaugh starts getting these callers and these callers are saying, “Thank god you’re on the air, Rush. We finally have a voice.” All those people who felt marginalized by that media landscape that you were asking me about, are thrilled to get this. And it transforms the entire landscape because a lot of people in radio take away from it that there’s this huge audience that wants conservatism. That are desperate for conservatism and it leads to them making these choices about who to put on the air that leads to… You know, and I don’t wanna truncate the story but there’s no way for me to give the entire book to the audience here without just a monologue but basically that’s how… That’s what triggers the dominoes that start to fall as people in the radio business and then the television business and then the digital world make decisions that are mostly driven by profit and that lead us to the world we are in today, where there is tons of conservative opinion media that sounds very much like what Limbaugh pioneered.
13:09 Paul Matzko: To kind of transition our conversation a little bit. So we’ve been talking about Rush and he is the king of early talk radio, but one of the bits about the book, which I found most intriguing and there’s more of this in your dissertation than there is in the book, but it’s about how… It’s reminding our audience again, we’re looking back through an era of 20 years, 30 years, of right‐wing dominance in this space. But that’s… It didn’t have to be that way, it wasn’t always that way. And you note in the book that there was, actually as late as ’93 a majority, more than half of talk radio hosts were considered, I don’t know, left‐wing, liberal, Democrat but they weren’t Rush and Hannity, and the people we’ve become familiar with today. So once upon a time, there was left and right‐wing voices who did very well on talk radio, but that… That stopped in the 90s. There was a moment of transition, but by the 2000s, the overall majority of voices in the talk radio space are conservative or right‐wing. So maybe you can describe some of these early left‐wing talk radio hosts, and then explain why does that happen? Why does the right win this space?
14:31 Brian Rosenwald: Well, I don’t think there was ever really strong left‐wing talk, which is to say that there wasn’t a lot of what Rush does on the left that succeeded but what you do have is most hosts who lean left, and you have plenty of local hosts who succeed doing what Rush does on the left. People like Randi Rhodes was the biggest thing in Palm Beach. Somebody told me a story where Rush complained because Rush broadcast… This is after he moved to Florida and he broadcast his show from down there, and he’d get in his car to go home, flip on his station and there’s Randi Rhodes ranting from the left and Rush… They said to Rush, “Well, Rush, we hear your complaint but this is what her ratings are.” And Rush never asked again.
15:15 Brian Rosenwald: She was killing it in the ratings. And there are people like this in a lot of local markets and what happens is, first of all, as they try to find a liberal Rush in the mid‐90s, they tried people like Mario Cuomo and Gary Hart, failed politicians or they were successful, but they had lost their last elections in a lot of cases, and they don’t get… They’re not radio entertainers. One thing that is crucial to radio success, it seems, is that people have some radio training, they have some radio skills. Rush starts out as a DJ, right? Well, a lot of hosts, left, right and center that have been successful, they were DJs first. I think Thom Hartmann who is probably the most successful liberal host out there, started as a country DJ in his teens. That… You get the sense of the medium. Or people start as a legal analyst who would guest with people and then somebody out there heard, a producer or a radio executive heard them and said, “This guy sounds good, let’s give him a show.” And that kind of radio skill is what’s led to success.
16:11 Brian Rosenwald: People like Cuomo would say, “They make a great point”, and then they’d turn around and say, “But on the other hand.” Well, that kind of nuance doesn’t make for a particularly good show. So that happens at the same time that you see all conservative stations start to crop up, starting in places like Seattle and San Francisco and as people experiment with branding stations as all conservative, and as those stations do well, the thing I heard over and over again from radio executives was, “Look, we’re not the most creative lot, we’re lemmings. We sort of follow where people are going.” ‘Cause the first question your boss is gonna ask you, when you try a new format or you say, “I wanna switch this station to this format”, is where is that working? Because it’s safe to do something that’s working somewhere else, it’s not safe when you’re over here saying, “Well I’m gonna try this totally different thing. Nobody’s ever done this but I think it’ll work.” Well if that works, great you’re gonna be really successful. But if it flops, you might be out of a job.
17:01 Brian Rosenwald: So you have that element of it and as all conservative stuff starts to succeed, more and more people in the radio business think that’s the key to it, to success in talk radio. And as they do more and more of that, the audience for liberal talk gives up on AM radio. And so by the time you get things like Air America, the vaunted heights network and I could spend an hour telling you why Air America alone failed because there’s so many things that were just indigenous to Air America, that were unique to Air America. But by the time Air America comes along, it needs a massive budget to promote these stations so that the potential listening audience comes back to AM radio, that gives these stations a shot. And Air America makes the same mistake, they… Instead of failed politicians, they tried people like Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, people who you say, “Oh my God, those people are funny. I like them in this world of entertainment.” But if you listen to what they say their mission is, it’s to give the other half of the country a voice. This is the George W. Bush years. It’s to speak for people, it’s to balance the airways. None of which is to put the best show on. And I’ll tell you, we’ve seen the opposite thing happen when you get conservatives who try to do late night comedy, it doesn’t really work.
18:17 Brian Rosenwald: And the reason is that what they hear when they watch The Daily Show or they watch Stephen Colbert is something nastier and more snarky, and more politically driven than what I think it actually is. And I think this is what happens to the left on talk radio. What they’re trying to imitate is what they hear, but what they’re hearing is not what actually is happening, if that makes sense.
18:39 Paul Matzko: Right, right.
18:39 Brian Rosenwald: What the show actually is.
18:40 Paul Matzko: Or what their listeners are hearing. Right. Yeah.
18:43 Brian Rosenwald: Right. Yeah. They’re not trying to put on the best show. Okay, so that’s one big, big, big piece of this. For liberal radio to succeed by the 2000s, you need someone who’s gonna be like a liberal Limbaugh to come along, with that level of talent, who can catalyze every show on a station. What do I mean by that? I mean that people are tuning in before that person’s show, sort of anticipating that, or people who are sticking with the station afterwards, they might leave their radio on. So that he’s giving ratings to the shows before him and after him. And that people are hearing ads for another show and they might say, “Hey, I might give this a shot ’cause I like the station.” And you need that. And you need promotional budgets and all kinds of things. And you need hosts who really get what they’re doing. And that’s where you are in the early 2000s. But there is another element of this. Any time you… You ask like 50% of the people in the radio business, “Why hasn’t liberal radio succeeded?” And they get very angry at the question. They say, “The premise is wrong.” They say, “We have liberal radio, it’s called NPR.”
19:43 Paul Matzko: Right. Right. Right.
19:44 Brian Rosenwald: And what they… And on one level, they’re right. And on one level, they’re wrong. And where they’re wrong is that NPR, and the other formats I’m about to mention, do not try to be Rush Limbaugh. They are not political advocacy media. And writing them off as the liberal talk radio, or depicting them that way, skews our politics, because there’s one side that has a real big ideological megaphone that’s affecting policy battles, and elections and things, and the other side doesn’t have that. And so you have a very skewed landscape, if you think, “Well, the mainstream media, this conservative media is balanced.” Rush used to say, “I am equal time, because I’m balancing the mainstream media.” And yes, media bias is a thing. I know that’s gonna shock conservative listeners out there who are gonna say, “Oh my God, a liberal academic finally admits it.” I hear you. But that media bias is what I was talking about earlier, which is to say that the story selection is skewed by kind of the fact that most journalists come from a liberal cultural world.
20:54 Brian Rosenwald: They are surrounded by like‐minded people, what they think is news is influenced by that, what questions they ask are influenced by that. So, it’s not the equivalent. But…
21:04 Paul Matzko: But there’s, yeah, there’s this stage between unconscious bias that shows… The fact that most journalists and mainstream media outlets are Democrats or are on the left, and that affects what stories they choose to tell and investigate. But there’s a difference between subconscious, or unconscious bias, and intentional conscious bias, like using the platform explicitly to advance a set of ideological goals. So your point’s well taken. Yeah.
21:32 Brian Rosenwald: So, yes, that’s absolutely true. And so then your audience is out there probably saying, “Well, why is this guy saying that that answer is partly right then?” And the answer is that, again, this comes back to the number one thing that you need to understand about talk radio. If I was giving a quiz to students, the answer I’d want is: It’s a business. And from a business standpoint, you have a lot of programing, spoken word programming, that appeals to what I have taken to calling the three legs of a democratic electoral coalition. So, if you picture one of those three‐legged stools that you’ll see sometimes, there are sort of three pillars to the modern, what I call the Obama Democratic Coalition. There are minority voters, and those voters are served by very strong, very popular, what we call either urban or African‐American talk radio formats, or Latino talk radio formats that are very popular, that do very well, but that are a little bit less political.
22:31 Brian Rosenwald: They talk about politics, they can be political, but they’re also lifestyle conversations about their communities. Some of the urban or African‐American talk radio have some religious programming on there as well. They talk about the issues confronting urban communities. It’s a little bit less of the national politics thing. So then the second leg of that stool is young voters. Well, there’s this thing that we call guy talk. And one thing we haven’t talked about at all is the other transcendent talent of this radio generation with Limbaugh, and that is Howard Stern, and he does the guy talk thing. It is occasionally political, especially now much more so I think than in his terrestrial radio days, he does a decent amount of national politics, but he also can be talking about all sorts of sexual things that we won’t get into, and pushing boundaries that got his stations when he was on terrestrial radio in trouble with the FCC all the time.
23:27 Brian Rosenwald: And this format is certainly not Limbaugh‐esque, it’s not political, but it appeals to young listeners, young demographics who might otherwise be politically looking for liberal talk. And then the third pillar of this sort of Democrat Coalition is very highly educated, suburban professional types, and urban professional types, and they’re listening to NPR. NPR is news, it attempts to provide balance. They’ll have conservative guests, they’ll have liberal guests, but it’s coming from that cultural perspective. And so what happens is there just isn’t the same market that there was in 1988 for conservatives who felt marginalized, who felt like they didn’t have a voice. You don’t get that except in two moments. It’s not a coincidence that Air America comes along in 2004 at the same moment that some initiative called Democracy Radio is taking Ed Schultz and Stephanie Miller, who would both end up being pretty successful into national syndication.
24:25 Brian Rosenwald: And that is Democrats feel voiceless. Republicans, after the mid‐term elections in 2002 control both houses of Congress, they control the White House, they control the Supreme Court. And Democrats are really frustrated with the mainstream media over what they felt like was skewed coverage of basically what they saw as a stolen election in 2000, as well as the run‐up to the war in Iraq, where they felt like George Bush is lying and the media is not calling him on it. And so that becomes a very big moment for liberal media. And then we see MSNBC goes liberal not too long thereafter in this moment, recognizing that liberals feel like they’re voiceless and want a voice. And then we’ve seen it in the last couple of years with podcasts, Pod Save America in sort of the center left and things like Chapo Trap House on the very, very far left. But you’re seeing liberal podcasts succeed in the Trump era, why?
25:20 Brian Rosenwald: Because again, think back to 2017. What do liberals feel, they feel scared, they feel marginalized. Republicans control both houses of Congress. You’ve got what most liberals think is an abomination in the White House, who’s a Republican. You’ve got a conservative Supreme Court. You don’t really have the liberal advocacy media where they feel like, “Hey, somebody’s out there feeling the way I feel and expressing it, and I can listen to this and sort of pump my fist, and say, ‘Yeah, you go guy! You give me that voice.’ ”
25:52 Paul Matzko: It makes sense that… And well, in contrast to say in the late 80s, in 2016, while the podcast space is a lot more wide open. In the sense whereas in the 80s, I think as you’ve been pointing us to, if you are a left‐wing nascent talk radio host, you’re a local host and you have an interest in going wider, or going regional, or going national, like a right‐wing host. Well, the problem is you’re competing against… You’re competing for listeners of who have center‐left alternatives, like NPR. And plus, they’re government subsidized to some extent. So, you have competition for those listeners, but on the right, there isn’t. But in the podcast space, well it’s a relatively wide open field. So it makes sense that Chapo Trap House and Pod Save America would have a lot more room for growth versus I guess their corollary 30 years earlier in the late 80s.
26:51 Brian Rosenwald: Yeah, and this is a question I get all the time, both from people, whether they be on Twitter or in interviews or things is: What’s the future of this? And I have to always append my sort of standard buyer beware warning, which is I’m a historian, I’m good at the past. I’m not so good at the future. If I was good at the future, I probably would have realized Donald Trump was gonna get elected President, I would have made some wagers on it in 2015. And instead of doing interviews behind this book, I probably would be on a beach somewhere sipping something nice and enjoying my vacation world that that’s every day of the year. So that’s the warning: Don’t take what I’m saying and go run and put your life savings on it, because that’s never a wise decision. As I promise you, my fantasy teams prove week after week. But the best [27:39] ____…
27:40 Paul Matzko: Poor Eagle’s fans.
27:41 Brian Rosenwald: Out there. I will say that the future of this is I think that the programming that you hear on AM radio, the programming that Rush Limbaugh ushers in that starts on AM radio in 1996 and moves to cable television with Fox News, today is also found in the blogosphere. The market for that program is going to remain robust. I don’t know that it will be on AM radio, because I think the AM radio stick, as it’s known, is in jeopardy. Why do I think that? Because each year, they come out with new cars that are more and more integrated with your phone. Pretty soon, you’re gonna… I think at some point we’re gonna have universal WiFi. Where instead of having to worry about data plans and, “Oh, my cellphone plan just cut out there. We have a blank, or an area with no good coverage, so my podcast just kind of blipped.” Any of that kind of stuff, it’s all gonna go away.
28:39 Brian Rosenwald: And people, the problem with terrestrial radio in this world is people don’t wanna listen to like 22 minutes an hour of commercials. We’re a DVR world. And so people are going to maybe revolt against AM radio. How many people under the age of 30 are listening to the AM radio every week? I think it’s less than people over 60 and probably significantly. So I think that AM radio as a delivery mechanism might be in jeopardy. But the content is going to flourish, because there’s a market for it. One reason that the first two all conservative stations succeed, and there were stations earlier that were all conservative maybe that were not branded that way. But the first two stations branded as all conservative talk succeed in Seattle and San Francisco, not exactly bastions of conservatism. And the reason is that in a major markets like that, you only need 3% to 5% of the audience to be successful. And that’s a reminder that to have a really great podcast, you need a fraction of the national electorate, a fraction of people who care about politics.
29:41 Brian Rosenwald: And young voters, even if you look at the polls, they show what? Somewhere between 60% and 70% of young voters lean left, and even young conservatives tend to lean differently than their elders on issues like gay rights, or climate change, things like that. So there are definitely people out there though that are conservative. It might be a slightly different flavor of conservatism, but that third of the electorate under the age of 40 probably don’t feel as comfortable airing their views with their peers, ’cause they’re worried about being accused of, “Well, how can you be a Republican in the Trump era? That’s racist, that’s this, that’s that.” Or, “How dare you say this? You want people to die from not having healthcare.” We’ve all heard the lines of thinking. Well, what conservative podcast, people like Ben Shapiro, give them is a feeling where, “Hey, I can go somewhere. This is like my safe space. I can go somewhere where someone’s gonna say what I think and no one’s gonna accuse me of anything for listening to that.”
30:42 Brian Rosenwald: So I think there’s gonna be a market for that. But where podcasting changes everything, is I think it’s gonna leave us with a much more diverse spoken word landscape than what happened with AM radio, and the reason for this is simple. One reason that conservative radio succeeds and liberal radio doesn’t, is that there is something known as a 50,000 watt stick. And what that is, or we call them flamethrower stations. The best way I know to explain this to audiences is, when I was a kid, I’m a huge Philadelphia Phillies fan, which breaks my heart on almost a yearly basis, but when I was a kid, we’d take vacations and we’d go all the way… We go up to Maine, we’d go down to North Carolina. And at night, if you went out in the car and you flipped on the radio, you could hear the 50,000 watt Philadelphia station that carried the Phillies games, and listen to them on the radio, because the signal was so strong. But there’s a finite number of those stations, there’s only a couple hundred of them.
31:41 Brian Rosenwald: And what happens is as conservative radio starts to succeed in the 90s, they lock those stations down. So that when Air America comes along, a lot of these big conglomerates own clusters of stations in a city. So they might own six stations. They say, “Let’s put Air America on one of those stations.” But their number one station in that market might be a conservative talk station. And that station, therefore, it has the best signal, it’s heard all throughout the area. It doesn’t cut out, because you went one mile and oops, there goes the station. It’s cutting out, all you hear is static. And they get the most promotional dollars, because if you were a company, where would you put your promotional dollars? Behind your biggest money maker, right? It’s not gonna be that product that sells five a week. And so, those stations get locked down with conservative talk. Well, in podcasting there’s no such thing as a 50,000 watt station, right?
32:39 Brian Rosenwald: Right, right. If you have a decent enough microphone that you get for $100 bucks on the internet, $200 bucks, whatever it is, if you have a good pair of headphones, you have some recording software, and you watched a few YouTube videos on how to produce audio or edit audio, you can do a podcast. And if your podcast is pretty good, it’s a lot like what happened for Rush Limbaugh in the late 80s, because before he gets on those 50,000 watt stations, he’s on outlier stations, stations that are outside of the major metro areas, or he might be on some small station based in some ex urba of St. Louis or Charlotte or whatever, 50 miles outside of the city that’s kind of a scratchy station. But he’s so good that he’s drawing listeners and that eventually puts him on those bigger stations. Well, if you’re already that good on a podcast, if you’re saying what people wanna hear, if you’re entertaining them, if you’re engaging them, if you’re making their runs easier.
33:32 Brian Rosenwald: Instead of looking at the clock on the treadmill, they’re engaged with what you’re saying, then you’re gonna succeed in this world. And podcasting enables it. And not just for the left, but also for the center which has struggled a lot. I think they sort of cultivate opinion media because, let’s face it, a lot of people say, “Well, centrism, there’s no passion there. Where is the passion in that?” But if you did something good in the center that reached an audience, you can succeed commercially. So I think that the podcast world is gonna be more ideologically diverse. I think you’re starting to see some of the political impact and we didn’t really talk about those much here, but you’re starting to see some of the same impacts on the left as you’ve seen on the right over the past three decades, because of these podcasts, where these podcasts are saying, “That Democratic behavior is absolutely unacceptable, they are selling you out, call your senator, tell them to get up and fight, damn it.” That kind of passion, you’re starting to get that. And social media is doing some of the same things. So you’re gonna start to see that impact, but I think you’re gonna see a much more diverse spoken word world. However, I think that’s a good thing.
34:40 Paul Matzko: It should be clear from my conversation with Brian and very much so if you read the book that the medium of talk radio plays a vital role in ensuring Republican political dominance from the mid-‘90s until today, especially on the local and state level to a lesser extent on the federal level. But it may also be the death of GOP electoral fortunes in the future. That’s kind of the irony of talk radio. It’s both key to its success and could be the key to its decline, as a successful party on the federal level. That’s what talk radio does, it’s the key, the GOP assent in the 90s, aughts, and 10s, but it’s become one of its fatal flaws, forcing it into policy stances that are broadly unpopular, selecting candidates that are unelectable in contested districts. So talk radio gave us Donald Trump in 2016 and the blue wave in 2018. That’s the power that a niche media form can have. As you heard Brian say, only 3%-5% of listeners in San Francisco were needed to build this successful, all conservative, all day talk show channel in that area that exercises real power in on politics across the local, state, and federal levels.
35:55 Paul Matzko: Podcasts have some of those same advantages that talk radio once enjoyed. People don’t feel a sense of intimate connection to the TV network anchor doing the nightly news at 6:30. It’s someone you might respect, or look up to, or admire I suppose, in some abstract sense, but not someone you feel that sense of intimate connection, somebody you wanna have a beer with after work. People do feel that way towards talk radio hosts, or they have since the late ‘80s. Rush Limbaugh, people like him who are expert at exploiting that sense of intimacy. The same thing can be true of podcast, they’re more like talk radio than they are like television. Think about it this way, podcast hosts are now routinely selling out auditoriums across the country to do live podcast shows. Again, that’s something you don’t do with TV network anchors. They don’t have live audiences watching them give th. Nightly news, It’s a very different relationship. And podcasts have that same advantage as a new media form. Under‐represented voices are getting a hearing because of podcast, just like under‐represented voices in the ‘80s got a hearing because of talk radio, and you heard Brian talked about this. That certain set of conservatives in the 1980s didn’t hear people like them, didn’t see people like them on the TV, or hear people like them advancing their points of view on radio.
37:17 Paul Matzko: So I think there are some really clear and interesting lessons we can take from the history of talk radio, and apply to podcasting, both now and what podcasting looks like in the future, and how it’s going to affect the next 10, 20, 30 years of American politics. Thanks for listening, Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Building Tomorrow, please subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.