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Liberal Talk Radio? An Idea Whose Time Has Not Yet Come

The modern campaign unfolds across a range of different media platforms and outlets. This past week, the Democratic candidates learned about radio. NPR hosted the first radio-only presidential debate since 1948 and at least one of the candidates showed how…
January 9, 2004

The modern campaign unfolds across a range of different media platforms and outlets. This past week, the Democratic candidates learned about radio. NPR hosted the first radio-only presidential debate since 1948 and at least one of the candidates showed how little he understood the medium. In what may be the most memorable exchange during the debate, Dennis K. Kucinch held up a pie chart to explain the perceived inadequacies of Howard Dean’s plans for balancing the budget. The announcer interceded to explain to listeners at home, “Congressman Kucinich is holding up a pie chart, which is not truly effective on the radio.” The congressman responded, “Well, it’s effective if Howard can see it.”

One wonders how this exchange might be related to ongoing attempts by liberal Democrats to form their own talk radio network to combat the growing power of right wing talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. Four of the five biggest talk show radio audiences belong to conservative broadcasters and Clear Channel has built up the largest national radio network on the backs of such right wing programs.

Earlier this week, at about the same time Democrats were bringing visual aids to a radio-only debate, the Boston Globe ran a story about Mark Walsh, former AOL executive and former technology director to the Democratic party, who is trying to form a left-wing talk show network, which would include many high profile liberal activists among its key participants. Long time observers of the broadcast industry question whether such a plan will work: right wing talk took years to develop, building up from grassroots efforts in local markets, before it could become a national phenomenon. Except for NPR and Pacifica, the left has shown little or no interest in radio as a medium, has not built up personalities who understand how to communicate their ideas through this channel, has not cultivated listeners who are interested in their ideas, and has not developed a rhetorical style engaging and entertaining enough to work in these markets.

Radio has become so closely associated with the right that it is hard to remember that in the 1960s, the counterculture discovered “people’s radio” as an outlet for ideas that they could not get onto television, creating programs focused around a range of identity politics and antiwar movements. Most of the stations which emerged during that period have disappeared in the intervening decades. Today, the most successful attempts to present a left wing perspective through radio have come not through broadcast but via the internet. For example, OutrageRadio.com launched last year and has already built up an archive on interesting programs dealing with many different social policy topics. While it is unlikely to reach the same scale audiences as drive time broadcast radio, it may represent a useful training ground for the next generation of liberal broadcasters.

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