Politics & Policy

Now You’re Talking

Political talk radio is a vital part of 21st-century democracy.

Nationally syndicated talk radio is entering an era of explosive growth. This development will deliver great benefits — not just for conservatives but for the journalism profession, for the government, for Barack Obama, and for the country. Ratings for political talk are surging, partly because my colleagues and I are attracting new listeners and partly because the old ones are being counted more accurately. One reason for the latter is Arbitron’s move to a much more precise audience-measurement system. “Peoplemeters” — passive electronic sensors that capture every radio signal the participant encounters during his or her day — are replacing the old diary system, which many conservative broadcasters thought underreported our audience of higher-educated, higher-income listeners who did not have the time to write down everything they listened to.

In an age of fractured media, the new Peoplemeter-driven data tell advertisers who need to reach business owners, professionals, married couples with children, and “influencers” generally, where they can find them. These folks are listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the titans of the industry; to my colleagues and me at the Salem Radio Network — Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Michael Medved, Albert Mohler, and Janet Parshall; and to Glenn Beck, Neal Boortz, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Dennis Miller.

As a result, the revenue picture for syndicated talk is better than that of any other radio format, with the possible exception of sports talk. And broadcast journalists on radio have loyal audiences that they can bring to other media. Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have been tremendous successes on cable television, and we can expect more of the established hosts, as well as new ones from the rising generation — watch Guy Benson on Chicago’s WIND — to expand their reach by crossing over. More books like Michael Medved’s The Ten Big Lies About America will sell in huge numbers, and more talk hosts will write for print and online publications.

#ad#And even though we work with a technology that’s nearly a century old, the advent of new media is helping us, not hurting. The explosion in listening on demand via podcasts has made talk hosts available to entirely new audiences who could not be in their cars when the shows were broadcast. With nearly a million downloads of my shows every month, the reach of my programming is much vaster than I had ever imagined it could get. As use of devices like the iPhone spreads through the population, so will the demand for quality, informed, and entertaining programming.

The cliché is true: It’s all about the content. And good talk radio is the best broadcast content available today, providing a viewpoint and a depth of analysis that are increasingly hard to find elsewhere. Nearly half of the country voted for John McCain, but where are they supposed to go for news, and especially for informed criticism of the path the dominant D.C. Democrats are taking? To the New York Times, PBS, NPR, or Newsweek? Talk radio provides a solution, which is why instead of just complaining about the mainstream media, we are starting to replace them.

Early evidence of the rising tide of listeners began appearing last fall. Salem’s new talk station in New York City, AM 970 WNYM, debuted in August and has burst out of the blocks with a quarter million listeners. Audience growth in more conservative parts of the country is even stronger. The first complete “book” of ratings since Obama’s inauguration won’t be in for a few more weeks, but some early data points suggest that program directors at talk stations will be very happy indeed:

‐Michael Medved’s Sarasota audience grew by 83 percent over the previous survey. It was up 75 percent in Tampa Bay.

‐Across the country in San Diego, the Salem Radio Network’s 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. line-up on KCBQ reached its highest level in the five years we have been programmed there.

‐Dennis Prager’s audience on Denver’s KNUS soared 47 percent. In our “money demo” (the people our advertisers most want to reach, aged 35 to 64), my KNUS audience rose by 70 percent. In Minneapolis, the same demo shot up 113 percent for me. In Honolulu, Michael’s audience for the same key age group listening to KHNR was up a spectacular 150 percent.

‐Salem’s owned-and-operated talk stations have seen year-to-year growth in total audience of more than 20 percent. Some stations in key markets, like Chicago’s WIND, are up more than 60 percent.

We are optimistic that these trends have accelerated in the first quarter of 2009, the data for which will begin to be available in late April. In the most important measure for the bottom line, ad revenue, our sales are strong, and we expect them to get stronger still as the advertising world recognizes that the best value in major-market advertising is talk radio, which delivers the best audience for the least cost.

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IT’S NOT JUST TALK

This sort of growth in audience and revenue is not automatic; it requires quality programming and hard work. Rush and Sean are examples of successful professionals who have not rested on their laurels but continue to build new elements and new approaches into their shows. In the controversy surrounding Rush’s recent speech to CPAC, few observers paused to ask the key question: Why would he bother to address in person an audience that, even with cable viewers added in, is dwarfed by his daily listenership? The answer: First of all, he has a passionate belief in conservative principles, and second, he saw an opportunity to expand his audience by energizing old friends and appealing to new ones who might never have heard his show because of mistaken preconceptions or simple problems of schedule. Rush was working — hard — at CPAC, and that work ethic is very common among the most successful hosts.

Most of us do the same thing in different ways. We are very much aware that every day some listeners are sampling our product for the first time, brought there by a deep concern that MSM is in the bag for the popular new president whose path to victory it smoothed by abandoning every standard of political journalism that was established in the past century. The MSM’s fawning coverage of President Obama has left even many of his supporters wondering where they can turn for a useful dose of perspective and constructive criticism. There are millions of moderate Democrats, including those who voted first for Hillary and then only reluctantly for Obama, who no more trust the MSM to report on the administration than conservatives do. Every time a major story is reported from the nearly uniform Left-liberal MSM perspective — for example, the AIG bonus “scandal” — a door opens for talkers to argue the other side of the case.

#ad#The increasing variety in our programming content is also powering growth. Important figures in and out of government now understand the importance of political talk radio and are eager to join in. Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, I have been pleased to welcome E. J. Dionne and Jonathan Alter to defend the new president’s policies, as well as Christopher Hitchens, Mark Steyn, Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes, and Charles Krauthammer to sharply (though fairly) and at length dissect them. These are just a few of the many key analysts who regularly appear on the program, as do non-partisan, high-profile reporters like Politico’s Mike Allen, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, and the D.C. Examiner’s Byron York.

I’ve had an in-depth conversation with the Post’s Jay Mathews about his important new book on charter schools, Work Hard, Be Nice; a two-hour interview with Thomas Ricks about his book on Iraq, The Gamble; and eight hour-long episodes with the strategist Thomas P. M. Barnett about his new book Great Powers: America and the World After Bush. There’s also a weekly debate between two law-school deans — Erwin Chemerinsky and John Eastman, from the Left and Right respectively — about crucial cases before the Supreme Court. I even found time for an in-depth look at the havoc brought about on many industries by last year’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. When my expert guest, lawyer Gary Wolensky of the California law firm Snell & Wilmer, got hit with an avalanche of e-mailed questions after his appearance, I knew it was a show and a subject with legs, even though almost everyone else in the broadcast media had ignored it. When Consumer Product Safety Commission chair Nancy Nord needed a venue in which to respond to the avalanche of criticism that was burying her agency, she found one on my show. Yet no major MSM outlet has found time for even a five-minute discussion of the act and its billions of dollars in needless costs.

Also, since Obama’s November triumph I have been conducting a series of interviews with leading evangelical Christians, among them Charles Colson, J. P. Moreland, and Albert Mohler, about the seeming collapse of the political power of the Religious Right. I also interviewed every candidate for the chairmanship of the RNC and held long conversations about the future of the GOP with Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Bobby Jindal. When debate on the stimulus bill was raging, I welcomed Senators McCain, Graham, Coburn, and Kyl to speak their piece so that the minority party could have its say somewhere in the media.

Fifteen-hour-a-week broadcasting allows for many more subjects and much longer conversations than any other platform in the media. Talk radio is prospering because it is the last place for extended, serious discussions with policy experts who are not part of the MSM’s dominant worldview. I spent a decade as a news anchor with the PBS affiliate KCET in Los Angeles, so I know as well as anyone about public television’s strong leftward tilt. I can say from experience that the only broadcast space that will carry long conversations with folks such as classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson or Iranian experts Michael Ledeen and Claudia Rosett, or extended interviews on Israeli elections with the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens or Commentary’s John Podhoretz, is talk radio.

I am far from the only radio talk-show host doing such interviews and engaging in such debates. All the major hosts do this except for Rush, whose unique set of skills allows him to go it alone, with just his callers, almost all the time. (Rush and Oprah Winfrey are the country’s two greatest communicators, a simple truth to which their ratings attest.) The variety and quality of talk-radio programming, combined with the liberal-Left domination of the political and media elites, is powering talk radio’s growth — and that’s something not just conservatives but the entire country ought to be glad for.

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WHY TALK RADIO IS GOOD FOR EVERYONE — INCLUDING OBAMA

For at least the first few years of President Obama’s tenure, there will be no serious congressional oversight of his administration, and very little in the way of sustained journalistic critique from the still-smitten MSM. Anyone wary of placing too much power in too few hands should applaud the efforts of opposition political parties and skeptical media. And while blogs like Hot Air and Powerline, online television channels like PJTV.com, and more traditional outlets such as the Weekly Standard and National Review supply some of the political balance the country needs, it is talk radio that will deliver the message to the biggest and broadest audience. To be sure, fair and balanced reporting does come from Fox’s Special Report, and engaging, hard-hitting journalism from Sean Hannity, Greta van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and (usually) Wolf Blitzer. But the other networks show no signs of a capacity for criticism even a tenth as well-developed as the criticism they directed towards George W. Bush.

That’s why the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, should be very happy that talk radio is alive and prospering. We provide an early-warning system for the sort of overreaching that will imperil the president’s agenda and his reelection. If our audiences listen and react negatively to legislative pushes by Congress or the administration, President Obama should take it a signal to at least go slowly, and perhaps even to adjust his course. No one else is going to tell him until it is too late. Keeping a few radios tuned to our shows will do more to alert the White House to minefields ahead than any set of polls the DNC can send over.

Talk radio also gives the Democrats a unique opportunity to engage and reassure the half of the country that right now isn’t buying what they’re selling. The president would be very well served by an on-air conversation with Rush, Sean, or any of the responsible talkers who will ask tough questions but will also allow Obama as much time as he wants to answer. Trying to sell sweeping health-care or entitlement reform, or especially immigration reform, without explaining it to our audience is close to an admission that the plans are not defensible. The White House communications team should be figuring out how and how often to engage with us, not leading attempts to marginalize Rush. My program, like those of my Salem colleagues, is always open to the president and his senior staff and cabinet. It will be very interesting to see if they decide that bipartisanship and civility in politics are worth a few trips to our virtual studios.

#ad#As for the risk posed by the Fairness Doctrine and its backdoor variations, such as “localism” rules, I am not alarmed. Ask yourself if my denunciations of Islamist terrorism require a competing opinion, and you will quickly understand why there is no constitutional way to mandate “fairness.” The old Fairness Doctrine survived Supreme Court scrutiny in an age of very limited broadcast options and a very narrow American political spectrum. With the explosion of avenues for communication and the vast numbers of opinions they make available, it’s hard to draft any content-based set of rules — including a “localism” mandate, which would be a thin façade covering an obvious drive to push conservative talkers off the dial — that would survive court scrutiny. Two of the Left’s most admired constitutional-law scholars, Stanford’s Lawrence Lessig and UC-Irvine’s Chemerinsky, have opined on my show that the poorly named “Fairness Doctrine” should not be revived, for just these reasons. Indeed, the very effort to do so would upset millions of Americans who don’t even listen to radio but are extremely sensitive to the idea of shutting down criticism of the government.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG

Today’s biggest threats to talk radio are actually indirect ones. Two in particular stand out. First, the recording industry is pushing for a law that would extract royalties from radio stations for the on-air playing of music. This would be a ruinous new tax on an industry that is already reeling, along with its cousins in television and print, from shrinking ad revenues. It would likely force the collapse of some radio companies, and abandonment of the music format by hundreds of stations that couldn’t pay the new fare. This performance tax would be a boon to talkers, since our format would be virtually untouched by the new tax, but it would cripple the broadcast industry as a whole.

More serious than even the killer performance tax is the danger of deserved caricature, which our industry will invite if it neglects the paramount importance of fairness and decency — of making the effort that’s needed to be accurate and informative. I’m not talking about the standard political sniping that we’ve all come to expect; Rush attracts the biggest share of this, yet he has remained invulnerable through two decades of attacks because his attackers are never honest about who he is and what he does. Year in and out, he has been informed, funny, entertaining, and news-driven, which is why his audience keeps growing, and why the occasional attempt by hard-Left interest groups like Media Matters to pull a joke or a paragraph from his 15 hours a week and distort it always falls flat. Anyone who listens in good faith knows that Rush understands exactly where the boundaries are and respects them, while delivering entertaining and informative radio built on a passionate core of conviction and fact.

All the good and talented broadcast journalists I’ve mentioned above do the same thing. We have been attacked relentlessly by lefties for many years, and still our audiences grow, our books sell, our speaking invitations pile up, our blogs generate traffic, and our opportunities in new and old media abound. Most important, our audience is the very one that the old media are so desperate to have back: Americans with more education than average, more disposable income, and more interest in the news at home and abroad. Newspapers are bleeding all around us, but we are prospering, for the simple reason that when they stopped serving the half of the country that is center-Right, we were there to fill the gap.

But we could lose that audience if we stop serving it with excellent programming and guests and a continuing commitment to fairness. A marginal host with extreme views may provide fodder to our critics, but he or she will not compromise our mission — as long as such programming remains an exception and not a rule among the syndicated shows. That’s why it’s important, for our industry and for the cause of informed debate, for radio talk hosts to stay reasoned and responsible instead of adopting the methods of the extremists.

Here’s the secret to our success: Our shows are the last places in America where genuine, sustained, intelligent debate actually occurs on-air, where Left and Right — whether guests or callers — meet, argue, and listen. Americans since the time of the Revolution have always enjoyed — strike that, loved — political debate. And they like it hard-hitting, but not vulgar; pointed and passionate but not extreme or bigoted.

My colleagues and I continue to provide that kind of debate, as do the best of the cable television shows. Rachel Maddow is showing that the Left can do the same thing. But most of the broadcast MSM stopped pretending to be fair and analytical long ago, and print journalism first went boring and then went left before going out of business before our eyes. We won’t make the same mistakes.

I hope President Obama and his team will someday see the great advantages, to themselves and the country, that would come from engaging in a debate on any of our shows, despite the howls such a conversation would elicit from his supporters on the far left of the Democratic party. Whether or not they do, we’ll still be around in 2010 and 2012, telling it, as Uncle Walter used to say, “the way it is.”

– Hugh Hewitt writes daily at HughHewitt.com, where his show can be heard every Monday through Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. EST. Podcasts of the program are also available there, and he can be reached at hugh@hughhewitt.com.

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