Liberal radio: some musings

Yesterday marked the debut of the latest attempt at “liberal talk radio,” which is getting some mixed reviews. I’ve been a fan of Rush Limbaugh since high school, and have listened to my share of liberal talk radio programs (during my trips to and from Chicago on Saturdays to visit Michele), so I’m always interested in these efforts. When I first heard about this latest effort a few months ago, I was tempted to roll my eyes–not because I find the idea of liberal talk radio absurd, but because it seems like every other year somebody tries to hype a “left-wing version” of Rush Limbaugh, only to have the effort either slip quickly into radioland obscurity or never even get off the ground. This effort looks a bit more promising than past attempts, mostly because there’s a recognizable personality (Al Franken) behind it.
Nevertheless, I personally don’t expect this to go very far before petering out. Why has liberal talk radio failed to make an impact or gather an audience despite numerous attempts?
I think the most important reason is that the liberal radio approach has almost always been reactionary. That is, the stated goal is always something along the lines of “offer an alternative to right-wing radio,” “offer a Democrat answer to Rush Limbaugh,” “break the conservative stranglehold on radio”–that sort of thing. This all basically amounts to creating an imitation Rush Limbaugh–but a talk show that claims to be “like Rush–but liberal!” does not exactly resonate with any promise of originality or creativity.
The comparison that immediately springs to mind is that of the Christian music industry. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read–online or in print, and on some occasions even in Christian music stores–lists of recommendations for Christians who want “cleaned-up” religious alternatives to popular secular bands. You may have seen this sort of thing–“If you like Pearl Jam, you’ll love [Christian band name]!” So the main appeal of this band is that they sound just like Pearl Jam? Be still, my beating heart! In the same way, I have a hard time seeing a “Democrat version” of Rush (or his many imitators) capturing the hearts and minds of listeners, any more than a “right-wing version” of, say, Michael Moore (“like Michael Moore–but conservative!“) would.
When I look at this latest liberal effort and see shows with titles like “The O’Franken Factor,” my suspicions that this is just a feeble effort to clone conservative successes (without bothering to learn why conservative shows are popular in the first place) seem to be confirmed. Unless Franken and his compatriots quickly establish that their shows are unique, interesting, and have something new to offer, nobody apart from existing Franken fans is going to tune in.
(It’s worth pointing out that many of Rush’s right-wing imitators are guilty of the same thing–and for this reason among others, I seriously doubt that they’ll be able to stick around nearly as long as Rush has.)
I think the above reason is the most important reason that liberal radio has failed in the past and risks failing again. Other factors play into it as well, though. For one, for years now, mainstream Democrat candidates, pundits, and politicians have been expressing outright contempt for the “idiot masses” who tune in to Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts (I specifically remember this hitting a peak during the 2002 elections). We’ve all heard references to the “mindless Ditto-heads” who believe anything that Rush tells them. I’ve never heard any Democrat, in the midst of these criticisms, ever suggest that maybe Rush (for example) is popular because large numbers of people find his show entertaining, amusing, and informative. Conservative talk radio has long been a place where conservatives go to hear information they aren’t getting from other sources–it isn’t a tool by which the masses are enslaved to a right-wing agenda. But if the prevailing view in the Democratic party towards talk radio listeners is that they are mindless morons with no free will, exactly what am I supposed to think about their own efforts to reach this same radio-listening audience?
Liberal talk show hosts are going to find out the hard way that radio listeners aren’t brainless morons. Just as Rush can’t “force” people to tune into his show, Al Franken and the like can’t just assume that the country’s liberals are going to automatically tune in. A successful liberal radio show will be one that works hard to earn a listening audience by demonstrating that their show is worth hearing. Rush himself is the perfect example of this–starting out with a tiny radio show, over time he earned an ever-growing audience by providing a compelling program that people found worthwhile.
There are doubtless other challenges facing liberal talk radio, but I’ll stop rambling for now. There’s definitely room in the world for a high-quality liberal radio program, but it will require its founders to work hard to distinguish themselves and to give people a good reason to tune in. And so despite my own thoroughly conservative tendencies, I wish Al Franken and the others involved here good luck–I think they’re going to need it.

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5 thoughts on “Liberal radio: some musings

  1. Ed Heil

    “The O’Franken Factor” is an attempt to bait Bill O’Reilly into a lawsuit, since lawsuits about “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” gave it so much free publicity.

  2. jrau

    Thanks for the info, Ed!
    It’s amusing, but it also strikes me as a pretty good example of reacting to conservatives rather than presenting something new and original. Maybe he’ll change the name to something else once the joke wears off?

  3. pcg

    I saw Franken on The Daily Show. It seems to me he is even beginning to take on Rush’s physical body shape. I found that… well, I don’t know what I found of it. I just happened to notice.
    And yes, “liberal talk radio” is an appropriate topic for April 1st. 😉
    That is all.

  4. Bill

    I listened to a chunk of Franken’s show yesterday, and I am now more confident than ever that it will fail. It was like NPR trying to be slightly humorous. The result was more disturbing than entertaining.
    I wonder if liberals will stop talking about the illegitimacy of Bush’s first election after his second. You may think I’m just making fun of that tired Al-Gore-won-the-election argument, but it was actually a topic for discussion on Franken’s show yesterday. Talk about beating a dead horse…

  5. adam

    I don’t see why they need a ‘liberal’ radio network. They already have one: NPR. NPR, while being VERY informative at times (and very boring at other times) is still rather liberal in its views. An often overlooked (and ofr some reason, oft debated) idea is that it’s not just what the commentator believes that makes it liberal or conservative. Shows like Rush’s, or Hannity, or whomever are obviously conservative. They have an agenda that they push (only chickens have left wings!) NPR on the other hand, while not having an obvious agenda have a liberal bias by the *way* they cover and by *what* they cover. They subtly push their agenda by covering certain issues over others, certain viewpoints over others, and even how the refer to people (‘President Clinton’ vs. ‘Mr. Bush’, etc).
    I don’t understand why some people say that NPR ‘holds no viewpoint’, or ‘they are conservative’. You don’t have to beat a listener over the head with a viewpoint to push one. Persuasion is often very subtle.
    That being said, I listen to NPR an average of 3 hours a day, if not more (They need to get rid of Diane Rehm, ug). I don’t consider myself a conservative or a liberal (I’m an honest to goodness ‘Swing Voter’ – and not the ‘I haven’t paid attention to the ads, but candidate X looks like a nice guy – he gets my vote’ type of person. I detest the idiotic statistics of the far [left|right] and like to get background information on a particular candidates actions/view (which is why I don’t like people like Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh). I like being well informed, not stubbornly rooted in one particular viewpoint using slanted and non-qualified statistics.

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