Saturday, November 24, 2012

Why Isn't There Good Left-Wing Talk Radio?

In terms of network broadcasting Fox News is the apex-predator of cable news: it holds the number one slot over CNN, ABC, etc. As of January this year it looked like this:
At this point, Fox News has a 147% advantage over CNN and a 144% advantage over MSNBC in Total Day viewership. In the A25-54 demo, FNC tops CNN by 92% and MSNBC by 101%.
It has held the pole-position for ten years, rising to prominence after the 9/11 attacks. This dominance is nothing like what Rush Limbaugh and right-wing voices hold in Talk Radio who claims and audience share of something like 20-million listeners. Although some numbers may be in dispute it is hard to argue that, on the radio spectrum at least, there is any comparison between the popularity of left wing hosts and right wing hosts: right wing talk radio is far, far more popular. Here are some numbers:
That's What Domination Looks Like
The Question is: Why?
 This is relevant right now for two reasons:

  1. The GOP is, rightly, examining its messaging and message machines to see how / why they failed against Obama's track record. Granted, lots of possible reasons for Romney's loss are up for debate--but almost without question the media is held responsible for at least some aspect of getting Obama over "the finish line."
  2. Despite holding the #1 position in two major markets (Cable News and Radio) the Republicans see the whole rest of the pie as dominated by left-wing ideology. While this is, statistically, probably correctly seen as a gradient rather than an absolute ideological measure (CNN's bias is not the same as MSNBC's, etc.) there is, never the less, some truth to the observation. If Fox News, for example, held the degree of dominance in Cable News that Limbaugh + Beck + Hannity hold in Talk Radio there would be no question about whose message was louder.
So what's going on? 

Some Theories
Let's examine a few theories as to why Talk Radio is dominated on the right:
  1. Rush et. al are simply better than anyone else. Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor one does not get 15-20 million listeners by being 'bad radio.' Rush is certainly good at what he does but, for example, Howard Stern (non-political) matches his numbers easily. It is simply not credible that for some reason only right-wing radio broadcasters are good at what they do.
  2. The Medium Is The Message. Another theory is that for whatever reason right-wing people like getting their "red meat" (meaning in-your-face, get your blood-pressure up messaging) over radio rather than, say, through TV or the Internet. While, again, possible, there is simply no explanation as to why this should be true. It's not an explanation.
  3. The Rise of Alternate Media. Before there was Pajamas Media and before the decade-old rise of Fox News there was Talk Radio: the original alternate media. If your listening needs were not served by the major networks there simply wasn't anywhere else to go and Limbaugh was a pioneer here. Maybe he established the right-wing frontier and the homestead has stuck? The problem with this is that today there is no lack of right-wing media. Even if that was true in the 90's, would it still hold up?
  4. Left Wing Radio Is Boring Because ... My favorite potential explanation is that left-wing radio sucks for some intrinsic reason. Perhaps liberals are too self-satisfied to be good radio? Too "intellectual?" Maybe talk radio is better at being objective than other media and therefore the allergic-to-truth lefites can't hang out there? Again, while theoretical, there is no proffered reason this should be true (we can all agree lefties are allergic to truth, of course, but how does radio play into that!?)
What Do I Think?
I think there is a very clear trend in radio demographics: it skews OLD. Limbaugh is big on AM channels which, also, probably skew old (I could find not numbers but who do you know under 50 who even knows an AM station?). As we know the Republican demographics are old, white, and male it would make sense that (at least today) the radio spectrum would be a natural fit for listeners.

Let's check: Here are the demographics for Rush Limbaugh's web site:
Rich, White, Educated ... and Old
While it's a bit hard to get specific stats for the radio show,  the research I could find is that the average listener for Rush is a 67 year old man and for TV news it's a 65 year old man. This dovetails with the stats above pretty nicely. And, indeed, Arbitron confirms it pretty nicely:
Radio: A Sea of White Hair ... Or Baldness--I Report, You Decide
However, this doesn't explain why there isn't any left-wing talk radio of any size and, indeed, it turns out: there kinda is: National Public Radio's audience is bigger than Rush Limbaugh's:
Limbaugh Gets 15-20 Million Listeners
In fact, demographically, they are not all that dissimilar to Rush's audience--although about 15 to 17 years younger:
According to this, the audience for NPR is also 86% white.
While NPR is neither as left wing as you might think (I cite Tim Groseclose of Left Turn's ratings for political skew in the media) nor is it exactly the same thing as Limbaugh / Right-Wing Talk Radio, NPR is a destination for other political persuasions. We also know that although the market shares are smaller on TV (1.5 to 2 million is big), Jon Stewart and Colbert dominate the left-wing entertainment markets there and with younger demographics.

Finally, there is an aspect to Talk Radio on the right that does not apply to the left: party leadership. Limbaugh has, at times, been named the leader or almost-leader of the Republican party. Even if one doesn't accept that mantel for him, he is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in it. The left simply has no one like him (if you are a Democrat you are identified with president Obama, not Jon Stewart). This, alone, makes his success unique and likely skews it for everyone else in the game (Beck, Hannity, etc.). In other words, the question may not be "Why aren't there more left-wing Talk Radio guys?" but rather "What's special about the Republicans and Rush Limbaugh?"

A Final Thing
If you think right-wing talk radio is pure disinformation, think again. While NPR scored higher on general knowledge for its listeners, Limbaugh's audience rated above the BBC (and The Daily Show) on a basic political knowledge test. In case you were wondering: Fox News was down at the bottom, yeah, still not worse than the average American (who, if you are paying attention, is pretty scary).

There is an element of Talk Radio and political discourse in general that is probably a net-negative: identity politics ("All liberals are ..." or "all conservatives are ...") and I think that guys like Maher and Limbaugh play directly into this (whereas, for example, NPR does not). I do not listen to a lot of political pundits on either end of the spectrum on TV or radio (no Stewart, Colbert, Limbaugh, or Beck) but I suspect that the other thing these guys have going for them is talent for playing into tribal identity. It may be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats--or it may be that given the nature of the media in general there is more hunger for this on the GOP side--I'm not sure. I suspect that in an objective sense Limbaugh is a better orator than Stewart or Colbert and has the numbers to prove it but given the current conditions of politics I'm not certain this is anything to brag about.


  1. To me, talk radio is pretty much synonymous with "angry white guys talking about stuff they're mad about." I think that's the only type of one-person radio that is capable of gathering significant numbers of listeners. Would you spend hours listening to somebody who thinks everything is pretty much OK? No, you'd be bored out of your mind. And anger is pretty much a central element of conservativism. I'm not saying that as a jab against conservatives. It's the basic elemental definition of conservativism that they dislike a lot of recent changes (they want to _conserve_ what was good about the past) and thus they have a lot more anger to fuel multi-hour-diatribes than the average liberal.

    1. I think during the Bush era you'd have no trouble finding Democrats who were super angry--there were plenty--but it still didn't materialize. Today "the left" is furious at Obama for Drone Murder, not closing Gitmo, and locking up Manning.

      Now, you can argue against "Both sides [are totally equal]" and I've got no hard numbers so while I'll allow a hypothetical that, say, even during Bush the number of people who hatey-mc-hated-of-the-clan-McHated him was too small to support radio I have to say don't buy it: there was / is plenty of Bush-hatred to go around.

      Also note that there's a case (no True Conservative ... nor True Scotsman would make it) that Obama is a mainstream conservative president (friend of the big banks, bailed out big business, secret wars, lack of transparency, etc.). People interested in "conserving" the status quo might not be as upset about him as they could be.

      I do think Talk Radio is pretty angry, yes--but I think that anger is better distributed than you do.

  2. I listen to NPR and the level of intelligence is so much greater. It is not even close. It is left wing for sure ,but there is more critical thought. If Right wing radio is red meat, left wing radio or NPR , whatever you want to call it is healthy food like vegetables and fruits. Even the call in shows are much better. The hosts let the right winger talk and there is no name calling or personal attacks or labels. One behaves as children, the other as adults. It is remarkable that the discourse on NPR is so much more mature than right wing and really sad that the right behaves in such an awful manner, with their side of the power they hold on public airwaves.

    1. NPR is good news radio (once you get past calling it National *Pravda* Radio, anyway)--it just isn't TALK Radio (where basically one person talks for the entire show --which can be like 4 hours long). NPR serves different purposes / fills different niches.

      Do you listen to Right-Wing Talk radio for contrast? Have you listened to it for more than, say 1 hr? (Doing so, if you have not, may not change your mind either. Just asking. Quite a few years ago, The Omnivore was a long stretch semi-regularly and listened to Rush Limbaugh).

      -The Omnivore