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Preaching Against the Choir

| May 20, 2011

By Michael Harrison

NEW YORK –– Ten hands-on broadcasters express keen observations and expert opinions (plus a take by yours truly) in this issue’s feature article by ace trade journalist Mike Kinosian examining the state of progressive talk radio.   There’s also a provocative commentary about the subject in these pages by Lionel, a brilliant iconoclastic wordsmith who is no stranger to the genre but at one point in his career had a square-peg/round-hole relationship with it.  And Juan Williams sounds off on this concept as well (among other things) from the perspective of his public radio experience in the Talkers Interview.   Each presents a somewhat different point of view.  Collectively, they provide an insightful picture of one of the most interesting and enigmatic subgenres in the news/talk radio spectrum.

Enigmatic?  Most definitely!  A week doesn’t go by that I am not asked by either a reporter writing a newspaper article or a student doing a paper these two related but significantly flawed questions:

“Why is talk radio dominated by conservatives?”

“Why is liberal (or progressive) talk radio a failure?”

Then there’s the one that really drives me crazy:

“Since approximately half the country votes Republican and half votes Democratic, why isn’t talk radio equally successful at serving both?”

I must admit frustration on my part when asked questions based upon faulty premises.  It is almost as illogical as asking why the Earth is flat or why “every” radio station in the 1960s played the Beatles or the same 17 singles when millions of people love Mozart or why don’t they make Westerns anymore when half the country lives out west.  (Ever wonder why doctor shows work and dentist shows don’t?  After all, almost everyone has teeth, no?)

I guess it all depends on your definition of the words “dominated” and “failure.”  It also depends on your definition of the word “progressive,” not to mention whether one’s primary allegiance as a media participant/observer is to the business of politics or the business of broadcasting…or to the business of humanity.  This is the key to the issue.

Is progressive talk radio dead?  Hardly.  Is progressive talk radio a smashing success?  Also, hardly.  Does it have any success stories to write home about?  Definitely.  Does it have the potential to be more successful –– meaning having more stations and broadcasters thriving under its generic umbrella?  My answer is…possibly.

But in order for such growth and expansion to materialize, we as an industry have to reconsider our definitions because if they are out of sync with reality, so will our programming and marketing campaigns be off target.

I completely stand behind my statements quoted in Mike Kinosian’s piece… but they are politically correct and address the issue within the context of conventional broadcasting industry wisdom.  They do not go one level dangerously deeper to where the truth lies in understanding why this thing we call “progressive talk radio” falls short (as a commercial news/talk radio genre) in resonating with the half of the country that votes Democratic.

Believe it or not, NPR shares, albeit to a lesser degree, the same problem.  But this “problem” is most pronounced in how it applies to progressive talk radio.

Are you ready for the reason?

It can be found in TALKERS magazine’s ongoing Talk Radio Research ProjectTM and all other credible reports on the qualitative nature of  the audience of news/talk radio be it conservative, progressive or even the NPR-style of public radio.  It is, indeed, a strength –– but it is also a weakness…at least for the progressive segment.  It is at the deepest core of the obstacles progressive talk has faced in connecting with ratings and revenue.

News/talk radio of all standard styles is geared to and attracts affluent, upscale and educated audiences.  It is true.  All of us proudly tout that as a marketing battle cry.  It’s what makes news/talk radio such an effective advertising buy.  It’s what makes the format “influential.”  It appeals to influentials.  These “influentials,” whether they are rich, strive to be rich or are self conscious about not being poor, are the kind of people who find the type of conversation conducted on news/talk radio interesting.  They do not constitute half the population.

In effect, conservative and progressive talk radio are targeting the SAME audience.  Conservatives preach TO the choir.  Progressives preach AGAINST the choir.  But it is the SAME choir.

For a “general” talk format –– progressive or otherwise –– to successfully appeal to the millions of real, everyday people who “vote Democratic” and are thus mistakenly categorized by our industry as “liberal,” “progressives” or “Democrats,” it would have to provide the downtrodden masses (and they are out there) with more than just highfalutin discourse about political theory, inside Washington gossip or attacks against Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  It would demand broadcasting content that would be helpful and uplifting in their daily struggle to survive.  It would have to go beyond talking ABOUT the poor and actually take on the enormous cultural and marketing challenge of talking TO the poor.

Different choir.  Different game.


Michael Harrison is publisher of TALKERS magazine.  He can be e-mailed at  Meet him at the New Media Seminar June 10-11 in New York City.

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