I am by no means an expert on conservative talk radio, but do actually have a highly rated talk radio program. I have filled in for several of the biggest hosts in syndicated talk radio. My radio show is on the most listened to news/talk station in the country or, on its worse day, no less than the number three most listened to talk station in the entire country. WSB, my station, just won the Marconi Award as the best news/talk station in the nation. I have a larger radio audience for my Atlanta-only radio show than many syndicated talk radio hosts have for theirs. Put a bit more plainly, if you are listening to talk radio in Atlanta from 5pm to 7pm on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday you are listening to me. Believe it or not, my ratings went up after uninviting Trump from the RedState Gathering.
This is all to say that I know my market and my audience. I know some things about talk radio.
Right now, I see people I respect, friends and acquaintances and others, openly saying conservative talk radio is in Donald Trump’s pocket or Trump is a creature of talk radio or somehow Donald Trump would not be where he is today but for Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, etc.
The people making these accusations are just dripping with contempt for conservative talk radio show hosts. They are also wrong.
It is true that Glenn Beck and I are decidedly not on Team Trump. But it is also true that a number of these radio show hosts now under constant attack from people who dislike Trump, some of the most prominent radio hosts in America, are not on Team Trump. In truth, a lot of the people attacking the conservatives on talk radio do not like these hosts anyway. This is just the latest excuse to attack them. But in attacking the talk show hosts, these folks are peddling a lie they have become extremely comfortable with.
It is like the Republicans on Capitol Hill who accuse conservatives of fundraising off division as an effort to get rich and get on television. That is sheer projection by a group of people who have been fundraising off lobbyists for years and now hate the competition. They cannot fathom, because of their own lack of principles, that some people dare to have principles and get pissed off when regularly lied to.
With talk radio, there is a lot of projection by its critics and also a profound misunderstanding of the medium that is talk radio. In short, radio is relational in a way twitter, Facebook, television, and other means of communication are not. Talk radio is even more relational than radio in general. I do not want to be presumed to be speaking for any host on radio other than myself, but I can tell you from experience that radio hosts reflect their listeners and give voice to their listeners and are in a friendship with their listeners. 1
Yes, we do sometimes help lead, educate, and motivate listeners. But more often than not, we are in conversation with our listeners, saying out loud what they are thinking, and making sure they know they are not alone while stuck in their car, in their office, or on a lake sitting in their bass boat. When you hear a major syndicated radio show host trumpeting Trump, in many cases the critics of talk radio are mishearing a reflection of the audience as an endorsement to the audience.2
Look, I know what my listeners like. I know what the listeners of the hosts I fill in for like. I know because I am one of those listeners. I hang out with the listeners. You would be surprised how often I invite listeners out for a beer or invite them into the studio or engage in emails with them. I had a listener I do not even know randomly email the other day that is father is dying and just wanted some prayers. I was on the phone with him and his dad that afternoon. Last year during Atlanta’s snow storm, I stayed on the radio for twelve straight hours just so people stuck in their cars could call in and talk to a friend, get some help, and calm down. I spent another hour off air calling back some of those I was on the phone with just to make sure they were safe.
I read the emails I get, though I cannot always respond. I know other hosts do too. We know exactly what our listeners are interested in, thinking, worrying about, and we make sure they know they are not alone. We keep them company. There are times we may disagree. But often we are in agreement and I am their voice to larger world.
Here’s the big take away — when you hear someone say talk radio is in Donald Trump’s pocket, what they want to do is blame the host for the audience. We see this playing out in Washington, D.C. with Republicans dripping with condescension over conservative activists no longer willing to settle for empty promises. Conservatives get blamed for John Boehner, they get blamed for not being happy with Paul Ryan, etc. etc. etc.
Essentially, the blame is that the conservative grassroots are stupid, but instead of saying it that directly, the D.C. crowd says the grassroots are being led, being conned, or being lied to. Well hell, they would know. They’ve been doing it for years. But they do not have the relationship with the grassroots that talk radio hosts do. These hosts cannot lie to their listeners like politicians lie to their voters and still have ratings.3
There is a great divide within the GOP on how to fight, whether to fight, on what values we should compromise, etc. Talk radio is reflecting that divide and coming down firmly on the side of those fed up with the system. You may think a lot of hosts are wrong, but you’d be wrong to think they are being paid off or pushing Donald Trump. They are giving voice to their listeners who are otherwise being ignored. They are talking about the issues their listeners care about.
It is precisely the same reason Donald Trump is doing so well in the polls. He has tapped into a frustration much of talk radio already understands because so many of us understand our listeners a lot better than the Republicans in Washington and their “bitch and moan caucus” on Twitter understand the grassroots of the party.
Feel free to disagree with them, but don’t think Trump’s polling is a product of their cheerleading. Talk radio voices were not in the McCain and Romney camps and those were the nominees in 2008 and 2012. For you to really believe talk radio has lead 30% of the GOP to Trump is to believe that in an age where radio listenership has declined, talk radio shows have even more power with those who do not even listen to them.
In short, if you’re blaming talk radio for Donald Trump, you’re just avoiding reality.
And there is another reality to consider as well. Should Trump fade or even run as a third party candidate, the very same people complaining about talk radio will be thanking the hosts for being a place they can point to as evidence Donald Trump did get a fair hearing and lost fair and square. Talk radio is playing a vital role in giving the conservative grassroots a cathartic clearing of the air so, should the dynamics of the race change, the listeners won’t be taking their football and going home.
I know my audience. I know talk radio. The people bitching about it don’t really know, don’t really care, and/or don’t really appreciate it.
1. This is one reason I rarely ever do an interview on radio, choosing instead to talke callers. The relationship is between my listeners and me and the relationship changes when my listeners are put in the position of having to be the passive listener to me engaged in conversation with a non-audience member.↩
2. If you listen regularly to talk radio and follow various hosts on twitter, you’ll see easily who has gone off the deep end and who knows what they’re doing. You won’t find, for example, the really good hosts beating up Club for Growth, Heritage Action for America, etc. when they voice skepticism of Trump. They may disagree, but are not suddenly going to declare these groups voices of the Establishment.↩
3. Just look at talk radio ratings. The radio show hosts most aligned with the DC-GOP are also much more terrible shows in terms of audience retention, ratings, size of the station on which they are broadcast, etc. Being shills for the Republican Establishment may get you invited to the cocktail parties and get you access to politicians but it is death to your relationship with listeners. My listeners are not going to keep me in their car every day if I’m beating up their friends and shilling for those politicians who have failed them. And they sure as hell can detect when a host is just telling them what they want to hear. The voice, without body, is a powerful connection and listeners are far more easily able to detect bull than you would think.↩