It may not be true in politics, but it is in real life: Just because you’re a fan of something doesn’t mean it’s beyond reproach.
I’m a fan of radio. It’s what started me, at a young age, on my path to a career in communications. It is, or was before the pandemic, my companion, on the road, driving from meeting to meeting. It remains a viable way to reach an audience in powerful way.
But in the analysis of how our nation got to the point where mobs of citizens could take over the U.S. Capitol, radio shouldn’t be exempt from what should be a national conversation on preventing that from ever happening again.
Let’s be straight, please, about what happened in commercial radio. To save itself, the industry doubled down on “conservative talk” shows and you can draw a straight line from their microphones to Washington, DC on January 6, 2021.
These shows, like Rush Limbaugh’s, have been around now for 30 years. Think about 30 years of programming presented in authoritarian fashion – no guests, no dissenters, just the host and phone callers (who researchers tell us make up a tiny fraction of the most frequent audience) who agree with them. To remain as daily fixtures, they sell loyalty. I remember near the beginning of Limbaugh’s reign, when he was indeed a compelling listen, hearing him say “Don’t read the newspaper – I’ll read it for you. Don’t watch the news – I’ll watch it for you.” Once inside the club, listeners are drawn together by intense fandom and by a shared sense of anger. They also receive heavy doses of disinformation. For example, like hearing day after day, month after month, that the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. Or, just yesterday, Limbaugh telling his legions of listeners, measured by Nielsen of 15 million per week, to view this week’s rioters like “Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord.” Back in February, he told his audience “Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus… Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”
What’s in it for the mega-groups that own radio stations? Profits. These shows cost local stations nothing to produce and, usually, nothing to acquire. Putting them on the air costs just equipment and electricity. The stations get a certain amount of time each hour to sell their own commercials.
Limbaugh’s show is syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks, which is owned by iHeart Media – a debt-laden company that survived bankruptcy. Many of the stations that air it are owned by shareholder-owned corporations that are trying to avoid bankruptcy. Shows like this are their tickets on the train to corporate viability that they have chosen.
It’s not just Limbaugh. Sean Hannity, who poses as a news anchor every night on the Fox News Channel (to be fair, so do his competitors), has an afternoon show that, in many markets, carries the Limbaugh audience home to their TVs to seek out the same, simplified worldview, anger and reiteration. At night, after the radio “suits” go home, many of the same stations, fully automated, run the conspiracy spinning of a host named Mark Levin. In all of these time slots, once upon a time, they ran local programming that actually cost money.
The men and women who run many, but not all, of the mega-corporations that control local commercial radio stations did what they believed was in the best interest of their shareholders and their creditors. That was their job. But in the analysis of what happened this week, and the forces that may have been behind it, this particular “cost of doing business” should be considered as the industry charts its future.