It is no secret that I dislike Rush Limbaugh and the likes of Hannity and Savage. I believe they have done more harm to this country than we can accurately assess. "Ditto Heads" are called that for a reason--they let Rush tell them what to think. When someone with a political agenda has three hours a day, five days a week for decades to tell people that the opposition party are demons and enemies, it's no wonder we have been a divided nation.
But perhaps talk radio's influence is coming to an end. This piece in The Boston Globe spells out the whys and how of Rush's waning days as Demagogue in Chief of the conservatives.
ONE MORE note on the significance of the presidential election of 2008: It's the first one in more than 30 years on which talk radio had no major impact.
Perhaps the Carter-Ford contest in 1976 was the last in which talk radio was so irrelevant to public opinion on candidates and issues. In retrospect, 1979 (the year the Iranian hostage crisis began) and 2004 (the year of George W. Bush's reelection) may well be regarded as bookends of talk radio's greatest influence on American politics.
Consider some of the major stumbles this year by the medium's 800-pound gorilla. Rush Limbaugh vigorously promoted three separate political objectives over the past year, all of which failed: derailing John McCain's quest for the Republican nomination, sabotaging Barack Obama's drive for the Democratic nomination by fomenting Republican crossover votes for Hillary Clinton, and ultimately stopping Obama's march to victory in the general election. Contrast this with the impact talk radio once had on local taxes, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, congressional pay raises, a mandatory seat belt law, etc.
Most radio people hate to discuss the primary factor: overall use of their medium is in decline. Although the trend is affecting news and talk (including public radio) less than music programming, it is inexorable.
Alternatives to broadcast radio have proliferated - satellite, netcasts, downloads, blogalogue, iPod entertainment, cellphone updates. As a result, younger listeners largely ignore talk radio, and its existing audience is calcifying.
New ears - even middle-aged or senior ears - are vital to talk radio's influence because they are attached to brains that are available for persuasion, rather than brains that have already made a choice. In other words, if Limbaugh and Michael Savage (not to mention Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and other more recent adventurers in talk) fail to attract many new listeners, they end up talking only to those who agree with their opinions, and thus have a smaller chance to affect the ideas of the electorate in general.
Beyond the shift in media usage are three factors of content and style.
First, news-and-comment television has gradually usurped talk radio's position as the destination of choice for freewheeling opinion. Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly are the major faces of the form, but news with an edge now defines the programming on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Talk radio, even when its sounds stimulate imaginary pictures in the minds of listeners, is low-def.
Second, American listeners no longer expect talk-radio hosts to be reasonable - or even rational. Most listeners now assume that when they strike a talk show as they cruise across the dial, the talker will be a (sometimes rabid) promoter of a particular point of view.
Third, talk radio no longer even pretends to be a "town meeting of the air." The telephone call itself, which was a primary reason for the form's wide acceptance, has become an inconvenient appendage to most programs. Hosts, along with the usually inaudible producers, programmers, managers, and owners, ordinarily do not perceive callers' contributions as valuable use of airtime.
Phone calls from listeners once occupied 40 to 50 percent of a typical program. A host would often spend five to 10 minutes, and sometimes much more, with an individual caller, if the caller's ideas warranted it. Past paragons of talk familiar to many Bostonians - hosts like Jerry Williams, Paul Benzaquin, and David Brudnoy - actually argued with their callers. They asked them questions like, "What makes you say that?" or "Why do you feel that way?" This led the majority of listeners, the people who never made calls themselves, to value the medium as a place they could sample the ideas of others - even if they didn't agree with them.
But there's no going back, even if a modern host wanted to try. The American mass audience is dispersing, and talk radio, if it is to survive, will have to adapt to a nichified world.
Steve Elman worked for WBUR for 30 years. Alan Tolz is executive vice president and chief operating officer for Marlin Broadcasting. They are the authors of "Burning Up the Air: Jerry Williams, Talk Radio and the Life in Between."