Liberal talk radio? No one will buy it
AFTER YEARS of contemptuously dismissing talk radio as a vast, embarrassing wasteland of doltish, bigoted, old, angry, overweight, religious white men named Chuck, liberals suddenly want a piece of the action. Coming soon to a radio near you, the Liberal Talk Network.
Well, my "progressive" pals, prepare to confront a shocking fact: Talk radio is a business. As in must make a profit. Success requires capturing a vast audience, and more. As a business enterprise, it is virtually meaningless whether your listeners agree with you politically. Your audience must attract major advertising dollars. That's right -- we're not in NPR land anymore, Toto.
Al Franken, your latest great white hope, declared your mission: "We're going to put it to Bush." You're off by one crucial letter: To win this game, you don't have to beat Bush, you have to beat Rush. He and his cohort are far more formidable than you imagine.
Is there an audience for liberal talk? Sure. Just take a look at that notorious 2000 campaign map, a schizophrenic blotch of red and blue Americans. At any given moment, half the citizenry detests George Bush, an "illegitimate" president who "stole the election." The same people zealously hold Bush personally responsible for war, poverty, pestilence, famine, spotty cellphone reception, and the common cold. Here's your audience!
Yet liberals are, quite understandably, apprehensive that liberal talk will (again) flop because of a dreadfully glum message and deadly dull messengers. Recall Alan Dershowitz and Mario Cuomo -- two undeniable brainiacs -- who were Radio Death. But with a new cast of colorful, less erudite characters, the "talent problem" could be remedied (unless they are serious about Jeanine Garafolo).
But take another look at that map. The death knell you see lurking is audience demographics (i.e. it's the economy, stupid). Red (Bush) vs. Blue (Gore) is a distinction of ideology, but it is also, as frankly we know, essentially a division of social class, race, and income. The red audience is largely suburban, college educated, professional, middle class; the blue (potential) audience more urban, less well educated, lower income. And this difference will matter infinitely more in the radio booth than the voting booth.
You are planning to lure conservative talk listeners? Dream on. You ignore -- or are delusional about -- the gross mismatch between your product and your customers.
Your ethos, mantra, unshakeable article of faith, and every utterance will derive from the smug presumption that the values and views of nonliberals are the root of evil: "selfish" because we believe our taxes too high; "haters" because we disdain racial preferences and same-sex marriage; "cruel" because we believe in strong national defense, capital punishment, and actually oppose illegal immigration; and, of course, "stupid" because we reject your benighted viewpoint.
Yes, we know you believe with utmost sincerity that we are monstrous Neanderthals, but do you really believe your left-wing/pacifist/United Nations/French worldview will win a big middle-class audience? In America?
Understand: Your success depends on us embracing the utterly fantastic notion that we are what's wrong with America; that our national, cultural, and personal woes stem from taxes too low, affirmative action too meek, defense too strong, and illegal aliens too few. People who believe such twaddle are for the most part home watching Jerry Springer reruns. Numerous they are. A commercially viable national talk radio audience they are not.
Perhaps you will have some federal judge declare unconstitutional the radio ratings system? Or mandate an "earned audience credit" for the ratings impoverished? Which, of course, explains why this new liberal talk "network" is not a genuine business enterprise but rather a fully subsidized propaganda project, funded entirely by wealthy Democrat activists.
Lucky you. Back here on earth, those of us in radio must earn our way in the rough and tumble of -- imagine this -- competition. Just hope your liberal sugar daddies' munificence is boundless, because if they tire of losing money, you will be forced to produce real ratings and profits, too. The horror! (Don't worry: there's always taxpayer money and "NPR II," right?)
Here is a lesson from the early days of automobile rebates: Volvo alone eschewed the practice, instead adopting the motto: "When you build a good car, you don't have to pay people to buy it."
And thus it is Volvo (cruel irony!) who previews the liberal talk radio epitaph: Here lies an agenda we twice tried selling by radio -- once as sermon, once as comedy. But either way, paying customers just weren't buying.
Jay Severin is host of an afternoon talk radio program on 96.9 FM.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.