Anita and Sheldon Drobny are generous Chicagoans who have deployed their fortune on behalf of musical theater, abused children, Jewish studies programs, and the campaigns of William Jefferson Clinton. Now, they've decided that the best use of 10 million of their dollars is a grand effort to rid America of the curse of one-sided talk radio. Like many liberals, the Drobnys are puzzled: How can it be that in this great land where Lincoln and Douglas debated the future of the Union, the radio emits only the right-wing ravings of conservative loudmouths such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and on and on?
For 20 years now, good libs have been conducting their very own American Idol talent search, scouring the nation for talkers to counter the conservative hegemony over the AM airwaves. Goodness, they tried Mario Cuomo, and that fiery Jim Hightower, and that nice man Bill Press, and all those other Crossfire refugees. Not a one of them clicked.
It's always fun to watch millionaires flush their riches away, but really, Mr. and Mrs. Drobny, save your $10 mil. Your effort to bring your brand of American politics to the masses by putting Al Franken and a bunch of other unfunny lefties on the air is doomed because it's based on four premises, three of which are utterly false:
1) Talk radio is an important piece of pop culture and thus of political America. You got that one right. The No. 1 morning radio show in most big citieshas more listeners—way more—than The Tonight Show has viewers. And that morning show, in most cases, is a talk show. But it's not Rush or even Dr. Laura and her pinched morality. No, it's the guys liberals and conservatives alike deride as "shock jocks": frivolous, foul-mouthed, fabulously popular—Howard Stern, Chicago's Mancow, and their more overtly political cousins, Don Imus and the morning mayor of black America, Tom Joyner.
2)The huge corporations that control most of radio want to feed only Republican ideas to pliant American ears. Oh, please. People like the Drobnys and Hillary "Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy" Clinton hear Limbaugh as a rock-ribbed Republican. But to radio executives, he's Jeff Christy, which was his on-air name in the '70s, when Rush was a Top 40 jock whose shtick even then involved the "Excellence in Broadcasting" network and a lot of table-thumping. The suits at Clear Channel and other big radio companies don't care if Rush is conservative or liberal, a Rhodes scholar or a mental midget. They want ratings—period. "The job of a talk host is to get you riled up and establish absolutes, because only an absolute point of view produces phone calls, which are really hard to generate," says Walt Sabo, the radio consultant who is the architect of "hot talk," the seemingly nonpolitical talk heard on FM stations. What talkers say hardly matters; how they say it is everything. Those who succeed follow the dictates of Top 40 radio: Move fast, connect with the essential minutiae of listeners' daily lives, hit listeners' emotional core, and never get in too deep. Attach any politics you want, but the format stays the same. If you don't do radio, watch David Letterman's TV show. It's the classic Top 40 format—bits, jingles, constant motion—transferred to the screen.
3) The big gap in talk radio is between left and right. Wrong. The gap is between men and women. Older, conservative men listen to AM talk. Younger, more liberal men listen to FM talk. What talk-radio execs can't figure out is how to attract women. Dr. Laura and a handful of other advice yakkers pick up some middle-aged women, and NPR's talkers skim off the high-end demographic. But the vast majority of American women still use the radio mostly for music and a bit of news. Put your money into cultivating new forms of talk for women, and you're far more likely to hit pay dirt than with this cockeyed liberal notion.
4) Talk radio is inherently conservative because liberal ideas are just too complex for the simplistic medium. Nonsense. Talk isn't conservative or liberal. Scratch almost any successful radio talker, and you'll find a former Top 40 DJ who has repurposed his quick-lipped skill at dispensing shreds of meaning, moving from music to talk while remaining in the loyal service of his twin masters—the clock and the spots. Content is secondary. These guys are on the radio because they are storytellers and showmen. Their heroes are not Churchill, JFK, or Reagan but Jean Shepherd, Larry Lujack, and Dan Ingram—the legendary radio yakkers and jocks they listened to as shy boys alone in their rooms.
AM talk—Rush, Dr. Laura, Hannity—targets middle-aged white guys. Surprise: They tend to be conservative. But FM talk—Stern, Joyner, Mancow, Don and Mike in Washington, Tom Leykis in Los Angeles—scores with young men, guys who like their radio on the risqué side, with a bulging menu of sex jokes and a powerful message that this is America and you can do whatever you want. Hint to Democrats: You may not like to admit this, but these are your voters.
Yes, they like it raunchy. Most people listen to radio alone in their cars, where no one needs to be PC, where it's still OK to insult women and minorities and foreigners, and no one has to fear being slapped with a harassment charge. And it's OK to chuckle at that coarse humor and still vote Democratic. The PC brigades may find this hard to believe, but shock jocks do quite well with black listeners and with traditional Democratic demographics, such as college graduates and city dwellers. No, Stern and Don Geronimo and Tom Leykis have no interest whatsoever in having Dick Gephardt on the show, at least not unless he's going to remove his pants. And no, they would say, there's no politics on their shows. (Sabo tells DJs who want to be talk-show hosts: "If the topic is national politics, abortion, gun control, death penalty, religion, race, we have no interest. If the topics are movies, TV, personal relationships, your strong personal feelings, stuff about the workplace—things people under 90 talk about, we'd love to hear your tape.") But even if Stern wannabes don't address abortion directly, their daily diet of searingly intimate conversation with callers hits many of those hot-button issues, and they do it almost unfailingly from a left-libertarian perspective—they are classic social liberals.
Shock jocks arethis country's progressive talkers, ranting for hours on end on behalf of civil liberties, sexual freedom, the rights of the little guy against the nation's big corporations and institutions (and—sorry, Dems—againstaffirmative action). They may not share Limbaugh's fascination with electoral politics, but on the issues that divide this country into red and blue, they are every bit as popular and powerful as the supposedly unchallenged conservatives. Shock jocks talk about sex, television, and what's hot. They talk about what people are talking about, which, if you listen carefully, usually are exactly the same issues that determine how people vote: personal freedom, mores, economic well-being, family, what it's like to be a guy or a woman or an American right now.
If Democrats are serious about getting into radio, they need to get out of the church and into the fray, into the issues that make people shout. No one in talk radio has ever devoted a show to prescription drugs policy—no conservative, no shock jock, no one. Ever. But war and personal rights and family and choice … the audience is waiting.