Am Talk Radio Hosts – No one set out to turn the airwaves into a political weapon, let alone replace talk radio hosts as the ideological force of a major American political party. Instead, the story of how the GOP establishment lost its grip on the Republican message, and ultimately the party itself, begins with rabid AM radio executives and former Top 40 disc jockey Rush Limbaugh.
In the late 1980s, AM radio was desperate for new content. Listeners migrated to FM because the music sounded better there, and advertising dollars followed. Talk radio formats offered a lifeline—unique programming that FM lacked. And on August 1, 1988, Limbaugh made his national debut. At first, Limbaugh didn’t want to become a political force, he was there to have fun and make money. Limbaugh’s show was a departure from the steady, largely nonpartisan, interview- and caller-driven programs common in earlier radio. Instead, Limbaugh was the consummate showman who thrilled listeners by being crazy and funny and pushing boundaries by offering something many Americans had never heard before.
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Limbaugh has conveyed his politics through everything from soap opera teasers to humorous casting choices; In one that won the Persian Gulf War, Betty White portrayed First Lady Barbara Bush, while Limbaugh played James Earl Jones as General Colin Powell; “Caller abortions” in which the sounds of screaming and vacuuming drowned out the sound on the other end of the phone.
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Noting Limbaugh’s success, radio executives began hiring conservative hosts, first local personalities and then national names such as G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Reagan to fill the schedule on an expanding number of talk stations.
Although leading Republicans were slow to grasp the medium’s political potential, by the mid-1990s talk radio was an integral element of Republican communications strategy. It was a boost for Republicans as they sought to establish an agenda and work to win elections. Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, relayed information to the hosts, spoke with them regularly, and generally saw talk radio as an ideal way to reach their base with messages and learn how the nation’s voters felt about key issues.
Many on the left have assumed that the landlords are puppets, plugging the policies that Gingrich and others want. But selling the GOP message has never been the hosts’ priority. In my research into the history of conservative talk radio, the executives, producers, and hosts I interviewed repeatedly told me that their main goal every day was to produce the best radio show that could deliver the largest audience that tuned in. for as long as possible.
Over time, this focus on the commercial imperatives of AM radio will change policy. To keep audiences engaged and entertained, hosts became increasingly active over the years in portraying politics as war, and began targeting moderates in the Republican Party.
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In its early stages, conservative talk radio displayed a pragmatic streak that would sound foreign today. In 1994, Limbaugh warned against single-question voting. He advised viewers (he had a television show from 1992 to 1996) not to run against Mitt Romney, a Republican who was then running as a moderate against liberal Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. As Limbaugh explained, electing Romney, despite his lack of conservative fervor, would be a step “in the right direction.”
The hosts never liked moderates and never hesitated to criticize them for actions inconsistent with the hosts’ vision of the country. But they understood that such numbers were crucial to securing a majority without which their preferred agenda would not have a shot.
But this tension began to break down as the 2000s progressed. In 2005, in a tirade sparked by Republicans voting on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Limbaugh declared: “There is no such thing as moderation. A moderate is just a liberal mask, and they’re doing everything they can to deflect the conservative agenda.” He considered such behavior “unacceptable” and read to the listeners the names of the Republicans who did not vote. Even so, Limbaugh still resolutely refrained from calling for those Republicans to lose.
A year later, Sean Hannity showed that things were changing even more during a conversation with a caller that only pissed off Republican or RINO senators. Hannity agreed, and it wasn’t just moderate senators who drew their ire. Hannity openly included Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom are generally conservative but have strayed from the party line on several key issues. (Sherwood Boehlert, a true Republican moderate, quipped to me in an interview that “McCain is no more moderate than I am a Communist.”)
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As the number of ideological moderates declined, the definition of RINOism expanded. Any Republican who sought compromise or rejected political warfare found himself targeted by the conservative media. This will only increase year by year, and not just for political reasons. Broadcasters facing fiercer competition for conservative audiences from right-wing digital outlets like RedState and
In the battle for a dedicated audience, allies became enemies. Former House Speaker John Boehner explained what that means for Republicans by telling
, “”I’ve always liked Rush [Limbaugh]. When I would go to Palm Beach, I would always meet up with Rush and we would go golfing. But you know who that right-wing guy was, [Mark] Levin? Levin launched in New York in 2002 and entered national syndication in 2006. ] Hannity to the dark side. He pulled Rush to the dark side. And these guys, I talked to them all the time. And suddenly they beat the living crap out of me.”
And by 2009, the Rubicon was crossed. Limbaugh called for defeating the eight House Republicans who voted in favor of a carbon cap-and-trade system, though hardline conservatives likely failed to win seats. Indeed, in 2010 and 2012, the conservative media largely supported early conservative primary challenges against Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware (in the Senate race) and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, both heavy favorites to win the general election. Instead, both fell in the primaries, with their more conservative, radio-friendly opponents losing to Democrats.
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It was a price worth paying for conservative landlords. Having a party that stood for something and was willing to fight for it was far more important than a few seats here or there. Turning politics into a blood sport and removing moderates from the team has made for good, passionate radio, coupled with listener frustration. Crucially, because landlords had no responsibility to govern, they did not have to worry about the political or electoral consequences of such a stance.
Even so, the landlords had amassed enough power that elected Republicans should heed their demands. Many listeners spent more time with their favorite hosts than with their spouses; So when an announcer promoted a major competitor or denounced someone as a RINO, listeners took it as advice from a friend. In low-turnout primaries where information was often scarce, conservative media could help decide the race.
In the 2010s, the business needs of talk radio further disrupted traditional political hierarchies. With moderates all but gone, the war on RINOs has often focused on Republican leaders like Boehner, whose fault was simply an unwillingness to adopt the fast-track tactics the landlords demanded. Hosts criticized them with increasing regularity while praising a new crop of political superstars who generally have minimal power on Capitol Hill. But they were perfect for talk radio; they spewed extreme rhetoric, saw the world in black-and-white terms, and advocated the most extreme tactics possible. Rep. Mark Meadows, Rep. Jim Jordan, and Sen. Ted Cruz became the soap operas that talk radio has always been, and the RINOs and Republican leadership were as much villains as the Democrats or the mainstream media.
The new political landscape has stymied Republican leaders’ ability to pass legislation, leading to constant distractions, epitomized by the longest government shutdown in history in the winter of 2018-19, when President Donald Trump heeded the calls of Limbaugh and others to fight back, though leading to victory. there was really no viable way.
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This episode, unfortunately, showed the new reality for the Republican Party. over three decades, the titans of talk have made the party in their image, and elected Republicans now look more like the number of commentators on AM or its cable equivalent, Fox. News Channel, where Hannity has hosted the show since 1996, than what was previously heard in the halls of Congress. While that was attractive to radio and television, it left an increasingly extremist party with little capacity to govern and voters in the suburbs or young and non-white.
Trump’s presidency is the ultimate testament to the power of talk-radio conservatism. During one week last month, the president not only called into Hannity’s show, but tweeted on a separate evening: “Oh well, we still have the great @seanhannity who I hear has a really strong show tonight. 21:00″. He also reportedly speaks regularly with Hannity. And last
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