Are liberals really ready for their own Limbaugh?
a group of wealthy Democrats plans to start a new radio network in hopes
of creating liberal talk-show alternatives to Rush Limbaugh.
does this strike me as the silliest idea I've heard since Jimmy Carter
decided to ward off an alleged killer rabbit with a canoe paddle? I'm
all for strong liberal voices to offset the demagoguery and drivel-cum-diatribe
that pass for dialogue in the conservative-dominated universe of talk
radio. But what makes these Democrats think they can just snap their fingers,
wave their greenbacks and -- voila -- millions of Americans will suddenly
wantto hear Al Franken make daily drive-time fun of John Ashcroft?
has been much talk recently about conservative control of the airwaves.
Limbaugh has 15 million to 20 million listeners daily, and the equally
conservative Sean Hannity, the country's No. 2-rated talk-show host, has
more than 10 million. Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage, G. Gordon Liddy and
others who approach politics from somewhere to the right of Attila the
Hun are also hugely successful.
these men didn't lure their big audiences because some conservative Daddy
Warbucks anointed them. They've succeeded because their message -- and
their means of delivering that message -- struck a responsive chord with
a huge number of alienated Americans.
they were helped by the dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC
in 1987. Limbaugh's show went into national syndication the next year,
and its rapid growth -- from 56 stations to 660 -- was certainly fueled
by a long-standing, widespread feeling among conservatives that the mainstream
media have a liberal bias.
also benefited from the presence in the White House through most of the
1990s of Bill Clinton as fornicator-in-chief. Clinton was the ideal foil
for someone of Limbaugh's antediluvian ideology and loathsome methodology.
(Limbaugh once asked on his now-defunct TV show, "Did you know there's
a White House dog?" -- at which point he displayed a photograph of
Chelsea Clinton, then 13.)
I was appalled by the arrogance and the stupidity Clinton demonstrated
in his relationships with women, I also think that behavior was a subject
for him and his wife -- not the national media -- to deal with. He was
a good president, and given his essentially centrist ideology, I still
don't understand why he engendered such nasty reactions among conservatives.
But engender them he did, and Limbaugh exploited and exacerbated those
feelings with his entertaining, smash-mouth brand of talk radio.
became a hit, and station owners across the fruited plain rushed to find
say station owners hired conservative talk-show hosts because the owners
themselves are conservatives. There's probably some truth to that. But
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, the magazine that covers the talk
radio industry, told me recently, "I can remember hearing a lot of
owners say, 'I've got this guy Limbaugh, and I can't stand his politics,
but he's making me a ton of money.'
are only guided by two things," Harrison says, "ratings and
revenue. If owners thought liberals would bring them ratings and revenue,
you'd have liberals on every station."
suspect that Harrison exaggerates. After all, liberals are more likely
to criticize big business, to argue for environmental legislation and
to take other stands that would be likely to offend advertisers accustomed
to Limbaugh-like cosseting. Offend your advertisers, and your revenue
there have been liberal talk-show hosts in the past -- among them, former
governors Mario Cuomo of New York, Jerry Brown of California and Douglas
Wilder of West Virginia.
were boring," Harrison says. "Limbaugh is the most impressive
radio personality of the last 50 years. He's very talented. Cuomo was
elitist and arrogant. Brown was too wonky. No one liked listening to any
of those liberals. Conservatives are not taking jobs away from liberals.
They're taking jobs away from less talented hosts."
think they've been unable to match the conservative success on talk radio
because are too reasonable, too willing to consider both sides of an issue,
too concerned with nuance and complexity.
the best liberal talk-show host in this city's history -- Michael Jackson
-- is all those things. Moreover, he is intelligent, unfailingly polite
and -- unlike Limbaugh -- he does his homework so that he can actually
be (gasp!) accurate on the air. But Jackson, after more than 30 years
on talk radio, is also out of work.
course, it's self-serving for a liberal to say, "Gee, I'm not successful
in this stupid, nasty medium because I'm too nice and too smart."
There's clearly more to it than that.
that's why the people behind the idea of a liberal radio network plan
to produce not just a talk show or two but -- to quote the New York Times
-- "a 14-hour, daily slate of commercial programs that would heavily
rely on comedy and political satire."
liberals do have a sense of humor (Woody Allen is a lot funnier than Bob
Hope), and they've long been leaders in political satire (I'd bet that
every good satirist from Jonathan Swift to the entire cast of "Saturday
Night Live" would have voted for Paul Newman over John Wayne for
president). So maybe this liberal network idea sounds reasonable enough
on the surface. ("Dial 'KLIB' and laugh your way to and from work
listening to Will Ferrell impersonating George W. Bush impersonating the
president of the United States.")
do people want to mix politics and entertainment -- not politics done
in an entertaining fashion but politics masquerading as entertainment
-- several hours every day?
liberals feel as disenfranchised as Limbaugh's dittoheads did when he
began? If so, is there a liberal out there who could capitalize on that
feeling -- Robin Williams reprising "Good Morning, Vietnam"
as "Good Morning, Beverly Hills"?
W. Bush had lower SAT scores than my 12-year-old son, and he's been about
as successful in pursuing Osama bin Laden as my 96-year-old mother would
be. But despite a recent decline, Bush remains high in the polls, and
as potential talk-show fodder, his embrace of Enron's "Kenny boy"
Lay doesn't begin to compare with Clinton's embrace -- if you can call
it that -- of Monica Lewinsky.
with bombs about to fall on Baghdad, just whom would the liberal talk-show
hosts and satirists target? Who would be their Bill Clinton?
is Trent Lott now that we really need him?
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.