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The surprising story about the birth of conservative talk-radio — and how it has shaped the modern GOP

04 / 08 / 2020

I recently had a fascinating conversation on the podcast with Brian Rosenwald of the The Washington Post. Brian is the author of Talk Radio’s America: How An Industry Took Over A Political Party That Took Over The United States. The following transcript has been edited for length.


So, let’s start at the beginning. I actually remember, back in 1988, when Rush Limbaugh was just about to go national. I was a kid, and the only reason I know this is because he was on the Oprah Winfrey show. She actually was ahead of it. On her national show, she saw that Rush was about to be a syndicated voice and that he was very controversial. And people didn’t know who he was. But I remember that. I remember that 30 years later because of who Rush Limbaugh became, and because nobody had any idea or saw him coming. Talk about your premise for the book, and the misunderstanding people have about how talk-radio on the right really came to be this force.


Well, I think what people get wrong so often is that they see the rise of talk-radio as, oh, it must’ve been some political machinations. That there was some meeting. Richard Nixon hated the mainstream media, and somebody said, “Well, let’s sit down and build a right-wing bypass.” And yes, it’s true that Roger Ailes had the idea of a conservative network in the early ’70s, and Nixon and Spiro Agnew did rail about the media. Those things are all true. But the modern conservative media happens really by accident. And the accident is the talent of Rush Limbaugh, basically. AM radio is desperate for new content in the ’80s. AM radio has been struggling now for a couple of decades because as soon as FM gets in the cars, people realize that music sounds better on FM.

So, they try talk. They say, “Music is going to fail, so we might as well take our shot with this other thing.” And they start to see really big ratings growth for anything that is talk. And then Rush Limbaugh comes along. In 1984, if somebody says to you, “This Limbaugh guy is going to be the next political powerhouse” — you would have laughed in their faces. We’re talking about the guy who at the time had just gone to Sacramento to start doing a radio show there, who had been fired five times as a DJ in the ’70s because he wasn’t very good at listening to his bosses…He does group sales and marketing for the Kansas City Royals. And he is so miserable by the end of his time with the team that he’s hoping they’re going to lose, and get knocked out in the playoffs because he wants the season to be over. And he goes back to radio. He gets fired again in Kansas City because he ripped the Chiefs management while his station was trying to get the Chiefs broadcasting contract…

But he gets lucky. A guy who’s programming on the station in Kansas City who had seen his talent, his partner’s programming KFBK in Sacramento, and they have to fire Morton Downey because he says something racist. And their owner says to the station manager, “Well, you’ve got two choices. Either he can go, or you both can go. It’s really up to you.” So Downey gets fired, and they bring Limbaugh in, and he takes off. He becomes the local star in Sacramento doing a show that is a lot more fun and playful than what he does today, but is basically a lot of the same shtick; “excursion in broadcasting excellence,” — and all of that kind of stuff. And he’s fun. He’s brash, he’s controversial, he’s in your face. He’s things that people have never heard before.

And I won’t get into a lot of the nitty-gritty of how he gets discovered and ends up national, but August 1st, of ’88, he launches this national show. And this is a moment when the rules in talk-radio, in so much as talk-radio even exists at this point — and there are only a couple hundred talk stations in America — are that it’s got to be local to succeed. The people want to talk about what’s going on in city hall, what their governor did, a stoplight that’s not working on Elm Street. They want to talk about those things that affect their lives. The blizzard coming, you name it. And that the only time slot that nationally syndicated radio works is Larry King’s overnight slot. The overnight hours are zanier, this thing can work…

And the idea is that the show was to be built around callers and interviews, and Limbaugh throws it all in his head. He’s nationally syndicated. He takes far fewer callers than anybody else. He does far fewer interviews, almost no interviews. The first interview is not until 1992 when he’s got Vice President Quayle and President Bush on. And it’s all about his ideas, what he’s thinking, what he feels like talking about in the moment. He’s doing parodies and skits… But he’s also got a conservative message embedded in all of this. He is talking about the politics they grew up with around his dinner table, and people flock to the show. They love it, and they’re saying, “Rush, thank God you’re on the air. We finally have a voice.” And this has the light bulb go off for radio executives.


To be clear and for the record, I totally disagree with Rush Limbaugh’s politics and I abhor a lot of what he says. But we’re talking about how this came to be a business and an industry and then its political implications. And I remember even in the ‘90s — most people wouldn’t even know this — you’ll know it. Mike Pence, he’d lost twice for Congress and he was a radio guy. Just a very boring — the opposite of Rush — very boring radio guy in Indiana before he finally got elected to Congress. 


Well, you get a chain of dominoes, Michael, that goes off where people in the radio business, they like to tell you, “Hey, we’re not the most creative lot of people. We’re lemmings.” Because the first question their boss is going to ask them when they program something is, where’s this working? Because if you try something new and it fails, you’re next in the line. If you do something that somebody else is doing and it fails, well, you were just trying what made sense at that point. And so they start going towards more and more conservative shows and then the first couple of all conservative stations succeed in liberal markets — Seattle and San Francisco. And then it becomes idiom in the business, right at the moment that the business is going to consolidate because of the telecommunications act of 1996 and other things. They become the idiom that the format that works is all “conservative talk.”

So, you get these stations that are all conservative. And right about the same moment, especially in 1993, 1994, right in there, you get the Republican revolution. The Newt Gingrich-led revolution that catapults Republicans back into power in the House for the first time since 1955….Most hosts are local at this point, and they’ve emceed rallies, and they’ve hosted Republican challengers, and they’ve run down Democratic incumbents, and they’ve encouraged people to vote. And it becomes an outlet for the newly elected members of Congress to work around mainstream media — which they think is hopelessly biased — and have a pleasant conversation so that when they do something that a host doesn’t like, he can still say, “Congressman Jones is a good guy. Good guy, he got this one wrong, but he’s a good guy.”

And they can go on and have a conversation and tell people what they’re doing. And they’re talking to the host who they might’ve seen at the barbecue Saturday night. They have these relationships because these are communities. And so Republicans get it, they get that this is where their base is gravitating rapidly, and they get that there’s a political benefit to them to being heard and that they can get their message out. And they start building outreach operations that are pumping out talking points, and segment ideas, and one-page memos on issues and potential guests. They invite hosts to the Capitol to broadcast and get a steady stream of congressmen on. Republicans move to capitalize on this. And Democrats are actually not that far behind. In fact, Bill Clinton is ahead of anybody else in getting this.

And it’s only over time that the Democrats sour. They say, “We can’t even get a fair shake.” And I’m not even sure that that judgment was right in that yes, there are better places for Democrats to go to find their base, but every Democrat I talked to who was a talk radio regular, said, “I get treated better by these guys. They don’t demonize me in the same way.” They’ll say, “I think he’s wrong about everything, but at least he has the guts to come on and talk to me every week.” And there’s a concern I think among Democrats, that you’re going to go on and get screamed at.


And by the way, in the book I wrote, Unlock Congress, it talks about how few competitive districts are left because of what I call “rigged” House races especially, but this is exactly right. These are niche audiences. That’s why, if you thought about this, it was going to be a success from the get-go, because the right didn’t really have that. And so maybe it’s a smaller audience by some measure, but in these local communities, I don’t care if it’s Seattle or whatever, you’re going to have a niche that’s dedicated and loyal. 

So you and I first met a couple of years ago, ironically, because I submitted an idea to you at the Washington Post. And you guys took me up on it, and then I wrote an op-ed. It was about how Nixon’s staff in the late ’60s, early ’70s had this 15-page memo about wanting to have their own network of local TV news operations. And then Roger Ailes got a hold of it, and he wrote all these notes in the margin. And then 25 years later it happened. And my point was that it’s also protected Trump. That if Nixon had that, he might not have resigned the presidency. So tell me, are those just two totally different tracks, Brian, the TV and the radio, where do they intersect along the way?


Well, the intersection is Limbaugh. Again, 1992 he starts a television show that would run late night in a lot of markets or early, early in the morning, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a multimedia syndicated television show. And most people will admit, I think including him, that he was better on the radio, that that was his first love going back to his childhood, that he really loved radio and that his TV show was nothing special. It was the same shtick as radio, except he only had 24 minutes, and they had images and people would send them videos and stuff. And he does four years of this. The significant reason, the reason I bring it up is the executive producer of that television show, and Limbaugh’s friend and the guy who actually took him to the White House the first time was Roger Ailes.

So my suspicion, and the only person who would know this for sure is Roger Ailes, and he’s obviously taken his secrets beyond the place I can reach, is that Ailes sees the success of Limbaugh. He sees what’s going on. And that he says, “This is a moment that’s auspicious for relaunching that idea I had in the ’70s, for a conservative-leaning TV network,” and builds it on the model of Limbaugh. Which is to say that it is combative, it is full of opinion, it is entertainment first — it’s infotainment. What I call “infotainment,” which is that you can get information from it, but it’s focused primarily on holding an audience. It’s about what do we have to do to hold the audience, to keep them engaged. When they have a panel, so my favorite example is The Five, where it’s four conservatives and a liberal. It’s designed for the liberal to lose. Why? So a conservative viewer can see their values being upheld. Their side winning.


All of this flipped at a certain point, and I want to quote you on this. You wrote: “Limbaugh once declared, there’s no such thing as a moderate. A moderate is just a liberal disguised, and they are doing everything they can to derail the conservative agenda.” And I want to quote you once more and then let you take it from there. You wrote: “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 bloodsport and kicking moderates off the team made for good, passionate radio, and meshed with listeners’ frustrations. Crucially, because hosts had no responsibility to govern, they didn’t have to worry about the policy or electoral consequences of such a stance.” So talk about that, how all of a sudden this thing went off the rails for a lot of moderate and establishment Republicans —who up to that point had benefited. 


What makes this so interesting in the political process, is that (conservative hosts) are the only powerful force here in politics where their number one goal every day is not politics. 

At the Republican Senate Committee, they wake up every morning saying, “How are we going to protect our incumbents and elect new Republicans?” In the White House, they wake up every morning and say, “How can we boost President Trump’s approval ratings. Through policy, through politics, whatever we’re doing, what’s good for us politically?” But talk hosts say, “What do we have to do, to do the best show today? What does our audience care about? What are people talking about around water coolers?”

That’s what they’re going to engage on, and they have their finger on the pulse of the audience, and they don’t want to lose the bond that they’ve cemented with that audience. The friendship that they’ve built with people who might be listening to them 15 hours a week. And to do that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that what they’re doing is good for the Republican electoral prospects, or the Republican policy agenda at any given moment. They want to reflect where their audience is, they want to be authentic. They want to do things in the most entertaining way, which does not mean sitting there and explaining why they just sold the farm in a compromise, or something like that because, spoiler, that’s not very good radio. Your nuance doesn’t sound good. 


Right. Yelling sounds good. Or, appealing to people’s passions, especially if they’re going to listen to politics. People have an opinion. It’s part of that self-affirmation bias that we talk about on the MSNBC and FOX News, isn’t that some of it? They’re communicating to an audience. That’s who they care about.


Right. The best radio is emotional. Radio is what we call a hot medium, unlike television. The job of a host, what a host wants to do is reach out through that radio set, and have you sitting in your car, in the driveway because you don’t want to miss what they’re saying. It’s emotional in some way. Whether it makes you angry, whether it makes you sad, whether it makes you happy and feel like, “Hey, somebody is fighting for me.” That’s what they’re trying to do. And to do that is often at odds with what Republicans need. If they need to raise the debt ceiling, for example, which nobody actually likes doing, but is a must, Republicans don’t want to sit there and have to explain how all the leading economists said you have to do… All this stuff is bad radio. Your average host doesn’t want to do that. And Republicans may need to do that because they’re governing, and that’s the way it goes.

And so, you see these goals where hosts are pushing for people who stick to their principles. They say, “If these guys would just fight for you, they might get something done. They might actually achieve those promises they made to us.” And you get the heroes by the 2010s, and we’re flashing forward a little bit, but the heroes on this medium by the 2010s are people like Mark Meadows, the new White House Chief of Staff, or Jim Jordan, or Ted Cruz, or Tom Massie, the guy who made everybody come back to Washington, who spoke on the Coronavirus bill…

Those guys can now become heroes. Those guys go on these shows and they say, “God, we wish we had a Congress full of Meadows.” And the RINOs, the Republicans In Name Only, who when this starts are moderates, true moderates, people who today would probably be Democrats. As they fade away, it starts to be the Republican leaders, “Oh, that Boehner sold us out again. Or that Paul Ryan, I can’t stand that guy.” Those types of people get perceived as sellouts. And what happens is the Republicans move further right, and not just further to the right, but further towards combat politics — further towards a place where the paradigm becomes Donald Trump.


So well said. All right, last question. And this one we’re going to broaden it out, and I’m going to wind you up for it. So, not just radio, but television. I’m talking about the last 30 years, but especially the last 15 years or so of the cable networks, and their soaring popularity. And this is a little bit of a chicken and egg question, but I’d love to get your take because you study all this. This is your wheelhouse. There’s so much division in this country right now, and there’s just no question about it. There are different types, but our civil discourse is not what it was.

Even when we thought there was crazy partisanship back in ’94 when Gingrich took over and Clinton was president, these guys talked offline. They were getting stuff done, part of it was an act. Today with social media, not just cable, social media too, but a lot of it is fed by the cable networks. How much does the proliferation of all of this modern media have to do with the division in this country, and the way people talk to each other — or don’t talk to each other anymore? The way that campaigns attack each other? Or is it not that much worse and we just didn’t live in the era of the Civil War, and we just look at it differently because of modern technology?


Well, first of all, I don’t know that politics is any dirtier or uglier than it was in the nineteenth century when they were saying, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” And the Democrats were responding, “Gone to the White House, hahaha.” Politics is ugly, and it’s always been ugly. You’ve always had nasty campaigns. But where this stuff matters is as part of a bigger picture, which is that we’re becoming more and more insular as a country. We are living in echo chambers. Your average conservative, if you go down their blocks right now, my guess is first of all, that they have Donald Trump signs on every lawn, or most lawns. And your neighbors agree with you. We’re seeing far fewer split-ticket voters, far fewer crossovers, where a senator can win in a state that their presidential candidate didn’t win. You’re getting red states, blue states, red districts, blue districts.

And some of that is gerrymandering in house. Some of that is that people are geographically sorting. Liberals are living in urban areas and suburbs, conservatives are living in exurbs and in rural areas. And you’re getting this geographic polarization, and the media then exacerbates that. Your average conservative probably wakes up in the morning, flips on Fox and Friends. They might get in the car to go to work and they’re listening to the local AM conservative radio station, which has usually a local host in the morning drive because it’s the most lucrative part of the day for a station. They might get to the office, and if they get a lunch break, they might tune into Rush. On the way home, it’s Hannity or in a bigger market, a local conservative host. Then they’re going to flip on FOX at night. If they’re checking news during the day, it’s Breitbart, it’s Red State, it’s Town Hall, it’s Daily Caller. It’s websites like that.

Whereas, your average liberal is waking up to put Morning Edition on. They might watch Morning Joe when they’re at home. They listen to NPR in the car, they’re checking The New York Times, the Washington Post. They might flip on Huffington Post or Daily Kos, or some left-leaning site. They come home at night, they got MSNBC on, they want to see Maddow and Chris Hayes, and those kinds of things. And that’s for the mainstream liberal. They’re listening to Pod Save America, things like that. And these are totally different worlds. If you’ve ever been in a gym, or a place like that, and you have one television with MSNBC, one television with CNN, one television with FOX and you watch the A-story block, the first 10, 15 minutes of the hour, what you’re going to find is that they’re not even on the same planets. You’re like, “Was this the same Tuesday? What’s going on here?”


The rundowns are like alternative universes. And that breaks my heart, Brian, almost more than the yelling. If I record Laura Ingraham, or whatever block in FOX, and then I flip over to that after I’ve watched half an hour on MSNBC or CNN — what they’re covering — you would think they’re in two different countries that just happen to speak the same language.

Brian Rosenwald:

It’s true. And I think it’s dangerous because what we’re forgetting is that we often have more in common than we think we do. That when you actually sit down with a lot of these people, that your values are not that different, it’s the way you get to the endpoint where the differences are. If we can agree on a common set of facts, so we could debate policy, we could debate this. It’s impossible, if you’ve ever gotten someone who’s programmed, so to speak, by these things, and I don’t mean to say they’re brainwashed, or that there’s a puppet master out there pulling the marionette strings. What I mean is somebody who’s getting this misinformation. Limbaugh has been off for most of the last two weeks for his cancer treatment. He did a call-in last week for 30 minutes on his own show. He starts out joking around saying, “Mr. Matthews,” to his substitute host, “I got around the call screener because, of course, I built this operation. So I know how to get around it and circumvent it.” But then he starts talking about how, “Well, why are we trusting these doctors? … The epidemiologists in the government? They’re just another variant of the deep state.” And I’m thinking to myself, and here’s a guy with lung cancer who’s pretty much at very high risk of this virus, and he’s spreading what is a conspiracy theory, in essence. And so, if you get somebody who starts buying into that stuff, it’s impossible to dislodge. There’s nothing you can do to break it off.


Brian, I love your writing and I love what you’re doing. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. Thank you.

Brian: Michael, my pleasure.