Commentary: Congressman Billybob sez

Dec. 12, 2002 at 7:46 PM
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HIGHLANDS, N.C., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Truth about the Yap Gap

This here's the 328th Report ta the Folks Back Home from the (More er Less) Honorable Billybob, cyberCongressman from Western Carolina.

This is about talk radio, n why it's so conservative. Now yer Congresscritter lacks ta talk. They's nuttin better'n ta set a spell onna porch with friends, have a libation, n swap lies azza sun goes down.

But ma able assistant, J. Armor, Esq., izza eggspert in talk radio, so I'll turn this over ta him.

Truth about the Yap Gap

The New York Times ran an article Sunday on the "gap" between liberals and conservatives on American talk radio, "Why the Right Rules the Radio Waves." They almost got the story right (here, meaning "correct"). C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" Sunday morning also took on the subject, but wasn't close to getting the story right.

Both discussions followed criticisms the week before by former majority leader of the Senate, Tom Daschle, and by once and former Democrat candidate for president, Al Gore. While both men complained about three conservative media outlets "conspiring" to attack them, they did not explain how this somehow overwhelmed the umpteen media outlets which praise them and take them seriously. Today I rise to the defense of talk radio, which Messrs. Daschle and Gore singled out as villains of the piece.

Last week Bill Clinton, former president and candidate for a Better Legacy, named the same villain, saying, "They have a destruction machine. We don't have a destruction machine." If he noticed any destructive tendencies in ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN, or especially NPR, he didn't mention them. He seems to have forgotten a comment by former President Truman, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Talk radio is not newly conservative or combative. It has always been that way. What is new is its real power as a political medium.

First, I put my prejudices on the table. I favor talk radio as it exists today and has existed, though far less noticed or influential as a political force, for forty years. I started doing occasional call-in shows in 1968 on WBAL, 50,000 watts out of Baltimore, Maryland, at night with host Chuck Bowles. I've accepted every opportunity since. Most recently, I've been on-air in the morning with Phil Paleologos out of Boston/New Bedford on "American Breakfast" carried nationally by Langer Broadcasting, and regionally with Jerry Agar on WPTF, 50,000 watts out of Raleigh, N.C., in the afternoon.

Talk radio is a specialized medium. Most Americans, when they're scanning the dial on their car or home radio, will hear a clip that says, "I'm outraged about...." and immediately punch the button to get something offering music, not talk. Those with the opposite taste -- who look for, listen to, participate in, and are the reason for talk radio -- are a special breed.

Begin with this point, which the Times recognized but immediately shied away from, and C-SPAN missed almost entirely: Talk radio is market-driven. If your show attracts listeners, it will attract advertisers. If it attracts advertisers, the station or the network will be happy, and you'll stay on the air. The opposite is also true. If the listeners "stay away in droves," in Yogi Berra's famous phrase, then your show will lose advertisers and be canceled in short order.

The Times did note the following liberal talk show hosts had been given slots on the air, but had been canceled for low ratings: Gloria Allred, Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo and Alan Dershowitz. The logical next question was, "Why did listeners avoid these shows?" The answer to that question was both obvious, and dangerous to the ideology of the Times, so they avoided it.

Here's the answer: most radio talk shows are conservative because most listeners to talk radio are conservative. That's what the "free market of ideas" is all about, to use Tom Jefferson's old phrase that's been quoted a time or two by the Supreme Court. This only requires what Robert Frost called "a keen eye for the obvious."

In case that's too hard to grasp, here are some examples no one can misunderstand. Why does Chevy sell more cars than Ford? Because more people want Chevys. Why does McDonalds sell more hamburgers than Wendy's? Because more people choose McDonalds. Why does AOL sell more online access than any other portal (though I personally wouldn't touch AOL with a 10-foot pole)? Because more people select AOL.

The liberals who get their panties in a bunch over the conservatism of talk radio argue that there "should" be more liberal shows. There ought to be "balance." This misses the whole point of free markets --- and few examples better display open competition than talk radio. Some liberal shows survive in some markets. But in most markets they do not survive because too few people want them. When you could lose your listeners overnight because people stop tuning in to hear you, you must understand your listeners.

Here's what I've learned about talk radio listeners from more than a third of a century of calls. 1) They are intelligent and well educated. (Whether they have formal education or self-learning doesn't matter. Educated is as educated speaks.) 2) Most live and work in the real world, meaning they are not in academics, government, politics, or the media. (That fact alone guarantees a more conservative audience than average.) 3)Most have families, and are working to support them. 4)Most care very deeply about where America is headed in the future.

In short, the audience for talk radio has always been conservative. For the foreseeable future, it will remain that way, given the backgrounds of those who call in. Look at studies by Gallup or any other reputable pollster. Those who are educated, married with children, and working in the private sector are a generally conservative group.

Why? Because they feel the impact of taxes and regulation. Because they worry for their job security. But mostly because they are concerned about the kind of schools their children have, the kind of communities they live in, and the kind of world in which their children and grandchildren will grow up. All those factors tend to make them conservative.

Does this mean none of them are liberals? Does this mean that liberals have no voice in this medium? Absolutely not. Nothing attracts an audience like a good scrap. Talk radio is the (usually) polite equivalent of a schoolyard brawl. Somebody yells "Fight!" and a crowd materializes to watch the festivities. Without liberals to provoke a fight --- both as guests on-air and as callers --- talk radio would fail miserably.

So the real quarrel the chattering class has with talk radio isn't that liberal viewpoints have no voice there. It is that liberal viewpoints lose there --- they are regularly, roundly, and thoroughly debunked by the majority of conservative hosts and callers. It's like the liberal objections to the results of the recent elections. They cannot accept the idea that their candidates lost because a majority of the voters did not like their issues. So they look for some explanation, any explanation other than the plain truth, for why they lost.

Witness this explanation for the lack of liberal hosts, in the Times article: "Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University [said that] where radio conservatives have thrived by drawing hard distinctions between right and wrong, ... 'the liberal tradition ... acknowledges a diversity of people and values.' In the heat of drive-time squawk, he said, 'That's easily thrown back in their face by making them look mealy-mouthed.' "

Obviously, this "professor of media" lacks a television or has never turned it on. He has missed 11 years of James Carville, Paul Begala, Donna Brazille, and Al Sharpton, to name a few liberal talking heads little known for supporting "diversity of values," or being "mealy-mouthed."

The truth of the matter is simple, clear, and unacceptable to the mindsets of liberals. Real elections come only once every two or four years (well, six for U.S. senators). But on talk radio, "elections" are conducted daily -- morning, noon and night -- on every subject under the sun. The liberals are upset that they are losing most of those "elections," also.

Since talk radio has been around so long, why has it suddenly moved to the front burner for discussion? Because talk radio is now more than mere entertainment. It has become a political player. The Internet has made a world of unfiltered knowledge available to every radio host who has a computer and can type. And it has also done that for the listeners --- who are much more likely to be wired to the Internet than Americans in general (which has now passed the clickover point of half of all households).

Any issue that matters to any large group of Americans WILL be on talk radio within minutes of becoming known, no matter what it is or where it happened. This is not just communications theory; it has consequences. Consider the Tennessee legislature last year where mostly Democrat leaders, with some Republicans, tried repeatedly to push through a new, first-ever income tax. Even when they thought they'd cobbled together the votes at 11 p.m., opponents were on their cell phones to talk show hosts, talk show hosts were on the air to listeners, and the Capitol was surrounded by angry citizens. And in the next election, many legislators either declined to run again, or ran and were defeated.

That fight was not localized to Tennessee. Via the Internet, maybe a million Americans followed the Tennessee income tax fight minute by minute (me included). All who were aware of the Tennessee fight learned a lesson that will apply in other fights, on other issues, in other states and nationally. This brace of lightning-fast horses --- talk radio and the Internet --- are hauling a battle wagon of angry Americans who will cause political consequences of increasing magnitude.

This is not guesswork. This is not opinion. This is fact. And frankly, as a player in these venues, I find this an important, valuable, and delightful turn of events.

One last comment about politics. I distrust the labels "liberal" and "conservative." Both are partly false and miss many nuances about the reality of political positions and why people take them. After all, the underlying labels of "left" and "right" are derived from where people sat on a French tennis court in 1791. That's not a reliable basis to understand modern American politics. But I digress.

Studies show that only about 1 percent, far less for some shows, of all the listeners to talk radio ever bother to pick up a phone and join in. Most of you avoid talk radio altogether. Here's an open invitation: Listen in, call in, take part. I'd be delighted to hear from you, and so would any of the thousands of hosts on national and local radio shows across the country.

Believe me, you'll be welcome if you have a clear point of view and can express it in a few well-chosen sentences. Humor is a big plus. If you can make us laugh while discussing an issue, we'll send you a bouquet of roses with a nice note. Electronically speaking, of course.

You're welcome to join us regardless of where you stand on the issues of the day -- regardless of where you would have chosen to sit on that tennis court at Versailles in 1791 before the French Revolution. Tell the hosts that Congressman Billybob sent you.


(About the Author: Congressman Billybob is fictitious, but prolific, on the Internet -- the invention of John Armor, who writes books and practices law in the U.S. Supreme Court. Comments and criticisms are welcome at

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