Talk radio shapes political landscape

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111825040613070.jpg’, ”, ‘Diane Rehm’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111825123213070.jpg’, ”, ‘Chris Bowman’);

If there is any doubt about the role talk radio plays in informing people and forming local and national politics, one needs only to speak with a few local politicians and members of the media. Increasingly, they are questioning the role talk radio should play in preserving democracy—should talk radio to form our opinions or inform us about issues?

The outcome of this intense debate will likely tip the balance of reporting in public radio broadcasts, and affect the integrity of all news programs.

During the past 20 years, as federal deregulation of the airwaves was implemented and corporate radio station owners’ profits increased through mergers and acquisitions of locally-owned stations, media observers agree commercial talk radio has gravitated from informing listeners about issues to seeking to form their opinions.

Smash-mouth radio

This trend “has been very detrimental to an openness in our democratic forum,” according to Diane Rehm, host of her own longtime-running talk show on National Public Radio (NPR). Rehm has been host of some form of The Diane Rehm Show since 1979, which is broadcast nationally from WAMU in Washington, D.C., and heard locally on NPR affiliate in DeKalb WNIJ-89.5 FM.

During a June 6 interview with The Rock River Times, Rehm said: “I believe talk radio should be a means of helping people understand issues. Unfortunately, much of talk radio is now dominated by the right wing. And there are very few programs, such as mine, which offer a whole range of views so that listeners can make up their own minds.

“For example, [nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host] Rush Limbaugh says, ‘You don’t have to read newspapers. Just listen to me, and I’ll tell you what to think.’ I think that’s pretty dangerous. …

“I don’t think talk radio should be there to slam one side or slam the other or promote one side and not promote the other. …

“They’re saying: ‘This is what you must say, and this is what you must think, and this is what you must do.’ And they’ve been very successful at drumming these ideas into people’s head. Repeating with short phrases over and over and over again. A kind of sloganeering that I think has been very detrimental to an openness in our democratic forum,” Rehm said.

Several key decisions at the federal level since 1987 have helped shape what is broadcast on the publicly-owned airwaves.

According to an Oct. 13, 2003, broadcast by Terence Smith, reporter for the NewsHour on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the rise of conservative talk radio owes its existence in large part to President Ronald Reagan’s rollback in 1987 of the “fairness doctrine.” That policy required stations that used the public airwaves to present different views of controversial issues.

When the policy was discarded, Smith argued the stage was set for nationally broadcast conservative hosts such as Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, and G. Gordon Liddy to dominate radio markets. However, liberals are now attempting to balance the scale with the formation of the Air America network, which features left-wing radio talk show hosts, such as Al Franken, Jerry Springer and Janeane Garofalo.

However, Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, the industry’s trade publication, told Smith that “ratings and revenue drive radio decision-makers, not politics.”

Under transition

Ken DeCoster, local talk radio host on WNTA-1330 AM, shared a similar view with that of Harrison. DeCoster responded to a question of how talk radio show hosts are chosen by station owners by saying it’s all about ratings and how much advertising revenue a particular talent can generate for the station.

DeCoster and afternoon talk show host Stephanie Caltagerone are well known for working to inform their listeners about challenging and controversial topics, and occasionally offering their opinions.

DeCoster and Caltagerone began their careers in talk radio after the untimely death in February 2004 of popular host Chris Bowman, and the departure of Bowman’s fellow talk show host Chuck Diamond in January 2004, after Diamond’s arrest concerning a domestic disturbance involving his son.

DeCoster said: “I think Rockford is a great talk radio town. People are engaged by politics and crime, and whatever the discussion happens to be. …We receive many calls 12 hours a day, five days a week. So, I really think there’s a demand for what we offer. …

“Talk radio plays an important role in informing people about politics,” DeCoster said. As an example, he cited how all candidates in Rockford’s spring mayoral contest utilized WNTA to get their message out to citizens and voters.

He added the trend in the radio business is oriented to the “bottom line.” This means it’s often more profitable to purchase and broadcast a nationally syndicated show such as Limbaugh’s than produce a local show that addresses local issues.

With WNTA’s recent sale to Connecticut-based Maverick Media, observers wonder whether WNTA will follow the trend toward nationally syndicated broadcasts or replace current staff with local hosts that will follow the formula that has been a proven monetary success for personalities such as Limbaugh.

A representative from the station said the new owners of WNTA were not available for comment.

In line with the trend of commercial radio consolidation, Maverick Media of Westport, Conn., announced March 1 they were buying WNTA, from Radio Works—a group of six local radio stations. Plans for the purchase are expected to be complete this month.

Up to the time the station was sold, WNTA was Rockford’s only locally owned and operated talk radio outlet since 1997.

Affecting the news

The area’s other talk radio station, WROK-1330 AM, was sold by the locally-based Vernon Nolte family in 1997 to Connoisseur Communications, who owned WROK and other local stations for about two years until they sold the stations to Georgia-based Cumulus Media in November 1999.

Like Maverick Media, U.S. Department of Justice records indicate Connoisseur Communications was also headquartered in Westport, Conn.

According to retired WROK newsman Fred Speer, who reluctantly retired in December 2002 after 44 years at the station, local news coverage began to decline after local control was lost in 1997, which roughly corresponds with other federal actions that contributed to radio consolidation—the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules enacted by the Bush administration.

Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, appeared on Rehm’s Nov. 25, 2002, broadcast to discuss how the rise of corporate giants in the media has affected the quality of journalism. Kalb and other media watchers are concerned about the direction of news and talk radio programming.

According to Kalb, the FCC, under the direction of the Bush administration, increased the number of radio stations a company can own in a given market, which may further increase profits for station owners at the expense of high-quality journalism.

Kalb said: “The quest for dollars is driving corporations at the expense of quality news coverage. …News can make money, but not as much as entertainment.”

Financially successful talk show hosts such as Limbaugh combine current events, politics and entertainment that garners listeners, but concerns other hard-news broadcasters such as Rehm.

Kalb argued that high-quality news programming is a necessity if we are to maintain our democracy, which cultivates capitalism and gives rise to corporate profits.

A representative from WROK, which broadcasts shows from Limbaugh, Hannity and O’Reilly on weekdays, did not return a message for comment about this article.

However, in The Rock River Times’ Dec. 11, 2002, article “Fred Speer—A life behind the mike,” Jessie Garcia, WROK operations director at that time, said he disagreed with Speer’s assertion that news coverage declined after the station was sold to media giants. Garcia said they

were expanding their news department.

Recently, WROK hired former Winnebago County Board member and Republican mainstay Tom Seymour as a talk show host.

Changing the political landscape

As to affecting the political landscape, two local politicians and one of Rehm’s frequent guests agree that talk radio does affect the outcome of issues.

Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of The Washington Times and frequent representative of right-wing opinions on Rehm’s weekly news roundup, told Smith that he thought in the 2000 presidential election, Limbaugh “was the difference between [former Sen. and Vice President Al] Gore and [President George] Bush winning Florida, and thus the presidency.”

Blankley also said: “Starting in 1994, with the Republican election of Congress, I think Limbaugh made the difference in electing the Republican majority.”

According to Smith, as of 2003, before Limbaugh sought treatment for addiction to prescription pain killers in October 2003, Limbaugh was the undisputed king of talk radio. His estimated weekly audience reached more than 14 million listeners on 600 stations across the nation, including WROK.

Such an audience means Limbaugh has a huge potential to get out his message as opposed to his liberal rivals, such as comedian and left-wing talk show host Franken, whose Air America is only on 64 stations.

Like Blankley, Republican Winnebago County Board member Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) also believes talk radio can affect actions taken by officials.

Speaking about local issues, Aiello said, “I think talk radio is good. It gives the opportunity for people to address issues. I think a lot of people calling in is helpful to shape government action on City Council and County Board. It’s about the only way for people to get their voice out. …Public pressure does help.”

Fellow Republican and longtime Rockford Alderman Frank Beach (R-10) echoed Aiello’s sentiments.

Beach said: “I think that talk radio gives the chance for people to express themselves and gives the opportunity for listeners, including politicians to listen. …Anytime you can get the citizens more involved in the debate or discussion, that’s a good thing.”

As an example of how WNTA has affected the outcome of an issue, Beach cited the October 2002 debate concerning the fairness of Rockford’s garbage contract, which was prompted by The Rock River Times’ Oct. 9, 2002, article “City garbage disposal contract smells.”

City officials renegotiated the contract after concerns were expressed about the contract by WNTA listeners.

However, DeCoster estimated that only 2-5 percent of his listeners participate in the on-air discussions.

Explaining the phenomenon

Mark Culhane, Rock Valley College English and communications professor, asserted that most of the callers of talk radio stations are representatives of the far right or far left who are frustrated with the political system.

Before becoming a professor, Culhane worked as a news broadcaster at WROK with Speer, as did DeCoster.

“I see talk radio as a theater of true believers” or like-minded people, Culhane said. “Talk radio is a mechanism for callers to get their feelings out.”

As to the role of talk radio in society, Culhane said: “More talk is better then less talk, and is better than arguments. … As much as a person may not like to hear some talk radio, it’s better to have more talk than less talk. It’s better to have more opinions expressed than not.”

But as much as political opinion plays a role in talk radio, Harrison asserts that “talent is key” in explaining the success of conservative talk radio. “Guys like Rush, Rush Limbaugh, don’t come around every day,” he said.

However, in the Smith report, Hannity attributed the rise of conservative talk radio as a reaction to the alleged liberal-leaning print media.

“Talk radio’s rise is in part to the mainstream media being solidly to the left,” Hannity said.

Monitoring public broadcasting

But if the mainstream media leans to the left, as Hannity asserts, conservatives have long leveled the same complaint against PBS and NPR to the point that Republican politicians in Washington have in the past threatened to cut off all federal funding for public broadcasting.

According to Rehm, conservatives have recently stepped up attacks on public broadcasting by accusing some programs of being biased, such as Now with Bill Moyers and NPR’s news coverage of Israel’s role in the Middle East politics, which offended neo-conservatives in the Bush administration.

Rehm’s May 18 broadcast hosted the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, 60, who began monitoring NPR and PBS programs for biased coverage, and has expressed a desire to reduce funding for national news programs.

Tomlinson was appointed to his position by the nine-member CPB board, which is chosen by the President. Tomlinson was originally appointed to the CPB board in 2000 by outgoing President Bill Clinton, but named chairman by Bush in September 2003. Critics complain Tomlinson advances neo-conservative censorship.

On the broadcast, Tomlinson said he hired two ombudsmen to address concerns about alleged bias in public broadcasting. One of the ombudsmen was supposed to be liberal, the other conservative.

However, Rehm argued the ombudsmen have a “fairly conservative background.” In a critique of Tomlinson’s action, Rehm suggested the ombudsmen should be “free and clear of all political bias.”

Despite Tomlinson’s allegations of news coverage bias, Rehm said she doubted Tomlinson had any evidence to support the claim.

“I asked him on the program to give me some examples of where he thought there was a lack of balance. He promised to get back to me . …Well, three weeks later he had not gotten back to us. …

“So, one of the producers called his office, and what he did was to send us a transcript of a meeting in which I think two or three members of the board had raised questions about whether NPR had been biased against Israel in reporting on Middle East issues. But there were no examples,” Rehm said.

Public radio supporters argued Tomlinson’s actions are politically motivated, and NPR’s talk radio is one of the few outlets where liberal, conservative and other views are expressed and examined.

In response to the controversy, some NPR callers have suggested that the time has arrived for local stations to not accept money from the CPB to avoid undue influence by the far right.

According to Rehm, about 14 percent of local public radio stations’ funding is derived from the CPB. Local public stations such as WNIJ pay NPR for the right to broadcast programs like the Diane Rehm Show and Talk of the Nation.

A message for comment about this article was not returned by a representative from local NPR affiliate WNIJ.

Time will likely answer the questions of whether local NPR stations will cut financial ties to the CPB, and if Tomlinson’s closer watch of NPR and PBS will detect liberal bias in public broadcasting, or display the far right’s move to intimidate independent journalism.

More importantly for local listeners of commercial talk radio is whether local talk radio hosts will be replaced with syndicated broadcasts or hosts that will follow Limbaugh’s path to monetary success at the expense of informative discourse.

An even larger question is whether the CPB’s recent actions combined with the dominance of conservative radio broadcasts is part of a larger trend by the far right to gain more control over media outlets. Or is the popularity of right-wing commercial radio and the CPB’s actions merely a response to left-leaning print and television journalists to balance the scales of information and influence?

Then the question exists about corporate ownership of all the major media, including print journalism, which many say stands contrary to the myth of liberal media and stands as a takeover of truth in journalism by commission and/or omission.

From the June 8-14, 2005, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!