They Just Wanted to Entertain

AM stations mainly wanted to keep listeners engaged—but ended up remaking the Republican Party.

Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich at a "Meet the Press" taping.
Rush Limbaugh sits next to Newt Gingrich during NBC's "Meet the Press" taping on Sunday Nov. 12, 1995. (Doug Mills / AP)

No one set out to turn the airwaves into a political weapon—much less deputize talk-radio hosts as the ideological enforcers of a major American political party. Instead the story of how the GOP establishment lost its power over the Republican message—and eventually the party itself—begins with frantic AM radio executives and a former Top 40 disc jockey, Rush Limbaugh.

In the late 1980s, AM radio was desperate for new content. Listeners had migrated to FM because music sounded better on there, and advertising dollars had followed. Talk-radio formats offered a lifeline—unique programming that FM didn’t have. And on August 1, 1988, Limbaugh debuted nationally. At the outset, Limbaugh wasn’t angling to become a political force—he was there to entertain and make money. Limbaugh’s show departed from the staid, largely nonpartisan, interview and caller-based programs that were the norm in earlier talk radio. Instead, Limbaugh was a consummate showman who excited listeners by being zany and fun and obliterating boundaries, offering up something the likes of which many Americans had never heard before.

Limbaugh conveyed his politics through everything from soap-opera teasers complete with humorous casting choices—in one titled Gulf War Won, Betty White drew the assignment of the first lady Barbara Bush, while Limbaugh cast James Earl Jones as General Colin Powell—and gags like “caller abortions,” in which screaming and vacuum-cleaner sounds drowned out the voice on the other end of the phone.

Noting Limbaugh’s success, radio executives started hiring conservative hosts—first local personalities, and then later national names like G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Reagan—to fill time slots on an expanding number of talk stations.

Although leading Republicans were slow to catch on to the political potential of the medium, by the mid-1990s, talk radio was an integral element of GOP communications strategies. It provided a boost for Republicans as they pushed to enact an agenda and worked to win elections. Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, pumped information to hosts, chatted with them regularly, and generally saw talk radio as an ideal way to reach their base with a message and learn how voters around the country felt about key issues.

Many on the left surmised that the hosts were puppets, plugging whichever policies Gingrich and others wanted them to. But selling the GOP message was never the hosts’ top priority. In my research into the history of conservative talk radio, the executives, producers, and hosts whom I interviewed told me over and over that their main goal was to produce the best radio show each day, one that could command the largest audience possible that tuned in for the longest possible time.

Over time, this focus on the commercial imperatives of AM radio would transform politics. To keep audiences engaged and entertained, hosts grew more and more strident as the years passed, depicting politics as warfare—and started targeting moderates in the Republican Party.

In its early phases, conservative talk radio had exhibited a pragmatic streak that would sound foreign today. In 1994, Limbaugh cautioned against single- issue voting. He advised television viewers—he had a TV program from 1992 to 1996—not to oppose Mitt Romney, the Republican then running as a moderate against the 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.”

Hosts never loved moderates, and never hesitated to criticize them for actions out of step with hosts’ vision for the country. But they understood that such figures were crucial to securing a majority, without which their preferred agenda had no shot.

But this detente started to break down as the 2000s progressed. In one 2005 harangue prompted by Republicans who voted against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Limbaugh declared, “There’s no such thing as a moderate. A moderate is just a liberal disguise, and they are doing everything they can to derail the conservative agenda.” He deemed such behavior “unacceptable” and read listeners the names of those Republicans voting no. Even so, Limbaugh still crucially refrained from calling for those Republicans to lose.

A year later, Sean Hannity demonstrated that things were shifting further during a conversation with a caller who was fuming at Republican-in-name-only, or RINO, senators. Hannity agreed, and it wasn’t just moderate senators who aroused their ire: Hannity explicitly included Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom were generally conservative but who had departed from the party line on several significant issues. (Sherwood Boehlert, a true Republican moderate, quipped to me in an interview that “McCain is no more moderate than I am a Communist.”)

As the number of ideological moderates declined, the definition of RINOism expanded. Any Republican who sought out compromise or who rejected political warfare found him or herself a target of conservative media. This would only intensify with each passing year—and not just for political reasons. Hosts, buffeted by ever fiercer competition for the conservative audience, as right-wing digital outlets like RedState and Breitbart proliferated, had to perform before millions of frustrated and fickle listeners.

In the fight for a devoted audience, allies became foes. Former House Speaker John Boehner explained what that meant for Republicans, telling Politico, “‘I always liked Rush [Limbaugh]. When I went to Palm Beach I would always meet with Rush and we’d go play golf. But you know, who was that right-wing guy, [Mark] Levin?”—Levin launched in New York in 2002 and entered national syndication in 2006—“He went really crazy right and got a big audience, and he dragged [Sean] Hannity to the dark side. He dragged Rush to the dark side. And these guys—I used to talk to them all the time. And suddenly they’re beating the living shit out of me.”

And by 2009, a rubicon had been crossed: Limbaugh called for the defeat of eight House Republicans who voted for a carbon cap-and-trade system, even though more hard-line conservatives likely could not win their seats. Indeed, in 2010 and 2012, conservative media largely supported upstart conservative primary challenges against Representative Mike Castle of Delaware (in a Senate race) and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana—both of whom were heavy favorites to win the general election. Instead, both fell in primaries, with their more conservative, talk-radio-preferred opponents losing to Democrats.

That was a price worth paying for conservative hosts. 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 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.

Even so, hosts had amassed enough power that elected Republicans had to pay attention to their demands. Many listeners spent more time with their favorite hosts than they did with their spouses; so when a host touted a primary challenger 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, talk radio’s business needs further upended the traditional political hierarchy. With moderates virtually extinct, the war against RINOs often focused on Republican leaders like Boehner whose sin was simply not being willing to adopt the strident tactics that hosts demanded. Hosts blasted them with increasing regularity, while praising a new group of political superstars, largely backbenchers with 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 for the most extreme tactics possible. Figures like Representative Mark Meadows, Representative Jim Jordan, and Senator Ted Cruz became the heroes in the soap opera that talk radio had always been—and RINOs and the Republican leadership were as much the villains as Democrats or the mainstream media.

The new political landscape has hamstrung the ability of Republican leaders to legislate, leading to constant brinkmanship 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, even though there really wasn’t a viable path to victory.

This episode has unfortunately illustrated the new reality for the Republican Party: Over three decades, the titans of talk have remade the party in their own image, with elected Republicans now sounding more like commentators on the AM dial—or its cable equivalent, the Fox News Channel, where Hannity has hosted a show since 1996—than what used to be heard in the halls of Congress. While this made for gripping radio and TV, it left a more and more extreme party, with little capacity to govern and little appeal in the suburbs or with young and nonwhite voters.

Trump’s presidency is the ultimate testament to the power of talk-radio conservatism. In one week last month, the president not only called in to Hannity’s show, but on a separate night tweeted, “Oh well, we still have the great  @seanhannity who I hear has a really strong show tonight. 9:00 P.M.” He reportedly talks regularly with Hannity as well. And last winter, when Trump reversed course after the uprising on the right, it was Limbaugh to whom the president pledged that he would shut the government down if he didn’t get enough funds for his border wall.

The power of these hosts would’ve been unthinkable when Limbaugh took the national airwaves by storm in 1988. But over three decades, hosts have used the special bond they’ve forged with their audiences to reshape the Republican Party in their image. For millions of listeners, the change has been electrifying. For excommunicated moderates, this show hasn’t been entertaining in the least.