The Air America Plan

Liberal talk radio is off the ground. Will the electorate turn blue, or just red in the face?

To be a Democrat on Inauguration Day was to feel like an Athenian in the dwindling days of the Peloponnesian War: here was yet another defeat in a streak that had stretched on for years, grinding a once mighty empire practically to dust. For some Democrats it was simply too much. An admission that their party is essentially bereft of ideas seemed to gain purchase in the wake of George Bush's swearing in.

But for other Democrats the day signified a minor skirmish won. The liberal radio network Air America made its debut in Washington, D.C., and also in Detroit and Cincinnati, increasing its nationwide reach to forty-five markets—"a remarkable feat," The Wall Street Journal declared, for an enterprise that last year was tossed off the air in two of its three top markets within weeks of its first broadcast, and narrowly avoided going under.

Most Democrats consider the emergence of liberal talk radio a vital precursor to any return to power. They are unified in the belief that they must build a political "infrastructure" (the reigning buzzword) to compete with the Republicans', and many activists say that liberal talk radio, though still in its infancy, is already the most mature component. The decision by the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications to carry Air America programming on twenty-two stations was particularly cheering; Clear Channel syndicates such conservative heavyweights as Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger—models for those who see in Air America's recent success an incipient liberal juggernaut. The political climate offers further encouragement. "Suddenly," says Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers, an industry magazine, "liberals and others not of the conservative mind set are finding themselves in the same position conservatives did in the early nineties—out of power." This has sparked a near missionary faith among some liberals in the transformative power of talk radio. For those seeking a silver lining in the Republican domination of Washington—well, there aren't many other options, are there?

The hopes invested in liberal talk radio stem from a pair of widely held beliefs that transcend ideology. First is that the Republicans' rise to power in the early 1990s was sharply reinforced by the emergence of such talk-radio hosts as Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, who helped persuade a large segment of the public, and some astute politicians, to embrace the conservative cause. Their importance was such that when the GOP took power in the House in 1994, one Republican, echoing his party's sentiment, declared, "Rush Limbaugh is really as responsible for what has happened as any individual in America."

Liberals agreed. This led to the second belief: that the Democrats could replicate the talk-radio phenomenon to mount a resurgence. At least since 1994 liberals have labored to do so, while conservatives have gleefully mocked their failure. Both groups are convinced that cultivating partisan talk radio is an unambiguously good thing for their respective movements.

But maybe it isn't, as a closer look at the political effects of talk radio suggests. Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution are a good example. There's little doubt that talk radio contributed to their triumph; what's often overlooked is its role in their fall.

To illustrate the hazards liberal talk radio poses, it's helpful to think of conservative talk radio as having two distinct phases: the wilderness years of the early 1990s—and after. Because Rush Limbaugh was the most influential host (nearly 40 percent of talk-radio listeners tuned in to him), he makes a good case study. In the early 1990s Limbaugh came to prominence as an outsider who relied heavily on political humor. His barbs had a conservative slant, of course, skewering perceived liberal excesses regarding feminism, the environment, abortion, government spending, and homelessness. (He also targeted Republicans he deemed insufficiently faithful, most notably President George H.W. Bush.) As James Fallows wrote in these pages in 1994, Limbaugh's material was culturally oriented: "His opinions were political in the broadest sense but were not confined to straight party politics."

As Limbaugh's influence grew, so did his inclination to wield it. A 1993 National Review cover story hailed him as "The Leader of the Opposition." When the GOP took power, Limbaugh was made an honorary House member. Shortly afterward Gingrich invited him and other conservative talk-show hosts to become fixtures in the Capitol. Co-opted by power, Limbaugh morphed from GOP mascot into a policy adviser/intellectual enforcer, his humor and cultural acumen succumbing to reflexive amplification of the party agenda.

Given the absolutism of his views, it isn't surprising that Limbaugh gravitated toward highly controversial policies—many of which, in hindsight, were politically foolish. One of his first campaigns in 1995 was to attack government-funded school lunch programs. At his prompting thousands of obedient listeners harassed elected officials, school administrators, and journalists, and put the issue on front pages nationwide. Limbaugh further advocated abolishing the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. He wanted to eliminate Social Security. He wanted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, and to cut social services for legal and illegal immigrants and unwed teenage mothers.

These campaigns made him appear, perhaps accurately, to delight in meanspiritedness. In a masterstroke of political tone-deafness Limbaugh embraced defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, home of the popular children's program Sesame Street. The attempt to kill off Bert and Ernie sparked a backlash that today stands as a model for one of the easiest kinds of political blackmail. When a dispute erupted last year between Viacom and the satellite-TV provider Dish Network, Dish dropped Viacom channels including Nickelodeon. Viacom ran full-page newspaper ads featuring a stricken-looking SpongeBob SquarePants and a note explaining to the parents of aggrieved youngsters that Dish Network was holding him hostage. Guess who won?

It isn't that Limbaugh wasn't effective. He was measurably so. In researching the book Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior, the political scientist David C. Barker posited a "Limbaugh effect," tested it on human subjects, and determined that it withstood academic scrutiny. Barker described the effect as "strong independent associations between Limbaugh listening and [holding] a variety of opinions regarding topics frequently treated on the Limbaugh show."

The trouble was that Limbaugh's opinions were becoming ever more strident, and after the 1994 elections he and his co-conspirators gradually lost touch with the American electorate. Notable moments in second-phase talk radio include the controversy over Liddy's urging listeners to kill agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ("Head shots, head shots … kill the sons of bitches"), a sentiment widely condemned following the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Limbaugh was foremost among those who urged Gingrich and the House leadership to force a government shutdown later that year—a piece of adolescent acting out that probably saved Bill Clinton's stalled presidency by providing compelling new villains to blame for the country's woes. And no episode of talk-radio extremism looms quite so large as the crusade to impeach Clinton. This had a measurable effect too, thinning the ranks of Republican politicians.

In the end those who could least afford to overestimate Limbaugh's discernment and persuasiveness were precisely those who did so—the Republican leaders. By urging Gingrich and others into acts of political extremism, Limbaugh hastened their downfall. The hopeless Bob Dole once intoned, "When Rush Limbaugh talks, you know you're listening to the real world." Dole's crashing defeat in the 1996 presidential election demonstrated the accuracy of this statement.

It's still early, but Air America is following a path a lot like the one Limbaugh took. In the late 1980s, while trying to turn Limbaugh from a regional into a national presence, his handlers hit on a way of doing so quickly and cheaply, by offering his program free to struggling stations in exchange for a share of the advertising revenue. Soon The Rush Limbaugh Show was taking off. Clear Channel is attempting a similar maneuver with liberal talk radio, testing Air America programs on low-performing stations across the country, and so far it is having modest success. The network is on the verge of reaching 75 percent of the U.S. population—at which point it can expect to attract national advertisers and, if all goes well, a following that may begin to approach Limbaugh's.

Careful listeners, however, will detect a dissonance between the political significance attributed to liberal radio and the caliber of discourse it generally provides. Talk radio will never be a forum for measured debate, though Al Franken occasionally offers a wicked dose of humor, as Limbaugh once did. But taken as a whole, the network is already infected by the corrosive negativity, strutting egotism, and bizarre paranoia that marked much of what traversed the conservative airwaves in the late 1990s.

Angry liberals surely take pleasure in hearing a host call President Bush a "lazy sack of crap," or shrug at complaints about the network's absurd speculation that Bush knew about 9/11 in advance and permitted the attacks for his own political gain. Yet the notion that such nonsense is politically beneficial retains a subliminal credibility with true believers of every stripe.

Much of what Air America carries is anger-laced polemic that plays to the furthest-left element of the electorate. The early Limbaugh was a populist at once funny and capable of maneuvering outside the party line; but few liberal hosts display any enthusiasm for attracting people beyond the segment that is already passionately attuned to their brand of smug, hostile liberalism. It's hard to imagine that a "Franken factor" will soon emerge to rival the "Limbaugh effect." Rather, Air America's broadcasts seem merely to reinforce a certain condescension—hampering rather than helping a Democratic Party desperate to expand its appeal in red states.

In this sense, at least, liberal talk radio has beat even Limbaugh's evolutionary pace. One of the first controversies it engendered, in fact, echoed Liddy's talk about killing federal agents. The host Randi Rhodes, invoking the denouement of The Godfather, Part II, proposed to listeners that "the Fredo of the [Bush] family is the president of the United States, so why doesn't his brother take him out for a little fishing and let him say some Hail Marys … and 'Boom!'" In other words, why not just assassinate the president?

"Americans are ultimately skeptical of media commentators who seem to have a political agenda that supersedes their search for the truth," Michael Harrison, of Talkers, says. The history of radio suggests that connoisseurs of that kind of talk usually wind up like the Athenians—vanquished and all too aware that real battles are not won with words.