The Biggest Niche

Do we need a 24-hour radio channel devoted to presidential campaign coverage?

XM Satellite Radio just announced it's launching a 24-hour channel entirely devoted to the presidential campaign. Called POTUS '08, it will offer coverage of campaign events, fundraising, and polls, as well as interviews, archival audio from past campaigns, and contributions from what XM calls "nontraditional media outlets" such as bloggers and podcasters.

First reaction on hearing this news: Whoa, 24 hours! This campaign is getting bigger every day. Presidential politics is taking over the universe.

Or is it? I'm an XM listener and a fan, to the extent that you can be a "fan" of a service that embraces everything from The G. Gordon Liddy Show to Boneyard, a music channel devoted to "hair bands." In fact, specialization is the name of the game in satellite radio, which is a kind of metaphor for all digital media. So, just as the Liddy show is for Liddy people and Boneyard is for the hair-band nation, POTUS '08 will inevitably be for those who live and breathe the campaign. Who does that except political professionals, journalists, and junkies in the Barcalounger demo?

Second reaction to the new channel: This campaign is getting smaller and smaller. Politics is all horse race now, insiders only. The "commons" is dead! Adios, democracy.

Which take reflects what's really happening right now to political coverage? Neither, and POTUS '08 is a nice chance to clear up a few misconceptions about the new world of political news.

First, while it's true that there is more coverage than ever, nobody has time to absorb it all. As I wrote here last week, one effect of the content explosion is that the campaign no longer arrives as one big picture that everyone takes in together. Instead, we all get whatever little pieces of it float across our screens—headlines, e-mailed YouTube clips, bits of this and that.

It's the modern paradox: The bigger the content pie grows, the smaller each slice becomes. In fact, it isn't all that modern. The media were totally niche-ified in the 19th century, when newspapers came in every possible political flavor and voters followed the news through whatever rag matched their own sensibility.

POTUS '08 won't be ideological, but it's clearly a niche, a campaign-specific version of what C-SPAN has always been, a specialty item on a very long menu of channels. In fact, C-SPAN will be providing some of the content for this new channel, whose self-consciously jargonistic name plays to the junkie sensibility.

If niche fare has all the mojo these days, it's not the whole story. No matter how microtargeted the campaign media get—and who knows, a 24-hour Tom Tancredo channel could be just around the corner—every presidential election inevitably becomes a very macro event. There will be two major-party nominees, and in the final few months none of the minutiae that now obsess the insiders will matter.

The news outlets that thrive long-term, and consistently pull in audience, will be the ones that can go both large and small. This is not an easy trick, and the best-positioned to do it may be the unfashionable oldsters—the big newspapers and TV networks that are consciously going in both directions. Those mainstreamers have put up countless political blogs for ticktock coverage, but they also have the institutional experience, and the brand names, to clear their throats when the time comes and impose some order on the chaos.

I spend all kinds of time in my own little content pods—preprogrammed XM stations, the blogs I go back to repeatedly. But a point arrives in every campaign when you crave coverage and commentary from media people who take the opposite of the niche approach.

I've devoted whole columns to making fun of the old network-anchorman model. But looking ahead to this campaign, I find myself craving exactly that paleolithic kind of coverage, and I don't think I'm alone. ABC's Charlie Gibson is riding high right now because he's doing something akin to what the late, great Peter Jennings did on the same network: calmly scanning the landscape from the big chair, taking it all in, and intelligently making sense of it—for everyone.