The decline and fall of radio

So no sooner do I write about Rush Limbaugh than I find Nate Silver fencing with another conservative motormouth, John Ziegler, whose pet project is a documentary-style film called How Obama Got Elected. (You can see an overlong clip here on YouTube.) Ziegler actually sought out Silver, the pollster behind, in a bid to legitimize his finding that surveyed Obama voters were ignorant of basic political facts and deluded by the biased liberal media. When Silver asked probing questions about the survey, Ziegler grew frustrated and abusive, as if astonished that Silver would be skeptical. Ziegler’s intemperate remarks about the meeting speak for themselves. Silver, on the other hand, offered up a thoughtful essay posing the question, “Did talk radio kill conservatism?” It’s well worth reading.


As someone said in the year of my birth, “the medium is the message.” And every medium has a history. When radio made its debut in the 1920s, Americans sat beside their receivers giving their full attention to the novel sounds coming over the air. But as the fascination wore off and radios became more portable, we became accustomed to doing other things as the radio played. Radio had to compete with tasks that demanded our attention, like driving the car, working, making dinner, answering the phone. In the 1950s television usurped radio’s delivery of story and spectacle, and only old people sat riveted by the radio. The rest of us could now see the Lone Ranger with our own eyes.

Radio held its dominance of breaking news coverage until TV cameras became more portable and efficient. Now the “live” TV news report has all but killed off the radio reporter, except those attached to the likes of NPR or the BBC. Portable music players, satellite radio, and Pandora have undermined broadcast radio’s dominion over music. Talk radio may well be radio’s last stand.

Could this aspect of the medium — the sense of losing ground to rivals and being on the losing side of history — have something to do with the content of political discourse on the right? Or is it the other way around, with the message of doom and decline finding an affinity with the embattled medium?

If you think about it, “talk radio” is a misnomer. With its thumping vocal cadences, pregnant pauses, mesmerizing locutions, and general aura of menace, talk radio resembles ordinary talk about as much as reality TV resembles reality.

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