Milwaukee talk radio's (rather) fertile landscape
I've been eating, drinking, and breathing the topic of Milwaukee talk radio for the past 20 months or so now, so when I read Dave Begel's March 1 OnMilwaukee.com article, "Milwaukee talk radio's (mostly) barren landscape," I felt an overwhelming need to respond.
My particular interest is Milwaukee Conservative talk radio. In fact, I produced a documentary film on the subject "Liberty or Lies?" which just aired on Milwaukee Public Television on January 30 and February 4. You can watch it now online and learn more about the larger "Liberty or Lies?" project at http://www.libertyorlies.com/. (End of commercial.)
Why did I do this?
Largely because of articles like Mr. Begel's. He makes some good points and correctly notes that Conservative talk radio dominates this market. His understanding as to why this is the case, however, is where he and so many others miss the point.
Begel writes: "I think conservative talk radio was born in the early '80s when Rush Limbaugh started out in Sacramento. He created the model. Find something and make it 'the enemy.' The enemy he picked was the 'mainstream media' and he fought against this enemy like a rottweiler fights over a slice of filet mignon. Before too long, people all over the country started to talk about 'the enemy' and a whole slew of conservative political talkers were born. You can't have conservative talk radio unless you have something to hate and battle against. If you listen closely, most conservative talk radio isn't for many things, but it's pretty clear what they are against."
Yes Rush Limbaugh invented modern Conservative talk radio. But it didn't just happen. His ability to do so was made possible by the removal of a federal regulation that had been in place since 1949 inappropriately known as the "Fairness Doctrine." With the removal of this restriction, radio stations were free to allow talk hosts to express their opinions-- Conservative or Liberal--as they pleased. The only regulation on radio broadcast speech since then, other than obscenity and hate speech laws, has been the market: what do listeners want to hear. In this free market, Conservative talk radio has boomed, while Liberal talk has puttered along with a few success stories and many colossal failures e.g. Air America. This is not the result of Right-wing manipulation of the airwaves or corporate scheming; it is simply the result of people voting with their ears and wallets. Like it or not, that's the way things work in a free market economy.
Secondly, the suggestion that Limbaugh's success, or the success of any Conservative talker, is the result merely of artful straw man argumentation ("people all over the country started to talk about the enemy and a whole slew of conservative political talkers were born") is remarkably shallow. Yes Limbaugh popularized the notion of a Liberal media (i.e. "the enemy"), but the accusation that the mainstream media promotes a Liberal/Progressive worldview while claiming the mantel of objective journalism has been made repeatedly since at least 1955 when William F. Buckley declared the mission of his new magazine, "National Review," was to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop." Several credible and revealing reports about the lack of political and intellectual diversity among journalists and the extent to which it affects news reporting have followed. That a media professional of Begel's caliber is either unaware or dismissive of this reality is revealing. There's plenty of room for debate on the issue of bias in the media, but debate there should be; and without Conservative talk radio that debate might never have reached the larger publics attention.
Next, Begel tells us that, "You can't have conservative talk radio unless you have something to hate and battle against. If you listen closely, most conservative talk radio isn't for many things, but it's pretty clear what they are against."
I'm not sure how closely he's listening. Clearly Conservative talk radio is against the modern Liberal/Progressive philosophy in all its manifestations. Some people like this, some people don't. But to say that the hosts and listeners of Conservative talk radio are not "for many things" is a gross inaccuracy. Limited government, individual liberty, free market principles, and a strong national defense--these are what Conservatives believe in and what you will hear advocated incessantly on Conservative talk radio. These are also, incidentally, the principles of the American Founding.
Later in his post, Begel observes that, "After Sykes and Belling the remainder of our talk radio field falls off badly. The rest of the wannabes are pale imitations and bring very little to the game. People like Jay Weber and Jeff Wagner just trod over already tilled ground and never make me sit up and take notice of anything either new or important."
What Begel fails to appreciate is that after Belling and Sykes there is any field at all! Most media markets the size of Milwaukee do not have the abundance of local Conservative talkers that Milwaukee has. Why does Milwaukee have this abundance? Yes Belling and then Sykes blazed the trail for Wagner, Weber and McKenna, but the longevity of these "wannabees" (Wagner has been on since 1998, Weber as a solo commentator since 2005, and McKenna in Milwaukee since 2007 in radio, a lifetime!) points to the reason: they draw an audience. Furthermore, this audience is sufficiently affluent to prove attractive to advertisers and, alas, Milwaukee Conservative talk radio makes money. Mr. Begel might not enjoy Wagner, Weber, and McKenna, but obviously many others do and thats why they are on the air.
Moreover, looking at the demographic information, this audience is well educated, civically engaged, and hugely motivated--witness Wisconsin's Tea Party movement, the 2010 electoral tsunami and the current True the Vote phenomenon. Yes, in terms of its ability to coalesce, connect, inform, and inspire listeners in southeast Wisconsin, Milwaukee Conservative talk radio has had profound impact on local, state and now national politics. Just ask Senator Ron Johnson, or Congressman Paul Ryan, or Governor Scott Walker, or Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus all of whom hale from within the WISN/WTMJ listening area and all of whom are frequent guests and topics on Milwaukee Conservative talk radio programs.
A barren landscape? Only to those not really paying attention.