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The death of talk radio

Talk radio was on a roll. Media execs loved it, politicians feared it. Some even credited it with re-energizing American democracy. What happened?

by Dan Kennedy

The cover of Time magazine for January 23, 1995, was graced, if that's the word for it, with a photo of Rush Limbaugh, combat-readiness etched in his features, a plume of cigar smoke wafting upward from his most valuable asset: his mouth. The cover line -- IS RUSH LIMBAUGH GOOD FOR AMERICA? -- was answered by the subhead inside: "The explosion of radio call-in shows has created a new form of electronic populism and demagoguery."

Talk radio was triumphant. The freshmen House Republicans made Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress. Talk-radio targets such as Joycelyn Elders, Tom Foley, and Dan Rostenkowski were gone. And the media and political establishments were reeling, with Bill Clinton complaining about the medium's "personal, demeaning attacks," and the Washington Post weighing in with a page-one piece headlined THE POLITICS OF HATE the morning before the 1994 election.

Little more than two years later, the mediascape has changed utterly. Talk radio, hailed as a new, populist force by firebrands ranging from Ralph Nader to Newt Gingrich, has gone soft, with political agitation giving way to entertainment.

Boston was arguably the hottest talk-radio market in the country during the 1970s and '80s, a place where hosts such as Jerry Williams and Gene Burns demonstrated years before Limbaugh that an agitated, plugged-in populace could shape the political conversation. Indeed, with the Republican Party virtually having ceased to exist in 1980s Massachusetts, talk radio was, in some ways, the sole opposition. "We were on talk radio all over the state," recalls Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government, who credits the medium for the passage of Proposition 21/2, a 1980 ballot question that slashed property taxes.

Now the local airwaves are filled with the likes of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a nationally syndicated shrink, and Two Chicks Dishing, a local show that revels in gossip and trivia. And Anderson has been virtually shut out of the major stations. These days, she says, the only way she can reach people over the airwaves is to book herself onto small stations in outlying areas.

"I wouldn't call it the demise of democracy," Anderson says, "but it's a crying shame."

Granted, it's tempting to say good riddance to political talk. Steve Rendall, who follows talk radio for the leftist media-watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), calls the medium "three and a half decades of white guys on the right railing against the women's movement, the civil-rights movement, and just about any peace movement that you've got."

But as conservative and simplistic as many of the political talk shows were, they taught their lower-middle-class and working-class listeners, folks not accustomed to being taken seriously, an important lesson: that they could take charge of their own lives and influence the political system. By contrast, the new breed of talk shows encourages little more than cynical apathy.

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The death of talk radio

Part 2

by Dan Kennedy

Talk radio's slide began months after Gingrich was sworn in as Speaker of the House, an event that marked the apotheosis of Limbaugh and hundreds of local analogues.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton and liberal commentators, to smear the entire medium, made deft use of incendiary comments by talk host Gordon Liddy about the best way to shoot federal agents. It was, for the most part, an unfair attack. "Mainstream media had grossly exaggerated the amount of hate on talk radio," says the Annenberg School's Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies talk radio. But it worked. Talk radio was still popular, but it was no longer the Next Big Thing. "Civility" became an important new catchword. Liddy's still around, but his paranoid ravings now seem more comic than menacing.

Limbaugh continues to dominate with his 21 million weekly listeners, but the buzz is long gone, and a few stations have even dropped him. The one-time revolutionary with a sense of humor now offers little more than a stream of dreary insider observations. His main shtick now is sucking up to the man he obsequiously refers to as "Mr. Newt." And look who else is hot. The number-two talk-show host, according to the trade magazine Talkers, is Dr. Laura, with 14 million weekly listeners, followed by shock jock Howard Stern (number three, with 12 million listeners), funny guy Don Imus (number six, with eight million), and financial expert Bruce Williams (number seven, with seven million).

Just a few years ago Boston's only all-talk station, WRKO (AM 680), broadcast nothing but local, politically oriented talk shows from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and beyond. Now the line-up is dominated by nationally syndicated programs (Schlessinger and Limbaugh), locally produced entertainment shows (Two Chicks Dishing), and local hosts with political smarts who nevertheless favor lighter fare over hard-nosed politics (Marjorie Clapprood and her departing co-host, Pat Whitley, as well as Howie Carr and Jeff Katz).

"It's business," says Carr. "I don't think people are as interested in politics as they used to be. There aren't the great cartoon-type figures of yesteryear -- [former House Speaker George] Keverian and [former State Senate president Bill] Bulger, the people they'd see on TV and get pissed off at."

Indeed, the only talk-radio outlets remaining for serious discussion of local issues are The Connection, on public station WBUR (90.9 FM), and The David Brudnoy Show, on WBZ (AM 1030). But The Connection's eclectic host, Christopher Lydon, is trying to take his show national, and he's as likely to talk about poetry or world history as local politics. And Brudnoy, whose signal reaches most of the eastern half of the United States, frequently focuses on national topics or on one of his various other interests: movies, the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of "Bubba" Clinton, and his loathing for affirmative action.

"It's a cyclical thing," says Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers. "Much of it has to do with a cynicism that has settled over grassroots America, that there are no answers. Advocacy is only good when there's a vacuum for it. Otherwise it becomes a contrivance. You come across as a drum-beating crank."

Adds Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, author of Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time (Times Books, 1996): "I think there's a diminution of politics, period, which has cooled off talk radio since the days when the Republicans were storming the gates of Capitol Hill."

Now, instead of political outrage, we have the Two Chicks begging men to call in and tell them which male celebrities they consider attractive ("We won't think you're a homo! Not that there's anything wrong with that."), Howie Carr lampooning a government regulation extending the Americans with Disabilities Act to the mentally ill ("Can I call them nuts? They're not retards. I'll call them nuts."), and Marjorie Clapprood (one of the few genuine liberals on talk radio) and Pat Whitley telling drivers to beep their horns if they're having sex.

Granted, some of this can be pretty entertaining. But it's offered up with a streak of cruelty and a deep undercurrent of cynicism that is antithetical to the empowerment theme that once vaulted Jerry Williams and Gene Burns to the top of the ratings.

"Boston was at one time the best talk market in America," says the cerebral Burns, who hosted WRKO's 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. slot until the early '90s, and who's now a talk-show host at KGO Radio, in San Francisco. "I think what's happened in Boston is a tragedy."

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The death of talk radio

Part 3

by Dan Kennedy

Newcomers to Boston might find it difficult to imagine how influential the talk-show scene was until a few years ago. Everyone listened -- at home, at work, and most of all in their cars.

And WRKO was where most of the action was.

The day began with liberal Ted O'Brien and conservative Janet Jeghelian arguing over the issues of the day. (The format remains, in a highly trivialized form, on Clapprood & Whitley.)

At 10 a.m., Gene Burns would come on, with an intro ("Brought to you by the Constitution of the United States") and opening monologue so pompous and self-important that only a truly extraordinary host could back it up. Burns did, bringing intelligence and dignity to bear on such tabloid topics as Channel 4 anchor Liz Walker's decision to have a baby out of wedlock, and shining a light on such local arcana as the clean-up of Boston Harbor.

The most influential of all, though, was Jerry Williams, widely credited with inventing two-way talk radio in 1948 in Camden, New Jersey.

A self-described liberal who was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and whose guests included Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Williams had a populist streak that led him, by the 1970s, to embrace much of the anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-bureaucracy agenda of the emerging conservative movement.

From the 1980s until the early '90s, Williams was the king of drive time, holding forth from 2 to 6 p.m. on WRKO. In an angry, bitingly sarcastic voice he urged his listeners to tell their legislators to vote against the latest proposed tax increase, or to register their disapproval of a legislative pay raise or some other outrage.

In 1986 he spearheaded a ballot-petition drive that resulted in the repeal of the state's seatbelt law, which he considered a usurpation of individual liberty. (A new law was passed in the early '90s with barely a whimper of protest, a sign that talk radio had started to lose its stranglehold.) He even killed plans for a new prison in the tiny Western Massachusetts town of New Braintree, winning a promise from a 1992 gubernatorial candidate named Bill Weld that it would never be occupied. Today the would-be prison is an extremely expensive State Police training facility.

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The death of talk radio

Part 4

by Dan Kennedy

As Williams aged (he's now in his 70s), and his ratings dipped, his place was taken by his onetime protégé Howie Carr, a fortysomething baby-boom wiseass who's emblematic of the new style of talk radio. (Williams, who couldn't be reached for comment, now hosts a weekend-afternoon show.)

If Williams was the quintessential talk host for the '80s, Carr may be the quintessential host for the '90s. Williams was passionate; Carr is ironic. Williams's persona implied that politics is important, that it's worth getting off one's butt and doing something about it. Carr's demeanor, one of hip cynicism, suggests that to care is to admit a very uncool naïveté.

Back in the mid '80s, Carr's Herald column was the best in town: funny but passionate, loaded with details about the inner workings of Beacon Hill and its frequently nefarious denizens. And Carr always had a mean streak: it was a frustrated judge who dubbed then-State Senate president Bill Bulger the "Corrupt Midget," but it was Carr who kept the name alive, and who dubbed Ted Kennedy "Fat Boy," Michael Dukakis "Pee-wee," and former state representative (and convicted sex offender) John McNeil "John McFeel." But his top-notch reporting and keen writer's ear (he won a National Magazine Award for his work at Boston magazine) offset his negatives -- until he got into radio and replaced legwork with attitude. His Herald column remains a good read, but he's been cranking it out on automatic pilot for years now.

The Howie Carr Show attacks welfare mothers, gays and lesbians, Latinos, and any other powerless group its host feels like bashing. The essence of the program, though, isn't mean-spirited politics but pure (well, not so pure) entertainment.

Tune in these days and Carr, who may know more about Beacon Hill than any journalist alive, is likely to be asking callers which celebrity they'd like to see naked on TV. Or he might be hosting "Juke Box from Hell," a contest in which listeners call in their least-favorite hits from yesteryear. Or yukking it up with Dave Martin and Gary Owens from Laugh-In, or shooting the breeze with lefty ice-cream mavens Ben and Jerry. ("We've let it be known to them that though we appreciate their ice cream, we think their politics basically sucks.")

Even when Carr takes on an ostensibly political subject, such as Michael Kennedy's woes, he pretty much plays it for laughs, asking for song titles to fit the situation. (The winner: "Young Blood," by the Coasters.) When a female caller from Rhode Island, where Carr's show is syndicated, says she voted for US Representative Patrick Kennedy because she was "intrigued" by the Kennedy mystique, Carr sidekick "Virgin Boy" retorts, "Intrigued by Patches? It's like being intrigued by Rain Man."

Often you can't help but laugh. But guilty pleasure is an emotion of a considerably lower order than righteous anger.

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The death of talk radio

Part 5

by Dan Kennedy

The degeneration from passionate engagement to ironic detachment coincides with -- and, indeed, can be explained by -- some important changes in the economics of radio.

For one thing, political talk-show listeners have always tended to be older than the norm, and people between the ages of 25 and 49 -- the prime demographic for advertisers -- are particularly turned off by politics. The audience that's most enthusiastic about serious public affairs tends to be 55 and older. Since not many new, younger listeners have tuned in to political talk during the past 10 years, the audience that once listened to Jerry Williams is now older than ever.

In addition, says WRKO program director Kevin Straley, stations must address the reality of shorter attention spans and the need to compete with a continually expanding array of media options. "There are a lot of choices out there," says Straley, who's overseen the station's move from politics to pop. He argues that it would be a ratings-killer to focus on just one or two issues for four hours, the way Williams did in his heyday.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- the culmination of a trend toward deregulation that had been gathering steam for years -- has had an enormous effect on the competitive environment.

In Boston, for instance, WRKO and WHDH once competed for the talk-show audience. In 1993, though, American Radio Systems, which owns WRKO, bought WHDH, something it would not have been allowed to do prior to deregulation. For a while the company continued to operate both as talk stations; on 'HDH, Carr faced off against Williams.

But as soon as it was clear that Carr had established himself as the new ratings champ, American Radio Systems moved Carr into Williams's slot on WRKO and essentially folded WHDH, replacing its spot on the dial (AM 850) with WEEI, an all-sports station and the Boston home of Don Imus.

Having a monopoly makes it easier for a station owner to fill up his time slots with cheap syndicated programming. One can hardly fault American Radio Systems for running top-rated programs such as those hosted by Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and the I-man. But WRKO now offers no local programming between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. And at WEEI, the day's local programming doesn't start until noon, even though Boston is arguably one of the most sports-obsessed cities in the country.

Although one would hardly know it from listening to the likes of the foul-mouthed Howard Stern, some observers worry that the trend toward media concentration will also result in an increasingly bland talk-radio environment.

After Disney purchased ABC, for instance, it dumped left-wing syndicated host Jim Hightower, who'd been critical of the merger. Later Disney/ABC fired right-wing host Bob Grant from its New York station after he confided to listeners that he had some bad news: Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown might not actually be dead. (Hightower, an entertaining Texas populist, is now hosting a new politics, music, and comedy show, Chat & Chew, for which he hopes to find a Boston home in the near future. Internet users with RealAudio can check it out at Grant landed on another New York station shortly after he was fired, his popularity undiminished.)

You might think that Gene Burns, well-known for his libertarian views, would hail deregulation as some sort of triumph of the market. Yet Burns -- a founder and past president of the National Association of Talk Show Hosts -- contends there's no such thing as a free market in radio. Instead, he argues that commercial enterprises operate radio stations as government-protected monopolies. His solution: "total deregulation," which would allow anyone to launch small radio stations without the approval of the Federal Communications Commission, thus legalizing pirate operations such as Radio Free Allston (See "Waves of the Future," News, February 28).

"Out of that primal mix, I think, some clever operators would emerge," Burns says. "But they're never going to let that happen. If they did, they would die from a wound of a thousand cuts."

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The death of talk radio

Part 6

by Dan Kennedy

Even though some hard-headed business decisions underlie talk radio's move toward trivia, it's just plain wrong to suggest that the low road is the only road. After all, David Brudnoy and Christopher Lydon know how to keep it moving and draw an audience while offering intelligent talk about a wide range of issues.

"If there is a local issue, we don't hesitate to do it," says Brudnoy, though he admits that listeners care less about local politics than they used to. When he hosts Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant, for instance, he says he has trouble getting calls. But Brudnoy adds that the solution isn't to stop doing local radio, but to find ways to make it interesting and to relate it to listeners' lives.

Lydon, for his part, says he finds the diminished interest in local politics "kind of a liberation," allowing The Connection to focus on topics that engage him and his listeners: music, spirituality, books. Indeed, things can get pretty out-there, such as on one recent morning when futurist Watts Wacker, co-author of The Five-Hundred-Year Delta (HarperCollins, 1997), cyberbabbled that the Information Age is already over and that we're heading into an era that can only be explained by chaos theory.

"I'm just amazed at the range of things that people want to talk about," says Lydon. "I think the audience has always been out there. It's been ill-served. I think ours is the real audience. People don't talk at home the way they do on Howard Stern. They don't talk politically the way they do on Howie, either. This is a very sane, very interested, very un-dumbed-down populace we have."

If Brudnoy's show represents the best of the past brought up to date, Lydon's may presage the future of serious talk. That's because in the current environment, public broadcasters may actually be more responsive to the community than their supposedly market-driven brethren at the commercial end of the spectrum. WBUR, after all, depends on listener and corporate donations for more than 90 percent of its revenues; commercial stations merely seek to deliver the most desirable slice of the market to advertisers.

Thus it's not surprising that as the quality of commercial news and public-affairs programming has declined, WBUR has emerged as the most important broadcast-news organization in Boston. Two of the three most significant new public-affairs shows of the past few years have been on public stations: in addition to The Connection, there's Greater Boston, on WGBH-TV (Channels 2 and 44), which got off to a rocky start earlier this year, but which is serious-minded and getting better. (The third show, NewsNight, is a production of New England Cable News.)

Then, too, it's easy to look back at the 1970s and '80s as a golden era that in reality never was.

Jerry Williams arguably did as much harm as good, railing against the very taxes needed to help the welfare mothers whose cause the liberal side of him championed. If he was never quite the "tax-cut terrorist" his enemies portrayed him as, he nevertheless helped paint a fantasyland picture of a state in which taxes could be slashed and programs could be bolstered if only Michael Dukakis and his fellow hacks on Beacon Hill would reduce their bloated payrolls.

"Unfortunately, ratings so drive the process that the hate gets more and more strident and more and more extreme," says Dukakis, though he quickly adds: "I never paid any attention to that when I was governor, frankly."

Besides, even at the height of his political activism, Williams always took time out for his annual sex survey.

And yet.

Teaching people to think and act for themselves, and to take charge of a political process that they normally look at as something done to them, is a powerful thing. And in today's decadent talk-radio environment, that's happening less and less.

Take Anthony Schinella, who wants to talk about empowerment but finds himself shut out. Schinella got involved in talk radio through Jerry Brown's 1992 presidential campaign and the 1993 debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement. He's a bright, articulate guy, and he espouses a hard-edged political view that's seldom heard these days. He's beside himself, for instance, that not one Boston talk show chose to focus on the recently announced layoff of more than 100 workers at Osram Sylvania, in Danvers, whose jobs are being moved to Mexico thanks to NAFTA.

But Schinella can't break in. He just left a once-a-week gig at Tufts University's tiny WMFO, and is starting a Sunday-morning show at the slightly larger WUNR (AM 1600). Yet he has few illusions about breaking into the big time. "There's no Triple A farm system," he says. "There's no place for me to go. There's a wall there." And he wonders who, in the post-Jerry Williams era, will talk about the Big Dig, a new baseball stadium, or any of a host of local issues. "When you limit the number of voices, you limit the real news that people get," he says. "You don't get news from Dr. Laura."

Michael Harrison, of Talkers, argues that talk radio is bigger than ever, having expanded from 100 stations 10 years ago to 1250 today. And talk is still the second-most-common radio format, after country music.

"The people at WRKO are not deliberately trying to create bad talk radio," he says. "The late '80s and the early '90s were a very special time in talk-radio history. That was a golden era. Right now there's nothing really capturing the spirit of the people the way it did in the early '90s. I hope it changes."

Perhaps it will. But don't count on it.

Two weeks ago, just before Ellen DeGeneres's TV alter ego finally, mercifully, came out, Marjorie Clapprood and Pat Whitley were on a roll. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith had written that another, much more famous TV star was on the verge of coming out. Inquiring minds wanted to know: who did Smith have in mind? The calls rolled in. The most plausible nominee was Oprah Winfrey. The most creative was Andy Griffith.

Trash radio? For hosts who, a week earlier, had asked callers to tell them about the most embarrassing displays of public affection they'd ever witnessed, it was a step up.

Two and a half years ago Time warned that we were in danger of becoming a nation of dittoheads. The magazine was too optimistic. Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Williams, Gene Burns, et al., flawed as they were, urged you to turn on, tune in, and get involved.

Today's hosts assume that you've dropped out.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at