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Is Conservative Talk Radio On the Way Out?

Rob Tornoe / Media Matters

Independent Eye columnist Joe Gandelman weighs in on Rush Limbaugh's continued loss of advertisers...

After nearly 30 years of rapid growth that saved the sagging AM radio format the question is being seriously asked: is conservative talk radio as we know it on the way out?

According to reports, conservative talk titan Rush Limbaugh has lost 141 advertisers due to his three-day, bordering-on-slander verbal assault on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. The company distributing his show has suspended his national advertising for two weeks.

Various analysts note that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is launching a radio show April 2 in direct competition with Limbaugh. There are rumblings that some stations might decide to replace Limbaugh with Huckabee. Why? Huckabee has shown wide appeal in his Fox News show where he comes across as a thoughtful conservative who prefers discussing issues to polarizing polemics.

Meanwhile, The Daily Beast's John Avlon points to a list that Premier Networks, which distributes Limbaugh and various other conservative talkers, put out containing 98 companies that don't want their ads on controversial political radio shows anymore.

John Cole / Scranton Times-Tribune

This comes, Avon writes, "at a particularly difficult time for right-wing talk radio. They are playing to a (sometimes literally) dying demographic. Rush & Co. rate best among old, white males. They have been steadily losing women and young listeners, who are alienated by the angry, negative, obsessive approach to political conservations. Add to that the fact that women ages 24—55 are the prize advertising demographic, and you have a perfect storm emerging after Limbaugh's Sandra Fluke comments."

The bottom line: conservative political talk may be outdated business model.

Talk to many young people and you'll find most dismayed or amused by the anger and rage talk show hosts direct at those with whom they disagree. This is partly generational. Some top talk show hosts are baby boomers. I've always said American politics will be better off when all of the baby boomers (except me) die off. Many baby boomers seem frozen in polarization stemming from the 1960s' great war/anti-war divide.

Much of talk radio IS hate radio. Republicans hate Democrats. Democrats hate Republicans. Conservatives hate liberals. Liberals hate conservatives. And they all hate moderates. When the liberal talk network Air America bombed big-time one reason was that its talkers tried copying the Limbaugh talk show model and offered strident liberal talk shows that tried to do to conservatives what Rush does to liberals. One tiny problem: Limbaugh has broadcasting talent and they didn't. 

Today's conservative talk is now experiencing entertainment's traditional cyclical nature. The genre could eventually go the way of TV variety shows and soap operas. Plus, with heightened competition from the Internet, social media, and an increasing number of Americans unwilling to continue accepting demonizing or demeaning polemics without a strong push-back, the old formula is frayed.

R.J. Matson / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The lingering question: Exactly when did we make the shift where it was considered "entertainment" to listen to a radio talk show host for three hours a day five days a week demonize another political party and anyone who sympathized with it? When did negatively politically defining talk become so much "fun" for millions and why? One reason: a charismatic talk show host becomes a listener's trusted friend whose viewpoint is believed -- and absorbed.

Market forces propelled talk radio and now market forces seem poised to force its evolution. And what have been its key impacts? Greater citizen involvement, increased interest in politics — and promoting the notions that compromise is a filthy word, big umbrella coalitions are for the weak, and that demonization and denigration of opponents can be fun and profitable in terms of revenue and in getting out the partisan vote.

It makes sense that it's time for an adaption or shift: after years of the "dumbing down" of American politics, it's time for a smartening up — which is apparently what's happening now with some of talk radio's potential listeners who seem to crave hosts who have open minds versus perpetually open mouths.

Joe Gandelman is a political comedian and columnist for Cagle Cartoons Inc. Read more of Gandelman's columns here.