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Red airwave: America’s conservative talk radio saturation

Talk radio host Jeff Katz says his listeners, who are mainly conservative, felt 'marginalized' for years but have gained a sense of empowerment as right-leaning radio shows push back against liberalism
Talk radio host Jeff Katz says his listeners, who are mainly conservative, felt 'marginalized' for years but have gained a sense of empowerment as right-leaning radio shows push back against liberalism - Copyright AFP/File Abdullah DOMA
Talk radio host Jeff Katz says his listeners, who are mainly conservative, felt 'marginalized' for years but have gained a sense of empowerment as right-leaning radio shows push back against liberalism - Copyright AFP/File Abdullah DOMA
Michael Mathes

With Pixie the Chihuahua curled nearby and studio walls covered in mementos, Jeff Katz leans into the radio microphone and delivers a rather less cozy message to his conservative audience: Joe Biden and Democrats are corrupt villains destroying America.

“I don’t like him,” Katz tells his Newsradio WRVA audience from his home studio in central Virginia, referring to the 80-year-old president.

“I think he brought a gang of grifters to the White House…. He’s a bad guy.”

Katz is a veteran foot soldier in an airwaves army saturating talk radio with thousands of usually unscripted, occasionally unhinged shows, often featuring long-debunked conspiracy theories.

Over the years, conservative talk radio’s mixture of multimedia superstars and fringe hosts have fed millions of voters with misinformation about Barack Obama, school shootings, vaccines and election fraud.

Along the way, they’ve galvanized the radically rightwing politics that brought America Donald Trump.

On the Sean Hannity Show, the most listened-to talk radio broadcast in America, with a weekly audience topping 16 million across 600 stations, the 2020 election was falsely referred to as fraudulent, rigged or stolen in 35 out of 45 episodes, according to MIT transcripts studied by The New York Times in 2021.

Polls show those falsehoods have sunk deeply into Republican voters’ minds.

– ‘Trump has the juice’ –

Show hosts are shrewdly aware of the industry’s symbiotic relationship with Trump, and often dismiss concerns about his criminal indictments, while attacking critics who warn he is a threat to democracy.

Across some 1,500 conservative stations, radio’s outrage machine beats the drums over Biden’s supposed “cognitive decline,” urges Republicans to “crush” opponents, and elevates Trump as the lodestar of a largely male, older, white audience.

“Trump is far and away the overwhelming selection for Republicans,” Katz, 59, tells AFP in his cluttered studio, acknowledging primary challengers face long odds against the ex-president.

He says Trump earned massive listener appeal because he copied talk radio’s populist shift and ditched the traditional Republican platform.

When the GOP establishment crafted immigration reform in 2007, conservative radio helped tank it, in what historian Paul Matzko calls “the beginning of the rise of ethno-nationalist nativism in American politics.”

Trump has mirrored that nativism to dominate the primaries, and the airwaves, Matzko said.

“There is a lot of talk radio in Trump,” says Dom Giordano, who at 74 is the dean of Philadelphia radio.

“Trump has the juice, and these people want the juice,” he tells AFP after his WPHT show aired across multiple states.

Giordano’s listeners — like millions tuning in to syndicated stalwarts Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Dana Loesch and Mike Gallagher during rush-hour commutes — squarely back the brash billionaire.

After Republican hardliners ousted their party leader Kevin McCarthy from the US House speakership Tuesday, hosts and callers discussed the technically possible but all-but-absurd idea of installing Trump as the chamber’s acting chieftain.

“Oh boy,” Gallagher chuckled Wednesday on air. “A man can dream.”

– ‘Tired of playing nice’ –

While listeners feed off hosts’ rebellion and indignation, the shows’ anger can also feel performative.

“We are all in this business as entertainers,” Katz acknowledges.

He dismisses their frequent insults — Biden was called a “walking vegetable” on Beck’s program — as on-air personalities just being “passionate” about politics.

“Conservatives in America have for a long time felt marginalized, they’ve felt that their voice is not respected,” Katz says.

Virginia listener Wendy Yohman agrees, and applauds the coarse style.

Conservatives “have been too submissive and not aggressive enough,” she says. “Now they’re just tired of playing nice.”

Radio deregulation in 1987 opened the floodgates to partisan programming, and ex-DJ Rush Limbaugh, a master of political bombast, blazed a rightwing trail to challenge the National Public Radio network routinely accused of reflecting liberal sentiments.

“News talk radio at present is dominated by conservative hosts — and yes, it’s very influential,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of leading trade magazine TALKERS.

Back in 2016, several hosts were Trump skeptics. But they noticed their ratings jumped when he came on their show.

“The audience loved Trump,” Harrison says. “As a result, radio hosts started to be more Trump than they were before.”

Trump thrilled listeners in February 2020 when he awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Nine months later, Rush told his audience: “There’s simply no way Joe Biden was legitimately elected president.”

Limbaugh died in 2021 but his legacy remains. According to TALKERS, today’s top 10 news radio talk shows are all conservative.

Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States,” bluntly explains the lack of progressive presence — and Trump’s appeal — on air. 

“Nuance and compromise isn’t good radio,” he says.

In the 2000s, liberals hit the airwaves pushing leftwing agendas.

But the network, Air America, was humorless and wonky — “like nails on a chalkboard,” Katz recalls. It folded within six years.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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