Sounds about right: Talking up talk radio
Occasional advertising boycotts of Rush Limbaugh’s program notwithstanding, political talk radio has been wildly successful in recent years—in terms of both revenue and ratings. Of course, political talk radio generally means conservative political talk radio, especially since the demise of the liberal Air America network in 2010. The most popular political talkers, like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, are all conservative. So you might be inclined to think that political talk radio’s recent success reflects increasingly conservative values among the general public. However, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University caution us: Not so fast.
As they argue in the October 2011 issue of Political Science & Politics, the surging popularity of political talk radio stems from changes in the industry over the last two decades: deregulation and the decline of music-based stations. The 1996 Telecommunications Act’s deregulation of the industry allowed businesses to own more radio stations in individual markets, and across the country as a whole. That allowed large companies like Clear Channel to buy more stations, many of which it converted to talk formats. Why talk? In Clear Channel’s case, it’s because it already owns Premier Networks, a subsidiary that syndicates some of the biggest talk programs, including Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck. Programming new stations with shows it already owned made good business sense.
Meanwhile, many music stations found making a profit a growing struggle because listeners increasingly have ditched radio in favor of digital music technology. Why listen to commercial radio when you can listen to your mp3 player commercial-free? Or stream Internet radio on your computer? Fewer people listen to music on the radio, so radio stations attract less advertising, so station owners flip formats from music to talk.