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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

Mar. 2, 2003

Taking yet another crack at the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, a group of left-wing investors are putting up $10 million in seed money to create liberal radio programming that they hope will diminish the influence of conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. To launch the new venture, the donors have tapped Jon Sinton, an Atlanta radio exec whose last big move into left-leaning radio was a syndicated talk show hosted by Texas liberal Jim Hightower in the mid-1990s. Hightower's show crashed soon after takeoff, but Sinton and his backers are convinced that with the right talent, they can fill what they are sure is an aching market need.

"There are so many right-wing talk shows," Sinton told the Associated Press. "We think it's created a hole in the market you could drive a truck through."

For many on the left, the search for an answer to Limbaugh (and to Sean Hannity and Oliver North and Michael Reagan and a host of other radio conservatives) has become something of a quest for the holy grail. Time and again they have put their faith in a Great Liberal Hope, and time and again they have been disappointed.

Hightower -- who bills himself as "America's #1 Populist" -- isn't the only lefty to flop as a radio host. Mario Cuomo flopped, too. And Jerry Brown. And Alan Dershowitz. If there is a hunger out there for left-wing radio, it is certainly keeping itself under wraps.

Is it just a question of finding a more diverting personality? Sheldon Drobny, one of the Democratic venture capitalists underwriting the latest attempt to break the conservative grip on talk-radio, says the problem with liberals like Cuomo et al. is that they weren't any fun to listen to. "What the liberals have failed to do," he said, "is . . . to understand that you first and foremost must be entertaining."

But since when is there a disconnect between liberals and entertainment? The nerve center of the American entertainment industry -- Hollywood -- is a stronghold of American liberalism. Entertaining programs with a decidedly liberal bent -- from the "Today" show to "The West Wing" to reruns of Norman Lear's sitcoms -- are a mainstay of broadcast television. Liberals in other media have no trouble finding an audience. So why do they fail at talk radio?

A variant of the "entertainment" explanation is that talk radio thrives on easy demagoguery -- something at which the left, it is said, isn't skilled. "The popular view in the [radio] industry," reports The New York Times, is that "liberal hosts present issues in too much complexity." The dummies who tune in to talk shows, you see, can't handle complicated nuance and don't want to be confused with facts.

Yet anyone looking for simplistic sloganeering will have no trouble finding it on the left, where opposition to racial preferences is summed up as "racism," where every plan to ease the income tax burden is "tax cuts for the rich," and where those who want to liberate Iraq are in favor of spilling "blood for oil." From Ted Kennedy attacking Robert Bork to anti-globalization rioters attacking Starbucks, thoughtful argument is a luxury with which liberals frequently dispense.

So why don't liberals do better at talk radio? Three reasons:

  • Talk radio is listener-driven. Unlike television, newsmagazines, or the op-ed page, radio talk shows are interactive. The talkmaster may pick the subject, but anyone with a telephone can help determine what the audience gets to hear. No other medium is as open to public participation, which means that in no other medium is it as difficult to control the message. Conservatives may outnumber liberals in the public at large (as polls routinely show), but their views tend to get short shrift on the TV networks and in the daily paper. Only talk radio offers conservatives an unmediated chance to be heard. Not surprisingly, they flock to it.

  • Talk radio emphasizes words and argument. By contrast, television is focused on pictures and emotion. TV is a liberal bulwark because liberalism plays to feelings -- especially fear, envy, and pity. But success in radio requires an ability to engage with critics and actually answer their arguments. Sure, some liberals excel at debate, but too many simply deride those who disagree with them as fools or villains. You can't do that on talk radio and survive.

  • Talk radio is a reaction to Big Media. Liberals and Democrats can turn to a wide array of media outlets -- from CNN to Newsweek to National Public Radio -- and be fairly sure of seeing (or hearing) their own opinions echoed. But with few exceptions, the only mass-media option for those who want to hear a conservative take on things is talk radio. As the inimitable Jonah Goldberg, the online editor of National Review, puts it, "Talk radio serves as a truth squad for people who don't trust Peter Jennings." Right-leaning talkmasters give their audience something they can't find anywhere else. That's a big part of the reason for their success.

As a marketplace-of-ideas fan, I wish the left-wing investors the very best of luck in launching their radio enterprise. But if I had $10 million, I surely wouldn't be gambling it on something so risky.

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