By Carl Guo, VI Form
Conservative Talk Radio and Its Impact on Heightened Partisanship
“[Obama is] a veritable rookie whose only chance of winning [the 2008 election] is that he’s black.”
“If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians.”
“Women should not be allowed on juries where the accused is a stud.”Jason Silverstein, “Rush Limbaugh now has a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Here are just 20 of the outrageous things he’s said,” CBS News, last modified February 6, 2020, accessed January 12, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rush-limbaugh-presidential-medal-of-freedom-state-of-the-union-outrageous quotes/.
Rush Limbaugh, the renowned conservative talk radio host, made the above statements. Appalled by these comments and other similar ones, some liberals posted similarly incendiary remarks on Twitter when Limbaugh died on February 17, 2021. Music producer Finneas wrote, “Feeling very sorry for the people of Hell who now have to deal with Rush Limbaugh for the rest of eternity.” “God has canceled Rush Limbaugh,” said Crooked Media host Erin Ryan. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins reacted with: “I’m glad Rush Limbaugh lived long enough to get cancer and die.”
While liberals condemn Limbaugh, conservatives respect him as a conservative media pioneer and a lovable host whose shows they listened to every day. Former President Donald Trump even awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award the President can bestow to recognize “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”3 Trump announced the award in perhaps the most grandiose way: during the 2020 State of the Union Address.4 In Trump’s words, this award honors Limbaugh’s “decades of tireless devotion to our country” and “the millions of people a day that [he] speaks to and inspires.”5 Even without presidential recognition, however, Rush Limbaugh cemented his legacy by reviving dying AM radio stations during the 1980s and amassed a large and loyal audience since. Talkers Magazine ranked The Rush Limbaugh Show as the most-listened-to talk radio show from 1987 to 2021, with an average of 15 million listeners per week.6
Liberals who felt relieved that Limbaugh “finally died” would not think he is worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his listeners would be angry at the tweets celebrating Limbaugh’s passing. This juxtaposition of opposite sentiments reflects Limbaugh’s and, more broadly, talk radio’s polarizing role in U.S. culture. As American politics became increasingly partisan in the last 70 years, this paper aims to analyze talk radio as a significant cause of such heightened partisanship and unravel talk radio’s history, by examining its pioneers, relevant regulations like the Fairness Doctrine, its rise to popularity in the 1990s, the genre’s internal radicalization, and its part in radicalizing politics.
When Father Charles Coughlin, an early talk radio pioneer in the 1930s, aired increasingly extreme content that bordered on supporting Nazi ideologies, the government stepped in and halted his show. Later, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) codified the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 to require broadcasters to present both sides of controversial issues. The Fairness Doctrine successfully promoted public discourse on some issues, such as the danger of smoking or nuclear plants, and the Supreme Court threw its support to the doctrine against First Amendment challenges. However, the doctrine suffered from criticisms of corrupt misuse and a “chilling effect” that swayed broadcasters from touching controversial issues at all; eventually, the FCC abolished it in 1987. While the Fairness Doctrine did deter many potentially divisive figures from entering talk radio, it was a weaker force than people expected. Joe Pyne, famous for his abrasive insults on-air, thrived in the 1960s without facing a significant Fairness Doctrine complaint. The Fairness Doctrine rarely penalized broadcasters due to the FCC’s limited resources and later a leadership that believed in free-market. The FCC denied license renewal to only one radio station, Carl McIntire’s WXUR, in the Fairness Doctrine’s entire existence.
In the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh became a national sensation, thanks to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, AM radio’s support after they lost the music market to FM radios, and conservatives’ longing for an alternative media to counteract the mainstream media’s alleged liberal bias. Successful talk radio hosts like Charles Coughlin, Joe Pyne, and Rush Limbaugh shared a few similarities: they were eloquent and opinionated, and their content often became increasingly extreme to attract larger audiences. Limbaugh originally made practical commentaries to mobilize his crowds and helped the GOP win the 1994 midterm election. However, Limbaugh and other talk radio hosts later supported radical primary challengers, some of whom lost the GOP elections. Prioritizing commercial success rather than political consequences, talk radio hosts capitalized on the shock value of extremist rhetoric and created an echo chamber that pushed the Republican agenda towards the far-right.
Carl Guo is a VI Form boarding student.