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The Original “Social Media”: Talk Radio

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Getting Noticed on Talk Radio

My new column will explore this subject more fully, but on Wednesday’s show I had conversations with the New York Times‘ columnist David Brooks and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, both of which touched on talk radio. The complete interviews are transcribed here, and Christensen’s book –which Brooks is also reading– is linked in the post below, but their comments on talk radio are of course of particular interest to me and most people who come to this blog.
From my conversation with Brooks:

HH: Now in 1989 –this is going to be heresy for some New York Times listeners or subscribers, but it’s true– in 1989, Rush Limbaugh invented a commons. He destroyed the old radio model, and he asserted himself as a teacher of the entire country. And he’s so magnificently successful. The only person who is remotely close to him is Oprah, who did the same thing. She asserted the ability to hold forth and conduct conversations with communities. And I think everything since then has been an attempt to create again the idea that there are great teachers, that you refer to in your column, where millions of students access the world’s best teachers. And I know a lot of the elite media won’t like to refer to Rush as a great teacher, and they won’t have thought of Oprah as a great teacher, but they are.

DB: Yeah, and I would say you know, it’s spreading out. I’ve noticed, especially in talk radio recently, it’s spreading out, and you do it, and Dennis Prager does it, and Medved does it, and a bunch of people do it. It’s not just politics anymore. It’s how to live, it’s how to think. And that’s part, I think that’s part of community building. It’s not just how we’re going to vote, what do we think of tax reform. It’s how are we going to live. I heard a discussion on the radio last night about Genesis, about some Biblical issues.

HH: Dennis invented this. I mean, he’s been doing this for 25 years, Dennis Prager. Now my question is, do you see any of this on television? This is everywhere on radio. My network, Salem Radio Network, does a lot of it. But do you see any of this on television outside of Charlie Rose, who’s also been doing it for 20 years?

DB: Yeah, no, and this is a great mystery to me. I write columns, write two columns a week. Sometimes, I write about politics, and I get a certain level of response. Then sometimes I’ll write something about this, the Campus Tsunami, or I’ll write about a moral issue. And the response is X times 10. And so then I go to TV executives, and say I can turn on the TV any day, any time, day or night, and there are five or six shows talking about politics. There are no shows talking about culture and morality, sociology, the stuff people really care about. Why is that? Why are you not providing those shows? And I’m not sure what the answer is. I think every time they try, they do it badly, and it’s kind of sanctimonious and pretentious. So there was, a few decades ago, you had guys like Dick Cavett, who were doing, you know, they would get William F. Buckley on the same show with John Lennon, and that was pretty much electric television. But the only people doing cultural discussion are on the radio right now.

HH: You see, that is exactly where I was going. Dick Cavett set the standard that I don’t think has ever been approached again for being above it all funny and engaging. But now, are we deluding ourselves, David Brooks, that there’s a mass audience? I know some programmers will say “You guys are crazy. You’re talking about the 1% of people who enjoy this.” Most people want to hear, and I’ll just paraphrase it, red meat. Rush doesn’t do that, by the way. Rush actually hits an enormously high intellectual level, as did Oprah repeatedly with their guests and with their subjects. Rush doesn’t do a lot of guests. But I think TV executives are afraid to try this.

DB: Yeah, I think they just don’t, they’re part of the same formula. And you know, look at it common sensibly. What do more people care about? A tax bill or learning? Tax bill or how to treat your family? Tax bill or are you a good person? I guarantee you they care more about all the latter of those things, but they don’t quite have a format in their minds of how to do it. And you know, some of the people, as I say, who have done it, it becomes very pretentious and very sodden, very fast. So finally, somebody like Cavett, who can do it with some liveliness and some wit and unpretentiousness, that’s the key, and they haven’t done that, yet.

From the conversation with Christensen, which comes from an example in his book on why people buy milkshakes int he early morning –the “job that they hire the milkshake to do”:

HH: What job does the audience hire a radio talk show for?

CC: I think what we hire you to do is I’m doing something that is boring and routine, and I’ve got to do that, but there just isn’t anybody that I can engage with to think things through. And when I have this problem to do, I just tune into your program, and you make me think.

What Brooks and I probe at a little bit of length, Christensen summarizes succinctly: Talk radio engages you and makes you think.

This is why it is such a powerful agent in Campaign 2012 in which so many crucial, far reaching issues are bound up, but far beyond this election and politics generally, talk radio is emerging as the last mass market broadcast medium in which there is any time available to actually build an audience and explore many and varied topics. The explosion in podcasts is an effort to do the same thing that talk radio is doing, but the best of the talk shows cannot be matched in production quality or reach.

Which is why the medium is entering a phase of explosive growth, on both the FM and AM bands, and advertisers are realizing that their last chance to hit the key demographics for big purchases and deep brand loyalty is via the oldest broadcast medium of them all.

Talk radio was the original “social media,” and it remains the most powerful.



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