Talk Radio: Voice of the People (Part 5)

Changing Minds, Channelling Votes

In his book, “Talk Radio’s America”, Brian Rosenwald writes about how talk radio, led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, led to Donald Trump’s takeover (and makeover) of the Republican Party in the US:

[The book chronicles how] talk radio blazed a path that would later be followed by cable news and digital media with dramatic consequences for the media in general. Talk radio became the first of a new wave of ideologically driven niche media that revised how Americans consumed information and how they viewed journalism, in some respects returning us to the partisan press of the nineteenth century, albeit one more focused on entertaining than informing. When hosts spotlighted salacious, often-unverified stories that made for great radio, they forced the mainstream media to address these same stories, thereby damaging journalists’ capacity to serve as gatekeepers who determined newsworthiness. The newsworthiness standard would crumble further with the rise of digital and social media, helping to blur the line between fact and fiction and spread mistruths, exaggerations, and distortions. At the same time, conservative media’s relentless denigration of the mainstream press discredited journalism itself in the eyes of a large segment of the population.

With the traditional media no longer an arbiter of truth, extremist politicians were free to make outlandish claims that no one could effectively dispute. These claims were music to the ears of a scorned segment of the population that felt like its values were under siege. The lure of conservative media stardom pushed politicians down this path. When they followed it, they found their power augmented. They didn’t have to be backbenchers in Congress, on the party fringe. The backing of conservative media protected them from Republican leaders trying to maintain party discipline, inverting traditional political and congressional power structures.

… The relationship between talk radio and the Republican Party was a Faustian bargain. Hosts provided substantial aid to Republican candidates and frequently labored to advance the Republican agenda. But, with time, the synergy of purpose between conservative media personalities and Republicans waned. As hosts and outlets proliferated, competition stiffened, and many conservative media figures guarded their flanks by lacerating Republicans. Hosts demanded from elected Republicans a level of ideological purity—and a warfare mentality—that made it far more difficult to be a nationally competitive party and to advance an agenda that would attract broad support. These demands increasingly imperiled moderate Republicans and hamstrung governance.

..The result was a negative feedback loop: by expelling party moderates, the inflamed conservative airwaves forced Republicans to reach farther across the aisle for compromise during divided government, leading to still more inflamed conservative airwaves. Conservative media responded by calling for even more combative Republicans willing to fight for listeners’ values at any cost.

What are the learnings for the future in India? Is there an opportunity for talk radio – targeting not the extremes, but the silent moderates who pine for a freer and richer India.

Tomorrow: Part 6

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.