Talk Radio: Voice of the People

Published January 10-16, 2021


Growing up with Radio

I grew up listening to BBC World Service on the radio. Because of my eyesight troubles, the doctor had suggested that I don’t read at night. (And there wasn’t much TV to watch in late 1970s India.) For a 12-year-old, that was a hard decision. It was then that I discovered the joys of radio, and especially BBC. I had a big Philips radio, which I would position in the balcony to ensure good reception. The short waves brought the distinctive British accent into my room. For many years, the radio was my best friend. I spent hours listening. The only competition BBC faced was when cricket matches were played, and I would tune in to whichever broadcaster was doing the ball-by-ball commentary.

BBC World Service brought me news, analysis, quizzes, humour, science, plays and more. It became my window to the world. I could close my eyes and be anywhere in the world. I knew the voices of all the news announcers and presenters. The diversity of BBC programming gave me an education beyond the classroom. One of my happiest moments was when a letter I wrote got read in their Letterbox programme. And when I went to IIT as a 17-year-old, I took the radio with me. Much later, with my first salary working for NYNEX, I went and bought a Sony shortwave radio for about $250. Even in the US, the radio was my constant companion.

During my stay in the US, I also discovered AM and FM radio. Having been raised in India on the meagre offerings of government-controlled All India Radio’s Akashvani and Vividh Bharti, the sheer diversity of content available in the US was amazing. News, weather, conversations were all there with the turn of a dial. It was later that I discovered that in India, the government has a monopoly on news over radio – and that is still true in 2020s India!

Much has changed when it comes to entertainment in the past generation in India. Hundreds of TV channels have sprung up. Dozens of apps offer streams of (uncensored, at least for now) content. Podcasting is starting to grow in India. But there is one missing element in all this – talk radio.

Talk radio (think of it as talkback radio) is about interactivity and conversations. A host talks and listeners can call in, ask questions, discuss and debate. In India, what’s missing is the interactivity. TV has its monotonous talking heads and shouting panels. But radio? All it has are songs and music. No news, no conversations, no interactivity. Can talk radio streamed via a mobile app be the next innovation on the Indian media front? Can talk radio change our minds – or even open them?


Radio’s Rise

The story of talk radio cannot be discussed without understanding first the power of radio. The first radio broadcast happened almost a century ago. Bruce Lenthall’s book, “Radio’s America”, traces the history of radio in the US and its deep roots into mass culture:

The rise of modern mass culture and individuals’ efforts to find their places within it resonated through much of the century. Making radio a part of their lives in the Depression, Americans began a process of helping to shape the meanings of their mass culture. In doing so, they turned to a medium of that culture to help them seek a degree of autonomy within it. That was part of an ongoing process, one that continued throughout the era of a mass-produced, mass-consumed culture’s ascendancy. Starting in the late twentieth century, though, the shape of mass culture began changing in multiple ways. Control of production narrowed further as ownership of media outlets consolidated—a point the Internet as it develops theoretically might challenge. Simultaneously, the proliferation of stations and outlets through cable television, the Internet, and other media may have enabled audiences to personalize their consumption—unless we consider the relatively uniform consumer messages the heart of what is conveyed. Even in flux, though, our culture still blurs the lines between public and private, still pushes us to consider the value of mass communication, and still opens up the meaning of democracy in contemporary life. We continue to seek self-control and ways of being heard in our world, and we continue to look to mass culture’s own vehicles for help. The journalist Dorothy Thompson, writing on Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, was right: the story of the twentieth century—and perhaps of the twenty-first as well—is, in significant part, the story of the balance between individual authority and mass culture. And how Americans made sense of radio is the first chapter.”

Perhaps India’s political leaders realised the power of radio to shape and change minds and culture. Little wonder then that government control exercised on radio has been absolute – something that has never changed. India’s first private FM station commenced operations in 2001. To this day, private radio stations can give us songs but not news. In India’s radios, we can get government commentary but not independent commentary on the government. It is in this context that talk radio over mobile internet can be the ultimate disrupter. Talk radio has the potential to do to conversation and culture what mobile telephony did to landlines and person-to-person communications.


Hosting Talk Radio

Let’s start our journey into the world of talk radio by understanding what it is. From Wikipedia: “Talk radio is a radio format containing discussion about topical issues and consisting entirely or almost entirely of original spoken word content rather than outside music. Most shows are regularly hosted by a single individual, and often feature interviews with a number of different guests. Talk radio typically includes an element of listener participation, usually by broadcasting live conversations between the host and listeners who “call in” (usually via telephone) to the show. Listener contributions are usually screened by a show’s producers in order to maximize audience interest and, in the case of commercial talk radio, to attract advertisers. Generally, the shows are organized into segments, each separated by a pause for advertisements; however, in public or non-commercial radio, music is sometimes played in place of commercials to separate the program segments. Variations of talk radio include conservative talk, hot talk, liberal talk (increasingly known as progressive talk) and sports talk.”

An article in The Atlantic by David Wallace in 2005 describes what it is to be a talk show host:

Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you’re saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you’re discussing. And it gets even trickier: You’re trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you’re communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech’s ticcy unconscious “umm”s or “you know”s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You’re also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can’t be too slow, since that’s low-energy and dull, but it can’t be too rushed or it will sound like babbling.

Phew! Try doing that, every day, year after year.


Rush Limbaugh

In the US, talk radio centred around politics exploded after the repeal of the 1949 Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine mandated that the programming ensure a diversity of viewpoints. After its repeal, the US saw the launch of many conservative talk radio hosts to counter what they saw as the liberal print and TV media. The conservative talk radio counter-revolution was led by Rush Limbaugh.

Matthew Lysiak, writing in “The Drudge Revolution”, takes up the story of Rush Limbaugh:

With the radio waves unchained, the stage was now set for an explosive new voice: Rush Limbaugh.

…With the fairness doctrine gone, and stations beginning to do away with the general advice chat shows in exchange for large blocks of programming, it opened the door for more political talk . . . and Limbaugh.

By tapping into the frustration of a growing number of people who felt their points of view were being underrepresented, Limbaugh was able to offer an alternative narrative to the one being offered by the print media or the Big Three: ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Daniel Henninger wrote, in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “Ronald Reagan tore down this wall [the fairness doctrine] in 1987 . . . and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination.”

Limbaugh believed that the majority in this country were being misrepresented by the mainstream media and had data to back up his argument. In a 1988 Gallup poll, people identified as conservative or liberal at a ratio of 2:1, whereas more than 90 percent of the journalists and newscasters had donated money to the Democratic Party.

And Limbaugh’s audience agreed. Listeners across the country tuned into Limbaugh in unprecedented numbers. In 1988 Limbaugh began broadcasting his show nationally from radio station WABC in New York City.

… By June 24, 1994, Rush Limbaugh had an audience of twenty million listeners a week, a television show, a bestselling book in the works, the courtship of aspiring presidential candidates, and the commander in chief calling him out publicly as a threat to democracy from Air Force One.

In 6 years, Rush Limbaugh had gone from zero to reaching nearly 10% of America’s population – all the while sitting in a studio and speaking.


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.


A 2011 paper by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj explained the growing popularity of talk radio in the US:

The number of radio stations airing political talk shows—predominantly conservative talk radio—has surged in the past few years. This massive change in the radio industry says something about the demand for such shows, but attributing the rise of talk radio to a corresponding rise in conservative popular opinion is misleading. We argue that this remarkable growth is better explained by the collision of two changes that have transformed the radio business: deregulation and the mainstreaming of digital music technologies. Regulatory changes have shifted much of radio production and control from local to mass production (managed by industry giants such as Clear Channel Communications) and created a context ripe for nationally syndicated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. Meanwhile, rapid technological changes have given consumers more control over the way they listen to music. Technologies such as MP3 players, Internet radio, smart phones, and Pandora Radio have made it more difficult for stations with a music format to be profitable. As music programming has become more problematic, many stations have developed a highly successful business model by converting to talk formats airing nationally syndicated shows.

A recent New York Times article by Paul Matzko wrote about the size, scale and impact of talk radio in the US (with a focus on conservatives):

Talk radio’s power is rooted in the sheer volume of content being produced each week. The typical major talk radio show is produced every weekday and runs three hours, so just the top 15 shows are putting out around 45 hours of content every day. Even setting aside hundreds of additional local shows, the dedicated fan can listen to nothing but conservative talk radio all day, every day of the week, and never catch up.

Each show has its own long-running inside jokes and references, a kind of linguistic shorthand that unites fans and repels outside examination.

As Jim Derych, the author of “Confessions of a Former Dittohead,” put it, Rush Limbaugh “makes you feel like an insider — like you know what’s going on politically, and everyone else is an idiot.” There is power in that feeling, the proposition that you and the radio elect have been awakened to a hidden truth about the real way the world works while the rest of the American “sheeple” slumber.

Like single-issue voters, talk radio fans are able to exercise outsize influence on the political landscape by the intensity of their ideological commitment.

Talk radio is not bounded by physical space. It can follow listeners wherever they go, from the car radio while commuting to the radio resting on the workbench to a radio app on a smartphone. It has the potential to dominate the construction of a person’s worldview in a way that other media simply cannot (until, perhaps, the advent of its white-collar cousin, the podcast).

What can Indian talk radio do? Can talk radio help drive the political and economic revolution India needs for freedom and prosperity?


An Indian Agenda

What we have in today’s India is one-way Talk TV – where the anchor holds sway, where the same political faces are seen, where rational discussion and debate gives way to emotionally charged rhetoric outbursts and rhetoric.  A symbiotic relationship has developed between the BJP and some of the leading TV (and print) channels. Traditional media no longer holds the government and the political leadership to account; they are all on the same side, acting as amplifiers and mouthpieces of the government. It is almost like India has spawned dozens of clones of Doordarshan and the Press Information Bureau. In their studios, there is no discussion on why India needed the world’s most stringent lockdown, why migrant workers had to suffer, why is China still occupying Indian territory, why the independence of institutions is being trampled, why jobs have gone missing, and why cronyism is on the rise. In return for its loyalty, media gets the oxygen it needs – advertising rupees and survival.

My belief is that this still caters to a small audience, and there is an opening for talk radio – where the listeners are as engaged and there is more information, analysis and education, rather than misinformation, entertainment and conspiracy theories. If there is a hope for holding leaders to account and changing minds, it can come from new independent voices. Talk radio hosts can be India’s salvation.

Here is an agenda for future Indian talk radio hosts:

  • Focus on the future, not the past
  • Make freedom and prosperity as the twin pillars for content
  • Lay out the choice Indians have – stagnation or upward mobility, past or future, kakistocracy or democracy, serfdom or freedom, cronyism or fairness, wealth redistribution or wealth creation, poverty or prosperity
  • Ask the hard questions: Why are Indians not rich? What will make them rich?
  • Encourage debate, not diatribes
  • Hold the governments (Centre and States) to account on economic matters
  • Focus on the rules, not rulers
  • Discuss the right role for government in our lives, business and society
  • Given the lack of experts in government, articulate an alternative roadmap
  • Help foster the growth of a new generation of political entrepreneurs

I think there are many people in India who want betterment for their families and children as their primary agenda. They do not want to get caught into civilisational debates about the past, but genuinely want a tomorrow that has more opportunities than today. They need their voices heard. They need a megaphone for their aspirations. Talk radio can be their voice and platform. The listeners can in turn provide the political entrepreneurs and foot soldiers for the revolution India needs. Talk radio can take up the responsibility that Indian media has abdicated. What India’s talk radio movement needs are pioneers willing to create a new industry.