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What's the Impact
of Talk radio?

by Jon Moser and Steven Miller

oes political talk radio really make a difference in Nevada? It’s almost impossible to prove a case by looking at the Arbitron numbers—the only hard data that radio professionals can consult to see how any station or particular personality is doing in the competition for ratings. While local Nevada talk show hosts—and of course Rush Limbaugh, via syndication—can put together respectable market-share numbers, they still consistently lag local music programs.

Yet audience share numbers don’t really get to the heart of the issue. The latter seems to have more to do with the kind of leverage that talk radio seems to end up having on the voting community in general.

That’s certainly the view of the political experts. They’re convinced talk radio has potentially make-or-break power over the causes and candidates they’re trying to put over the top.

Consider a web page on the official Democratic National Committee web site earlier this year. "The Time to Act is Now," said the headline. But down the page it got more interesting:

"The best way to get on the air is to call a show and identify yourself as a regular listener and fan of the host, otherwise you will be turned away," continued the advice.

The casual mendacity of that admonition, of course, explicitly confirmed every right-winger’s worst expectations about Clinton Democrats and their apparently eternal willingness to lie for even the most minor and temporary advantage. But even when the DNC was forced to delete the page—after it became an embarrassing topic on the talk shows themselves—DNC decision-makers did not abandon their goal. And even today the Democratic Party’s Women’s Leadership Forum has a "Quick Guide to Talk Radio" (see http://www.democrats.org/wlf/tkfacts.htm).

Interestingly, the very first item on the page is a list of facts evidently intended to disabuse the DNC’s activist shock troops of common prejudices about the talk-radio audience before the activists go out and embarrass themselves and their cause.

"TALK-RADIO AUDIENCE FACTS" says the heading, pointing out the upscale demographics of talk radio listeners, and suggesting the latter usually:

  • have an income over $75,000.
  • have graduated college.
  • read a newspaper daily.
  • own their residence.
  • are likely to use the Internet.
  • have opinions that mirror those of the general population.

These are interesting statistics and, because they fit the profile of what sociologists call opinion leaders, they suggest why the DNC is concerned to—as the organization says elsewhere on its web site—"correct the misinformation and lies that are spread by extremist radio hosts and columnists."

Talkers Magazine conducts an ongoing study of the talk radio audience, The Talk Radio Research Projecttm. Nine years old now, the study includes the result of interviews with listeners across the United States, supplemented by input from talk radio programmers, hosts, sales personnel and in-house research from various stations. The study suggests that from Spring 1998 through Spring 1999 the talk radio audience has been undergoing an interesting shift:

  • Fewer whites and more blacks are listening to talk radio: The white share has dropped from 66 percent to 64, while the black share has increased from 18 to 20 percent. Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic shares have not changed.
  • More college graduates and more high school graduates are now listening to talk radio: College grads increased from 18 to 22 percent, and high school grads from 23 to 25 percent.
  • A shift in political alignment appears to be taking place: The Republican share of the talk show audience has dropped four percent, from 24 to 20 percent. The Democrat share of the audience has also decreased four percent, dropping from 20 percent down to 16 percent. At the same time, there are more Libertarians and Independents now making up the talk radio audience—the Libertarian percentage zooming from 6 percent up to 10 percent of the audience, and Independents growing from 47 percent to 51.

That particular national trend—the shift away from the political establishment—appears to be active here in Nevada also. Its most recent outstanding example may have been the Lou Epton show in Las Vegas during the 1998 election.

Fellow talk show host and 30-year Vegas resident Frank LaSpina credits Epton, whose show airs weeknights on KXNT from 9 p.m. until midnight, with elevating the 1998 gubernatorial campaign of Aaron Russo, a Hollywood movie producer turned charismatic constitutionalist. Russo received little favorable treatment from the mainstream media, and was summarily dismissed by provincial pundits as too new to the state and too extreme in his views to have any hope at all. Yet, stimulated by his own funds and aided by Epton’s ongoing enthusiasm, Russo put together a candidacy that caused a few white knuckles for those who thought they had the process under control. Russo was eventually done in by powerful attack ads and, unquestionably, his own mistakes. But one month before the Republican primary, according to two separate polling entities, the Hollywood transplant was statistically even with the eventual winner, current Governor Kenny Guinn. Significantly, still today an aftereffect of Russo’s candidacy lingers. Many of those who have entered the process to support him have stayed involved, and within the state GOP, have shown themselves a force to be reckoned with.

It may be that the best sense of the potential impact of political talk radio doesn’t even have to come from political on-air discussion. Rusty Humphries [see adjoining story] says he recently—going into a weekend—shared with his audience some personal information. His high school sweetheart, who he hadn’t heard from in about 14 years—"the one that got away," he called her—was coming to Reno and they had a date scheduled.

"Well, I gave her a jacket," says Humphries, "a Rusty Show jacket—and everywhere we went—and I don’t mean sometime...

"We went to Harrah’s Steakhouse. I counted 28 people who came up to us: ‘Oh, you must be Dawn!’ Somebody hired two strippers to come over in the middle dinner. ‘Oh, this must be Rusty—our favorite customer! Ha, ha, ha—Jimmy—somebody you don’t know—hired us to come over and give you a little hard time.’

"John Ensign comes up.

"Everywhere we go—and that was just at dinner.

"We go to Virginia City: ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to be here today. You’re not supposed to come til tomorrow. My wife was going to work an extra day to see you guys.’

"Lake Tahoe: ‘What are you guys [doing]? You’re supposed to be here Sunday, not Saturday.’

"Everywhere we went.

"I mean, It was very, very nice. But it was kind of scary."

The power of talk radio, ventures Humphries, stems from its personal, emotional connection.

"Music radio, or yo-yo radio, as I call it—yo-yo-yo—that’s background music. You put it on in the background and you don’t pay attention. Talk radio, you’ve got to pay attention; you’ve got to get involved—whether it’s just at an emotional level or you actually pick up the phone and add to the conversation."

The Democratic National Committee agrees. NJ

Jon Moser (jonnymo@jonnymo.com) runs a commentary and informational web site. Steven Miller (sm@npri.org) is managing editor of Nevada Journal.


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