February 24, 2003


For Liberals, It's Morning in America: Shock jocks are the progressive answer to Rush Limbaugh (Marc Fisher, February 21, 2003, Slate)
Talk isn't conservative or liberal. Scratch almost any successful radio talker, and you'll find a former Top 40 DJ who has repurposed his quick-lipped skill at dispensing shreds of meaning, moving from music to talk while remaining in the loyal service of his twin masters—the clock and the spots. Content is secondary. These guys are on the radio because they are storytellers and showmen. Their heroes are not Churchill, JFK, or Reagan but Jean Shepherd, Larry Lujack, and Dan Ingram—the legendary radio yakkers and jocks they listened to as shy boys alone in their rooms.

AM talk—Rush, Dr. Laura, Hannity—targets middle-aged white guys. Surprise: They tend to be conservative. But FM talk—Stern, Joyner, Mancow, Don and Mike in Washington, Tom Leykis in Los Angeles—scores with young men, guys who like their radio on the risqué side, with a bulging menu of sex jokes and a powerful message that this is America and you can do whatever you want. Hint to Democrats: You may not like to admit this, but these are your voters.

Yes, they like it raunchy. Most people listen to radio alone in their cars, where no one needs to be PC, where it's still OK to insult women and minorities and foreigners, and no one has to fear being slapped with a harassment charge. And it's OK to chuckle at that coarse humor and still vote Democratic. The PC brigades may find this hard to believe, but shock jocks do quite well with black listeners and with traditional Democratic demographics, such as college graduates and city dwellers. No, Stern and Don Geronimo and Tom Leykis have no interest whatsoever in having Dick Gephardt on the show, at least not unless he's going to remove his pants. And no, they would say, there's no politics on their shows. (Sabo tells DJs who want to be talk-show hosts: "If the topic is national politics, abortion, gun control, death penalty, religion, race, we have no interest. If the topics are movies, TV, personal relationships, your strong personal feelings, stuff about the workplace—things people under 90 talk about, we'd love to hear your tape.") But even if Stern wannabes don't address abortion directly, their daily diet of searingly intimate conversation with callers hits many of those hot-button issues, and they do it almost unfailingly from a left-libertarian perspective—they are classic social liberals.

Shock jocks are this country's progressive talkers, ranting for hours on end on behalf of civil liberties, sexual freedom, the rights of the little guy against the nation's big corporations and institutions (and—sorry, Dems—against affirmative action). They may not share Limbaugh's fascination with electoral politics, but on the issues that divide this country into red and blue, they are every bit as popular and powerful as the supposedly unchallenged conservatives. Shock jocks talk about sex, television, and what's hot. They talk about what people are talking about, which, if you listen carefully, usually are exactly the same issues that determine how people vote: personal freedom, mores, economic well-being, family, what it's like to be a guy or a woman or an American right now.

Well, yes, if racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, small government, war-mongering is progressive, these are indeed the voices of liberal America. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2003 3:16 PM

He's making another mistake that the Democrats seem to be prone to-- assuming that everyone who isn't explictly "one of them" is a natural Democrat.

Most of the DJs mentioned are into "rebellion for the hell of it". Their targets are those who impose their social beliefs on others, and for the past few decades, the Democrats and the left have been far more successful. Hence, as you say, their "racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, small government, war-mongering" attitudes-- everything the Democrats claim they are not.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at February 24, 2003 4:12 PM

They also tend to be much more small-"l" libertarians than polite Democrat-style "social liberals". I can't see your average shock-jock jumping on the affirmative action bandwagon or that of any other grievance-oriented Democratic constituency's agenda. They would sound fake & the public would know it.

The schoolyard humor element of this kind of radio is just too strong. Nobody's rickety pretension -- especially one freighted with as much hypocrisy as much of the Dem party's current platform -- would get a pass.

Of course, it could be that truly liberal "shock jocks" would punch enough holes in the Dem. status quo that the party would have to rethink its policies, which would be a good
thing, just not what the Dems woulda hoped.

Posted by: Whackadoodle at February 24, 2003 4:13 PM

The Liberals and the Left cannot, it would appear, see the forest for the trees. AM conservative talk radio emerged as a response to the fact that almost all broadcast media at the time was liberal propaganda and a alarming amount of it seemed as though it sprang directly from the fax machine of the DNC. The huge market (need) for this product -- conservative response to Liberal propaganda and spin -- existed (nay, yearned) before the movement was spearheaded by Limbaugh in the early nineties. In contrast, in 2003 there is no such similar information market need (that is, an impressive mass of disillusioned Liberals thirsty for news and views that would counter what they seem to be hearing on almost every television channel, NPR, and in the majority of daily newspapers.) What there is, is a panicky-guy reaction on the part of the DNC that talk radio seems to be quite a powerful force in shaping public opinion (and determining elections) and so they better get in on the action.. Here is their second and colossal mistaken assumption: AM political talk radio is not so much shaping public opinion as it is empathizing with people's existing beliefs. We as humans seek out those who love us, understand us, and appreciate us. Is it so surprising that we behave similarly when it comes to media? In a time of war? Al Franken won't fail for lack of glib intelligence, or humor, or lack of funding. He'll fail because the Democrats are building the Queen Mary out in the middle of the Sahara.

It's the Marketing 101, Stupid.

Posted by: Qiao Yang at February 24, 2003 5:09 PM


We'd like to think all of you are here because you know the Brothers love and appreciate you, though, to be truthful, some of y'all we don't understand at all. :)

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2003 5:24 PM

If the Democratic party of the future is "racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, small government, war-mongering," it's an improvement on the present Democratic party. But it will also mean a long Republican ascendancy.

I thought Qiao was pretty clear. People, he says, tune in media personalities who share their perspective. The liberal audience is already satisfied by NPR, ABC, NBC, CBS et al, so there's no room left for Al Franken.

I think this is partly true. Rush Limbaugh says he has a lot of liberal listeners -- that is a counterexample.

Posted by: pj at February 24, 2003 7:13 PM

It actually seems most likely that the programming skews towards the demographic that tends to be in their cars--white males.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2003 9:04 PM

It's also tough, given the current foreign policy situation, to see what angle a liberal talk show host could take on Iraq and still be able to market the show to a nationwide radio audience. Mirroring Bill Maher's pro-France rant on HBO this past weekend wouldn't seem to be the best way to attract listeners or advertisers, unless your station borders Quebec.

Liberal hosts might find a niche in some markets, but as of now only San Francisco has a successful liberal AM talk format (ABC-owned KGO, which runs Limbaugh and/or Hannity on most of its other AM talkers). In order to get the type of numbers Rush and the others attract, they'll have to make inroads into the Red states.

Domestically, there are some policy issues they could make a stand on out there, but on the anti-terror campaign they would either risk becoming as muddled on the issue as Lieberman or Kerry or go heading off into the "It's all about oil" camp, and end up sounding like a 2 a.m. talk show on a Pacifica FM station (or a lame HBO attempt to replace "Dennis Miller Live")

Posted by: John at February 24, 2003 11:49 PM

I think the problem for liberal talk radio, at bottom, is that liberals have no principles and no philosophy. Conservatives have firm principles and reason from them; thus they can engage in persuasive argumentation, can compare facts to theoretical predictions, can hold conversations with those they disagree with. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a collection of special interests motivated by greed or fear, by desires or grievances. Insofar as liberals have ideas, they are meant to be fig leafs to cover up Democratic appeals to greed and fear and make them appear noble. Because of the breadth of the Democratic coalition, these rationalizations are often mutually inconsistent. They are never principled or soundly reasoned.

This is also why conservatives have an advantage in political humor. Liberal arguments are ridiculous; conservative arguments are strong.

Posted by: pj at February 25, 2003 8:50 AM