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The Truth About Talk Radio

It just provides a dial tone.

11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IT WAS ROUGHLY SEVEN months ago that the McCain/Kennedy immigration bill went down to ignominious defeat. At the time, many pundits blamed or credited talk radio for the bill's demise. While guest-hosting for nationally syndicated talk show host Hugh Hewitt at the height of the hubbub, I interviewed Mort Kondracke, who railed against the decidedly non-constructive role that talk radio played.

Meanwhile, in the talk radio community, the bill's downfall occasioned a moment of joyous triumph. Since the day the compromising senators announced their grand package, talk radio had opposed the bill spiritedly and monolithically. My friend and mentor Hugh Hewitt was on the air when Republican senators released their talking points on the bill to friendlies in the media. Hewitt read the talking points on the air, and angrily dismissed them as "four pages of crap." The battle was instantly joined, and in a few short weeks, it was won.

In the aftermath of the bill's defeat, I interviewed former Reagan cabinet member and current talk show host Bill Bennett about talk radio's role in the bill's defeat. Specifically, I asked Bennett whether or not he felt he and his colleagues led public opinion. He responded, "All I do is provide a dial tone." His meaning was his callers will think and say what they want; he provides the phone lines, they provide the opinions. Bennett's modesty was striking in what could have been a moment of talk radio triumphalism. But he was right. And I'd take that analysis a step further--anyone who thinks talk radio leads public opinion also probably believes that trees push the wind.

In the last week, we've seen the conversation regarding talk radio's impact renewed, only this time the conversation is running in the opposite direction. In spite of nearly universal animosity in the talk radio community, John McCain has prospered in the early primary states. This has led many commentators, including popular talk radio host Michael Medved, to declare talk radio "the big loser" in South Carolina.

It's worth pointing out that Medved, virtually alone amongst his chattering peers (and I include myself in that category as Hugh Hewitt's regular fill-in), views the McCain campaign without hostility. Nevertheless, his conclusion regarding talk radio's lack of influence still has to be considered what lawyers would call an "admission against interest." Like McCain's favored approach, Medved's analysis would seem a fine example of straight talk.

To buy his conclusion, though, one would first have to believe that talk radio wielded a disproportionate amount of influence, influence that inexplicably vanished amidst a South Carolina winter. Speaking from my experience behind the microphone, I would strongly dispute that conservative talk radio leads national opinion or even conservative opinion. We're factors in the conversation, but we don't lead it. The interests and concerns of the people lead the conversation. It's truly a bottom-up phenomenon.

Conservatives didn't need talk radio hosts to discover their antipathy towards the McCain/Kennedy reform. I pinch-hit for Hewitt several times while that debate raged. Whenever I tried to steer the discussion to anything other than the immigration dispute (merely to disrupt the monotony of talking about the same issue for three hours a day for days on end), the phone lines would die. Most of the listeners who called in would hang up; those who decided to dial in anyway did so to discuss immigration, even though I had changed the subject. I'm pretty sure all conservative talk show hosts found the same thing. The month of June 2007 was all-immigration-all-the-time on the air. The listeners had made up their minds on the merits of McCain/Kennedy before a single talk show host had said a word.

IF YOU WANT to crack the code of what conservative talk and conservative talkers mean to the body politic, you have to understand the composition of the conservative talk audience. The people who choose to spend their time listening to news talk are by definition high end news gatherers. They won't be embarrassing themselves anytime soon by being unable to name our 16th president while Jay Leno snickers on a suburban Los Angeles street.

As high end news gatherers, these listeners have formed a lot of opinions before they flip on their radios. They are not waiting for Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, or even Michael Medved to tell them what to think. The latter fact is what makes Medved's formulation regarding talk radio's "loss" in South Carolina off base. Talk radio has never had even a metaphorical place on the ballot. What's more, conservative talkers like Bill Bennett and Hugh Hewitt have always had a healthy enough respect for their audience to realize that their listeners are serious people who make up their own minds.