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Rush Limbaugh and the Echo Chamber that Broke American Politics

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh died last week.

Whatever you think of Limbaugh, he was the face of modern right-wing radio, and his success coincided with the conservative takeover of an important but largely invisible force in American politics.

When you look at a list of the top 15 talk radio programs in the country, you immediately notice something: all but a few are conservative.

If this sounds surprising to you, it shouldn't be. Conservatives have ruled the radio medium for well over half a century, and while they consider radio a relic of the electric age, it remains a powerful force in American politics.

It's hard to gauge the reach of talk radio if, like me, you don't listen to it and don't know anyone who does. Though the industry has been battered for the past few years, tens of millions of Americans listen to it every week (the exact number is hard to come by, but massive). and many of them hear a lot about it. Good or bad, talk radio shapes the reality of millions of Americans just like any other medium in the country.

Why did it happen?

One recently Paul Matzko's book, The Radio Right, attempts to answer these and many other questions. It's a fascinating story of right-wing radio in the United States, from its rise in the 1950s to the Vietnam era to the age of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It's also a look at right radio psychology and why it's so good at dragging listeners down rabbit holes in conspiracy theory. And despite the falling numbers, the rise of podcasting is basically an extension of the radio format, which means it's not going away.

I reached out to Matzko just days after Limbaugh's death to discuss the roots of today's right echo chamber and why he believes the real power of radio is the illusion of intimacy it creates between the presenter and the audience. If you wanted to build an alternate reality machine, Matzko says it's hard to beat modern talk radio.

The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Sean Illing

We speak just days after Rush Limbaugh's death. How would you describe the impact it had not only on the development of talk radio but also on contemporary conservatism?

Paul Matzko

Limbaugh is the most influential non-politician in American politics in the past 30 years. And it's not just his oversized influence on right-wing politics that is obviously immense, but I think you've seen politicians from both sides formulate their issues as they thought it would be on Rush's show and shows like that . It's hard to measure the impact here, but talk radio – and Rush in particular – has had an undue impact on the American political landscape by occupying such a large space in public conversation.

As for its influence on conservatism, I see it this way: Not so long ago, being conservative meant relatively little support for immigration. For example, during the Reagan era, the Republican Party was more pro-immigrant than the Democratic Party, mainly because of its traditional democratic relationship with organized labor. But today we live in a situation where a Republican is hostile to immigration reform of any kind. It's a massive ideological transformation and I really think that Talk Radio in general and Rush in particular is one of the main reasons for it.

Sean Illing

Is Rush the greatest actor in talk radio history?

Paul Matzko

There have been people before him who had bigger audiences at different times, but the longevity of Rush, the fact that he's dominated the radio waves for 30 years, is completely unprecedented.

So I could point to someone like Carl McIntire, a right-wing religious broadcaster in the 60s, or Father Charles Coughlin, a far-right broadcaster in the 30s, as people who had a wider reach on their peaks, but it's kind of like Compare Michael Jordan to LeBron James. Jordan may be the biggest country, but LeBron has made it to almost the same level for so long. The length of Rush's career is unmatched and this is why I would say he's the leading man or the most influential actor in right-wing radio history.

Sean Illing

Rush is often viewed as the face of the modern right-wing radio revolution, and maybe it is, but the history of conservative talk radio goes back many decades. What happened in the 1950s?

Paul Matzko

The big irony is that it was kind of random. In 1945 95 percent of all radio stations were connected to one of the major networks such as CBS or NBC. By 1952 it is less than half. And that's because there was a big linchpin from radio to television. Everyone thought radio was a dying medium. When the major networks fled radio for television, all of these smaller, more local broadcasters showed up and applied for licenses from the FCC.

The irony is that the decline in radio due to the rise of television lowered the barrier to radio access and allowed previously excluded and marginalized voices to enter the fight. This is the thing that radio saves. And it just so happens that the forces on the right, especially religious broadcasters, had a ready-made audience in the wings and radio was much cheaper than television so they developed an oversized presence from the start.

Sean Illing

For several decades there was a policy called the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to be balanced in their reporting and to present something like both sides of so-called "controversial issues". And the Kennedy administration relied on it in the 1960s to repel the growing influence of conservative radio. It was a constant pain in the ass for right-wing broadcasters, but politics was finally ended by the Reagan administration in 1987.

What happened then?

Paul Matzko

Well, you really couldn't have a modern talk radio or overtly political talk show under a rigorously enforced regime of the Fairness Doctrine. It is significant that even before the Fairness Doctrine was officially set aside for broadcast, we had a natural experiment that showed the difference between cable and radio television. Cable in the late '70s is exempt from following a variety of FCC rules for things like profanity, which is why you could swear by cable but not swear by it during prime time on TV. Cable was a zone with no fairness doctrine – which is why many of the interesting innovations and experiments in political comedy, in political conversation, were conducted over cable in the 1980s and 1990s.

And that's exactly what happened to talk radio after the Fairness Doctrine was removed in 1987. Enforcement had waned since the late 1970s because Jimmy Carter's FCC categorically refused to enforce it consistently. But when it's finally out of the books there will be an explosion on talk radio and a wave of highly political, heavily biased radio programs. This really is the birth of what we consider modern talk radio.

Sean Illing

Was Talk Radio the original echo chamber on the right that made Fox News such a profitable business model?

Paul Matzko

Talk radio has built an audience of millions of people who were only interested in the conservative point of view, and then Rupert Murdoch comes along and says, "How about we have television for these people too?" With that in mind, the answer to your question must be "yes".

Now it is also possible to exaggerate the effect. On the one hand, it is true that an echo chamber of the predominantly right-wing talk radio creates this community of people who only want to consume conservative content, and that the alternative media ecosystem naturally extends to television.

However, if you look at the history of right-wing broadcasters, you can see that an echo chamber was in place as early as the 1960s. Much of this was created through newsletters, newspapers, and other media. What Talk Radio enables is much more of it. And the thing about talk radio is that you can have it all day. It's a uniquely saturated media landscape. This makes the radio new and powerful enough to build that alternate reality or echo chamber.

Sean Illing

Why does a comparable echo chamber never open on the left?

Paul Matzko

Talk radio was ideologically much more diverse than it is today, at least in the 80s. It really isn't until the 90s that conservatives fully own it. And again for a random structural reason. If you asked Rush Limbaugh why the right won the radio in the '90s, he would have said, "Well, it's because there is a silent majority of the average Joes who are not served by the Lamestream media." This is his version.

The reality is that if you are a broadcaster and are looking for programs that will allow you to sell the ad slots at the highest dollar value, then you are picking a right host because they have all the right policy scope. If you choose a left talk radio host, however, you have a natural competitor subsidized by the government, which is a center-left affiliate of National Public Radio. The left talk radio has built-in competition for viewers and the right one doesn't. This wasn't NPR's intention – it's just an unintended consequence.

Sean Illing

How do you distinguish "demand" for conservative news from "supply"? You could say that Talk Radio picked up on the issues that Conservative Americans cared about, or you could say that Talk Radio raised the demand for this content and then made a lot of money delivering it.

Paul Matzko

I tend to lean towards the supply side. There is always some demand for a conservative response to what is happening. But the kind of false outrage we see today, the outrage associated with the daily news cycle, is a new thing that conservative radio hosts have developed. They must have something to get upset about every day. And they just jump from one thing to the next.

So is it a demand shock that drives this? Or is it the fact that we now have this whole infrastructure of right-wing hosts and experts who make a living from building outrage? It's probably a bit of both, but I think we're underestimating the supply side.

Sean Illing

Do you think Talk Radio is still the biggest echo chamber in American politics today, with so much attention paid to cable and internet?

Paul Matzko

Oh sure, and it's not even close. Of the 15 best talk radio shows, only one is politically progressive. I can't think of any other mass media sector that's so crooked. Television is not. Newspapers are certainly not. Radio is absolutely unique in this way.

Sean Illing

Why do you think radio, more than any other medium, is so good at not only attracting listeners but keeping them there?

Paul Matzko

Radio offers a simulacrum of intimacy. When I read the transcript of our conversation, I'm not going to say, "Honey, you know what? I really feel like I know Sean and Paul on an intimate, personal level." But when I heard our conversation, I heard our voices and listening to it day after day, for several hours, I would really feel like I knew Sean and Paul.

Rush Limbaugh was on the radio three hours a day, five days a week, and so was most of those hosts. The intimacy effect is thus multiplied. And when you find that it's not just Rush, but all of these other shows that draw millions of the same listeners, you can understand how penetrating and powerful it all is.

Sean Illing

Talk radio broadcasts are also characterized by the fact that they give the listener the feeling of being an insider, as if they had access to the "real world" in a way that outsiders do not. This is fertile ground for hysteria and conspiracy theories.

Paul Matzko

It is a natural medium for conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories will flourish anywhere – they're like a plant that can grow out of any little nook or cranny. But Talk Radio is a natural home for it, because again that feeling of intimacy, the feeling that you know this host, you trust this host. And everyone else who doesn't belong to Radio Elect are just blind and lost sheep.

Sean Illing

What does the future of right-wing radio look like in the digital age? Do you expect it to continue as the dominant political force?

Paul Matzko

The average age of a talk radio listener is in their mid-60s, so given the average life expectancy, you have at least a decade or two left. There will be new fans, but viewership has been going down since the 2000s. Talk radio advertising revenue has fallen. It's a sector in decline.

But I think what is important is that podcasting is really just talk radio that is not live. It's a different delivery mechanism. They download it instead of transferring it. However, there is no real difference between, say, Pod Save America and traditional talk radio.

Sean Illing

This seems important because for some reason the podcast space hasn't been monopolized by the right wing. Left-wing podcasts are incredibly popular. So there is a lot more ideological diversity now, and that's probably a good thing.

Paul Matzko

That just goes back to the point I made earlier: Talk Radio's conservative misalignment is really a product of the unintended consequences of regulatory and structural decisions made in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It didn't have to be like that. And podcasting clearly isn't like that. It's a much more diverse space. But if, I believe, the future of talk radio is podcasting, we're going to see a huge shift in resources and advertising dollars into podcasting. And when that happens, we can probably expect podcasts to repeat many of the norms and habits of traditional talk radio.

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