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Rush Limbaugh and the echo chamber that broke American politics

A historian of talk radio explains how the medium became a powerful alternative reality machine.

Rush Limbaugh smoking a cigar in his radio recording studio.
Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

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 a conservative takeover of an important but largely invisible force in American politics.

Glance at a list of the top 15 talk radio programs in the country and you’ll notice something immediately: All but a couple are conservative.

If that sounds surprising to you, it shouldn’t. Conservatives have dominated the medium of radio for well over half a century, and while you might think of radio as a relic of the electric age, it remains a powerful force in American politics.

It’s hard to appreciate the reach of talk radio if, like me, you don’t listen to it and don’t know anyone who does. Although the industry has been ailing over the last several years, tens of millions of Americans still listen to it each week (a precise number is hard to come by, but it’s massive) and many of them are listening to a lot of it. For better or worse, talk radio does as much to shape the reality of millions of Americans as any other medium in the country.

So why did it turn out this way?

A recent book by Paul Matzko, called The Radio Right, tries to answer this question and a whole lot more. It’s a fascinating history of right-wing radio in the US, from its rise in the 1950s through the Vietnam Era and into the age of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It’s also a look at the psychology of right-wing radio and why it’s so good at pulling listeners down rabbit holes of conspiracy theorizing. And despite the sagging numbers, the rise of podcasting is basically an extension of the radio format, which means it isn’t going away.

I reached out to Matzko just a few days after Limbaugh’s death to talk about the roots of today’s right-wing echo chamber and why he thinks the real power of radio is the illusion of intimacy it creates between the host and the audience. If you wanted to build an alternative reality machine, Matzko argues, it’s hard to beat modern talk radio.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

We’re talking just a few days after Rush Limbaugh died. How would you describe the impact he had not just on the evolution of talk radio but on contemporary conservatism?

Paul Matzko

Limbaugh is the non-politician with the most influence over American politics for the last 30 or so years. And it’s not just his outsized influence on right-wing politics, which is obviously immense, but I think you saw politicians from both sides framing their issues based on how they thought it would play on Rush’s show and shows like that. It’s hard to measure the impact here, but talk radio — and Rush in particular — had an inordinate effect on the American political landscape by occupying such a large space in the public conversation.

As far as his influence on conservatism, I think of it this way: Not that long ago, to be conservative meant relatively little in terms of support for immigration. During the Reagan era, for example, the Republican Party actually tended to be more pro-immigration than the Democratic Party, mostly because of traditional Democratic ties to organized labor. But today, we live in a situation in which to be a Republican is to be hostile to immigration reform of almost any kind. It’s a massive ideological transformation and I really do think talk radio in general, and Rush in particular, is one of the biggest reasons for it.

Sean Illing

Is Rush the most significant actor in the history of talk radio?

Paul Matzko

There were people before him who had larger audiences at various points in time, but the longevity of Rush, the fact that he’s been dominant on the airwaves for 30 years, is totally 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 greater reach at their peaks, but it’s kind of like comparing Michael Jordan to LeBron James. Jordan may be the greatest, but LeBron has done it at almost the same level for so much longer. The duration of Rush’s career is unmatched, and for that reason I’d say he’s the prime actor, or the most influential actor, in the history of right-wing radio.

Sean Illing

Rush is often assumed to be the face of the modern right-wing radio revolution, and maybe he is, but the story of conservative talk radio goes back many more decades. What happened in the 1950s?

Paul Matzko

The great irony is that it was sort of accidental. In 1945, 95 percent of all radio stations were affiliated with one of the big networks, like CBS or NBC. By 1952, it’s less than half. And the reason is there was a huge pivot from radio to television. Everyone thought radio was a dying medium. So as the big networks fled radio for TV, you had all these smaller, more local stations popping up and applying for licenses from the FCC.

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

Sean Illing

For several decades, there was a policy called the Fairness Doctrine that required broadcasters to be balanced in their coverage and present something like both sides of so-called “controversial issues.” And the Kennedy administration leans into this in the ’60s to beat back the growing influence of conservative radio. It was a constant pain in the ass for right-wing broadcasters, but the policy was finally ended by the Reagan Administration in 1987.

What happened then?

Paul Matzko

Well, you really couldn’t have modern talk radio, or any overtly political talk show, under a rigorously enforced Fairness Doctrine regime. It’s telling that, even before the Fairness Doctrine was formally repealed for broadcast, we had a natural experiment that showed the difference between cable and broadcast television. Cable in the late ’70s is exempted from compliance with a variety of FCC rules for things like obscenity, which is why you could swear on cable, but you couldn’t swear during primetime on television. Cable was a Fairness Doctrine-free zone — which is why a lot of the interesting innovation and experimentation in political comedy, in political talk, is done on cable in the ’80s and ’90s.

And this is exactly what happens with talk radio once the Fairness Doctrine was removed in 1987. The enforcement had been waning ever since the late ’70s, because Jimmy Carter’s FCC was basically refusing to consistently enforce it anymore. But when it’s finally off the books, there’s an explosion in talk radio and a wave of highly political, highly biased radio programs. This is really the birth of what we think of as 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 built an audience of millions of people who were only interested in conservative points of view, and then Rupert Murdoch comes along and says, “How about we have TV for these people as well?” In that sense, the answer to your question has to be “yes.”

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

But if you look at the history of right-wing broadcasters, you can see that an echo chamber is already in place even as far back as the ’60s. A lot of it was built through newsletters and newspapers and other forms of media. What talk radio makes possible is way more of this. And the thing about talk radio is that you can have it on all day. It’s such a uniquely saturated media landscape. This is what makes radio new and so powerful in terms of building that alternative reality or echo chamber.

Sean Illing

Why doesn’t a comparable echo chamber ever spring up on the left?

Paul Matzko

Talk radio, in the ’80s at least, was a lot more ideologically diverse than it is today. It really isn’t until the ’90s that conservatives completely own it. And again, it’s for an accidental structural reason. If you ask Rush Limbaugh why the right won radio in the ’90s, he would have said, “Well, it’s because there’s a silent majority of average Joes who aren’t being served by the lamestream media.” That’s his version.

The reality is that if you’re a station owner, and you’re looking for the programs that you can sell the ad slots for the highest dollar value, you pick a right-wing host because they have the entire right scope of the political spectrum. But if you choose a left-wing talk radio host, you have a natural competitor that’s subsidized by the government, which is a center-left National Public Radio affiliate. Left-wing talk radio has a baked-in competition for viewers and the right-wing doesn’t. This wasn’t the intent of NPR — it’s just an unintended consequence.

Sean Illing

How do you distinguish the “demand” for conservative news from the “supply”? You could say that talk radio tapped into the issues that conservative Americans cared about, or you could say that talk radio engineered the demand for that content and then made lots of money supplying it.

Paul Matzko

I tend to lean toward the supply side. There is always some kind of demand for a conservative response to whatever’s happening. But the sort of phony outrage we see today, the outrage that’s tied to the daily news cycle, that’s a new thing that conservative radio hosts have engineered. They have to have something to be outraged over every single day. And they just jump from one thing to the next.

So is it a demand shock that’s driving that? Or is it the fact that we now have this whole infrastructure of right-wing hosts and pundits who make a living off of ginning up outrage? It’s probably a bit of both, but I think we underestimate the supply side.

Sean Illing

Even today, with so much attention on cable and the internet, do you think talk radio remains the biggest echo chamber in American politics?

Paul Matzko

Oh, for sure, and it’s not even close. Of the top 15 talk radio shows, only one of them is politically progressive. I can’t think of any other mass media sector that is that skewed. Television isn’t. Newspapers certainly aren’t. Radio is absolutely unique in this way.

Sean Illing

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

Paul Matzko

Radio offers a simulacrum of intimacy. If I go to 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 some sort of intimate, personal level.” But if I heard our conversation, I heard our voices, and I heard it day after day after day, for several hours at a time, I’d really feel like I know Sean and Paul.

Rush Limbaugh was on the radio for three hours a day, five days a week, and so are most of these hosts. So the intimacy effect is multiplied. And when you realize that it’s not just Rush, it’s all these other shows that draw in millions of the same listeners, you can grasp how pervasive and powerful it all is.

Sean Illing

Talk radio shows also excel at making the listener feel like an insider, like they have access to the “real world” in a way that outsiders don’t, which is fertile soil for hysteria and conspiracy theorizing.

Paul Matzko

It’s a natural medium for conspiracy theories to flourish. 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, that feeling of you know this host, you trust this host. And everyone else who isn’t part of the 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 persist as a dominant political force?

Paul Matzko

The average age of a talk radio listener is their mid-60s. So at a minimum, given the average life expectancy, you’ve got another decade or two to go. There will be new fans, but audience numbers have been declining since the 2000s. Ad revenue for talk radio has been falling. It is a sector in decline.

But I think what’s important to note is that podcasting really is just talk radio that’s not live. It’s a different delivery mechanism. You download it, rather than being transmitted. But there’s no real difference between, say, Pod Save America and traditional talk radio.

Sean Illing

That seems important because, for whatever reason, the podcast space hasn’t been monopolized by the right wing. Left-leaning podcasts are incredibly popular. So there’s much more ideological diversity now, and that’s probably a good thing.

Paul Matzko

Exactly, which goes back to the point I was making earlier: Talk radio’s conservative skew is really a product of unintended consequences of regulatory and structural decisions made in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It didn’t have to be that way. And podcasting clearly isn’t that way. It’s a much more diverse space. But if the future of talk radio is podcasting, as I believe, then we’ll see a huge shift in resources and advertising dollars over to podcasting. And if that happens, we can probably expect to see podcasting replicate a lot of the norms and habits of traditional talk radio.

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