In part one of our series on talk radio we noted that conservative political talk show hosts on commercial radio have bigger audiences than their liberal counterparts – at least on commercial AM radio.
Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative radio talkers, gets more than 15 million listeners each week. Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage are not far behind.
But do these numbers translate into real political power?
Some liberals, and even the president, are – at the very least – paying attention: "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," the president told Republican lawmakers earlier this year.
If you ask some conservative talkers across the country if conservative talk radio is powerful, they’ll tell you what Bob Durbin told us in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He’s been a conservative talk show host for decades.
“I don’t know how powerful we are. We are powerful to a degree, but so are all the other media. The Washington Post. The New York Times. Are they powerful? You’re damn right they are! So, why can’t we be powerful?”
If you measure political power by energizing people already in your corner, then conservative talkers do win. Many of their listeners showed up at town halls and tea parties over this summer.
“There is a kind of opposition quality, shadow government quality to listening to conservative radio these days,” says Camille Paglia, a social critic and Obama supporter. “And I don’t see any problem with that in a democracy,” she adds.
No one wields that kind of “opposition quality” more effectively than Rush Limbaugh. With his vast radio audience, he’s able to bring some Republican politicians to their knees.
Still, some say, that doesn’t translate to real political power. “A listener-ship is not a vote,” says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine. “This is a huge mistake made by the press and observers of talk radio – that somehow because 15 million people every week listen to Rush Limbaugh, that somehow these are 15 million die-hard conservative voters.”
According to Talkers Magazine, 56 percent of those listeners identify themselves not as conservative Republicans, but as independents.
CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen agrees with Harrison. “The evidence suggests that the conservative talk show hosts do not drive voting, otherwise we’d be talking about President Fred Thompson, who was a darling at one point.”
Limbaugh in particular was no fan of the McCain candidacy in 2008, but often spoke well of former Senator Fred Thompson’s bid.
History suggests another example that didn’t exactly work out. During the 1930s, Catholic priest Rev. Charles Coughlin used his popular radio program to hammer into President Franklin Roosevelt. He called the president “anti-God and radical.” FDR won reelection in a landslide in 1936, and was reelected two more times.
Actually, says Harrison, there is more evidence liberal talkers have enjoyed real political clout. “Do you really think Al Franken would have gone from being a Saturday Night Live ex-comedian and go into the Senate without that stop along the way on talk radio?” he asks. “Not a chance.”
So, other than the occasional firestorm that might make a sitting president wonder if talk radio is putting a damper on hope and change, is there anything to the reach of talk radio?
"Yes," says Gergen. Popular radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh do “have an influence on the political conversation in the country. He [Limbaugh] does help to set the agenda, for better or worse … and over time that makes a difference.”
As for President Obama, one piece of advice for the next time he’s tempted to answer back at one of Limbaugh’s criticisms: “Far better as Ronald Reagan has show us … use humor, flick this off. As president of the United States, you occupy the most powerful office on the face of the globe. You don’t need to elevate others to your stature.”