The Reason Conservative Talk Radio Still Thrives While Progressive Anchors Slip

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

I’ve been doing a lot of work in radio recently, including filling in for Moon Griffon (a statewide syndicated host here in Louisiana), and because I have a little more time than normal in the summer, I have had many opportunities to listen to talk radio during the daytime hours.

After the tragic loss of Rush Limbaugh in February, it was very easy to predict that a lot of big conservative names would be vying for the most legendary timeslot in all of talk radio. As of right now, you have:

  • Buck Sexton and Clay Travis as Premiere’s official replacement for Limbaugh
  • Dan Bongino moving from podcast to radio via Westwood One
  • Dana Loesch continuing to work in that spot courtesy Radio America
  • Todd Starnes, likewise already in that spot, continuing to grow
  • Charlie Kirk, making moves in the spot under the Salem Radio Group banner
  • Erick Erickson, moving to that spot at his flagship, WSB in Atlanta before being syndicated nationally by Cox

And those are just the big names. At the local level, you aren’t just seeing moves with the national shows, but local as well. A lot of radio stations are making changes, swapping out national talent for local, picking up national and (at times) running them on delay just to fit them in, and much more.

Of course, you have the non-midday national guys like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt, and so many others. You can even include Dave Ramsey in that, though he isn’t so much conservative talk as he is personal finance coaching with more than a tinge of conservative ideology.

In fact, of all the names I mentioned, that is one common trait: They are all conservatives.

In truth, progressive talk radio is all but dead today. It has carried on in the form of podcasts, but even the most popular of those, Pod Save America, can only attract about half the listeners Limbaugh could, and it doesn’t come out daily. In terrestrial radio, there is an estimate of as few as ten progressive talk stations left in the country. What happened to progressive talk?

In 2017, progressive talk station WNYY in Ithaca, New York, converted from progressive talk to music. A local news outlet talked to the owner of the station and asked, point-blank, what was happening to progressive talk.

It certainly did not happen overnight.  But specifically I would say over the last 6-7 years, all those in media are experiencing the changing delivery and distribution of product.  From a content standpoint, consumers are accessing desired programming across an exploding number of sources.   Content is migrating to TV, Cable, The internet in the form of websites, blogs, podcasts, video channels, emails, and more including standalone entities such as YouTube.  As this fragmentation has occurred- the model of “terrestrial radio” (AM and FM) in the form of national syndication has eroded.  In some cases, the syndicated show/talent might want to move to doing their show on the Internet and charging listeners a subscription (Randi Rhodes), or in other cases a show gets cancelled due to lack of demand.  But regardless of reason, in the Progressive format, there is simply not replacement shows available.

Now, this is true on some level, as a lot of the names the owner mentions in the article linked above did transition fully to television in the time period mentioned. Progressives fled the format in favor of the “greener pastures” of the TV and Internet worlds. However, you don’t make that change if you’re successful in the format you’re in, and it was just not generating numbers anymore (not that the numbers they were generating were that great in the first place). The problem is that a lot of the progressive shows that gained ground nationally, like a show hosted by Ed Schultz, were funded privately.

That was actually the go-to source of funding for a lot of progressive media. If you wanted to compete with the commercial success of conservative talk, you needed to raise money from private donors. The problem was, those shows were not commercially successful, and the money behind them dried up.

The question is, however, why those shows were not smash hits like Limbaugh’s. He was able to accumulate as many as 650 affiliates over the course of his career. Schultz, one of the most successful in progressive talk, did not get far beyond 100 stations before his show folded, and of all the progressive talk shows out there, his was the most listenable.

The problem with progressive talk, and progressive media as a whole, is that they do not build relationships with their audiences like conservative media does. Limbaugh famously took callers and had personal conversations with them on the air, read and responded to a ton of fan emails, and made it a point of knowing his audience and talking to them. Progressive talk radio, and (by extension) all progressive media, focuses so much on scolding Americans that there is never an opportunity to build that relationship.

I mentioned yesterday that Joe Biden’s gun agenda will hurt the Democrats a lot in 2022. It’s not just the guns themselves, but the fact that he is blaming the crime waves across the country on gun ownership, something millions of law-abiding Americans take part in, instead of the irresponsible actions and rhetoric of people on his own side. So, instead of attacking the lawlessness that comes from undermining law enforcement, he attacks responsible gun owners. He is blaming those gun owners and their belief in the 2nd Amendment. Democrats are jumping on to this rhetoric instead of understanding that with every statement they give attacking regular, gun-owning Americans, they are pushing them away from Democratic candidates come 2022.

It is the same way with progressive talk show hosts and progressive anchors on TV. Brian Stelter, who has spent years lecturing people about Fox News, is reaching new lows when it comes to viewing audience. It’s so bad that when he had a guest filling in, the guest had better ratings. Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo spend time on the air lecturing America and never building any sort of relationship with their audience. Meanwhile, Bret Baier spends a lot of time on social media responding to fans and haters alike.

Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, and all these other liberal hosts do nothing preach at their audience, while on the opposite side, Tucker Carlson deeply understands his audience and connects with them.

The people who take in conservative media do so because they feel a connection. They know they aren’t going to get scolded or preached at. They will have someone on their TV screen or on their radio who is talking to them, encouraging them. They want their audience to feel like they are part of the conversation and the movement.

Ratings were up for the liberal networks like MSNBC and CNN during the Trump years because a bunch of people who aren’t normally part of the cable news audience was tuning in to see a trainwreck. They wanted controversy. They wanted to be angry and outraged. But the moment Trump left the spotlight, those viewers did not stick around. They weren’t part of the audience. There was no relationship between them and the hosts, and they weren’t there to be preached to and scolded.

As it turns out, no one really wants that. At all. What they want is to feel like they are a part of something. Conservative talk radio thrives because they have a relationship with their audiences. Those who can’t maintain that relationship with their audience fall by the wayside as quickly as progressive hosts do.