December 13, 2019

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When Rush Limbaugh’s conservative talk show hit Sacramento in the 1980s, no one could have guessed the power that he - and other right-leaning radio hosts - would eventually wield. Limbaugh’s show was part of an attempt to reinvigorate AM radio, which had been rapidly losing audience to FM, and he quickly gained a die-hard audience. Over the ensuing decades, as conservative talk radio grew in power and popularity, it dramatically reshaped the Republican party. And it may well have played a key role in President Trump’s ascent to the White House.

Brian Rosenwald is a scholar-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book, “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.” He joined us to tell the story of how conservative talk saved AM radio, influenced American politics, and changed our political reality.

Three Takeaways:

  • Although Limbaugh’s show is conservative, his true priority is putting on a good show. And that has meant focusing on conservative politicians who, in his eyes, have failed to fight hard enough for conservative values. According to Rosenwald, adopting this “warlike” stance has contributed markedly to the polarization we see in American politics today.
  • Limbaugh’s listeners are loyal and politically active, which means that when he or another conservative host says that something needs to be done, their fans can frequently make it happen. This was evident in the 1994 election, when Limbaugh mobilized his listeners to bring about the “Republican Revolution,” and conservatives made massive gains in the House and Senate.
  • Rosenwald argues that the culmination of Limbaugh’s impact on politics became clear with President Donald Trump’s election. The right had been frustrated for decades with  politicians who, they felt, wouldn’t fight for them. Trump, by contrast, embraced the language of conservative talk show hosts. He was a frequent guest on Laura Ingraham’s radio show even before he announced his intention to run for president, and had tested out his some of his ideas and talking points with her.

More reading:

  • Before Rush Limbaugh was a household name, he was just a guy with a shot at stardom. Watch this 1988 interview from Connecticut Public Access TV (it took place during the first year of his national radio show, which was under-the-radar at first) to get a sense of who Limbaugh was before he became famous. 
  • According to Rosenwald, one of the consequences of the aggressive tone in conservative talk radio is an increasingly polarized conversation in politics. Revisit our recent conversation about polarization to hear more about what divisive politics means for the U.S.
  • Another name that may come to mind when it comes to conservative radio is Alex Jones. Take a look at this New York Times article from a former staff member for Alex Jones to get a glimpse behind the scenes. 

Republican Party, politics, conservative talk radio, brian rosenwald, Rush Limbaugh

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