Brian Lambert shows why KTLK-FM had such a rocky start in the Twin Cities, in a piece that purports to be about Air America tanking; along the way, it also shows why liberalism is starting to gasp for air in the age of Obama.
Lambert starts with the genesis of his short-lived radio show:
I was summoned to a meeting with Clear Channel Communications “talk radio guru”/consultant, Gabe Hobbs, after only a couple weeks on the job. Having just spent a chunk of the previous 15 years covering radio consultants, or more accurately, the inanity and chaos they left behind, I was prepared to sit across from a complete cartoon. (OK, not every radio consultant I had met or interviewed was a “complete” cartoon. But that’s a little like saying “some cigarettes are good for you”, to which you reply, “yeah, the ones you don’t smoke.”)
Lambo got that one right. But I digress. But so did he.
In their wisdom the local Clear Channel group had decided that “a WCCO for the 21st century” was the way to go for the FM talk experiment they were starting up.
Which was how I put it at the time; for whatever reason, a generation of consultants decided that conservative talk was dead (based largely on wishful thinking after the 2004 election), and tried floating the “all things to all people” format all over the country, including KTLK and KSTP-AM.
After saying that he wasn’t sure what to make of the idea of dogs and cats playing together, Hobbs conceded he was intrigued by the righty-gal vs. the lefty-guy dynamic. And then he got to the nut of modern (conservative) talk radio.
(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but I swear the essentials are accurate.)
And he’s right about the consultant’s opinion being accurate – an awful lot of “talk radio gurus” deeply hate conservative talk; some of them are ideological liberals, but most of them are just dying to come up with a take on a format that clicks, somewhere, and makes them millions of dollars in consulting fees. It’s not going all that well, by the way, after almost 20 years of trying.
One of the problems is the contempt these people have for “the talk radio audience”. Mr. Hobbs would seem to have shared his with Mr. Lambert:
“Try to keep in mind,” said Hobbs, “that the average listener for a show like yours is a 42 year-old guy who doesn’t follow the news all that close but is listening because he doesn’t want to be left out of the discussion. What he wants from you is something he can bring to conversations at work and at home. Something that makes it appear he’s in touch with what’s going on. You’re not here to educate him so much as you are to give him a few ideas he can throw out to feel like he’s part of the conversation.”
Well, it must work; Pew shows that Limbaugh’s audience is better-informed on news and current events than the average American, testing about the same as the famously-smug NPR audience in terms of overall knowledge.
Which is – even Lambert might admit – at odds with what the consultant had to say about ‘em.
Well, maybe Lambert wouldn’t admit it:
Since this image so thoroughly gelled with the image I’d had for years of the Limbaugh Dittoheads…
The point being that talk radio doesn’t square well with having contempt for one’s audience. Consultant Gabe Hobbs’ advice famously splattered; KTLK-FM’s first incarnation, the “WCCO for the 21st Century” famously cratered on impact. (Does anyone remember their first lineup? Colton and Guest in the morning? Pat Kessler? Sarah and Brian? Dan Conry? They wanted to be all things to all people so badly they practically adopted Norwegian accents). Part of it was the concept; part of it was some of the talent wasn’t that talented. But mostly, it’s that whether people really are as stupid as Gabe Hobbs thinks they are (and that image “gells” with that of Lambert, who is lest we forget one of the Twin Cities foremost media columnists) or not, they can tell in this day and age when they’re being condescended to. When the whole concept for your format is based on the kind of cynicism that Lambert and Hobbs shared, you think it doesn’t show?
A radio audience of middle-aged guys who, for whatever the reason — distraction, indifference, laziness and/or stupidity — haven’t done their own homework on the big events of the day but want to pretend they have among their workmates, pals and spouses, by staying up to date with the bumper sticker slogan du jour. Hmmm, and I guessed “Make Love Not War” wasn’t exactly what these guys wanted to repeat down at the office, across forklifts in the warehouse, or over dinner, to impress the wife and kids with how tough it is out in there in a real man’s world.
That is, of course, the conceit that drives the entire mainstream media; you, the people, are bunch of mindless cattle that need your news, your entertainment and everything short of your food carefully pre-digested for you, lest you choke from trying to think about something too big. Information is too precious a gift to get in too big chunk – at least for all of you lumpen peasants.
No. Again, really:
Beyond Hobbs’ carefully parsed point, is this: The “pretense” of thoughtful consideration, at least in terms of a commercially successful narrative delivered via mass media, requires much … much … heavier doses of simplicity and indignant finger-pointing than scholarly nuance.
Lambert mentions “simplicity” – as opposed to condescenscion – like it’s a bad thing. As if making complex ideas “simple”, or simpler, isn’t among the most important missions for all of journalism, from Edward R. Murrow through NPR down to the Highland Villager.
This is all a lot of set-up for a couple thoughts on the little-lamented demise of Air America, the “liberal alternative” to the monolithic presence of conservative-radio. There are roughly 12,500 radio stations in the U.S., 22% fall under “news/talk” and “religious”. The former describes a few, like WCCO, and WBBM in Chicago, but mostly its conservative talk, and the vast majority of the “religious” are conservative-driven. Moreover, a significant of those conservative stations are full-power licenses, broadcasting across the entirety of all of the biggest metro areas in the country. By … stark … contrast, from its inception in 2004 Air America was confined to much lower-power AM stations that only barely blanketed the entirety of the few metro markets they could buy in to.
Lambert, the media columnist who chided [his mental caricature of] the conservative talk radio audience’s “simplicity”, apparently needs to oversimplify the issue himself. Radio stations aren’t sinecures; every format has to prove itself at every station, every time the ratings “book” comes out. Big conservative talk – Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck – settled on big AM stations because it pays the bills.
And the fact that Air America had to “buy in” to metro markets shows what an awful concept it was. Becuase nobody pays to get Limbaugh. The Rush Limbaugh show (and Hannity, and Beck, and Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Dennis Miller and every other conservative show that matters) is free to the stations that carry it, provided they agree to carry the network’s commercials, 5-8 minutes worth per hour. That’s it.
If there were any organic demand for Air America, they’d have been able to do the same. But there was not. So in New York, Chicago and LA, they had to pay radio stations to carry the programming.
And even that didn’t work.
It’s not as simple as saying “conservtives got all the big stations!”, but it’s in fact the truth.
But the bigger problem — by far — is the mindset of your average liberal, who, in my unscientific survey is a somewhat different animal than Gabe Hobbs’ mythical under-informed 42 year-old male. For one thing, if the gender breakout of national delegates is any indication, the average liberal is more likely to be a woman than a man. But, in my experience, there’s also the very familiar liberal quality of believing you already are the smartest guy/gal in the room, which means you hardly need some cartoonish radio bloviator spoon-feeding you your “fact of the day”. More likely — if you’re a liberal in the media — the liberal audience with whom you think you are simpatico will rear up and quarrel with every interpretation of statistics, trends and historical reference you dare make. They know better and if just given the chance could do better.
Which is an interesting view which, I suspect, has more to do with Brian Lambert’s view of himself than the NPR/MSNBC/Air America audience’s actual merits.
Where conservative media audiences display a startling affinity for what I’ve called “The Big Daddy Guru Complex”, pompous-to-preposterous all-knowing father figures, liberals, more often than not, maintain the attitude that “big daddy” is a bit of a ponce, and needs to be brought down a peg.
Dunno, Lambo. I sat in front of a room full of Air America fans with Matt Entenza, Michael Medved and Fast Eddie Schultz a while ago. And the AA fans were a lot more prone to chanting pre-approved slogans and hissing on command than the people to stage and ideological right, if you catch my drift.
The idea is a trend in search of evidence; the closest they come to “evidence” is the fact that, yes, people listen to Rush Limbaugh.
But it’s a fact of human nature that any mass group of people gets pushed, or pulled, by someone, and that the best way to pull is not through the mind, but through the heart; Someone who captures the group’s fancy on some level; Martin Luther King, Richard Simmons, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton, Lech Walesa, John Lennon, Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan all led people in improbable directions by simplifying complex ideas into forms their followers could feel as much as think.
Lambert quotes a few talking heads re the “problem” liberalism under Obama faces, and concludes:
The takeaway is this: The Conservative narrative dominates this country because it is simple, asks (and requires) nothing of its audience other than that they accept it and express a kind of rote indignation … at others.
Leaving aside the poison-pen fuming about the audience’s motivations – Lambert’s wrong, but then he’s supposed to be wrong about conservatives. Simplicity in a narrative is a good thing.
And at the end of the say, it’s not all that simple. Conservatism itself takes a lot more mental energy to wrap ones mind around than liberalism; the ideas of abstemiousness, enlightened self-interest, and rejection of instant gratification both personally and culturally are tough ones for modern people to choke down.
As opposed to leaden cop-outs:
Given the lack of 2000-plus radio stations to amplify a counter-narrative,
Which is balderdash; the liberals have four broadcast networks, NPR, and practically every newspaper in the country.
It’s just that their narrative, at the moment, isn’t selling, and certainly isn’t up to the competition it’s getting in the marketplace.
I actually let this post sit for a couple of days as I tried to figure out how to respond to this next line:
as well as liberal resistance to paternalistic “guru-ism”,
Remembering the masses of liberals who “rejected guru-ism” by chanting in unison waiting for Obama to appear, I’m going to have to keep thinking about it.
Obama and the few bona fide liberals in D.C. are at a profound disadvantage when it comes to a very real battle of relentless accusation and sloganized consensus-building , which, sadly, is what works quite effectively on largely apolitical 42 year-olds who just want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.
And just like Gabe Hobbs, Brian Lambert leads with the contempt. We’ll see how it works.
And he says about the Chicago politican…:
Bottom line: The burden to deliver such a message of constant attack — utterly justified in the case of how this economic disaster started — falls to a guy, Obama, who finds shamelessly demagogic rhetoric and divisive-ness-baiting beneath him and his idealistic standards of statesmanship.
Speaking of simplification.