It’s Complicated: Republicans’ Relationship with Talk Radio

Friday, January 2, 2015: 4:30 PM
Conference Room F (Sheraton New York)
Brian Rosenwald, University of Pennsylvania
Talk radio hosts emerged during the 1990s as powerful Republican party leaders. Yet, they represented a new type of leader whose allegiance to the party ranked lower among priorities than fealty to their preferred policy agenda, safeguarding their relationship with listeners, and producing entertaining radio. Thus, these hosts zealously guarded their independence, and unlike party officials, they criticized and worked against elected Republicans and their policy initiatives when they disagreed. Nonetheless, they engaged in a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with elected Republicans. Especially, after 1995, when Republicans gained control of Congress, they constructed outreach operations to communicate with and to harness the power of talk radio. With hosts’ assistance, the medium provided an alternative transmission belt to disseminate their message and advance their agenda. Republicans used talk radio to staunch the bleeding during crises and to force the mainstream press to address stories that they might otherwise ignore. Talk radio also provided an outlet through which to reach the Republican base with incendiary messaging without offending moderates, who were unlikely to be listeners. Hosts also performed a myriad of traditional party leadership functions, including fundraising. Finally, they framed issues in a manner beneficial to Republicans and they cast aspersion on the mainstream media, thereby discrediting mainstream journalists with their listeners. Hosts’ aid was especially beneficial during campaigns. Yet, talk radio also constricted Republicans’ ability to compromise and to be a wide tent party. Hosts’ demands limited the party’s political ceiling and contributed to its growing conservatism. With increasing frequency as time progressed, hosts hounded Republicans who were insufficiently loyal to their definition of appropriate conservative politics. Hosts’ power over the party derived from their ability to rally their audience behind or against candidates and policy initiatives. This paper relies on over two hundred interviews, recordings, and other primary sources.
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