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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The presidential election provided ready fodder for the nation’s talk show hosts, who made full use of the opportunity –to the exclusion of many other topics.

The headline newscasts of ABC and CBS, however, took the opposite approach. The amount of the newshole that they devoted in 2008 to the election was less than that of the talk show hosts and the media in general. Economic and business news loomed larger for the network headline services.

National Public Radio’s political coverage was a little closer to the average of the media at large in terms of newshole. NPR listeners heard less about the economy and business, crime, health and disasters, than they did from the radio headline services. But the public radio outlet provided almost twice as much international coverage as the media over all.

Talk Radio Hosts’ Favorite Topics: The Election (and Themselves)

In a heated and historic election year, the campaigns and politics accounted for 60% of the radio talk newshole in 2008.

Nothing else came close. But the No. 2 subject said something fundamental about the talk business. It wasn’t an economy in meltdown or foreign events, with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, the talkers’ second-favorite subject (for the second year in a row) often involved invoking the first person pronoun. Conversations about the media, much of which focused on the hosts themselves, accounted for almost one-tenth of the talk newshole in the year.

In a medium that is very much about the person behind the microphone connecting with listeners, self-referential comments often come with the territory for conservative talkers Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage and their liberal counterparts Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes. And no talk host has used the microphone to market himself as successfully as Limbaugh, who signed a new contract last year that reportedly will pay him $400 million over eight years.

Limbaugh generates a good deal of mainstream media attention—he was profiled in the New York Times Sunday magazine in July—and that often becomes a topic on his program. On March 10, for example, he spent time discussing media reaction to controversial and somewhat off-color comments he made about a possible Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama ticket. After counting up various media references to him, Limbaugh said, “That’s a dilemma for somebody who doesn’t want to make the show about themselves… I find it fascinating how I am continually misunderstood” in the mainstream press.

But Limbaugh has no monopoly on making himself a subject of his program. On his October 20 show, Schultz used some airtime to discuss his decision to walk off the Fox News Channel’s morning show when he felt he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

“What other lefty has the [vulgar term] to walk out on Fox News in the middle of an interview?” he asked. “I’m tired of being interrupted on Fox… Americans don’t think they’re fair and balanced.”

When you add up the airtime devoted to politics and the media, those two subjects consumed nearly three-quarters of all the talk radio programming studied by PEJ last year. And in a year in which the over all media agenda was narrow, no platform was as restricted and constricted as talk radio.

The 60% of the talk radio newshole filled by the election and politics compared with 34% of the over all newshole among all media and even exceeded the 56% of cable news airtime devoted to the subject. (With its debate-oriented prime-time lineup heavily reliant on commentary and punditry, cable news is in many ways similar to talk radio.) Conversely, coverage of business and economics—which accounted for 15% of the over all media coverage in 2008—filled only 8% of the talk radio airtime. Coverage of overseas events, both those directly involving the U.S. and those that did not, fell across the board last year. But while they still represented 17% of the over all media newshole, that number was only 4% in talk radio.

Top Broad Story Topics: Talk Radio vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

Talk Radio

Media Over All

Elections/Politics 60% Elections/Politics 34%
Media 9 Economics 11
Economics 6 Foreign (Non U.S.) 10
Government 4 U.S. Foreign Affairs 6
Crime 3 Crime 5
U.S. Foreign Affairs 3 Business 4
Environment 2 Government 4
Additional Domestic Affairs 2 Disasters/Accidents 4
Race/Gender/Gay Issues 2 Health/Medicine 3
Business 2 Lifestyle 2

Breaking down the coverage more specifically provides an even sharper sense of the talk hosts’ decision to largely take a pass on events beyond our borders. In the over all media roster of major stories last year, the Iraq war accounted for 4% of the coverage; it was only 1% in talk radio. And such international sagas such as the war in Afghanistan and unrest in Pakistan, which were among the top 10 stories over all in the media, were nowhere to be found on talk radio’s roster of top subjects.

And with the campaign monopolizing the airwaves, the coverage of a number of domestic topics—from crime to lifestyle—decreased from 2007 to 2008. Nowhere was this trend more obvious than with the subject of immigration. In 2007—as conservative talk hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity waged an on-air crusade to defeat a major immigration bill—that topic accounted for 4% of the over all talk airtime. In 2008, it plunged to less than 1%.

Top Stories: Liberal Talk Radio vs. Conservative Talk Radio
Percent of Newshole

Liberal Talk Radio

Conservative Talk Radio

Election* 60% Election* 60%
U.S. Economy 9 U.S. Economy 7
Domestic Terrorism 2 Blagojevich Scandal 2
Blagojevich Scandal 1 Global Warming 2
Engergy 1 Energy 1
Iraq War 1 Georgia/Russia Conflict 1
Spitzer Scandal 1 Iraq War 1
New Congress 1 Spitzer Scandal 1
Scott McClellan’s Book 1 Israel/Palestinian Conflict 1
Iran 1 Same-Sex Marriage 1

* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

How the Hosts’ Ideology Affects Their Choice of Topics

The 2007 immigration debate, which was driven by right-leaning talkers and given short shrift by liberals, illustrated the ideological divide when it comes to determining which subjects get airtime. In 2008, that gap was not particularly evident in the quantity of coverage of stories such as the election, Iraq and the economy. But other events reflected a clear philosophical gap when it came to deciding which stories were worthy of discussion.

One of those subjects was global warming. In 2008, it was a top-five story for conservative talkers with hosts such as Limbaugh and Savage often arguing that the media and liberals were overplaying the threat to the environment. On liberal talk radio, that subject did not even appear among the year’s 15 hottest topics. At the same time, U.S. efforts to combat terror at home was a top-five story for liberal talkers, with Rhodes in particular attacking the Bush administration on things like torture and eavesdropping. But that subject was nowhere to be found among the top stories on the conservative side of the dial.

Another obvious example was the reaction to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s book. As the title suggests, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” included a tough critique of McClellan’s former boss, President George W. Bush. McClellan was not treated as a hero by either side; Rhodes took him to task for his role as Bush’s press secretary and Savage saw him largely as a turncoat. But the liberal hosts were considerably more interested in the story, giving it about four times as much coverage as conservatives.

Talkers Pick Their Targets in the Presidential Race

The 2008 presidential campaign, with its spirited primary fights on both sides, created some interesting challenges and opportunities for the ideological talk hosts as they picked their targets and favorites from a large group of competitors.

In the early part of the year, during the heaviest primary period, there were two clear talk radio villains—John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

A PEJ study of the character-oriented narratives about the candidates that appeared in the media from January 1 through March 9 found that less than one-fifth of all the assertions about McCain on talk radio were positive compared with fourth-fifths that were negative.

Hillary Clinton didn’t fare well either. Nearly half of all the assertions about her on talk radio either reinforced the idea that she lacked core beliefs (30%) or that she was personally unlikable (16%).

Some of these attacks were predictably partisan, but some came from sources that might have been considered friendly. During the primary elections, top conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity openly favored GOP hopefuls such as Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney over Mike Huckabee and McCain, whom the hosts criticized for being too moderate and well liked by the mainstream media. From January 1 to March 9, a full 73% of the assertions about McCain from the three right-tilting hosts in our sample supported the idea that the Arizona senator was not a reliable conservative.

“The drive-by media is doing everything it can to disqualify the true conservatives on the Republican side,” Limbaugh told listeners in January. “What you’re being told is the only two candidates left that have any chance whatsoever are McCain and Huckabee, which is exactly what the drive-bys want. They want [a] liberal moderate nominee.” Hannity concurred, declaring, “There is clearly an effort [by the media] under way, I think, to convince us, the voters, to go for either, say John McCain or Mike Huckabee.”

The third conservative talker in the PEJ sample, the more contrarian Michael Savage, basically opted for a pox-on-all-their- houses approach. Early on, he called the candidates a “bunch of doddering old fools.” And he promoted his own potential candidacy for the presidency, declaring that he was the overwhelming favorite among the millions of voters who had responded to his Web poll.

For a while, the conservative talkers’ dislike of Hillary Clinton—which dates back to her stint as First Lady in the 1990s—seemed to turn into an alliance of convenience with Barack Obama. For the first few months of the year, they offered more positive assertions (55%) than negative ones (45%) about Obama. But the course of the campaign altered that dynamic. Once McCain had emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee and with the Democratic fight still raging on, Limbaugh began pushing something he called Operation Chaos. He urged Republicans to vote for Clinton in open primaries as a way of keeping the Democratic nomination battle from being resolved and preventing the party from unifying. And by the end of the general election season, Limbaugh and Hannity were aggressively attacking Obama’s candidacy, characterizing him as a radical and a socialist.

On the liberal side of the talk radio spectrum, the two hosts in the sample, Randi Rhodes and Ed Shultz, appeared to favor Obama over Clinton, particularly as the Democratic primary race dragged on.

As early as Feb. 25, just a few weeks after Super Tuesday and more than three months before Clinton would concede defeat, Schultz was calling for her to exit the race on the grounds of Democratic unity. “I think it is time for Senator Clinton to step out,” Schultz declared. “This is damaging to the party.”

The more bombastic Rhodes, no fan of the former First Lady, hammered away after Clinton’s recollection about dodging sniper fire during a 1996 trip to Bosnia was proved to be inaccurate. Rhodes called her story a “big stinkin’ lie,” adding that “every single solitary airport landing I have ever had has been more traumatic than what I saw on the video in Tuzla.”

Rhodes’ distaste for Clinton ultimately led to a career-altering experience. In March, Rhodes made news by using a crude insult to describe Clinton during a stand-up comedy routine in San Francisco. Rhodes’ employer, Air America Radio, suspended her for those remarks, leading to Rhodes’ subsequent departure from the liberal talk network where she had been a marquee name. She quickly resurfaced as a syndicated talker on the Nova M radio, where she continued to be critical of Clinton’s primary campaign against Obama. (See Talk Radio for more Information)

Radio Network Headlines: Broad, Balanced and Quick

If talk radio is designed to generate debate by cherry picking and then magnifying a few hot topics (or, as was the case in 2008, basically one hot topic) from the news landscape, the CBS and ABC radio headline broadcasts do just the opposite. They are intended to provide a quick but broad digest of the wide range of daily events. And in 2008, they delivered a carefully apportioned mix of the three most significant topics — the economy, the election and foreign affairs.

The most striking aspect of the radio headline menu was the relative lack of coverage of politics and the election—16% of the newshole, which was less than half the amount devoted to that topic by the media over all. In fact, there was substantially more coverage of economics and business (25%) in these headline services, a figure considerably larger than the 15% of the newshole given over to economics and business in the media over all. (One reason for that is the faithful recitation of stock prices frequently heard on those headline wrap-ups.) Another 13% of the airtime was devoted to foreign events, moderately less than the over all media allotment of 17% of newshole to those stories.

Those three subjects accounted for slightly more than half of the headline newshole, and several other topics got reasonable amounts of coverage as well. Disasters and accidents accounted for 7% of the airtime, as did crime, followed closely by health and medicine at 5%. All three of those subjects received more attention in the radio headlines than they did in the media over all in 2008.

Typical of the radio headlines news menu was this one from CBS on June 6, 2008, just a few days after the last primary voters had cast their ballots in the long Democratic nomination battle.

The top story was about the biggest monthly jump in unemployment figures in 22 years followed by a quick report on an off-the-beaten-path aspect of the economic crunch—roads and highways were in disrepair because of the skyrocketing costs of using oil-based asphalt. The next story was a brief recap at what the political world was buzzing about that day, a meeting between Obama and Clinton that spiked speculation about a possible vice-presidential slot for the former First Lady. Then came brief updates about storms and tornados in the Midwest and a drought that had spawned raging wildfires in North Carolina. Finally, there was a piece on efforts by anti-doping agencies to decide whether Viagra’s performance-enhancing qualities extended to bicycle races, thus necessitating a ban on the virility drug.

From the unemployment line to the medicine cabinet, the headlines offered a speedy spin around the day’s news cycle.

Top Broad Story Topics: News Radio Headlines vs. NPR vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

News Radio Headlines

NPR Morning Edition

Media over all

Economics 19% Foreign (Non-U.S.) 20% Elections/Politics 34%
Elections/Politics 16 Elections/Politics 19 Economics 11
Disaster Accidents 7 Economics 12 Foreing (Non-U.S) 10
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 7 U.S. Foreign Affairs 9 U.S. Foreign Affairs 6
Crime 7 Business 4 Crime 5
U.S. Foreign Affairs 6 Lifestyle 4 Business 4
Business 6 Government 3 Government 4
Health/Medicine 5 Disasters/Accidents 3 Disasters/Accidents 4
Government 5 Crime 3 Health/Medicine 3
Lifestyle 3 Environment 3 Lifestyle 2

NPR’s Morning Edition Goes Big on Global

As part of its weekly News Coverage Index, PEJ studied about 130 hours of National Public Radio’s signature early news program, Morning Edition, in 2008. In terms of news priorities, the NPR component of radio news is far closer to the network radio headlines than the commercial talk format. But there are still some distinguishing features to the NPR news agenda, particularly when it comes to covering the world.

As NPR’s listening audience has grown by about 75% in the past decade, one of its perceived strengths has been international coverage at a time when many mainstream media organizations are shutting foreign bureaus. In 2008, the biggest component of Morning Edition coverage—30%—was devoted to news from overseas. That is nearly double the global coverage—17% of the newshole—in the media over all in 2008. And it even exceeds, slightly, the international coverage in the online media sector (27%), which has consistently devoted more attention to the rest of the world than the other four major platforms—cable news, network news, newspapers and the over all radio sector.

A further examination of that overseas coverage shows a significant tilt toward stories that did not directly involve the United States. While , coverage of non-U.S. stories accounted for 10% of the newshole in 2008 in the media over all, they accounted for 20% on Morning Edition. That 20% figure was nearly triple the attention (7%) the radio headline reports devoted to non-U.S. stories.

That international coverage ranged broadly, often going beneath the major narratives and top headlines. There was an offshoot-of-the-economic-meltdown narrative that looked at the impact of the financial crisis on Senegal, in Africa. There was a piece on rising tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Mideast after a conference of Islamic scholars in Mecca. And a somewhat prophetic account that ran before Russia rolled its tanks into Georgia examining Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s efforts to rebuild Russia’s degraded military forces.

At the same time, Morning Edition’s coverage of some of the more prominent and pressing international stories—such as the Iraq war (6% of the airtime studied), Pakistan (2%), China (2%) and Afghanistan (2%)—roughly doubled the amount of attention that the over all media paid to them.

Foreign Coverage: NPR’s Morning Edition vs. Media Over All
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

NPR also featured slightly more coverage of the campaign and politics (19%) than the commercial radio news headlines (16%), but that total was still far below the political coverage (34%) in the media over all in 2008. In some other areas, NPR offered less coverage than the network headline reports, such as business and economics (16% compared with 25%), crime (3% compared with 7%), health and medicine (2% compared with 5%) and disasters and accidents (3% compared with 7%). In terms of quantity of coverage in those subject areas, NPR was not much different from the media over all in 2008. And the discrepancies here are more of a reflection of the headline reports’ niche of delivering a quick account of the day’s news.

Radio Differences in Format

Given its journalistic resources , Morning Edition had the largest over all component of interviews and pre-recorded story packages  in the radio sector. The NPR program and commercial network headline reports were almost identical when it came to the percentage of airtime devoted to prepared story packages (59% to 57%). But 17% of the time on Morning Edition was filled by interviews compared with less than 1% on the headlines.

What the headlines lacked in interviews, however, they made up in staff voices on the air. About 41% of the headlines’ newshole was filled either by live staff reports or anchor reads, compared with 24% the NPR show.

Format of Radio News Story
Percent of Newshole

NPR Morning Edition News Radio Headlines Talk Radio
Packaged Story








Staff Live




Anchor Read (Voice-over/Tell Story)




Live Event




Talk Radio with Audio Clips




Talk Radio Without Audio Clips




Unedited Audio/Video




For obvious reasons, the host-driven, commercial talk radio format is markedly different than either the headlines or Morning Edition and virtually none of the time is taken up by reported packages. There is, however, a significant difference in the percentage of airtime devoted to interviews depending on who is hosting the show. And again, it breaks down by ideology. The liberal talkers spent more than twice as much time doing interviews as their conservative counterparts, 17% to 7%.

A look at the individual hosts, at least in the part of the programs examined by PEJ, indicates that two of the talkers on different sides of the spectrum—the liberal Schultz and conservative Savage—do by far the most on-air chatting, with 24% of Schultz’s time take up with interviews compared with 17% for Savage. The two talkers who do, by far, the fewest two-way conversations in the time examined were Hannity (4%) and Limbaugh (3%). That reinforces the sense that Limbaugh is the star and centerpiece of his program.  The liberal Rhodes was somewhere in the middle at 9%.