The 2008 election campaign may have seemed like unfriendly terrain for the nation’s conservative talk radio hosts. In the Republican primary season, some of the top talkers backed Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson over the eventual nominee, John McCain. And despite their energetic and staunch opposition to Barack Obama, the Democrat handily won the Nov. 4 election.
But the dominance of conservative talkers appeared unaffected by the nation’s apparent tilt leftward at the ballot box. And going forward, talk radio will once again find itself as an oppositional medium, the same posture it had during the 1990s.
From the left, efforts to add liberal-leaning voices to the airwaves continue to prove halting at best and 2008 offered little encouragement. Several leading talkers on the left actually lost audience even as Democrats were mounting their comeback at the polls.
There was more evidence of the power of talk radio generally as a medium, however. The number of radio stations that carry at least some talk shows, which includes everything from political talk to advice shows, grew by a third in 2008, to 2,056 from 1,370 the year before, according to Inside Radio magazine.1
And the total audience for talk radio grew slightly, too, to 48 million people, up 2% from 47 million in 2007, according to data from Arbitron.2
The genre’s origins date as far back as the medium itself, with talk being a cheap and easily produced format for radio programs. But the phenomenon of highly politicized talk radio hosts is modern.
The current age of talk radio was ushered in with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The repeal freed stations from an obligation to offer equal representation to viewpoints. It also eliminated the costly mandate for radio stations to cover issues of local importance. (See sidebar for more info)
Many of the leading conservative talk hosts had audience growth in 2008, beginning with Rush Limbaugh, the modern godfather of the genre. Limbaugh’s average weekly audience, which had shrunk after hitting an all-time high in 2003, rebounded to nearly its old level. For the year, according to Talkers Magazine3, Limbaugh reached a weekly audience of 14.25 million in 2008, up from 13.5 million the previous two years. That was just shy of his peak of 14.5 million in 2003.
Limbaugh’s immediate future also seems secure. In July 2008 he signed an eight-year contract with Clear Channel for $38 million a year.
Limbaugh’s biggest rival for audience is fellow conservative Sean Hannity, who also hosts a successful cable television show on Fox News.
Hannity also gained listeners in 2008, continuing a growth trend, but he still has not quite reached Limbaugh’s levels. Hannity’s weekly audience grew from 11.75 million in 2003 to 12.5 million in 2007. In 2008, he added almost a million listeners, hitting 13.25 million. That puts him one million, or 7%, behind than Limbaugh.
Other conservatives also picked up listeners in the election year. Michael Savage and Laura Schlessinger increased their audiences to 8.25 million each, up from 8 million in 2007. The biggest winner was Glenn Beck, who increased his audience to 6.75 million, from 5 million in 2007.
The news was not so good for liberals. They continued to lag behind, with some prominent ones actually losing audience.
The biggest syndicated liberal talker, Ed Schultz, was down to 3 million listeners, from 3.25 million in 2007, according to the data from Talkers Magazine. Randi Rhodes was down to 1 million, from 1.5 million in 2007.
Three other liberal talkers — Lionel, Stephanie Miller and Alan Colmes — all had their audiences remain stable at 1.5 million each.4
Don Imus returned to the air in December 2007 after being fired by CBS earlier that year for making controversial remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team (See last year’s report for more information on this incident). Before his firing, he was pulling in 2.5 million listeners a week. As of spring 2008, more than a year later, his audience on ABC radio was not quite back to that, but he was being heard by 1.75 million, putting him at No. 13 on Talkers Magazine’s list of top talkers.
Air America host Rachel Maddow made the jump to television, landing a spot on MSNBC immediately following fellow liberal host Keith Olbermann. Maddow continues to host her radio show in addition to her show on MSNBC
Talk Show Hosts Making News
Several talk show hosts also made news as well as talked about it in 2008.
Among those most affected was Randi Rhodes. She got into hot water in March 2008, for delivering a profanity-laced rant at a comedy club against Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton.5 Air America suspended her in response and she reacted by resigning from the network.
Rhodes defended herself in an appearance on – what else? – a talk show. She told Larry King on CNN on April 10 that her remarks were delivered at a stand-up comedy event and that she has every right to say what she did: “It’s absolutely 100 percent pure stand-up, Larry. It was a Saturday night in San Francisco in a club. It was me on a stage with a microphone doing stand-up.”6
Rhodes was off the air for only a few weeks, joining the Nova M Radio syndicate on April 14, 2008. But it cost her 50% of her audience after she made the switch.
In February 2009 Nova M Radio was forced to file for bankruptcy liquidation and early in the month Randi Rhodes quite Nova M citing on her website a “failure to correct an unspecified problem.”
According to the Wallstreet Journal Ms. Rhodes expected Nova M to cover some legal costs for her, and when she found out that they would not she left the network.7
On the right, several conservative talkers were in the news in 2008 for unusual criticism of a fellow conservative. Three of the top ones— Limbaugh, Hannity, and Laura Ingraham— all expressed strong reservations about John McCain as the Republican candidate for president, reflecting the discontent McCain engendered among conservatives. On January11, 2008, Hannity said: “If you ask me who are the two more liberal candidates in the Republican primary, I would say, it’s John McCain and Mike Huckabee.”8
After McCain became his party’s nominee for president, the hosts publicly supported him –- though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As Limbaugh said: “It’s like the Super Bowl. If your team isn’t in it, you root for the team you hate less. That’s McCain.”9
Black talk radio also saw a boost from the election year with Barack Obama making some appearances on black talk shows and with black talk radio hosts being in high demand for cable pundits. (See the Ethnic Chapter of this report for more information)
|Dr. Laura Schlessinger||Conservative/General Advice||8.25||8||8||8.5|
|Dave Ramsey||Financial Advice||4.5||4||2.75||*|
|Clark Howard||Consumer Advocacy||3.25||3.25||3.25||2.5|
Source: Talkers magazine, “Top Talk Personalities,” Spring 2008
Note: * = Information unavailable; NA = Talk host not nationally broadcast
Talk Radio Demographics
Listeners to talk radio are not a cross-sampling of America and are somewhat similar to the news/talk audience. They are more likely to be male than female (63.4% vs. 36.6%). They also tend to be, on average, more educated than the general population. About 75% have some college education, according to Arbitron.10
Listeners to talk radio also tend to be older than those listening to other formats. Only 5% are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 80.2% are over the age of 35.
The good news for advertisers is that the talk radio audience is relatively affluent, with 45.6% making more than $75,000 per year and only 9.6% making less than $25,000.11
While the demographics of news/talk and talk radio are the same, talk radio programming is driven by ideology and attracts more ideological listeners.
According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, conservative Republicans make up 28% of talk radio’s audience, compared to only 17% of the general public who identify themselves as conservative Republicans. Moderate Republicans make up 13%, moderate Democrats make up 13% and liberal Democrats make up 20% of talk radio’s audience.12
2. Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio,” 2008 Edition, March 12, 2008
3. Estimating the audience of radio talk shows is inexact. The major radio ratings agency, Arbitron, collects some data on a market-by-market basis and time-slot-by-time-slot, but does not aggregate the data to come up with a total listenership figure. Talkers Magazine, working with Arbitron data and other sources, comes up with an estimate that it describes as “rough projections based upon a significant sample and do not represent exact Arbitron or any other ratings service totals.”
4 .Talkers Magazine, Top Talk Radio Audiences, September 2008
7. Sean Hannity, the Sean Hannity Show, January 11, 2008
9. “Radio Today 2008 Edition,” Arbitron, March 12, 2008
10. Arbitron, “Radio Today: How Americans Listen to Radio,” 2008 Edition, March 12, 2008
11. “Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, August 17, 2008
12. Rush Limbaugh, The Rush Limbaugh Show, November 4, 2008
14. Sean Hannity, the Sean Hannity Show, November 26, 2008