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Talk Radio

By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Talk Radio

For talk radio, 2009 was a year of going back to basics.  With a Democratic White House and Congress, largely conservative talk radio regained some of its stability and force in 2009 and became one of the leading voices of the political opposition.

The Right: Back to Basics

With the election of President Obama came new life and a new focus for conservative talkers.

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity continue to dominate the talk radio universe with 15 million and 14 million listeners, respectively, in spring 2009.

But much of the attention in 2009 went to the meteoric rise of Glenn Beck.  Beck began a radio program in 1983 and then went to Fox News and took over as anchor of a Fox News television program. While popular, he had remained in the shadow of Limbaugh and Hannity. Then his radio audience tripled to 9 million by the spring of 2009, up from 3 million at the same point a year earlier.

Much of this popularity has been attributed to Beck’s emergence as a voice of opposition against specific Obama administration policies.  Beginning with the economic stimulus package, Beck became the rallying point for opposition to the Obama administration on a range of issues, including the proposed overhaul of the healthcare system.

Another conservative talker, Michael Savage, suffered a setback in 2009 when his home station, KNEW in San Francisco, canceled his program in September.  There is little indication as to why Savage was dropped from the station. The program director, John Scott, said that the station was “headed in a new direction” and that “Savage does not fit any longer.”1

Savage will be back on the air on February 1 on KTRB-AM San Francisco.

The Left

Talk radio has never been as strong a voice among liberals as conservatives and in 2009, the left-leaning hosts did not fair as well as their conservative counterparts.  Ed Schultz, the top liberal talk show host, saw audiences fall slightly to 2.5 million, from 3 million in 2008.  The other major liberal talker, Randi Rhodes, quit Nova M radio in February 2009. She was picked up in April 2009 by Premier Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications. Her show returned in May 2009, but it will take her some time to find out if she can rebuild her audience to what it was.

One liberal talker who is making an impression, though slowly, is Thom Hartmann.  In 2009 Hartmann had 2 million listeners, up from 1.5 million in 2008.

A prominent liberal talk radio network, Air America Radio, ceased broadcasting in January 2010 and filed for bankruptcy.

Top Talk Radio Hosts, Millions of Listeners

Host Political Leaning 2009 2008 2007 2003
Rush Limbaugh Conservative 15 14.25 13.5 14.5
Sean Hannity Conservative 14 13.25 12.5 11.74
Glenn Beck Conservative 9 6.75 5 *
Michael Savage Conservativee 9 8.25 8 7
Dr. Laura Schlessinger Conservative/General Advice 9 8.25 8 8.5
Laura Ingraham Conservative 6.25 5.5 5 1.25
Mark Levin Conservative 6.25 5.5 4 NA
Dave Ramsey Financial Advice 6.25 4.5 4 *
Neal Boortz Conservative 4.75 4.25 4 2.5
Mike Gallagher Conservative 4.75 4 3.75 2.5
Michael Medved Conservative 4.75 4 3.75 *
Jim Bohannon Ind./Moderate 3.75 3.5 3.25 4
Dough Stephan Ind./Moderate 3.75 3.5 3.25 2
Bill Bennet Conservative 3.5 3.25 * *
Jerry Doyle Conservative 3.5 3 * *

Source: Talkers magazine, “Top Talk Personalities,” Fall 2009
Note: * = Information unavailable; NA = Talk host not nationally broadcast


1. Radio Online, “Michael Savage Is Out at KNEW-AM/San Francisco,” September 9, 2009.