Air America, the liberal radio network established to answer Rush Limbaugh et. al., began airing today. You may listen live here. John Cook discusses the kinks in the system, especially with “The O’Franken Factor,” in a column for the Chicago Tribune.
I have questioned the concept of liberal talk radio before. I have no problem with the desire to do it or the bias that drives it, just as I have no problem with the right-wing product. Rather, I don’t think it will draw much of an audience; it’s not a good business concept.
Conservatives and liberals think differently (their world views are constructed with different metaphors). And these differences, including the right’s effective crafting of its message over a generation, make all the difference in radio. The right is entertaining. The left is not. The right created effective codes and frames. The left did not. The right specifically cultivated media personalities and the conservatives thinkers to back them up. The left, for the most part, did not. Here’s what Cook has to say:
But a larger question, once the hobgoblins are exorcised, is whether Franken’s low-key, sarcastic persona can translate into compelling radio. Though he has made a career of what he describes as “hard-hitting advocacy comedy,” Franken is not a fire-breather. The only time he raised his voice on the air was to shriek “Lies!” in a high-pitched Gollum impression, in response to some perceived mendacity on the part of the White House — not out of genuine indignation, but in a sort of irony-swaddled caricature of an outraged curmudgeon. The message: Righteousness (a la Bill O’Reilly) isn’t funny. Knowing parody is.
Talk radio is not a genre of ideas. It is a reactive genre and an emotional genre. On radio, it is possible to present information, even heavily spun information, in ways that are critical and complicated–ways that appeal to the person seeking understanding (knowledge and wisdom) more than ideological validation. But the audience for this type of radio (or TV) appears to be small. C-SPAN and NPR pull it off. Can you think of others?
This is right on point:
“Talk radio tends to reward directness,” said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio. “Subtlety and nuance means the message gets lost. Conservatives have figured out how to hone the message so it’s polished and gleaming.” For that reason, along with the general difficulty of building a new network in the saturated talk-radio market, Taylor said, Air America’s ratings will be “microscopic” in the beginning.
And in the end, I just don’t see this working until liberals do what George Lakoff has suggested: Develop a common ideological language with which to frame the issues across a diverse liberal constituency. That’s a tall order. Conservatives offer a far more unified world view and language to articulate that view. (More background on Rhetorica here and here.)
What sells in electronic media is ideological validation. The right has perfected its talking points and its media personalities to such an extent that they present an entertaining product for people who wish to bask in the glory of their own ideology. I do not believe this basking is a good thing for the continued health of a democratic republic. And I do not think liberals should stoop to imitating it. It’s a lot like admitting ideological defeat.