Wednesday, February 19, 2003

A Short History of the Future of Liberal Radio

This past weekend news emerged of a group of wealthy Democrats planning to start up a talk radio network featuring exclusively liberal hosts, in an attempt to counterbalance the influence of Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators on the AM dial. Both Jay Reding and Mitch Berg do a good job of exploring the flawed assumptions this business model is based on, so I'll not reiterate them here.

But one other aspect of this story strikes me as significant. That is, the process these Democrats have undertaken in starting this business strikes me as a quintessentially liberal approach. A group of wealthy elites encounter an outcome from the marketplace (otherwise known as the collective expression of free will) which doesn't suit their personal wishes. So they get together with some so-called experts in the field, uniformly agree on their good intentions, design a solution based on their presumedly superior intelligence and infallible reason, then seek ways to impose it, top down, onto the masses, who are too foolish, selfish, or ignorant to come up with a solution on their own.

While I don't think it's impossible for a liberal radio host to be successful, because of the artificiality of this process, I think this specific attempt is likely to fail. Not only are these investors attempting the daunting tasks of trying to start a broadcasting organization from scratch, creating a nationwide distribution network, and attracting advertisers willing to spend millions of dollars. They also need to try to recreate the conditions that lead to interesting radio, since they don't have a host or existing radio format to start from.

Actually, if they're going to succeed in taking substantial audience share away from Limbaugh, it needs to be a damn sight better than "interesting," it will need to be extraordinary, compelling, and above all entertaining. And going yet another step, not only does it need to be extraordinary, compelling, and entertaining, it also has to serve a very specific political agenda, with the expressed, preordained purpose of influencing public opinion on a mass scale. Not exactly a job you can hand to Phil Donohue. Or Mario Cuomo. Or frankly, Al Franken.

Since there isn't a current broadcaster or a preexisting radio format which meets the above criteria, this same investor group is going to have to create it. Any guess as to what kind of results you get when a group of wealthy, self-appointed cultural elites get together to decide what's entertaining and what's not? That's right, you get NPR, perhaps the least entertaining entity since the black plague. Witness the 4-H club level corn pone skits and tired clich├ęs of Garrison Keillor. The droning gas bag emissions of Daniel Schorr. The pleased-to-death-with-his-own-cleverness quipping of Michael Feldman. The grating condescension of Katherine Lanpher. None of whom would be on the radio at all without millions of dollars of government subsidy keeping them on the air in the face of mass apathy.

Even given the challenges outlined above, I'm sure the Democrats involved are quite certain they'll succeed. After all, aren't their motivations behind this effort not too different than their motivations in redistributing 40% of an average citizen's wealth via taxation? They're quite convinced they know how to spend your money better than you, why shouldn't they also know more than you about what you want to listen to on the radio? Unfortunately for them, what they may not realize is that this time they won't have the monopoly power of government ensuring their desired outcome.

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