Credited with shaping presidential elections and blamed for creating a climate of intolerance, talk radio rose to prominence in the 1990s by offering Americans a free, unfiltered, and often national forum. Whether the issue was a pushy boss, a hapless sports team, or a downtown-parking crunch, talk radio became a sort of water-cooler for the masses. The rise also reflected the increasingly combative nature of American discourse, with on-air arguments, taunts, and racy, satiric routines often the key to a talk show's success. As ratings increased, so did the critics who believed that the radio hosts were, in part, to blame for the increasingly hostile environment that led to a series of high-profile incidents, including the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. Leading talk show hosts Howard Stern, G. Gordon Liddy, and Don Imus were branded "shock jocks" for their brash, obnoxious, and often controversial points of view. As Howard Kurtz notes in Hot Air, "When White House chief of staff Leon Panetta wanted to attack Newt Gingrich, the strongest insult he could muster was to accuse the House speaker of acting like 'an out-of-control radio talk show host."' But whether agitator or great equalizer, talk radio offers anyone with a telephone a chance to become part of the national debate. And its influence can be felt off the dial as well, as radio jocks write best-selling books, star in films, and are spoofed on the television sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live.
The emergence of talk radio came about because of technological advances as much as the need for an open forum. Commercial radio had existed since the 1920s, but the toll free telephone lines and satellite hook-ups that encouraged the spread of the format were not in place for another 60 years.
In the early days of radio, before television, the best known voices were comedians making the jump from the vaudeville stage, old-style newsmen, and sportscasters. The first true talk radio host may have been celebrity interviewer Barry Gray, who began broadcasting out of New York City in the mid-1940s. But Gray's show was without one key element: the caller. Jerry Williams, who went on the air in Boston in 1957, became the first to take calls. He used two tape recorders to comply with the federal regulations requiring delays.
In addition to technical limitations, talk radio was held back by a 1949 law, the Fairness Doctrine, which required equal time for opposing views. The change began in the late 1950s when machinery made the seven second delay possible, enabling hosts to put callers on the air without fear. Talk radio received a similar boost in the 1980s with the spread of satellite and digital phone technologies, which made toll free numbers more affordable for station managers. Emboldened by the fact that these calls were being made not only to a radio station, but also in many cases a radio station in another time zone, callers embraced this new forum. They could yell at another human and risk nothing more than being cut off by the host. In addition, Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Talk radio spread from 75 stations nationwide in 1980, to 125 by 1987, and 1,350 by 1998.
From the start, talk radio proved a strong voice for political protest. Jerry Williams brought consumer advocate Ralph Nader onto the air to criticize automobile makers in the 1960s. Twenty years later, Williams led a repeal of a law requiring the mandatory use of seat belts in Massachusetts. In 1988, Congress wanted to vote itself a 51 percent pay raise. A nationwide network of talk show hosts, led by Detroit's Roy Fox, suggested listeners send tea bags to Washington, D.C., to show their displeasure. More than 150,000 tea bags were dumped in front of the White House; Congress withdrew the pay raise. A decade later, lawmakers had not forgotten. A survey of members of Congress revealed that 46 percent of them found talk radio the most influential media source during the health care debate; 15 percent cited the New York Times.
As talk radio gained stature, so did the voices behind it. In many cases, these were failed disc jockeys who had tried, in vain, to fit into the more conventional music format. Larry King was a broadcasting veteran who first went on the air in 1960 in Miami, Florida, struggled later with a gambling problem and three bad marriages, and was eventually arrested for misusing $5,000 from a business associate. In 1978, King got what just about everyone in radio gets: a second chance. From the 12th Floor Studio in Crystal City, Virginia, he launched the first nationally broadcast radio show, talking from midnight to 5:30 a.m. The success of his show proved that national talk shows could make it. King eventually left radio for his nightly interview television talk show on the Cable News Network and launched a regular column in the USA Today, laying the foundation for the rise of the talk star.
Rush Limbaugh, a college dropout who had failed repeatedly as a rock 'n' roll disc jockey, launched his talk show in the mid-1980s, immediately establishing himself as a conservative voice; his show went national in 1988. No matter that Limbaugh had not registered to vote for several presidential elections; he was courted by then-President George Bush as the 1992 elections approached. Seeking his on-air support, Bush invited Limbaugh to the White House and even carried the talk show host's bags. Limbaugh's influence was considered so widespread that an effort by Congress to bring back the Fairness Doctrine in the 1990s was quickly dubbed the "hush-Rush" bill by the Wall Street Journal.
Limbaugh's success provided ample fodder to talk radio's critics. A Times Mirror poll showed Limbaugh's audience to be 92 percent white and 56 percent male. And his on-air mistakes created a strong anti-Rush backlash. The Flush Rush Quarterly spurred much of it, reporting Limbaugh's errors. On the Reagan-era Iran Contra scandal, for example, Limbaugh stated: "There is not one indictment. There is not one charge." In reality, there had been 14 people indicted and 11 who had either pleaded guilty or been convicted.
Limbaugh's histrionics were mild compared to those of the freewheeling Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "moron" of talk radio. Stern made no secret of his distaste for his profession. "Radio is a scuzzy, bastard industry that's filled with deviants, circus clown rejects, the lowest of the low," he said.
Off the air, Stern was the dedicated family man who did not go to parties and spent most of his time with his college sweetheart turned wife, Alison. On the air, he discussed his sexual fantasies, argued with his staff, belched, and complained about the size of his penis. Unlike many other talk shows, Stern attacked celebrity culture instead of celebrating it. He called Oprah Winfrey "a big dolt with an empty, oversized head" and Roseanne "a fat slob." He also promoted a series of B-level figures, from Jessica Hahn, known for her affair with television preacher Jim Bakker, to Frank Stallone Jr., the less-famous brother of Sylvester. Stern's reporter, Stuttering John, carried out further attacks on celebrity culture. Disarmed by the stutter, expecting another Entertainment Tonight -styled softball interview, celebrities were shocked when confronted by John's questions. When Gennifer Flowers held a press conference to address her affair with then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Stuttering John stole the show from the pack of mainstream reporters. "Gennifer," he asked, "did Governor Clinton use a condom?"
Stern also drew the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), receiving 21 of 44 fines levied. When Alfred Sikes, chairman of the FCC, fined Stern's employer, Infinity, $1.7 million for allegedly broadcasting obscenities, the radio host responded, on the air, by hoping that Sikes would develop cancer.
If Stern and Limbaugh were considered too controversial by many, Don Imus found a proper balance between shock radio and serious discourse. A radio star whose first career collapsed in the 1970s due to his addiction to cocaine and alcohol, Imus returned to the national airwaves in 1988. His morning show was a mix of news, racy skits, and spoof songs. Imus found himself in line with the media elite, interviewing President Clinton at one point and regularly hosting serious news veterans like Cokie Roberts, Dan Rather, and Tim Russert. He also appeared on the David Brinkley show.
It is this range—from the serious to the frivolous—that talk radio proponents say makes the medium more powerful than the generally entertainment focussed programming on television talk shows. Talkers magazine reports that the top five issues on talk radio between 1990 to 1995 were the O.J. Simpson case, the 1992 elections, the Persian Gulf War, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the Los Angeles riots. But lest it be taken too seriously, Talkers also rated discussion of John Wayne Bobbitt, the man whose penis was surgically reattached after it had been cut off by his wife, higher than debates on Bosnia and gays in the military.
For those more interested in serious-minded talk, National Public Radio (NPR) emerged a decade before Limbaugh, Stern, and Imus. Known for lengthy reports and the breathy but understated delivery of its hosts, NPR's style is so distinctive it has also been spoofed on Saturday Night Live. NPR made its debut on May 3, 1971 with its first broadcast of All Things Considered. That first broadcast reached a few hundred thousand listeners through only 104 public radio stations. Twenty five years later, All Things Considered would reach 16 million Americans through NPR's 520 member stations, all the while holding faithful to the wishes of its first director, Bill Siemering, who wanted "calm conversation, analysis and explication."
By the late 1990s, NPR had long established itself as a dependable voice, but the influence of hot talkers like Limbaugh and Stern was still being debated. Limbaugh took credit for the Republican victories during the 1994 Congressional elections and made the cover of Time magazine, the headline posed: "Is Rush Limbaugh Good For America?" But by the end of 1996, Clinton had won a second term and the conservative movement was floundering.
Nobody debated whether talk radio would survive. It had made stars of big mouths (Stern, Imus), political impresarios (Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy), shrinks and sex therapists (Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Dr. Judy Kuriansky), and even discarded politicians (former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, former New York City mayor Ed Koch). Whether we liked it or not, we had become, as Howard Kurtz wrote, "a talk show nation."
Colford, Paul D. The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent On Loan From God. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Fowler, Gene, and Bill Crawford, with a foreword by Wolfman Jack.Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves. Austin, Texas Monthly Press, 1987.
Kurtz, Howard. Hot Air: All Talk All the Time. New York, Random House, 1996.
Stern, Howard. Private Parts. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993.