Why do right-wing voices dominate the AM dial? Decades of change cemented shift.

January 21, 2023 3:33 am

Broadcasters have wielded immense power in shaping public opinion, writes columnist David Norlin. (Getty Images)

Say something on social media and it’s out there for eternity. No matter where, it can be traced. So you are ultimately accountable, for better or worse. Say something on AM talk radio, however, and it vanishes into the ether. If asked about it later, you can just shrug your shoulders and turn away. Imagine, then, the effect of a constant, unaccountable, intravenous drip of venomous, violent rhetoric into the public’s veins.

Father Charles Coughlin was in the ear, on the mind, and in the bloodstream of millions in 1940. His America-First “Christian Front” was not.

How venomous voices from right-wing radio radicalized Kansas and all America. Read part one here.

That is, until one cool Thursday afternoon in September. The Hercules munitions plant, the nation’s largest, blew. According to the podcast Ultra: “Fires and explosions raked the area all afternoon and night, leaving an estimated 50 dead, 200 injured, and more than two million dollars in property damage. The ground shook 90 miles away. Every single pane of glass was broken in nearby towns. Cars passing by were thrown off the road.”

The FBI downplayed foul play, deeming it an accident. But two months later — to the day — three other factories blew, all in widely separated places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, within one hour. Sixteen Americans were killed; dozens more were wounded.

The Christian Front aimed to foment fear and discontent with now thrice-elected FDR. It hoped fearful folks would rise up against their own government and any foreign involvement, while conveniently letting Hitler off the hook.

This was not just on-air and on the ground. U.S. leadership itself was not immune. In 1940, 24 “America First” U.S. senators spoke on the Senate floor and mailed out propaganda generated by Hitler’s propaganda machine. Questions first arose when Sen. Ernest Lundeen — being investigated for sedition — died in a mysterious plane crash along with FBI and government agents.

Violence on the ground and xenophobic leadership coups, attempted or real, can be traced to public microphones. The power of radio, AM talk in particular, has been little examined, at our peril.


FM to AM

Though the 1934 Communications Act granted radio licenses for stations that “served the public interest,” a technological revolution in the ’60s and ’70s reshaped the playing field: FM. No more static and a smooth-as-glass signal made FM the go-to place for music and advertisers.

What was AM to do? Well, amplify talk.

By the early 1980s, AM talk was an old, yet new, and supposedly open, playing field. Call-in talk was a revolution. According to podcast The Divided Dial: “Pick up the phone and you became a local celebrity. People felt invested in shows. … Hearing themselves or neighbors calling in made them feel represented.”

Another tech revolution, satellite dishes, allowed larger networks to beam a select few shows across long distances in real time. Easier and cheaper long-distance calling made local callers feel even more power within their reach.

Shows were not all political, but they could be mean and abrasive, with Howard Stern the most obvious example. The age of the “shock jock” arose.

Some were political, on both left and right. The shooting of leading New York liberal, Jewish, “shock jock” Alan Berg in 1984 by a white supremacist, however, was “a milestone on the road to an ever more violent radical right,” according to The Divided Dial. “For radio … it heralded the end of an era.”

Talkers’ topics were theoretically balanced by the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. Stations had to serve the public interest, airing both sides, or more, of any issue. If not, their license was in peril.

But then, along came President Ronald Reagan. His FCC “eliminated requirements to go out and find out what local residents want to hear. No more mandates to run educational shows,” the podcast said. And the FCC made it harder to challenge broadcast licenses, which civil rights groups had done by the hundreds previously.

After the doctrine’s complete repeal in 1987, the Democratic-led Congress passed it as law, codifying former FCC policy. But Reagan vetoed the bill. The Fairness Doctrine of a half-century was dead.


Into the void

Into that deregulated void lumbered Rush Limbaugh. Rush appealed to both political conservatives and evangelical Christians. Bartering his syndicated show allowed local advertisers to get in on the action and expanded his reach.

Finally, the 1996 Telecommunications Act nailed the coffin shut.

Cheer-led by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore (their biggest mistake), it eliminated caps on the number of stations any company could own. Soon, Clear Channel (later iHeart Radio) went from 43 to more than 1,200 stations. Other conglomerates piled on. Networks found that investing in one big host, piped nationwide by satellite, was far cheaper than paying local hosts in every city. Profitability pushed them into safe, tested formats.

And guess who, with his wannabes, was talk-format king? Limbaugh.

Salem, by 2007, was a top 5 radio company with hundreds of stations. Conservative talk still dominated radio, 10-to-1. In 2020, 12 of the top 15 talk radio hosts were conservative. Limbaugh was No. 1. The 1996 Telecommunications Act was an economic, not content, decision. But it meant the loudest voices were not the most representative.

As Katie Thornton of the Divided Dial concludes: “Extreme rhetoric like Rush Limbaugh’s might have remained on the fringes if his ideas and attitudes hadn’t been echoed by host after host on station after station. With the infrastructure working in your favor, you can bring the extreme into the mainstream … and make it look organic.”

Do you imagine the 1940s America First U.S. Senate cadre to be a long-distant danger in our rearview mirror? As the mirror warns, “Objects may be closer than they appear.” This month, a House cadre of 20, loyal to their own America First guru, held their speaker’s selection hostage longer than any time since the Civil War. And they intend to hold even your Social Security hostage as well.

Not only that, violent attempts to throw the nation into chaos surface daily. In the last few weeks, disparate but possibly ideologically related actions have disabled electric transmission stations, plunging thousands into dark powerlessness.

The insurrection of Jan. 6 also provides insight into chaos-enablers. Will we learn? Only if we look and listen.

So, thanks again for listening, and God Bless America.

David Norlin is a retired Cloud County Community College teacher, where he was department chairman of communications/English, specializing in media. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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David Norlin
David Norlin

David Norlin of Salina is a retired teacher at Cloud County Community College, where he was department chair of Communications/English, specializing in media. He has twice run for the Kansas Legislature and has served on and chaired Salina’s Human Relations Commission, Planning Commission, and Access TV. He is an occasional columnist for the Salina Journal.