Like any good progressive, I despise conservative talk radio. I don’t hate that it exists. I hate that most of it is so driven by anger, spite, and mean-spiritedness, and a fact-free appeal to the lesser natures of its audience.
I don’t like talk radio, but I understand it. And the thing I understand most clearly is that it is a business, whose goal is to attract listeners who will buy the products of its advertisers. Political power for the host, and persuading people to like or agree are way down the list of things a smart, profitable talker wants to accomplish, though, of course, that helps sell ED pills, gold, and weight loss schemes, too.
It is important to understand the business truth about talk radio when you consider Rush Limbaugh’s most recent appearance in the headlines of mainstream and progressive media. Limbaugh made news by saying that he hopes President Obama fails in his goals. Much outrage and ringing of hands, along with a sigh of relief from some of his conservative colleagues, have followed Limbaugh’s pronouncement. But even more than the reactions of the political class, Mr. Limbaugh wants a reaction from people who have not been listening to his show lately. The reaction he wants? For them to tune in, of course. It does not matter to Limbaugh who likes him or who listens. It only matters that they do, and that he can quantify this to advertisers. While I do not suspect Mr. Limbaugh is a closet Obama backer, I do feel certain that his provocation is completely calculated to generate publicity for his radio show; his bread and butter. In a time when even Republican voters, and some officeholders are taking a wait-and-see, or a cautiously positive approach to the new presidency, Limbaugh needs to remain relevant. After all, he won’t be chatting with the vice president on the radio anymore. His choice was either to antagonize his existing audience by hitching his car to the Obama train (not bloody likely), or to stir up press for himself by throwing bombs. He’s just exercising good business sense.
So how do Limbaugh’s words offer relief to other conservatives? You need look no further than the man’s often stated criticism of the Democratic election aparatus during the Bush years. He accused Dems of rooting for bad economic or war news, thus depriving Bush of the support of the American people. As he looks to his own business, Limbaugh has simply adopted what he believed to be his enemies’ mindset and approach. Root for bad times when the people who beat you are in power, so that your side can provide the blameless alternative.
At a deeper level, Limbaugh has done all of his fellow right wing pundit types a favor. By being the first to say something that is currently perceived to be outrageous, Limbaugh takes flak, and provides cover for all of those who were thinkin it, but didn’t yet dare to say it. The inevitable “yeah, me too!” columns will appear from the likes of Coulter, Hannity, Malkin, and other vermin of the right, and they will be cheered by “the base”, thus enhancing their own cred. Those on the other side will, however, have expended the full measure of outrage at LImbaugh, and his originally controversial statement will become conventional wisdom in the mean-eyed right. Really, that’s what’s gonna happen. I’ve seen it before. One person steps out on a limb, gets the credit and blame for having gone first, and provides the foundation for a treehouse in which all the blatherers may stand, safe in the knowledge that they have moved the line of acceptable discourse. And when people like me next criticize them, the answer will be, “but everyone thinks this already.”