Right-wing grip on talk radio

September 15, 1995

Huw Richards reports from the American Political Studies Association's conference in Chicago.

President Clinton has problems that even Britain's beleaguered John Major never dreamt of as he attempts to boost his poll ratings in advance of next year's re-election campaign.

Diana Owen of Georgetown University, Washington DC, noted that he has been so exasperated by what he perceives as a deluge of anti-administration rhetoric from radio talk shows conducted by right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, that he once rang a show to defend himself.

Blaming the messenger is an old political reflex, but here analysis suggests that he might have a point. There is a certain irony in this. "Skillful use of talk radio and other new media helped put him in the White House," she states. He is also the first president to have to deal with them throughout a term of office. "We have a much more complex media environment and he's the guinea pig," she told her audience in Chicago.

Some of the problems she outlined will apply to any president - she cited research suggesting that news cycles were becoming much shorter, with the rapid rhythms associated with campaigns continuing between elections. "This forces the development of short-term marketing strategies to reassure the public and makes it very difficult to maintain long-term policies."

Talk radio is much more consistently negative and personalised than other media and relentless in its pursuit of issues.

There are also particular difficulties for Clinton. "Talk radio is driven more by Conservatives than Liberals and appeals to a niche market of middle to upper-income males who are largely college educated. They are better informed than users of other media and more likely to be politically active," Ms Owen said.

"They are also more likely to take a negative view of Clinton's policies and to see him as an ideological liberal," she added.

She said the president was right to feel concerned, although further research would be necessary to show whether these attitudes were developed as a consequence of listening to talk shows or if the shows were simply attracting those who thought that way anyway.

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