A One Word Business Model: Entertainment

Jonathan Ladd wrote a recent post for Mischiefs of Faction on different business models for news gathering. After receiving feedback, Ladd added the following as part of an addendum:

Second, several people asked me how Fox News and conservative talk radio fit into this. That is a good question. It is another type of bundling that I didn't mention: bundling political information with inducements to outrage and ideological solidarity. There certainly is political information provided by these media. But the new information takes up a small percentage of the broadcasts. They way these programs are made entertaining is, as Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj describe in their book The Outrage Industry, by discussing and getting outraged about the news, and mad at ideological opponents. Ideological cheerleading can be quite entertaining, and is another way to subsidize news coverage.

I wanted to expand somewhat on Ladd's depiction and to reframe it in a way that I think is more reflective of the talk radio business. 

The goal of talk radio is entertainment. Politics can be a vehicle for entertaining listeners, just like sports can be that vehicle on sports talk radio. But it is merely a vehicle. Talk radio hosts, unlike journalists, don't set out every morning to inform their listeners. At least not as their primary goal. They wake up every morning trying to produce the most entertaining and riveting radio program possible. Conveying information happens as part of entertaining.

Berry and Sobieraj offer one method for providing entertainment—outrage or outrageous content. They broadly define the term to include sarcasm and other forms of mockery. 

I would, however, argue that talk radio's content is broader than simply outrage. Conservative talk radio provides an electronic corner bar in a conservative neighborhood. The host is the guy who has everyone in stitches laughing, or who has everyone nodding their heads as he sermonizes about the news of the day. Outrage might be one element of that content. But it is only one element. 

The best talk radio pushes boundaries and is fast paced, absurd, zany, and lots of fun. You never know what the host might say next. It includes parodies, music, sound effects, humorous nicknames, random musings, discussion of apolitical topics, and even conversation about the host's life. Locally based hosts also talk about relevant events or debates in a community.

A host might go from discussing Hillary Clinton's email usage to talking about the propriety of red light cameras or publicly funded stadiums. In the next hour, he or she might lead a discussion on how to best deal with pesky bugs or the proper temperature for cooking a steak before going back to politics. 

My research shows that talk radio pioneered a model that has subsequently been adopted by the blogosphere and cable news for a conservative, entertainment driven product. What are the key elements of this model?

Hosts challenge mainstream news reporting, often turning the media into a target for derision. They point out cases where the media looks stupid, makes mistakes, or appears to be hopelessly biased. They also cover stories that are important to conservatives, but might be ignored by mainstream outlets that don't consider them to be newsworthy.

Talk radio and cable news also provide a place where conservatives can see their views triumph in debates. Debates make for great radio or TV. They can be exciting and full of tension. But the debates on talk radio and cable news aren't designed to be fair (or balanced).

For example, the Fox News program, "The Five," typically features four conservative panelists of varying stripes and one liberal. The deck is stacked in favor of the conservatives. Similarly, on talk radio, a conservative host might have a liberal guest, but after 10 minutes the guest will be gone, and the host can keep talking about what he or she said. In this way, talk radio is soap opera with heroes and villains and listeners can tune in each day to see their champions vanquish evil. 

One common misperception is that talk radio only talks about politics. In reality, hosts discuss whatever people might be discussing at the office water cooler that day. Sometimes that is politics, and sometimes it isn't. What differs about talk radio is that, like at a conservative dinner table, conservative values and sensibilities guide the discussion of even apolitical topics. 

Each host has a unique style. Some are street brawlers. The late New York star Bob Grant used to delight listeners by bellowing at callers to get off his phone. In his early days, Rush Limbaugh used nicknames, parodies, topical updates (which had humorous theme music), and absurdity to entertain listeners. Other hosts hang their hats on being good interviewers. 

Each host also has unique interests outside of politics. Mike Gallagher frequently acts in theater productions. Limbaugh loves football and frequently discusses the NFL. Michael Medved used to be a movie critic, and thus regularly talks about movies. 

But for each host, the business model is the same—provide the most entertaining product in order to get the most listeners who tune in for the longest possible time. These are the keys to charging high advertising rates and selling advertising loads. 

While people can become better informed from listening to talk radio, it is not an informational venue in the same way that the nightly news or a newspaper is.