Talk Radio’s America traces the format's path from apolitical roots to becoming a major conservative political outlet. It argues that hosts have emerged over the last twenty-five years as Republican party leaders. Hosts perform many traditional leadership functions, including fundraising and motivating listeners to vote, and they also use their unique platforms to aid Republicans in spreading a message and combatting crises. Hosts are not, however, traditional party bosses who choose nominees in smoke filled back rooms. Instead, they exemplify a new type of outsider party leader whose main focus is enacting a policy agenda.
While talk radio largely benefits Republicans, Talk Radio’s America also details how the medium has constrained elected Republican leaders and hindered their ability to build a big tent party by enacting an agenda with broad appeal. Hosts aim to be entertaining, authentic, and principled, and to communicate clearly and unambiguously. As such, talk radio often fits bombastic outsiders and their ideas more comfortably than deal cutters who are looking to govern. Governance typically requires compromise and nuance, especially during divided government (which existed for twenty of twenty-eight years in the talk radio era). Deal cutting, however, is tantamount to surrender in the black and white world of talk radio.
Unsurprisingly, over time hosts have become increasingly hostile towards moderate Republicans and, especially in the last decade, conservatives inclined to compromise. Because of hosts’ ability to affect primary elections, talk radio has contributed to the increasing conservatism of the Republican party, and to political polarization and gridlock.
Talk Radio’s America also explores the consequences of Democrats’ struggles with talk radio—namely even worse treatment from hosts, and a segment of the electorate that only receives a conservative message.
Additionally, Talk Radio’s America explores the ability of talk radio to prevent legislation from being enacted. Talk radio's impact on public policy and the policymaking process is sometimes quite evident, as occurred when the Senate failed to enact immigration reform legislation in 2007. Other times, however, the impact remains almost invisible because talk radio has altered the institutional culture in Congress, and/or silently influences the congressional leadership's decision making.
During the Obama years, the power of talk radio and its closely related siblings, cable news and the blogosphere, has made it almost impossible for elected Republican leaders to generate consensus within the House and Senate Republican caucuses. The result has been greater power for Democrats, a government shutdown, open warfare among Republicans, and stardom for previously obscure legislators who pass talk radio’s purity test. In fact, the medium’s ability to elevate and empower colorful outsiders has, in many ways, inverted the power structure on Capitol Hill, at times rendering governance virtually impossible.
Talk Radio’s America concludes with the election that talk radio built—the 2016 Republican primary, which in many ways served as a natural culmination of the forces unleashed by talk radio’s development into a political force. The campaign actually bitterly fractured talk radio because it presented hosts with two dream candidates. Business mogul Donald Trump embodied the ethos of talk radio—offering unvarnished, politically incorrect commentary on issues, castigating traditional politicians, trashing mainstream journalists and eschewing political convention. Ideologically, however, talk radio had pined for a candidate like Senator Ted Cruz for decades.
Additionally, the campaign revealed the new power structure within the Republican party. Hosts provided celebratory endorsements for candidates, while traditional party leaders watched Cruz and Trump trample their preferred candidates. The campaign also exposed the damage that talk radio had done to the credibility of the mainstream media, which insulated Trump and Cruz against bad press. Talk Radio’s America will trace talk radio’s impact in the wild and unpredictable campaign season all the way through election day.
Overall, in spite of apolitical roots, talk radio has emerged as a major political force over the past twenty-five years and Talk Radio’s America chronicles this development and its ramifications for the country, while correcting misperceptions in our understanding of politics and the radio business.