Why Isn’t There More Progressive Talk Radio?


It’s not about having a voice, it’s about being heard.

This is the fundamental truth being lost on the tribe of progressive activists in Milwaukee who bemoan the lack of opinions from other-than-conservative voices on the local airwaves.

As anyone familiar with the dynamics of radio (not to mention the history of progressive radio network Air America) knows, there is a strong symbiosis between the slant of political talk and the available audience for political talk. Both lean older, whiter, and conservative.

And it’s not just radio. After all, cable TV has a progressive alternative to conservative talk, yet MSNBC routinely gets pummeled in the ratings by Fox News.

It’s not about having a voice, it’s about being heard.It's not about having a voice, it's about being heard. Click To Tweet

And how are you heard? Well, first you need a sizable enough audience that wants to hear the message you’re conveying. and then you need that audience to want that message in the form you’re dishing it out.

While there are plenty of folks out there interested in progressive messages, there are not so many who want to hear those progressive messages on your local radio station. Why? Because the political talk radio audience is older, whiter, and conservative. This is not because the radio platforms don’t exist, it’s because the desire to hear that content on those radio platforms by a sizable audience doesn’t exist.

Milwaukee activists should skip the acquisition of a local radio station and instead focus their efforts on grassroots campaigns through all the social media platforms where that audience invests the bulk of their political attention.

Sometimes, for those with a cause, owning a radio platform is the broadcasting equivalent of a vanity license plate. It sends a message to the world even if the world doesn’t really care.

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  • Sean Waldron

    Thank you for another insightful article Mark.

    I agree that one of the lessons to be learned from the Air America experiment is that station ownership is not the answer to the lack of dominant liberal voices on radio. But I disagree that radio lacks appeal for the audience searching for center or left leaning content. I would argue that the reason liberal talk is not the powerhouse that conservative talk is stems from the presentation.

    As you point out MSNBC gets trounced by Fox News but the real home of liberal news and talk on TV has been the Daily Show and more recently John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight not MSNBC. The audience that watched Jon Stewart does not want to be preached to they want to be informed and entertained simultaneously.

    I don’t know that the Daily Show format could work on the radio. There was an experiment several years ago in my home market of Chicago trying to do just that but although the effort was noble the concept never took off. Correspondents and anchors are an expensive investment especially for an experimental format with no proven track record. So the Daily Show for radio might not be the answer but neither is a left leaning Rush.

    Thanks for reading my two cents.

  • Hi Sean,

    We are stuck in semantics, I think. I do not think that the Daily Show is at ALL the same formula as political talk. Humor is the center of TDS and humor is tangential at very best to Political Talk as radio knows it. Even Jon Stewart has emphasized that point in the past when he hosted.
    TDS is also chocked full of input: Talented writers and performers pumping out 30 minutes per day, versus the much smaller team of creators putting out 3 hours a day on Talk Radio. TDS is much more similar to the Tonight Show than to any radio talk show.
    I completely agree that there should be a radio version of TDS and I hope to hear it one day. But the difference is much more than presentation in my view.
    Still, someone should read your note and get some smart ideas….

  • I analyzed the question of why liberal talk radio hasn’t succeeded. I agree with Mark that there’s a vast difference between Stuart and Colbert’s comedy shows and talk radio. Here’s my take. http://halginsberg.com/wanted-a-funny-conservative-and-a-successful-liberal-talk-show-host/

  • Chris Terry

    I disagree, partially. I live in a place that’s probably 80% liberals. We lost our prog radio station several yrs ago and lots of people spoke up and were really mad but it didn’t help. Why, because the people who bought out the station were old, white millionaires who hate liberals and are on a mission to buy every liberal talk station in the USA and replace it with a conservative station from what I have heard anyway. Not sure it’s that cut and dry though. So where are our millionaire champions to fight against this? Seems like a totally 1 sided fight. If there were liberal talk stations in liberal areas we would certainly listen! Especially now. This article is nothing but a cop out. It’s time to fight, be mad, be worried and stop this insanity! Get the truth out. Bring back liberal radio and stop letting the conservatives walk all over us on radio! It’s not right, fair or good for the country.

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