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Talk Radio: Is it Safe to be Unpopular?

And the furor over Rushgate goes on…

Piping in from the perspective of Talk Radio talent was Tampa Bay’s Mark Larsen, who wrote this to NTS Media Online’s Al Peterson:

It’s the Internet — it has changed everything. It used to be only the immediate listening audience at the time of an ‘offense’ by a host responded to the incident — usually by calling the show or writing a snail-mail letter to the manager. If the immediate audience was amiable to the host, it was like a tree falling in the forest and no one cared. But with the Internet, incidents get Tweeted, YouTube’d, played and replayed ad nauseum. Incidents go viral and never evaporate. And folks who have never even heard of a particular host or show come running with torches and pitchforks and threaten sponsors. We even post podcasts of previous shows on our station websites so that a watchdog group need not even ‘roll tape’ on an adversary. Lastly, the country, as a whole, is as thin-skinned as I’ve ever seen. I can tell you that I am certainly not the same Talk jockey I was in the 80′s — and even since the last election. But most of my listeners haven’t noticed, because everything has evolved. That’s the key. Keep your principals, but evolve — or become a dinosaur.

I don’t think the country has become thin-skinned, but the country has certainly become empowered. With tyrants toppling all over the Middle East and Africa thanks in no small part to people-powered social media, it should come as no surprise that crowd-power can be turned on any message or any messenger at any time the crowd wishes.

As Mark writes, once upon a time the news cycle would carry old news away like rain down a drain with few but the most attentive even noticing.  But today, mass attention is sparked easily by the salacious and the outrageous.  And once sparked, social media people-power can fan the flames until fatigue sets in or heads roll, whichever comes first.

While it used to be challenging to organize effectively enough to force advertisers off a radio show weeks after the original sin, nowadays it’s easy. Even if the offended persons never were or would be listeners to the show that created the original offense.  Even if the shows that would be affected by such an advertiser boycott have completely clean hands in the matter and are guilty of nothing more than sharing the same airwaves as Mr. Limbaugh.

Social media and people-power work both ways of course.  One would think that the same social tsunami that came down on Rush for his crime could be summoned to protect the notion that, while certain statements are wrong and dumb, speech which doesn’t infringe on the rights of others is still free.

But perhaps not in a world where Rush himself discovers Twitter only last week.  Social media can be your friend, but only if your friends understand and use it.

Meanwhile, over on satellite radio, Howard Stern and Dr. Laura are all smiles. Been there, done that, took the door with the big EXIT sign overhead.  Is that what we want once again and forever?

Back in 1952, Adlai Stevenson once provided his definition of a free society: “[It is] a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

It’s still safe to be unpopular, but it’s not safe to underestimate the audience, now empowered and firmly in charge.

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