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Conservative Dominance of Political Talk Radio

- February 16, 2008

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Tune in to a political talk radio show these days and what are you likely to hear? Probably a conservative host lambasting the left (or, for that matter, excoriating John McCain). A 2007 report by the Center for American Progress and Free Press documented the conservative dominance of political talk radio.

First a clarification: The political leaning of the researchers obviously tilts leftward (the Center for American Progress bills itself as a “progressive think tank”), but their methodology was so straightforward and transparent that one can judge for oneself the extent to which this could have mattered. (See below for one response from conservative critics of the report.) What they did was (1) classify the various talk show hosts as either “conservative” or “progressive” (placing, for example, Bill Bennett, G. Gordon Liddy, and Rush Limbaugh in the former category and Air America, Bill Press, and Al Sharpton, among others, in the latter); and (2) second, record the amount of airplay that each side got on the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners during May of 2007. Here are some of their findings:

* 91% of the programming (2,570 hours per weekday) was hosted by the conservatives, 9% (254 hours) by the progressives.

* 92% of the stations (236 of the 257) broadast no progressive talk radio programming at all.

* Broken down according to station ownership, the numbers are as follows: Clear Channel (145 stations): 86% conservative. Citadel (23 stations): 100% conservative. Cumulus (31 stations): 100% conservative. Salem (28 stations): 100% conservative. CBS (30 stations): 74%. One owner, CBS, stands out from the rest politically, but still shows a 3:1 conservative-to-progressive ratio.

* In some markets (most notably, New York and Chicago), the ratio is close to 1:1. In others (Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, it’s 100% conservative or very close to it.)

To the best of my knowledge, the primary concern that has been publicly voiced about these data is that because they pertain exclusively to the five largest commercial station owners, they don’t take into account content from other radio providers, e.g., universities and public stations, which do provide outlets for liberal viewpoints. That is not to say that the figures in the report are “wrong,” but rather that they don’t provide a full accounting of what one can hear on the radio.

In any event, what does the report portray as the sources of the tilt in the political coverage offered by the largest radio congomerates? Here the authors of the report move from matter-of-fact data recitation into the realm of interpretation. They consider but reject two explanations: that it is a consequence of the “repeal” of the Fairness Doctrine and that it merely reflects the demands of the marketplace. Much more important, they argue, has been the changing economics of radio station ownership. The keys to the current situation, in their view, have been the removal a decade ago of the national limit on the number of stations a company could own, which enabled a few large, conservative-oriented companies to dominate the field, and the easing of license renewal requirements that had enabled the FCC to determine whether broadcasters were upholding their public interest responsibilities.

What one makes of what the researchers call the “structural imbalance of political talk radio” is likely to depend on where one stands politically. But the data compiled for this report provide a much stronger empirical base for considerations of this volatile set of issues. These data do, as critics have noted, need to be supplemented by data on the content of other sources of political commentary, which, one hopes, may soon be forthcoming — this time perhaps in a report undertaken by a conservative think tank.

For a copy of the full report, click here.