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From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution (27 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 27 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

Few people understand that radio’s first impact on national politics was as a tool of the liberal establishment.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to understand the potential of radio, and he exploited it ruthlessly to propagandize for his New Deal.  It was his tool for bypassing the nation’s newspapers, Rush Limbaughmost of which were conservative at that time.

This is fascinating history, given that today talk radio is overwhelmingly a conservative media.  Learn how the end of the misnamed “Fairness Doctrine” led to the talk radio format, and how by 1993 over a thousand radio stations had switched to that format – because that’s what their listeners wanted. 

The Talk Radio Revolution

Conservatives dominate talk radio to such an extent today that it’s easy to forget (if we ever knew) that radio’s first impact on national politics was as a tool of the liberal establishment.  A quick glance back in history will reinforce our observations that: one, the emergence of a new medium brings great benefits to the political faction that first recognizes that medium’s capabilities and moves decisively to utilize those capabilities; two, a key value of the new medium is its role as an alternative to the old media, a way to bypass the gatekeepers of those old media; and, three, the flirtation between entertainment and politics is no new affair.

Indeed, the first scheduled radio broadcast was on an election night, in November 1920.  Since only a mere 500 or so households had equipment to receive that first radio broadcast, its immediate impact was minimal, but it ushered in a new era.  By 1930, 45 percent of American families had a radio, and that figure continued rising to 80 percent by l940.  By then the United States had more than half of the world’s radios, and more homes had radios than had telephones.

Politics abhors a vacuum, and began filling the vacuum tubes of America’s radio receivers in the 1930s, big time.  Herbert Hoover missed the boat: He didn’t realize radio’s political potential, and he didn’t have a personality suited to exploit radio.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt did have the personality, and became America’s first “radio president.”  Radio didn’t make him president – the Great Depression did that – but it played a key role in his ability to win four terms as president.

When FDR was elected in 1932, inaugurating the New Deal, America had two radio networks.  CBS was liberal from the get-go under the leadership of William Paley.  NBC, on the other hand, had close ties with the Hoover administration.  Once FDR was elected, however, NBC did its best to outdo CBS in its fealty to the new president and the New Deal.  The result was a united front for the New Deal.

Douglas B. Craig, in his Fireside Politics, reports that “NBC broadcast over 12 hours of speeches by administration figures during Roosevelt’s first week as president but gave the Republicans no times at all…. During 1933 FDR spoke 20 times over NBC’s network, and his cabinet spoke 107 times between them.  NBC also paid Louis Howe, FDR’s closest adviser, $900 per week to give its listeners an inside view of Washington affairs, and even Eleanor Roosevelt earned $4,000 for hosting NBC broadcasts during 1934.”  And this was the more “conservative” network!

In Europe, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were ruthlessly using radio to attain and keep power.  In the United States, FDR (an early admirer of Mussolini) did not hesitate to use government power to bring the radio networks in line and keep them there.  One of his most controversial programs was the fascistic National Recovery Administration (NRA), and the radio networks’ regulator, Commissioner Harold Lafount, warned them that it was their “patriotic” duty to refuse to sell airtime to advertisers who did not abide by the NRA codes.  He added: “It is to be hoped that radio stations, using valuable facilities [their broadcast wavelength] loaned to them temporarily by the government, will not unwittingly be placed in embarrassing positions because of the greed or lack of patriotism on the part of a few unscrupulous advertisers.”  The radio stations had no difficulty interpreting the meaning of the phrase, “using valuable facilities loaned to them temporarily by the government,” and by mid-1934 the NRA alone had received some $2 million worth of free air time.

Liberals sometimes try to deflect attention from this New Deal co-opting of radio by countering: “But look at the popularity of that right-wing radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin of Detroit.”  First we should note that Coughlin was no conservative Republican, but a populist who melded together a crazy quilt of leftist and rightist views.  The attempt to make him into a conservative is part of the campaign to portray anti-Semitism, which Coughlin embraced later in his career, as a right-wing rather than socialist movement.  In reality, Coughlin viciously attacked Herbert Hoover and urged his listeners to vote for FDR in 1932.  And the Hoover administration had pressed CBS to drop his program, forcing Coughlin to broadcast on independent non-network stations from 1931 on.

Roosevelt not only was the first to recognize the political potential of radio, he understood how to utilize it to bond directly with the American people and he used it to bypass the conservative gatekeepers at the predominant, established medium of that day, the daily newspapers.  Broadcasting magazine wrote in 1939:  “Because the bulk of the dailies are predominantly anti-New Deal, it has long been an open secret in Washington that radio more and more was being relied upon to disseminate administration views.”  Radio also helped FDR bypass Congress in appealing to the public:  He gave more than 300 radio speeches and “fireside chats” during his tenure as president, while Congress was on the air only on special occasions, such as the opening or closing of each annual session.

Hollywood and the entertainment industry shamelessly backed the president on radio, just as they overwhelmingly back liberal politicians and causes today.  Dozens of top stars and entertainment figures endorsed the president and the New Deal on radio programs, among them Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, John Huston, and Claudette Colbert.

As the nation passed from the New Deal era to the second half of the century when the conservative movement was born, radio shed most of its political role – the liberal TV networks were ready to assume that responsibility – and became predominantly an entertainment medium.  A few conservative voices could be heard – commentators such as Fulton Lewis, Jr., John T. Flynn, Dean Clarence Manion, and the Rev. Carl McIntire  – but these were commentaries sponsored by business advertisers.  Conservatives never had the luxury of using the iron fist of government to get their views on radio, the way the liberals did.  These radio voices were a valuable morale booster for grassroots conservatives who felt lonely and powerless, but in the big scheme of things they were voices in the wilderness.  The liberal television networks and a press corps that was now solidly liberal maintained control over the news presented to Americans for some four decades – until radio was reborn as a political medium in 1987. 

The talk-radio explosion begins

In 1949, the heyday of socialism disguised as liberalism, the Federal Communications Commission enunciated its so-called Fairness Doctrine.  It required broadcasters to (1) give adequate coverage to issues of public importance, and (2) ensure that such coverage accurately reflects opposing views.  This became known as the “equal time” doctrine – if someone attacked you or your favorite position on air, you had the right to equal time for a rebuttal.  In 1959 the good Democratic and Republican members of Congress passed legislation stipulating that this doctrine didn’t apply to coverage of political conventions.  Broadcasters could cover the Democratic and Republican conventions without giving equal time to third-party conventions.  Equal time, it seemed, had its limitations after all.

The whole doctrine was a statist concoction.  It was based on the unarguable premise that the radio spectrum is a scarce resource, but then everything of value is a scarce resource.  In America we ration scarce resources by putting a price on it – selling the resource in a free market.  In socialist countries the government allocates the resources.  The FCC opted for the socialist approach.

The Fairness Doctrine also made second-class citizens of broadcasters compared to their printing cousins when it came to the free speech protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  No less a liberal than CBS-TV’s Dan Rather testified before the FCC in 1985: 

When I was a young reporter, I worked briefly for wire services, small radio stations, and newspapers, and I finally settled into a job at a large radio station owned by the Houston Chronicle.  Almost immediately on starting work in that station’s newsroom, I became aware of a concern which I had previously barely known existed – the FCC.  The journalists at the Chronicle did not worry about it; those at the radio station did…. Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.

Stations faced four threats if they did something deemed “unfair” by the government bureaucrats: (1) outright revocation of their license; (2) non-renewal of their license; (3) a license challenge at renewal time by a complainant; and (4) the chilling financial costs of defending themselves before the government.  The results were exactly what people of common sense – i.e., people not in Congress or the bureaucracy – would have predicted.  The Fairness Doctrine, invoked supposedly to protect and foster free speech, instead stifled free speech.  Rather than run the risk of those four threats, most stations opted to have no commentary on public issues at all, or only the blandest commentary possible.

By the 1980s the ideological tide was turning away from socialism and state planning, in favor of freedom and free markets.  Ronald Reagan reigned in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in England.  In 1985 the FCC decided that the Fairness Doctrine invoked obsolete notions of spectrum scarcity, chilled free speech, and violated the First Amendment.  The FCC declined to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, however, because it was unclear (for legal reasons we don’t have to go into here) whether the Fairness Doctrine was law or regulation at that point.  The FCC asked Congress or the courts to act.

The following year the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Fairness Doctrine was not law, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.  In 1987 the FCC then abolished the Fairness Doctrine, the Democratic majority in Congress passed legislation to make the Fairness Doctrine law, President Reagan vetoed the legislation, and the bid to override his veto failed. 

The Fairness Doctrine was now history, and radio stations could air controversial commentaries without fear of being run out of business.  The modern era of talk radio began and grew with an explosive force.  In 1993, with a Democrat in the White House, the Democrats thought they had a chance to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. As the Wall Street Journal put it:  “Members of Congress just don’t like the wide interest in public policy matter that talk radio generates.”  But they were too late.  In a brief six years, over a thousand radio stations had switched to a talk-radio format – because that’s what their listeners wanted.  Talk hosts picked up the fight and won, swamping Congress with angry messages from listeners who also happened to be voters.


America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  20. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  21. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  22. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  23. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  24. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  25. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  26. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
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My take

Yes, radio was a powerful medium, but today just from what I see and hear. it goes 1. tv, 2. newsletters (maybe they should be number 1., but not many have the patience to read a long article), 3. the internet, 4. IT programs like a ham or cb radio, then 5. radio. Certainly not the msm, they wouldn't tell you the truth if their lives depended on it. The odd thing is their lives do. For any who studied history or know medicine, what they call "sanctuary cities" are the perfect breeding grounds for another black plague. They already have Agenda 21 and the UN has its own version in play. You'll see the UN's take shape in Africa. The nwo wants to kill off billions, they cannot govern that many and fear a revolt with good reason, but I'll leave that one alone. My fighting force has it classified so I would guess other militias do also.