Who Needs Air America When We Have NPR?

Rush Limbaugh used to say that there was no need for a liberal alternative to him because he was the alternative to the mainstream liberal media. Commenting on the impending bankrupcy of Air America, Jonah Goldberg agrees, observing,

Conservative talk radio met a demand in the market that wasn’t being satisfied. That’s why copy-catting the right is such folly for liberals across a wide range of fronts. They don’t understand that they already control universities, for example. But they see conservative success with think tanks, so now they’re investing in think tanks.

Ezra Klein concurs, noting, “The liberal radio market was actually quite crowded, mainly due to the overwhelming popularity of NPR.” Klein updates his post with the disclaimer “I don’t believe that NPR is liberal, I believe liberals listen to NPR” but the two go hand-in-hand.

NPR isn’t the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, to be sure. Indeed, my clock radio wakes me up to NPR every morning and I frequently listen in the car. Still, on a variety of social issues, NPR simply presumes that its listeners hold a very liberal worldview. From gay marriage to abortion to gun control to environmental regulation to foreign policy, the progressive orthodoxy is accepted as entirely noncontroversial.

Similarly, while the fact that the elite universities are disproportionately progressive is not quite comparable to the more rigidly ideological views of Cato or Heritage, Goldberg is right that the latter arose in response to their views being given short shrift in the former. Ditto, Fox News, the Washington Times, and other mostly conservative media outlets.

The bottom line is that Limbaugh, Fox News, and others filled chasms rather than niches. There were oceans of people in the Heartland that simply felt ignored by the old media.

The reverse phenomenon, by the way, explains why the Angry Left dominates the political blogosphere, despite it essentially being invented by the moderate Right. While the, as one of Klein’s commenters put it, “Cokie Roberts/Conventional Wisdom view of US politics” is still available in abundance, there was nowhere that the people who were genuinely angry about the 2000 election and what they perceived as the tyranny of the Religious Right to turn to get their views echoed forcefully. No conservative DailyKos will emerge until and unless the Left comes to dominate American politics.

Ironically, though, the existence of DailyKos and its progeny probably helps explain why Air America has done so poorly. Radio is much less communitarian than the blogosphere, since interaction requires getting past busy signals and being put on hold for long periods of time. And, frankly, anger works better in print than on radio, Michael Savage notwithstanding.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DaveD says:

    “elite universities are disproportionately progressive”? What does progressive mean in this context? I think rigid ideology is well entrenched in many (including elite) universities. I think the entrenched ideology is just different than that at Cato/Heritage.

  2. Fersboo says:

    …as the tyranny of the Religious Right…

    You seem to have a problem lately.

  3. Bithead says:

    Yes, I tend to agree… NPR did in Err America.

  4. Tano says:

    There is plenty of anger in the rightwing blogosphere – and I think it is more intense, bitter, and hateful – e.g. LGF, Malkin etc. While there is some of that at Kos, I think the attraction of the site is more the community-spirit than anything else.

    The right has long nurtured an “outrage industry”, in which political energy is stoked by incssantly dredging up and presenting convenient targets for the masses to mock, ridicule and hate. The left does that, to a lesser extent, but it is focused on actual power-wielders, and actual policies that are causing actual harm. No “dredging-up” is required.

    The underlying dynamics are fundamentally different. The right, by its nature, is a movement that promotes the interests of wealthy and powerful elites, and so popular mobilization must, of necessity, be driven by top-down incitement. The elites have a very clear vision of their interests, and thus a coherent ideology that can easily be sound-bited. Radio, books, and other non-interactive media are ideal tools for this. Blogs can play a role in stoking the mob mentality, but they are a derivative portion of the overall movement.

    The left-sphere is more of a grassroots-driven forum, much like our ideal notions of a democratic process. The message is not clear, because you have individuals and groups in the process of negotiating with eachother for attention and influence. Community is more important than clarity of vision. Radio, like Air America, is not a great vehicle for such a movement precisely because it necessarily has authoritarian overtones. Even with call-in shows, the agenda is clearly driven by the host and the dynamic is one that obviously is geared toward being stoked up into a mob consensus. That is just not the way liberals tend to operate.

    In brief, the right is focused on disseminating talking-points, the left is focused on developing them, from the ground up.

    Liberals crave information about reality, because the liberal mindset is one that seeks actual understanding of the complexities of the world, rather than easy soundbite answers that quickly dispel the discomfort of uncertainty. Liberals seek out media like the NYT or NPR because they offer information – some supporting out preconceptions, some challenging it. and some that none of us really know what to do with.

    This, I think, is the real “liberal bias” in that kind of media. It is liberal because it doesnt ignore realities that are challenging. The appeal of a FoxNews or other such blatently rightwing media is not that they are presenting an alternative perspective, on the ideological spectrum, but that they are presenting a more coherent, more simplistic, less challenging view of reality. One that works for people who are more interested in easy answers than wrestling with a complex reality.

  5. floyd says:

    tano; what tangent universe are YOU from? every paragragh appears contrary to the obvious truth.

  6. Three points…

    Many Liberals, unlike most Conservatives, actually enjoy or are just curious to hear the Hate Radio morons. I’ll confess. I do it too. We are actually curious to know what the “other side” thinks, does and says, and sometimes it’s just fun to listen to the ranting and idiocy. Besides, it gets your blood up. It’s like professional wrestling. Unfortunately, Liberal talk can just make you depressed. That’s why the most popular Liberal talkers tend to do a lot less news and politics and just have fun – and it’s they who get the bigger audiences. And so, as most Conservatives disdain listening to oppositional arguments, or trying anything new, or accepting anything at odds with there world view, it would stand to reason that Liberal talk radio will be at a loss for the broader audience of Conservative talk radio. This is common knowledge and common sense, and most liberals know it. Conservatives will tell you that the audience numbers are a measure of the message of Conservative talk radio, while it is the very lambaste and insanity of it that lures Liberal listeners.

    It could just be that the demographics of AM radio listeners are such that there simply isn’t enough audience for a big, national, Liberal talk/”news,” commercial radio syndicate. Liberals, preferring a little more maturity and responsibility in our real news talk, have had Pacifica and NPR for years now, and they’re doing just fine. They are not commercial, which we like, as most Liberals, and certainly myself included, really, really, really hate commercials. So yes, they won’t make the money of their commercial competitors, but they’re still far, far, far better as far as Liberals are concerned. Also, commercials obviously mean a quid pro quo as far as the content goes. Would you buy a car based on what a radio host tells you right after he’s done playing a commercial for that car? This is why Liberals buy their cars after reading non-commercial Consumer Reports, and Conservatives go with the likes of Car & Driver. Righties will tell you that the lack of commercial success is a measure of the failure of Liberal fare, while it’s the very commerciality of most talk radio that precludes Liberal talk and audiences.

    But then, it may well be that Air America itself is the problem. Conservative talk radio has been around for a long time, slowly building its audiences, slowly developing its shtick. Air America toggled unto the cultural scene with a full-blown national network where none had been before and fared untested products into deeply entrenched demographics. Fox didn’t become popular overnight. They lagged behind the Big Three for years before they finally built up a durable audience. And Fox had massive, international News Corporation, starring Rupert Murdoch, behind them. Air America was slapped together by a bunch of like-minded comedians and ex-pols. There are plenty of Liberal talk hosts out there in niche markets all over America. Some are popular over broader networks. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are giants on the tube. And the country seems to be moving back to the Left these days anyway. Perhaps talk radio just can’t sustain an Air America right now, or even ever. Conservatives will tell you that Liberal talk is wrong and so therefore it fails, while Conservatism itself utterly fails right before our very eyes.

    We Liberals don’t need to be told all this. We already know what to think for ourselves.


  7. floyd says:

    jerry; you’re right about one thing, NPR belongs to liberals. like everything else they have, they took it at gunpoint from the taxpayers. liberals always like to put YOUR money where THEIR mouth is.

  8. Michael Chance says:

    It’s really funny to read Tano’s and Jersey McJones’ view of the world from the left. Especially since, last I’d heard, it had been years (decades, really) since a right-wing group shouted over a prominent left-wing speaker at a public forum badly enough to cause the event to be cancelled, or physically assaulted a left-wing speaker at a public event, or kept out a left-wing speaker or group from an event purely because of the content of their message. We’ve had a number of examples, though, of left-wing groups engaging in exactly these kinds of suppression of free speech over just the last couple of months.

    The major voices and groups on the political right are more than willing to engage in reasoned debate with similar voices and groups on the left, precisely because most of the left’s arguments have been shown to be discredited in the last couple of decades, and, for the right, it’s just another opportunity to point that out. The political left, however, seems more and more afraid that their constiuents might hear persuasive arguments from the right side of the political spectrum, and realize that the emperor has no clothes, and so seems to be trying their best to shut down any voices not “politically correct” (much like the old socialist totalitarian states).

    The biggest reason why Air America is failing? It just isn’t entertaining to hear hour after hour of whining about Rovian conspiracy theories, how they were robbed of the 2000 election, and how any could possibly vote Republican when the left-wing elite is so clearly intellectually superior. NPR, at least, has Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion, and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”.

  9. Tano says:

    Wow Micheal, Your comment is just such a classic in the RW propaganda style. Find isolated instances of the left’s bad behavior (in this case, some college kids), ignore the sytematic, organized efforts along the same lines by your side, and then claim that up is down, black is white.

    Shouting down a speaker is not cool. What about organizing to prevent someone from getting a job (Cole at Yale), or getting them fired for unpopular speech (Churchill, the “truthers”). or from not being able to give a speech at all (Walt and Mearshiemer). Here is a link to an article that at least tries to be somewhat even handed.

    Righties liked to pretend that they were all for free speech when they had the political winds at their backs, and could afford to let others speak their mind. Of course, the question of who “wins” a debate is always in the minds of the listeners, and if your party is in power, you can always claim that you are “winning the debate” irrespective of what is actually said. Now with the right in terminal decline, their commitment to free speech is facing a bit of a challenge. The rise of people like Horowitz are indications that the commitment is highly contigent.

  10. civilbehavior says:

    Hmm, couldn’t possibly be that it is a symptom of a greater problem called the dumbing down of America. After all the talking I’ve done to tons of groups of American citizens over the past 35 years I can guarantee one thing….people are not asking the right questions or listening to the educational channels.

    The Enquirer/People magazine syndrome is rampant. Why else would Limpbaugh, Hannity and O’Reilly have an audience?

  11. serr8d says:

    So the ‘Despair’ is going out at ‘Air America’?

    I can’t figure out why; there’s a market for radio punditry. Rush Limbaugh is still going strong after 20 plus years on the air. I remember his first broadcast in Nashville, in ’88 I think. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing…Comedic Commentary with an Edge! The update themes he used for various skits…hilarious. Even if you don’t care for him, he revolutionized, and saved, AM radio and pushed the limits of modern political punditry, long before blogs and instant news.

    I still occasionally tune in Rush. But I would rather listen to Glenn Beck, who is funny, and is more centered. Glenn will smack down either R or D, if they need it. And both do!

    But I won’t miss the ‘Air’ despair…

  12. LaurenceB says:

    As an independent who seems to lean more and more left, I couldn’t be more flattered to hear that I am represented by NPR, while Conservatives are represented by Rush Limbaugh. If that is true, then no sane person should ever argue again that Conservatives and Liberals are intellectual equals. Liberals have clearly won that contest.

  13. spencer says:

    I do not think it is so much that NPR assumes its listeners are liberals as it assumes they are informed, rational individuals.

    I can not listen to right wing talk radio for more then just a few minutes before the sheer stupidity drives me away.

    If you actually listen to someone like Rush Limbaugh for 30 minutes you see that everything he actually has to say could have been covered in about 30 seconds and the other 29 minutes and 30 seconds is a complete waste of time.

  14. Chloe says:

    It would be great to have more stations not to be owned by the christian right or the right in general.
    Murdock anyone????
    How many shows are geared to the koolaide drinking right?
    Bill O’Reilly – harrassed a female producer
    Rush Limbaugh – drug addicted
    Oliver North etc.
    almost every show on the cable news network is slanted towards the right wingers!!!!

    I was watching CSPAN and the right would sell their own families to vote for a republican.
    It use to be faith then family. Now their priorities are:
    Republican party
    and they don’t even do what best for their families or their future.
    Just amazing that they drank so much koolaide they’d sell out their families to vote for a party who has done nothing for them but pretnend to handle their needs!

  15. Bandit says:

    Liberals crave information about reality, because the liberal mindset is one that seeks actual understanding of the complexities of the world, rather than easy soundbite answers that quickly dispel the discomfort of uncertainty.

    no sane person should ever argue again that Conservatives and Liberals are intellectual equals. Liberals have clearly won that contest.

    I can not listen to right wing talk radio for more then just a few minutes before the sheer stupidity drives me away.

    You can’t possibly parody the narcissism of the left.

  16. floyd says:

    laurence; only the left thinks intellectualism is a contest[lol]