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Paul Kengor / Oct. 14, 2014

The Collective Suicide of Conservative Talk-Radio

Conservative talk-radio is hurting. Liberals are gleefully circling the wagons, celebrating their adversary’s imminent demise, even as conservative talk-radio remains far more popular than liberal talk-radio.

Liberals think they know the reason for the decline: they believe that conservatism is on the decline, and that conservatives are so dispirited with the nation’s leftward drift that they’ve literally tuned out. Though there’s a smidgen of truth to that, it isn’t the answer. In truth, the real culprit might make liberals even happier; it will fuel the class envy they thrive upon.

Conservative talk-radio is in peril because of conservative greed – and not because of the greed of the millions of conservative faithful who’ve lent their hearts and minds and ears.

It’s no secret what’s happening. There’s simply too much advertising on conservative talk-radio. Year after year, it gets worse. Anytime I tune in, I land on a litany of commercials. Commercials, commercials, commercials. Yes, you need advertising to pay the bills, but this is way over-the-top. It’s unlistenable.

Consider one of the top shows in the nation in the 3-6 p.m. slot, which I’ll leave nameless. I used to listen daily. Now, I occasionally check in around 5:08, when the host finally starts the hour. He provides about 14 minutes of content before going to a long break that doesn’t bring him back until about 5:27. At that point, he typically says something like, “Okay, when we come back….” He leaves for another marathon of advertisements (and some news) that doesn’t end until around 5:37. The cycle repeats through the show’s end.

There can’t be more than 33 minutes of actual program per hour. It’s obscene. Why would anyone listen to this?

I recall a conversation that I had a few years back with the late Fred Honsberger, a longtime leading talk-show host in Pittsburgh. I hadn’t done his talk-show on the great KDKA in a while. I asked how it was going. “They fill the show with junk!” he shouted at me. “People tune out! Then I get blamed for the lack of listeners!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Fred that I was one of the people who had tuned out. Too much junk.

This begs the question: Why so much junk? To pay the costs, of course. But more specifically, to pay the gigantic, unsustainable fees these shows demand.

Alas, this hits home for conservatives in my local marketplace. Here, the great mega-talker in Pittsburgh, 104.7 FM, WPGB, suddenly and shockingly folded. Imagine: the station that long carried Rush, Hannity, Glenn Beck, and others one day simply pulled the plug on these conservative icons.

I know the station extremely well. I’ve been a guest on practically every show. I’ve guest-hosted on the station. One industry insider gave me a hint as to what happened at 104.7, and it’s the same thing happening at other stations around the country. He told me: “Clear Channel is eliminating the talk format on WPGB and flipping it to a country music format. Limbaugh and Hannity are being moved over to [another station with a much lower signal] …. I spoke with a media executive who is familiar with Limbaugh’s contract. In a market the size of Pittsburgh Limbaugh receives a monthly talent fee of $35,000.”

Wow. That’s over $400,000 per year just for Rush Limbaugh, at one station in Pittsburgh! And that’s merely Rush. That’s unaffordable. Can’t these conservatives cut costs, as they demand of big-government liberals?

Of course, it’s a free market. Rush and other hosts are free to earn whatever they receive. But also because it’s a free market, their stations and listeners are free to bolt. What surprises me is the degree to which some conservative hosts are willing to let their stations and listeners bolt, even as they rake in piles of money. I’m especially surprised at how these hosts are willing to allow their excellent product to be diluted and damaged by an intolerable stream of annoying advertisements.

It seems to me that these conservative hosts – champions of the free market – are not listening to the free market. In my local market, Rush and Hannity and Glenn Beck have lost a 50,000-watt blow-torch in favor of a vastly inferior 7,000-watt signal that will be heard by far fewer listeners.

I won’t begrudge Rush and other hosts their added fortunes, but at what cost? And how do their loyal stations find that money? Answer: advertising, advertising, and advertising. In short, by advertising so much that listeners can’t stand it anymore and (in some cases) the station folds and starts playing country music. And when that happens, the lights go out on conservative talk-radio.

We may be watching a collective conservative suicide on talk-radio. No wonder liberals are happy.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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