The birth of conservative talk radio

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 29, 2010

Providence cultural center AS220 is kicking off its latest season of "Action Speaks!" roundtable discussions. The theme for this fall's chats: "What's Eating Us?," a look at the patterns of consumption that precipitated the economic crash — and may help us get out.

The series will look at the "local food" movement, our obsession with the cell phone, and the phenomenon of trash. But first up is the American consumption of words, with a focus on conservative talk radio.

"Action Speaks!" always uses an underappreciated date in history as a jumping-off point for discussion. Here it's 1926, when Father Charles Coughlin launched what amounted to the first show in the conservative talk genre.

Loughlin was a populist figure: railing against corporate excesses and calling for the nationalization of industry on the one hand, while decrying a Godless communism on the other. As the war in Europe built steam, he voiced sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against Bolshevism and veered into a nasty anti-Semitism.

The Action Speaks! conversation about Coughlin and his impact on conservative talk radio, free and open to the public, is set for October 6 from 5:30 to 7 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence. Moderated by Marc Levitt, the panel will include Susan Smulyan, professor of American Civilization at Brown University; Sheldon Marcus, author of Father Coughlin: The Tumultuous Life of the Priest of the Little Flower; and Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine.

We caught up with Harrison for a Q&A over email:

FATHER COUGHLIN IS OFTEN DEPICTED AS A CONTEMPTIBLE ANTI-SEMITE. IS THAT RIGHT, OR IS THERE A MORE COMPLEX PICTURE HERE? WHAT IS HIS LEGACY FOR TALK RADIO? Coughlin was a Hitler-sympathizing anti-Semite and thus contemptible. His views were tied into the complex political, social and economic issues of the turbulent '30s and '40s — so, obviously, a study of his place in history involves complex concepts pertaining to Capitalism, Communism, Fascism and Religion.

But he was still a contemptible anti-Semite. His legacy for talk radio is that he was one of — if not the — first non-elected public figures to use radio and a radio "show" to discuss politics and espouse strong controversial opinions, gathering a huge audience and influence in the process. It was, however, more of an academic and categorical legacy than one of particular influence on today's broadcasters, many of whom have never even heard of him . . . and none to whom I would directly compare him.

My major interest in the issues connecting Coughlin to Beck and Limbaugh are a) how they apply to the state of the First Amendment; and b) recognizing the fine line between "hate speech" and "speech people hate." The First Amendment is messy and difficult to defend. Yet without it there would be no "America" as we know and understand it.

WHY IS CONSERVATISM BETTER SUITED TO TALK RADIO THAN LIBERALISM? Today's "conservatism" and "liberalism" are not necessarily different sides of the same coin. From a radio marketing standpoint they are apples and oranges. Radio is a niche medium and conservatives are a much more distinct and targetable niche. The term "liberal" applies to a broader spectrum of targets.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: 11 Big Ideas for Rhode Island, Review: Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, Does the local food movement really work?, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Politics, Books, Radio,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   LIBERAL WARRIOR  |  April 10, 2013
    When it comes to his signature issues — climate change, campaign finance reform, tax fairness — Whitehouse makes little secret of his approach: marshal the facts, hammer the Republicans, and embarrass them into action.
    A key Brown University oversight committee has voted to recommend the school divest from coal, delivering a significant victory to student climate change activists.
  •   HACKING POLITICS: A GUIDE  |  April 03, 2013
    Last year, the Internet briefly upended everything we know about American politics.
  •   BREAK ON THROUGH  |  March 28, 2013
    When I spoke with Treasurer Gina Raimondo this week, I opened with the obligatory question about whether she'll run for governor. "I'm seriously considering it," she said. "But I think as you know — we've talked about it before — I have little kids: a six-year-old, an eight-year-old. I'm a mother. It's a big deal."
  •   THE LIBERAL CASE FOR GUNS  |  March 27, 2013
    The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut spurred hope not just for sensible gun regulation, but for a more nuanced discussion of America's gun culture. Neither wish has been realized.

 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG