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.

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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.

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