The right loves to rant against the "liberal-media elite," but there's one key media sector where the conservative id reigns supreme: talk radio. It's a format long marked by an abundance of influential red-staters (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity) and precious few blue voices of comparable potency — an imbalance exacerbated when Air America folded last week. And this disparity could pose big problems for the Democrats in the 2010 elections, in which Republicans hope to emulate Scott Brown's recent Senate triumph.
Talk radio was huge for Brown. Yes, the dearth of exit polling in the Brown-Martha Coakley contest makes it hard to quantify its exact impact. But if you listened to Boston talk radio during the race — commercial talk, as opposed to the sedate stylings of NPR affiliates WBUR and WGBH — you know that this segment of the airwaves was, overwhelmingly, Brown country: a source of hope and good cheer when things looked grim, and a high-volume ally as the Brown juggernaut headed down the home stretch.
Consider, for example, the love lavished on Brown by WEEI, the sports-radio powerhouse that doubles as a source of conservative commentary. On primary day, Gerry Callahan, half of the duo behind its morning drive-time Dennis & Callahan, tossed Brown this softball: "Does it make any sense to you that people follow this far-left agenda, and want another far-left loon like [Senator John] Kerry, like [Congressman Barney] Frank, like [Congressman Edward] Markey, like the rest of them?" And shortly before the election, Glenn Ordway, host of the afternoon drive-time Big Show, and three Big Show associates (Pete Sheppard and former New England Patriots Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie) appeared in a video in which they gushingly endorsed the Republican. (Brown "believes in a country that's sovereign," Smerlas explained, sort of.)
The question now is: is there any way for other liberals to avoid the sort of total talk-radio drubbing that Coakley suffered? It's unlikely that any Democrat will win the messaging battle there outright. But with talk radio and the GOP poised to collaboratively whip the nation into an aggrieved-populist frenzy, liberals need to be thinking about how to play effective defense. And Coakley's loss offers some clues.
Phoning it in
Amid Boston talk's unceasing pro-Brown drumbeat, Jim & Margery, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan's morning drive-time show on WTKK, was an anomaly: a broadcast that seemed more sympathetic to Coakley than her opponent. Even so, says Braude, Brown called in repeatedly out of the blue, just to say hello (and, presumably, to get some free exposure). This was Brown's strategy with a number of talk stations — and the antithesis of Coakley's aloof approach. (Among other things, she apparently spurned Dennis & Callahan.)
Harkening back to Braude's earlier career as a champion of liberal ballot initiatives, he claims the lesson is simple. "Democrats should start dialing," he says. "Most if not all conservative talk-show hosts are paper tigers. It's also hard for any human to completely eviscerate someone who talks to them, and most talk-show hosts are human. And in my experience, after I called a show, I'd get e-mails saying, 'You know, I hate everything you stand for — but I gotta give you credit for having the courage to come on.'