A More Personal Medium
Anyone who's a regular listener of talk radio knows something that most people who aren't probably don't fully appreciate as much as they should. Unlike television, where there's almost always an impenetrable barrier between presenter and audience, talk radio is a far more personal medium, and therefore more likely than television to have a significant impact on the average person's psyche and outlook on life.
When I've heard people both inside and outside of the LGBT community complain about influence of well-known media figures like Limbaugh on popular opinion, I've always come back with the same basic response: Influential media figures and opinion-makers, no matter what kind of rhetoric they espouse or political ideology they promote, the audience they speak to, or the media they work in, don't just spring up magically from nowhere and insert themselves into the public discourse.
That right must be earned, not only by hard work to become skilled enough at what they do to draw interest and credibility, but also by being willing to put themselves out there as opinion leaders, by having both the insight and the courage to say what the average person is thinking but doesn't have the courage or willingness to say it out loud themselves.
Many of the best pundits, in fact the vast majority of those who have become stars on television, got their start in radio. Personally, I don't believe this is at all a coincidence, but rather underscores the importance of talk radio as a medium to engage and influence audiences. At its most basic, the difference between television and radio punditry is in many ways the difference between talking to an audience and talking with one, but there's also more to it as well.
Most of us will never have the opportunity to get into it with Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, or Bill O'Reilly directly if they say something we find worthy of comment or debate, but your local or community radio talk show is another story entirely. When a radio host gives out his or her call-in number, at least some listeners can and usually will call in and interact with the host directly.
Not only does that give the caller a sense of importance and engagement by actually becoming part of the show, perhaps even a springboard for further discussion once their own call is over, but those listeners who don't pick up the phone hear people like themselves engaging the host on their own terms and feel more a part of the show themselves, often inspiring strong feelings of ownership, community belonging, and loyality to the show, the host, and in large part, the ideas and perspectives presented.
Anyone working in media in any capacity knows that localism sells, but being local isn't only about geographic location. It's also about localism of thought, be it political ideology, common experiences such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender variance and identity, or any other social or political label people tend to unite behind. Those who are best at uniting like-minded thinkers under their own banners will be those who will have the greatest success as pundits in drawing loyal listeners and therefore as shapers of public opinion, and, as a result, the greatest popularity and financial success in commercial media.
The real question which any aspiring pundit seeking mainstream success must ask, of course, is how to get there, and the answer can be different for each depending on the medium, the subject matter, the time of day their show is on, and, most importantly, the audience. Rush Limbaugh doesn't speak to the same audience as Rachel Maddow, Olbermann's audience isn't identical to Maddow's or LImbaugh's to Sean Hannity's. All of these people, as with anyone who takes on such a role, have differences in how they present the topics they speak about and their opinions on those topics to their audiences.
Commercial Media Is a Business
Aside from having not only the competency to do it well but also the good fortune of being given the opportunity to practice their craft before the largest possible audience, any and every popular and successful commercial media spokesperson of any stripe also has one other critically important skill upon which their success will eventually depend, no matter how competent they are in their subject matter or who they're speaking to: they're entertaining to watch, read, and listen to.
When you're someone like me, a person who does not reflect the face which is currently available in mainstream opinion media programming and you decide to attempt to make a career in that field, you quickly discover something that, once understood becomes the bridge between dedicated follower, participant, and lover of the medium to a potentially serious candidate to work professionally in that field. Simply put, it's the understanding that commercial media is a business.
Commercial media does not exist to give anyone an opportunity to speak their mind, to promote a certain social or political viewpoint, or even to serve the public. Commercial media is a sellable commodity like any other, and it's there to make money, to keep you entertained enough to keep paying attention until the next commercial break.
In the end, neither your local radio station nor the major networks really care if you've got something important to say, they care that you're going to able to keep people tuned in to their stations long enough and consistently enough to justify the advertising rates they charge their sponsors. To truly be successful as a pundit in commercial media, you've not only got to be damn good at what you do in terms of knowing what you're talking about, you also have to be equally adept at keeping asses in their seats.
This, of course, is not an easy thing to do, otherwise everyone would be doing it. In addition, it's only part of the equation for a successful commercial media career. Commercial media, and particularly commercial radio, is notorious for refusing to take risks, try new things, or veer too sharply away from that which has already been tried and done successfully before.
Those of us who are currently trying to build an audience for our shows without the benefit of the resources and audience draw of commercial media in the hopes of landing a paying commercial gig one day can't simply depend on our talent and communications skills to ensure success, no matter how gifted we might be at either. We need to be more than just talkers, more than just competent, more than just well-informed and in tune with the audiences we speak to. To be truly successful in this field, we also need to be entertaining.
Yes, Michael Steele is right (believe it or not). Rush Limbaugh most certainly is an entertainer, as are Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and anyone else who goes before a camera or a microphone and tells you what they think, even me. All of us know and understand that if you can't get people to pay attention to you in the first place, what you have to say doesn't really matter because no one's listening.
What does this means for those of us outside of mainstream media and particularly for those of us in new media who have even greater roadblocks to overcome in being heard in commercial media than your average straight white guy? We have to be better than most just to be taken seriously by the decision makers in commercial media, and we have to be better than anyone else in order to get those media elites to take a chance on hiring and putting us on the air. It means we not only have to know our topics and our audiences, but we also have to be able to consistently create interesting and engaging media that keeps the public coming back for more. Again, not an easy task or many more would be doing it.
Rush Limbaugh isn't as influential or popular as he is because he's a master political pundit, any more than Howard Stern has the notoriety and the audience he does because he's the world's greatest comedian (he isn't). Limbaugh, like Stern, is who and what he is because he entertains millions every day, keeps them coming back for more, and has been doing so successful for a very long time. Once the bully pulpit from which to pontificate has been secured, in the end it's the audience itself which will determine who succeeds and who fails, who has true power and influence outside the realm of their own shows and who does not.
Creating Popular Progressive Media
If we want the power and influence of a Rush LImbaugh speaking for our side, we need to earn the right to have one. The way to do it is by creating media which not only challenges those who oppose us and what we have to say, but does so in a way that's consistently engaging, informative, inspiring, and above all, entertaining. Regardless of his politics, Rush Limbaugh is, above all else, a master of engaging and entertaining his chosen audience.
We'll see left-wing and progressively-oriented opinion and punditry rise to his level of popularity and influence only when and if we are able to offer our own audiences the same. Blogs, AirAmerica, cable news, and online LGBT and progressive media are the launching pad, but we've still more work to do before we can say anyone on the left has achieved Rush's orbit.
Despite all the roadblocks, the social and political winds are blowing in our direction as never before. Even in our current economic situation, there's a real hunger for truly progressive and left-wing media voices out there, but all of us, creators and consumers alike, not only have to demonstrate that we want those voices on the air, but also that we'll support those voices and those shows once they're available. Sponsors pay a pretty penny to advertise on Limbaugh's show and for good reason.
When we can draw those kinds of audiences, which we can and will do once the programming is there to draw and keep them (Olbermann, Maddow and many others have already proven it can be done), we can do in reality what the right-wing has been accusing the left-wing of doing for decades now, and credibly boast the audience interest level in our own opinions that Limbaugh, Hannity, Michael Savage, and other right-wingers currently enjoy. Once that happens, the talk radio playing field will level and begin to lean to the left, in accordance with where American popular opinion already is.
None of this happens, however, unless and until we fully support not only those on the left who have already made it successfully to the mainstream, and at the same time also demand more of the kind of viewpoints we want to hear in commercial talk programming. Support those you like, regardless of how many others are listening or watching them right now. Participate in the shows when you're inspired to. Let mainstream media know what you want and who you want it from. If you want it, ask for it and keep asking for it. If enough people do, eventually we'll get it.
Oh and hey MSNBC? That open 10pm eastern weekday slot? Well, I know this raging left-wing transsexual online talk radio host and blogger who looks like a woman, sounds like a guy, and needs a job...