Roman Mars [00:00:01] Upwork wants to let you in on a little secret. It’s all made up. The 9 to 5 workday. Commuting back and forth. Relocating talent to your corporate headquarters. Why are you still working that way when you could just make up something better? With Upwork, you can change the way you work and hire. Upwork allows you to tap trusted expert talent, so that you can access the right skills at the right time and build your team. Visit upwork.com to get hiring. This is how we work now. It’s time to reboot your credit card with Apple Card. Now through December 25th, get 5% daily cash back on products at Apple with a new Apple card, including a new iPhone 14 or Apple Watch Ultra. At everywhere else, Apple Card gives you up to 3% unlimited daily cash back on everything you buy. Apply now in the wallet app on the iPhone and start using it right away. Subject to credit approval, monthly financing through Apple Card monthly installments is ineligible to earn 5% back. Additional exclusions apply. Valid only on qualifying U.S. purchases for new Apple Card customers who open an account and use it from December 1st to 25th, 2022 at Apple. Visit apple.go/savefive for more details. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. If you’ve ever flipped through the radio dial–not satellite, not podcasts–but good old-fashioned AM and FM radio, you may have noticed something. First of all, Don’t Stop Believin’ still gets a shocking amount of airtime. Great song, but maybe culture should evolve. But also, when it comes to talk radio, a lot of it sounds kind of the same.
Katie Thornton [00:01:42] I’ll be on this highway for a while. So, I figure it’s a good time to see what’s on the radio.
Roman Mars [00:01:54] That is Katie Thornton, reporter and friend of the show–and total radio nerd. She started working behind the scenes at radio stations when she was just a teenager.
Katie Thornton [00:02:06] Whenever I go on road trips–like this one earlier this year from Minneapolis down to Memphis–or even just sitting around at home, I always let the radio be my companion. But for the years I’ve spent surfing the radio dial, it’s always been clear that on talk radio, one style and one political perspective tends to dominate. I’m going to keep surfing now.
Glenn Beck [00:02:32] Hello and welcome to The Glenn Beck Program. This hour, we have Nikki Haley on.
Katie Thornton [00:02:38] Rightwing talk radio is everywhere. Across the U.S., it’s not uncommon for talk radio in cities and small towns alike to sound like this.
Carl Jackson [00:02:48] Racial profiling is good for your health.
Understanding The Times [00:02:50] With the COVID plandemic–
Ben Shapiro [00:02:52] Gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.
Charlie Kirk [00:02:54] Drill, build a Keystone pipeline, deport illegals, build the wall, defy the federal government.
Katie Thornton [00:03:02] As of this fall, 17 of the country’s 20 biggest radio talk hosts were conservative. Only one was progressive. And that matters because broadcast radio is still a really important medium. It has a higher reach than television. It’s nearly neck-and-neck with social media for how Americans get their news. And in studies, it often ranks as the media format that Americans trust the most.
Roman Mars [00:03:29] Katie has just released a new five-part podcast series with WNYC’s On the Media about how one side of the political spectrum came to dominate broadcast radio and how one company is using the airwaves to launch a rightwing media empire. Katie’s is called The Divided Dial, and it’s out now. Today on our show, we wanted to talk with Katie about some of the little-known history behind how we got such lopsided airwaves. Okay, Katie. Where do we start?
Katie Thornton [00:03:58] Well, to get into the meat of our story about how the radio dial once had more diverse perspectives and how that arrangement was undone, I want to start in a time when radio sounded pretty different than it does today and.
Carl Jackson [00:04:18] WDIA presents the award-winning feature, Brown America Speaks.
Katie Thornton [00:04:24] In the middle of the last century, the U.S. radio dial was a rare, publicly accessible space that was integrated.
Roman Mars [00:04:32] I hadn’t really thought of it as a place that could or couldn’t be integrated, but it makes so much sense. I mean, you could go to the radio and hear thoughts, and conversation, and music of people that were from different places, and different races, and different backgrounds.
Katie Thornton [00:04:44] Right. On some stations, a variety of voices could be heard. There was Black talk radio and music. Some religious shows. Some union stations. But it was far from perfect. In the mid 1900s, most radio stations were still white owned largely because at first, the government wouldn’t even grant broadcast licenses to Black or Jewish Americans. And in the middle of the century, there was one movement in particular that was finding it hard to get airtime. Mark Lloyd, a professor and former associate general counsel at the FCC, is going to tell us more.
Mark Lloyd [00:05:17] The folks who had money and made determinations about what got on television or radio were not interested in the appeals of Martin Luther King.
Roman Mars [00:05:29] I can’t say I’m surprised that the early civil rights movement was not getting much airtime back then.
Katie Thornton [00:05:34] Exactly. Unfortunately, it’s not very surprising, though I should say. This was the golden age of Back radio with really popular deejays across the country using their influence to promote civil rights and to spread the word about demonstrations and marches. But there were a lot of white-owned stations who were determined not to air Black voices. And this was especially true in the south, but in the north as well.
Mark Lloyd [00:05:59] They weren’t interested in, you know, what it was that Thurgood Marshall had to say about the Brown v. Board of Education and how it was being implemented in schools. That’s not what they wanted to hear.
Katie Thornton [00:06:13] Mark isn’t mentioning Thurgood Marshall out of nowhere. In 1955, an incident involving Marshall actually kicked off a legal saga that would prove to be a revolution for radio. Future Supreme Court Justice Marshall had successfully argued Brown v Board, which desegregated schools. And that Fall–in 1955–he was interviewed on NBC. The program was sent out to NBC affiliate stations. But one of those stations–a joint radio and TV station called WLBT in Mississippi–decided they didn’t want to run it, and they cut the feed.
Roman Mars [00:06:47] Wow. And so, this was an ideologically motivated interruption?
Katie Thornton [00:06:52] Yeah. Yeah, absolutely it was. The manager of the station was an avowed white supremacist. And this was not the only time WLBT refused to cover the civil rights movement or even just air the voices of Black Americans.
Mark Lloyd [00:07:06] Black folks in Mississippi and in the Jackson, Mississippi area, which were roughly 40% of the population, were not allowed to even buy time on the station. And so, the folks in the local area were hearing one particular perspective about the civil rights movement. They weren’t hearing both sides.
Katie Thornton [00:07:28] This continued into the 1960s at WLBT. In ’63, they cut the NBC feed during coverage of a lunch counter sit-in and repeatedly refused to let civil rights leaders appear on the station.
Mark Lloyd [00:07:42] WLBT was just one station, but there were many stations in the south that did the same thing. And there were stations in the north that did pretty much the same thing.
Katie Thornton [00:07:53] In the 1960s, the lack of media coverage was so pervasive that civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King started explicitly calling out the lack of media attention and asking allies to help get coverage. And after this call goes out, a liberal-minded church group, the United Church of Christ, ends up working with activists–many of whom had long fought for coverage themselves, often unsuccessfully–to try to get more airtime. And to do this, they decided to use some tools that the government themselves had created.
Roman Mars [00:08:24] All right, so what are those tools, and when were they created?
Katie Thornton [00:08:28] Okay, so flashback to the 1920s and the emergence of something called “the public interest mandate.” Basically, when radio was new, a ton of people wanted to broadcast; the demand for space on the dial outstripped supply. So, to narrow the field, the federal government says that any station using the public airwaves needs to serve the public interest.
Roman Mars [00:08:49] So what do they mean by the public interest?
Katie Thornton [00:08:51] Yeah, it’s, like, super vague, right? But the FCC clarified what it meant by public interest in the years following World War II. They had seen how radio could be used to promote fascism in Europe, and they didn’t want U.S. radio stations to become propaganda outlets. And so, in 1949, the FCC basically says to stations, “In order to serve the public, you need to give airtime to coverage of current events. And you have to include multiple perspectives in your coverage.” This is the basis of what comes to be known as the Fairness Doctrine.
Roman Mars [00:09:25] So it’s the 50s and 60s, the stations–they’re cutting the NBC coverage of the civil rights movement. And it’s not just, you know, morally dubious. It’s actually against the policies of the FCC.
Katie Thornton [00:09:36] Exactly. Right. So civil rights activists decided to put that to the test, and they ended up challenging WLBT’s license for repeatedly denying them airtime. At first, the FCC dismissed the case. But then the activists sued the FCC, and they won. And eventually, years later, a federal court decided that WLBT could stay on the air, but their license would be transferred to a nonprofit, multi-racial group of broadcasters.
Roman Mars [00:10:04] Wow. That’s huge.
Katie Thornton [00:10:05] Yeah.
Roman Mars [00:10:06] So this case ended up having an impact beyond the station, right? Like, obviously, the problem of racist, one-sided coverage went beyond just WLBT.
Katie Thornton [00:10:15] Right. And this case actually had enormous repercussions for the radio and TV industries. They were both overseen by the FCC. And there were a few really big things that this case did over the course of its many year back-and-forth. First of all, just by accepting the case, the court set a really important precedent.
Mark Lloyd [00:10:34] The ruling gave local communities the power to challenge licenses–radio and television licenses–across the country.
Katie Thornton [00:10:44] So for the first time, people–common citizens–could legally and successfully challenge licenses if they thought a broadcaster wasn’t following the FCC’s rules, like serving the public interest and being fair.
Roman Mars [00:10:57] So it wasn’t just the FCC looking for violators and then therefore challenging licenses. People actually took the power in their own hands to challenge licenses around the country.
Katie Thornton [00:11:07] Yeah. Yes, exactly. People could write to stations saying they weren’t being balanced in their coverage and asking for airtime for certain issues. And now all of a sudden, the station actually felt pressure to listen to them.
Roman Mars [00:11:21] Huh. And I’m assuming this makes broadcasters really nervous, especially the gross ones that are anti-civil rights.
Katie Thornton [00:11:25] Yes, it does. And that brings us to some of the other industry-changing things that the WLBT case did. As it was going through the courts, and especially after it was decided that the license would be transferred, broadcasters were worried about their licenses getting called into question. So, the FCC starts giving broadcasters recommendations of how they can avoid that same fate–how they can satisfy that long standing, vague requirement to serve the public interest. And they really start pushing this thing called “ascertainment.”
Mark Lloyd [00:11:56] Ascertainment is where when people in local communities were interviewed by station officials–and people who were never asked before, you know, “What do you think ought to be on radio? What do you think ought to be on TV?” Now, they were being asked these questions. This was done by radio stations, and television stations, commercial stations, public stations across the country.
Roman Mars [00:12:21] You know, this seems so simple and so revolutionary at the same time. Like, just ask people they want to hear about, and maybe that would shape the broadcasting accordingly.
Katie Thornton [00:12:31] Yeah. It was pretty revolutionary. Like, people who worked in radio and TV, which were both overseen by the FCC, were literally going into church basements and women’s shelters and asking about the issues that people wanted to be covered. Within a handful of years, the FCC would actually come to require this process. And they would also come to more or less require that all stations–even stations that played mostly music, which was a lot of stations–run some small amount of educational programming. So as all of this was shaping up in the late 60s and the early 70s, the radio was changing because people had a say now.
Mark Lloyd [00:13:09] The stations began to understand that if they did not begin to follow these guidelines, if they didn’t follow the Fairness Doctrine, if they didn’t do these ascertainment reports, then local communities would challenge their licenses.
Katie Thornton [00:13:25] People did challenge broadcast licenses, but often the threat alone was enough to get stations to pay attention. As the 1960s bore on, the civil rights movement started getting more on-air coverage on radio and TV. And when people started hearing and seeing civil rights activists getting attacked by police dogs and brutally harassed by white residents, it helped increase support for the movement.
Roman Mars [00:13:47] Right. I mean, the Fairness Doctrine works when you hear perspectives–multiple perspectives–you actually learn and change.
Katie Thornton [00:13:54] Right. Exactly. Yeah. Like, media exposure can be really helpful.
Roman Mars [00:13:55] It’s a good thing to know.
Katie Thornton [00:13:58] And, you know, coming into the 1970s now, people continued to use the airwaves to talk about all sorts of political and cultural issues that were important to them.
MPR [00:14:07] To my Black brothers in the United States of America, I say simply that your dilemma as a historically sensitive people is the same as mine.
Katie Thornton [00:14:18] You could turn on the radio and hear a broadcast about Black history or indigenous solidarity.
Radio Free Alcatraz [00:14:23] This is John Trudell inviting you to Indian Land Radio, Indian Land Alcatraz Island.
LUT [00:14:28] Realizing that I was gay and finding…
Katie Thornton [00:14:32] There were gay and lesbian shows, shows about agriculture.
Rural America Radio [00:14:36] I raise about 80 acres of corn…
Katie Thornton [00:14:40] Whatever potential listeners said was important to them.
Mark Lloyd [00:14:44] This was the time when we really began to see news and public affairs programs become really important in the American culture.
Roman Mars [00:14:56] This is getting into the radio I really like. And it really represents a really big shift.
Katie Thornton [00:15:02] Oh, yeah. I mean, this is a really big moment. All of these changes result in what Mark calls “broadcasting’s public interest moment,” where he says there was an explosion of news shows and Sunday morning public affairs shows on radio and TV. This is the era that Public Broadcasting first got serious federal support. Between the late 60s and late 70s, shows like 60 Minutes start up.
First 60 Minutes [00:15:26] Good evening. This is 60 Minutes. It’s a kind of a magazine for television–which means it has the flexibility and diversity of a magazine, adapted to broadcast journalism.
Roman Mars [00:15:38] I mean, this sounds so much like somebody trying to describe their podcast, you know?
Katie Thornton [00:15:43] Things aren’t so different.
Roman Mars [00:15:45] Totally.
Katie Thornton [00:15:46] But, you know, this was really like a different moment–a changing moment–for broadcasters because newsrooms start to become ever so slightly more integrated. In just a few years, the radio dial and TV ban had become much more representative of all that America was. And I want to say, conservative voices had long found a pretty solid platform on radio. They were ultimately part of the status quo that many civil rights leaders were pushing against when they took on media reform. But conservative voices are part of this public interest moment, too. You saw rightwing watchdogs using the Fairness Doctrine to get a bunch of airtime to respond to critical news coverage with pro-Nixon content.
Roman Mars [00:16:27] So this legal battle that started with civil rights leaders ends up providing all sorts of people with tools to increase reach on the air, even folks who might have previously fought against civil rights.
Katie Thornton [00:16:39] Yeah, even them. So conservative voices were definitely on the air. But it was far from the one-sidedness you’re liable to hear today.
Roman Mars [00:16:47] And so why is it the way it is today? You know, like, if it was this mess of conservative voices, and new liberal voices, and civil rights, and even anti-civil rights–how did we get to the point where one person can talk for 2 hours with just sort of misinformation and, you know, rightwing nonsense?
Katie Thornton [00:17:04] Right, right. And 2 hours, like, every day across the country. Right. Well, before we get there–and we will get there–let me tell you about one other thing that was turning the radio world on its head in the 1970s.
1960s RCA RADIO INFOMERCIAL [00:17:19] And here’s a brand-new deluxe AM/FM model, the XF4 Emissary. The difference in reception will leap to the ear.
Katie Thornton [00:17:28] So all of these legal changes coincided with the explosion of FM radio, which overtook AM and listenership in the late 1970s.
Roman Mars [00:17:38] And what is the significance of FM, you know, for the purposes of this conversation?
Katie Thornton [00:17:42] Basically, with AM–or amplitude modulation radio–the signal was super buzzy. There’s always a sort of ambient hum. You know what I mean? It’s like “mmmm” constantly.
Roman Mars [00:17:52] Yeah. Totally.
Katie Thornton [00:17:53] So it’s a little annoying. It’s kind of like looking through a dirty window. But then with FM, sound was encoded into radio signals differently, and it was super clean. Compared to the muck of AM, it was like freshly shined glass.
Roman Mars [00:18:08] So if you really want high quality, which is like music, you move that over to FM.
Katie Thornton [00:18:14] Yeah, absolutely. That’s exactly what happened. Music stations rush over to FM. And so, for a while, the AM is kind of floundering. AM needs a unique selling point.
Roman Mars [00:18:26] Yeah. And that selling point is talk radio. You know, that’s what they can do well.
Katie Thornton [00:18:29] Exactly. Exactly. You don’t need high fidelity sound. You just talk. So, talk radio is pretty much AM’s salvation. And that’s especially true once this new revolutionary, high tech format entered the scene. And that’s the call-in show.
Bob Grant [00:18:46] You’re on WOR. Hello?
Caller [00:18:49] Yes, Bob. I have a problem. What should I do?
Roman Mars [00:18:57] Okay, so talk to me about call-in shows because, I mean, this is the foundation of radio broadcasting. Talk to me about how those affected everything.
Katie Thornton [00:19:04] Totally. I mean, now, it’s just, like, quintessential radio, basically. Almost sort of kitschy. But at the time, the seamless call-in show–or more or less seamless, I should say–was pretty new.
Nicole Hemmer [00:19:16] The idea that somebody can hear themselves on the radio by calling in and talking to the host– And it sounds so old school at this point, but it really was a revolution.
Katie Thornton [00:19:26] This is Nicole Hemmer. She’s an author and scholar of media and conservative movements. And she says this really was a big deal–to be able to be part of the media. There had been some call-in shows in the past–as early as the 1920s–but basically the host would answer the phone and either hold the receiver up to the microphone or they’d just take the call privately with a live mic and say, “Oh. Okay. Okay, listeners. So, what the caller said was…”
Roman Mars [00:19:54] That’s, like, high art.
Katie Thornton [00:19:57] Yeah, I totally agree. So, Nicole Hemmer says that live national call-in shows, as we know and love them today, became possible because of two technological advances. One, satellite dishes were becoming more and more accessible and affordable–meaning more stations could run a show simultaneously in two different cities for cheaper. And around the same time, there were some changes in long distance telephone technology, and the cost of the calls went way down.
Nicole Hemmer [00:20:24] And once you have those two things–where I can make a toll free call to a show that is being aired around the nation all at the same time, so that people in Oregon and people in New York can listen to the same station, can be listening to the same content at the same time, can be calling in at the same time–now you can have a national conversation on radio.
Larry King (1978 radio show) [00:20:47] Our phone lines are now open on the Larry King Show. From all time zones, the number to call is 703-685-2177…
Nicole Hemmer [00:20:58] And it changes the medium because it makes it more interactive. And it makes people feel invested in shows because even if they don’t call in, they hear people like themselves calling in, and they feel like they’re being represented on this new talk radio.
Roman Mars [00:21:14] Yeah, I can see why this is just a huge change because before this, you know, people just consumed media. They did not partake in it. They didn’t have the Internet. It was just this was the first-time people could hear themselves.
Katie Thornton [00:21:24] Totally. Yeah, the call-in model was kind of astonishingly democratic for the time.
Roman Mars [00:21:29] So there’s FM, and AM, and call-in shows. And there are these policies that are getting more diverse viewpoints on the air. So how does this slide us into all-conservative all the time?
Katie Thornton [00:21:41] Well, Roman…
Mark Lloyd [00:21:43] The Reagan administration came in and then began to eliminate all of those regulations. Reagan came in. All of it was gone.
Roman Mars [00:21:53] Yeah. It always starts with Reagan.
Katie Thornton [00:21:56] Go figure. As is often the case, Reagan is the plot’s pivot point.
Roman Mars [00:22:01] So Reagan comes in in 1980 after a decade or so of pretty exciting changes in media. So, what exactly did the Reagan administration do?
Katie Thornton [00:22:09] Well, basically, not long after the president took office, Reagan’s FCC started killing off all of the policies and guidelines that had been built up during the civil rights era.
Newsreel – 1981 Changes [00:22:19] The FCC made some major changes in how radio stations are run.
Katie Thornton [00:22:23] No more requirements to go out and see what local residents want to hear. No more mandate to run some educational shows.
Newsreel – 1981 Changes [00:22:31] There are no longer limits on the number of commercials a station may play.
Katie Thornton [00:22:35] The FCC also made it harder for people to challenge broadcast licenses. The Fairness Doctrine was still alive, but without these other policies, it was losing its teeth.
Newsreel – 1981 Changes [00:22:45] The free market will now determine what a station plays.
Katie Thornton [00:22:51] During this era, the number of complaints to the FCC about racial stereotyping and a lack of programming for minority groups both went up. But with public interest guidelines removed or defanged, people just didn’t have much recourse.
Roman Mars [00:23:06] So people–like everyday people–didn’t have nearly as much say in what was on the radio anymore.
Katie Thornton [00:23:11] Yeah, exactly. And coinciding with this decline of public influence was the rise of a new breed of talk show host.
Howard Stern Newsreel [00:23:19] Early in the morning, when most of us are still sleeping, there’s a mad man loose on the Baltimore Washington airwaves. And anyone with a phone and a thick skin is invited to join in the madness.
Roman Mars [00:23:35] After the break, the dawn of the American shock jock. Do you ever look up from your life and realize that nothing turned out quite like you expected? One day you’re 20, you’re working on your Ph.D. in genetics, and you have a whole life of academia just, like, right there in front of you. That is what is going to happen. And then you wake up, and you’re in your late forties, and you host a podcast. Try explaining that to your 20-year-old self. First of all, he would say, “Uh, what’s ‘podcast?'” But, you know, maybe a life of academia would have worked out; I love teaching. You know, as much as we try to plan for every moment in life, sometimes we get stuck in those what ifs. But no matter what what-ifs life throws your way, State Farm provides the coverage you need to feel supported. They do it by showing up for you how and when you need it. With a real person, when you want clarity–or digital support, when you’re seeking something more efficient. Let’s imagine what a future could look like as a State Farm customer.
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Gina [00:24:53] Our first big adult thing was, really, buying the car we drove in.
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Gina [00:25:47] Yep. And it was so nice not to add home insurance to the list of things keeping me up at night. And even now, with the baby on the way, I’m sure we’ll need to make a few changes to our policy. But I’m not even stressing ’cause I know State Farm will have it under control. Matt keeps joking that we should name the baby “Jake” with how much I talk about State Farm.
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Gina [00:26:09] Can we talk about this later?
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Katie Thornton [00:30:10] That’s right. This was the era of the shock jock. It’s basically brash, offensive, high energy desk jockeying.
Howard Stern [00:30:17] Man, when I get to your age, I hope they shoot me.
Caller [00:30:20] Oh, I hope so, too.
Roman Mars [00:30:22] So this is Howard Stern?
Katie Thornton [00:30:23] Yes.
Roman Mars [00:30:24] All hail Howard Stern of SiriusXM Radio.
Katie Thornton [00:30:28] Yes. That is correct. This is Howard Stern, pioneering shock jock king.
Roman Mars [00:30:32] I mean, but Stern–especially when he started–wasn’t especially political. I mean, you know, he’s become politicized over the years, but he wasn’t like a political talk show host. He was just trying to get people’s attention.
Katie Thornton [00:30:43] Right. Exactly. Just shocking people. Shock jocks were rarely political, especially in the early days. They’re mostly just kind of, like, lewd or gross–shocking–you know, as is in the name. But as that sort of brash new style got popular, it became clear that political talk could bring that shock jock energy to ideas.
Alan Berg [00:31:02] My dear, anybody who’s programmed like you is per se a racist.
Caller [00:31:05] I am a wonderful Christian mother. You got me the right way.
Alan Berg [00:31:08] Honey, you are committable. Goodbye.
Katie Thornton [00:31:11] This is Alan Berg. He was a liberal talk radio host out of Denver. He got started in the late 1970s and was really taking off in the early 80s. He was Jewish and was known for being pretty vitriolic and calling out racism and bigotry.
David Lane [00:31:25] I think the Jews are still firmly in control of the Soviet Union. I think they’re responsible for the murder of 50 million white Christians.
Alan Berg [00:31:30] You think so, huh?
David Lane [00:31:31] Yes, I do.
Alan Berg [00:31:32] I think you’re sick. I think you’re pathetic. I think your ability to use reason and use any logic is tragic.
David Lane [00:31:37] Why don’t you put a Nazi on your program, and then you’ll have somebody that can–
Alan Berg [00:31:40] Sir, you are a Nazi by your very own admission. Thanks so much. And that’s right; you heard it. Okay.
Roman Mars [00:31:49] Given what we know about AM and FM talk radio now, this is very surprising to hear. I mean, he’s got the in-your-face, confrontational talk show vibe, but it’s from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Katie Thornton [00:32:01] Totally. It is surprising. And to paint a picture of how he was received, at one point, there’s this poll that goes out in Denver that asks residents to name the city’s most beloved media personality and its most despised. And Alan Berg won both awards.
Roman Mars [00:32:17] That’s a feat.
Katie Thornton [00:32:18] Yeah, it’s kind of incredible. And Alan Berg was super well-known. I mean, he was on a huge station. His show could be heard in about 30 different states.
Roman Mars [00:32:27] But obviously not everyone used their radio platform to call out racism and bigotry.
Katie Thornton [00:32:32] That is true. And a heads up that this next section is going to include some really hateful talk radio.
Rush Limbaugh [00:32:38] Let me put it to you this way. The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips–without any weapons.
Roman Mars [00:32:46] Okay, here he is. This is Rush Limbaugh.
Katie Thornton [00:32:48] Yes. For the uninitiated, Rush Limbaugh is known for these racist diatribes, and also for calling feminists “feminazis,” and for some incredibly homophobic recurring segments, for vilifying the poor. You name it–he probably said it.
Roman Mars [00:33:04] And not to say the obvious, but this is very different from what Alan Berg was doing.
Katie Thornton [00:33:08] Yeah, a lot of people have referred to Alan Berg as a sort of Limbaugh of the left. And it’s true, you know, their styles were similar.
Roman Mars [00:33:15] I mean, their styles may have been similar, but Berg was calling out racism, and Limbaugh was literally just spreading racism.
Katie Thornton [00:33:21] Yeah, exactly. It’s actually really interesting to look at Limbaugh’s trajectory because I think it kind of tells a story in itself. Limbaugh had always been a radio guy, but not always the most successful one. Over almost two decades in radio, he was fired as a deejay from six stations. But during these years working on and off behind a mic, he noticed something. When he talked about politics, which wasn’t something he really cared about in his early years, the phones lit up. This was the 1970s and into the 1980s, right as America was experiencing the start of a conservative wave, fueled largely by backlash to the civil rights movement and the rise of the religious right. And Rush rode that wave all the way to the host chair. In 1984, a radio station in Sacramento took a chance on Rush and gave him his own show.
Roman Mars [00:34:16] And this is where he really found his sound.
Katie Thornton [00:34:18] Yes. And while I really don’t feel like we need to give Limbaugh much airtime–he had a lot of it in his life–I do think it’s important to hear just a bit more of what this sounded like because you can hear a lot of similarities to present-day talk radio in everything from the conversational, if totally hostile tone, down to the really biting, and just abhorrent, and false commentary.
Rush Limbaugh [00:34:40] How many of you guys–in your own experience with women–have learned that “no” means “yes” if you know how to spot it?
Roman Mars [00:34:47] This is hard to listen to.
Katie Thornton [00:34:49] Yeah, it’s really hard to listen to. But, you know, Rush’s political and cultural rants made of phones ringing off the hook. Ratings soared, and that meant more advertisers. And Limbaugh, from the beginning, was not shy to admit that he was in it first and foremost for money. So, he did more of what sold.
Roman Mars [00:35:06] So we’ve got Limbaugh and Berg as pretty much polar opposites–using a similar style to reach listeners.
Katie Thornton [00:35:13] Yeah, and you can imagine a world where these two fast-talking, in-your-face hosts are duking it out and fighting about politics over the public airwaves. But in 1984, the same year Limbaugh got his start out west, 50yearold Alan Berg was murdered in his driveway. And I’m going to play you some tape from Berg’s home station–KOA–from the night of his murder. It’s from his friend and fellow KOA-host, Ken Hamblin. It honestly still gets me really choked up, even though I’ve heard it now dozens of times.
Ken Hamblin [00:35:45] 10:39–KOA time. And I’m still trying to piece information together. Off the air I’m finding out that someone passing in a vehicle, using a semiautomatic weapon or an automatic weapon–I’m not sure which–fired upon Alan Berg when he was exiting his vehicle in front of his home. To describe how I feel right now–I’ve got a high-pitched ringing sound in my ears, my head is throbbing, and I can’t believe it.
Katie Thornton [00:36:16] Berg was killed by members of a newly formed white supremacist group called The Order. Founded by a man named David Lane, who drove the getaway car from the scene of Berg’s murder. And remember that caller we heard earlier–the one who Alan Berg called “a Nazi by his own admission?”
Roman Mars [00:36:34] Yeah.
Katie Thornton [00:36:35] That caller was David Lane.
Roman Mars [00:36:37] Oh, my God. Oh, my God. So he was, like, a regular listener and called into the show?
Katie Thornton [00:36:45] Yeah. Yeah, he listened, called, talked to Alan Berg, and proceeded to organize his murder. And Lane died in prison in 2007. And he remains a really influential figure in the white supremacist movement of today.
Ken Hamblin [00:37:01] I tell you–we used to sit down at lunch, and Alan always used to say, “They’re out there, but you can’t worry about them. They’re out there. You can’t worry about them. You never know, you know? You never know where the nuts are going to come from,” is what he used to say. So, you live from day-to-day.
Roman Mars [00:37:29] It’s just so sad.
Katie Thornton [00:37:30] Yeah. It’s really hard to listen to.
Roman Mars [00:37:33] So at this time, their style of brash political talk is gaining steam, and the left just lost one of its most prominent up-and-coming voices to white supremacist violence.
Katie Thornton [00:37:45] That’s right. And just a few years after that came a change in the national radio landscape that allowed provocative political talk to reach whole new heights.
C-SPAN [00:37:55] This week, the FCC voted down the Fairness Doctrine by a vote of 4 to 0. What do you think this is going to mean for the average consumer of news and information?
Interviewee [00:38:04] Various pundits think that eventually it will cut off a minority of viewpoints that have been using the doctrine to get heard.
Roman Mars [00:38:13] The Fairness Doctrine was that piece of policy that required stations to present multiple perspectives on coverage of controversial issues. It’s the cornerstone of why there were multiple voices on the air.
Katie Thornton [00:38:22] Yeah, that’s right. In practice, the Fairness Doctrine had already been weakened when other public interest guidelines went out the window. But this was its formal deathblow.
Roman Mars [00:38:31] And so what was Reagan’s and the FCC’s basis for getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine besides just, you know, a love affair with getting rid of all government regulations?
Katie Thornton [00:38:41] Yeah. Basically, the Fairness Doctrine was built in part on that idea that there weren’t enough channels or radio frequencies for everyone who wanted to broadcast to get on the airwaves. So having one of those stations was considered a privilege. And part of what you had to do in exchange for that privilege, they had said, was to present multiple perspectives. But Reagan’s FCC points to a new thing called cable television to say that that scarcity argument isn’t really relevant anymore.
Roman Mars [00:39:10] So the idea was that with cable there are now tons and tons of channels. So, if you don’t get airtime on one station, you can just go to a different one. Or you can just make your own.
Katie Thornton [00:39:18] Right. Yeah, that’s the idea. But there are some flaws with that argument. First, not everyone had cable. Also, you can’t watch cable while you’re commuting to work or working on a job site. Plenty of people still relied on radio–not television–for their news, which, you know, is still the case today.
Roman Mars [00:39:35] Yeah. And also, the existence of cable TV doesn’t mean there’s suddenly more radio frequencies available.
Katie Thornton [00:39:40] Right, exactly. Like, that’s another huge flaw in the argument.
Roman Mars [00:39:43] So describe to me what happens after the Fairness Doctrine dies.
Katie Thornton [00:39:47] Yeah, well, you know, highly political, often vitriolic talk radio without any counter points skyrocketed. And their breakout star was Rush Limbaugh. He talked about the Fairness Doctrine a lot on his show. You know, he went into national syndication for the first time in 1988, which was the year after the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated. When lawmakers would try to reinstate the doctrine in the years that followed, a bunch of people on the right would call it the “Hush Rush” bill. So, for Limbaugh, the end of the Fairness Doctrine was a permission slip to kind of say whatever he wanted. And there was certainly an appetite for what he was saying. Rush gave voice to the grievances of a lot of people who were resistant to changes in culture and power. And Republican politicians understood that getting in good with Rush meant getting in good with his listeners.
Roman Mars [00:40:37] Yeah. Yeah. I think I remember President George H.W. Bush literally carrying Rush’s bags into the White House when he came for a visit.
Katie Thornton [00:40:46] Right. Right. That is the perfect image. Limbaugh had so much power over elected officials, and he inspired a lot of them, too, including this guy…
Mike Pence [00:40:56] In the 1990s, Rush inspired me to start a radio broadcast of my own. I used to say I was “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” And for three hours a day on the airwaves of small-town Indiana, I preceded…
Roman Mars [00:41:10] And so that is Mike Pence.
Katie Thornton [00:41:12] That is Mike Pence. Yep. Decaf Limbaugh, Mike Pence. He was among the many talk hosts inspired by Limbaugh. And by 1995, about two thirds of political talk leaned right.
Roman Mars [00:41:24] I mean, two thirds is a lot. It’s already really significant. But like you mentioned earlier, now it’s almost completely rightwing talk radio and often pretty far-right, too.
Katie Thornton [00:41:35] Right. And there are a few other steps that helped us get there, including–in 1996–something that really tightened the conservative grasp on the airwaves. President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act into law. Among the many things the ’96 telecom act did was completely restructure the radio industry.
Brian Rosenwald [00:41:55] There’s a provision that goes into the bill that removes national ownership caps.
Katie Thornton [00:42:00] So Roman, this is Brian Rosenwald, a media scholar who wrote a book about the Limbaugh era of conservative talk radio. He says that, basically, since the 1940s, the government had limited the total number of radio stations that a single company could own–both in a single city and nationwide. Those ownership caps had been increasing for years under Reagan, but in ’96, that national limit was completely removed.
Brian Rosenwald [00:42:25] And that ends up triggering massive, massive, like, frenetic consolidation in the radio business in the late 90s, where companies are merging–companies are buying each other up. It basically becomes clear to most owners that you’re not going to survive as, like, an individual owner. You either need to get big or get out.
Katie Thornton [00:42:45] This led people who were already at an advantage in the market to compound their power. For some perspective, the number of Black-owned stations was cut by more than half in the years between 1995 and 2012. The numbers have gone up a bit since then, but Black Americans still own less than 2% of commercial radio stations in the country. And it wreaked havoc on local ownership, too. Here’s Mark Lloyd again.
Mark Lloyd [00:43:11] We ended up with an operation called ClearChannel that owned over 1,200 radio stations, which was just unheard of during the public interest moment. The idea that any one entity could own 1,200 stations.
Katie Thornton [00:43:25] For reference, before ’96, ClearChannel–now iHeartMedia–owned 43 stations. It took them less than a decade to get to over 1,200.
Roman Mars [00:43:35] Oh, my goodness. So, 43 to 1200 stations? That’s wild. I mean, and you said this helps Rush Limbaugh. How did this help Rush Limbaugh in particular?
Katie Thornton [00:43:45] Well, it helped a lot of big hosts and big radio companies. But I’ll let Mark explain what it did for Limbaugh specifically.
Mark Lloyd [00:43:51] Well, ClearChannel owned Premiere Radio Networks. And guess who Premiere Radio Networks owned? They owned The Rush Limbaugh Show. And guess what ClearChannel and the Premiere Radio Networks promoted and put on every station they could? Well, they put on the show that they owned–Rush Limbaugh.
Roman Mars [00:44:11] Of course they did.
Katie Thornton [00:44:13] Yeah. And I should say, ClearChannel bought Premiere in 1998. So, Limbaugh found a lot of success before this. But this is an easy way to stay on top. And for other radio companies to point to his success and say, “See? That’s where we should be.” So, there was this burst of conservative talk hosts who took off in the early 2000s–Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity. And consolidation was already pushing conservative talk radio to the right.
Roman Mars [00:44:38] So tell me about that because deregulation, consolidations–these are economic processes. They don’t explicitly have to do with programming or programming tastes and what is popular.
Katie Thornton [00:44:48] Yeah. So basically, these big radio companies, like Clear Channel, vertically integrate. They own sometimes hundreds of stations. And rather than finding and paying hundreds of local hosts for time slots on those local stations, they can pump a bunch of money into one high-profile host whose show they can air everywhere. That still ends up being cheaper and easier than cultivating, and hiring, and getting advertisers to back a ton of individual local hosts all over the country.
Brian Rosenwald [00:45:16] Consolidation and these big corporate ownerships create risk averse companies, risk averse executives, executives who want to program something that they know will work. And conservative talk is it.
Katie Thornton [00:45:29] At the same time, a concept called “format purity” was trickling into talk radio from the music radio world. Basically, program directors started to think that one station should stick with one genre. That way, us fussy listeners would know what to expect, and we’d tune in for longer. More TSL–time spent listening. And that would mean more advertising dollars.
Brian Rosenwald [00:45:51] Radio executives think that there needs to be predictability–that if you turn on the conservative talk station and there’s a liberal guy on, you’re like, “Did I turn the wrong station on?”
Roman Mars [00:46:00] So most talk stations see what is working in many of their areas, and then they control more stations, and then they just, you know, very conservatively put that on there. And therefore, the whole system is taken over, you know, just almost by force to represent one voice.
Katie Thornton [00:46:15] Yeah. I mean, the Limbaugh model was seen as a good, safe business move.
Brian Rosenwald [00:46:20] And it’s one decision upon one decision upon one decision that makes this make more, and more, and more sense. To the point that you get to the 2000s, and then they’re like, “Okay. All conservative, all political, all nationally syndicated or mostly nationally syndicated–that’s how we make our money.
Roman Mars [00:46:36] So conservative talk–it comes to dominate. But does anyone on the left have a sort of, you know, counterstrike? Like, there’s no reason why this couldn’t work on the left.
Katie Thornton [00:46:45] Yeah. You know, kind of. The big attempt to counter the right’s hold on talk radio came when George W. Bush was running for reelection in 2004. It was a project called Air America.
Roman Mars [00:46:57] I remember it well. I was already in radio when Air America started. And this is, like, where, you know, Rachel Maddow really took off. And Chuck D from Public Enemy was the host. And one of the hosts that I actually worked with at KLW in San Francisco left public radio to go work at Air America. So, yeah, it was a big deal in that moment.
Katie Thornton [00:47:14] Wow. Yeah. But Air America had some problems from the start. A lot of hosts just didn’t really have backgrounds in radio, and, like, they didn’t have great chemistry on their shows. And they also just didn’t really do, like, a great job of speaking to listeners across the country. It just wasn’t really great radio, I guess. But importantly, beyond just the content, Air America also suffered from the exact same system that was giving Rush Limbaugh a boost. Remember by this point, ClearChannel–with over a thousand stations–owned the company that owned The Rush Limbaugh Show. Air America didn’t own any stations. So, they had to convince existing stations to run their progressive talk shows.
Roman Mars [00:47:55] Which I imagine wasn’t easy with a lot of stations already airing conservative talk program from morning till night.
Katie Thornton [00:48:02] Right. Air America went bankrupt in 2006 and were totally off the air by 2010. It’s worth noting that there were other individual cases where liberal talk show hosts had success in some markets. But in general, the big companies just didn’t really run them. They could afford not to.
Roman Mars [00:48:20] And I can imagine that as a liberal listener, you know, just hitting a wall of conservative talk when you turn on AM radio–you just begin to not look for it anymore. And then there’s this refuge inside of public radio, which gives you some nuanced and complex views and longer stories. And therefore, then things just stay the way they are because why would any liberal upstart, you know, find purchase in that landscape? Because I’m not looking for it–and I’ve given up so long ago that it doesn’t really matter.
Katie Thornton [00:48:52] Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a huge part of it. But a lot of people still rely on talk radio for their news, and information, and entertainment. And so those folks are getting pretty much one viewpoint.
Roman Mars [00:49:04] This is also interesting because, throughout the history of radio in America, there have been decisions that have helped increase the diversity of viewpoints and the voices in the airwaves–and decisions that have lessened that diversity. And that wasn’t always stated as the goal of the decision. I’m sure it was just, like, free markets and whatever kind of nonsense they said. But that was the impact. It lessened diversity.
Katie Thornton [00:49:25] Yeah, definitely. I mean, it was a decision to put policies in place that could help increase perspectives on the airwaves. And it was a decision to do away with them. Like, the market is not neutral and natural. Leaving things to the market is also a design choice. The erasure of those civil rights era broadcast victories that gave some local input and local control, the end of the Fairness Doctrine, allowing massive consolidation within the industry–those decisions helped to make it so that the farthest-reaching voices didn’t need to be the most representative ones. And a voice like Rush Limbaugh, whose rhetoric was extreme, didn’t have to speak to everybody or even a majority. But with behind-the-scenes structures working in your favor, you can bring the extreme into the mainstream and make it look organic.
Roman Mars [00:50:11] But it’s not organic. Like you said, it’s totally designed. I mean, these are decisions that people make. And you could make different decisions if you wanted a different outcome. All this stuff is so fascinating to me. I love radio. I got into this business because I love radio so much and I lived through much of this history. What are some of the other things you’re talking about on your series for On the Media?
Katie Thornton [00:50:32] Yeah. So, the series, The Divided Dial, takes an even deeper dive into how the right captured American talk radio and how one company is quietly launching a conservative media empire from the airwaves. We talk about everything from the religious right’s role in shaping what we hear on the radio, to whether or not repeatedly broadcasting falsehoods is legal. As we said at the beginning, radio is still an incredibly influential format. You and I maybe know this because we both sort of got into this work because we love radio. I started working in radio as well. But radio is not a particularly glamorous medium. And especially for mainstream media outlets, they don’t often report on what happens on the radio dial. And just logistically, like, as you mentioned, hours and hours a day–24/7–so many talkers. It’s hard to cull through. It’s hard to fact-check. It’s hard to parse, hard to analyze. And it ends up getting overlooked despite it still having a ton of power.
Roman Mars [00:51:35] Thank you, Katie, for bringing us this story and for the rest of the series. I can’t wait to listen to it.
Katie Thornton [00:51:39] Yeah. Thank you so much, Roman. It was great to talk with you about this.
Roman Mars [00:51:51] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Thornton with help from Emmett FitzGerald and Abigail Keel. Edited by Kelly Prime. Mix by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Delaney Hall is the senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Christopher Johnson, Martín Gonzalez, Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Jeyca Maldonado– Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me Roman Mars Special thanks this week to Katya Rogers, executive producer of On the Media and tireless editor of Katie’s series. Katie Thornton’s series The Divided Dial is produced by WNYC’s On the Media, with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. You can find them online at OnTheMedia.org. Four of the series’ five episodes are out now. The finale is out soon. It’s available in the On the Media feed, wherever you get your podcasts. And you can follow along with Katie’s work on her website, itskatiethornton.com, or on Instagram at itskatiethornton. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence, like 13 years ago and has never changed. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg, while it lasts. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.
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