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Dan Shelley, the former news director/assistant program director at Milwaukee’s WTMJ AM talk radio station, writes of the methodologies he and other programming experts used to make their talk show hosts popular. Like many other radio stations, WTMJ hosts primarily conservative broadcasters, though its only nationally syndicated host with a political bent is former comedian Dennis Miller. Two of its most popular local broadcasters are conservatives Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner. (Shelley is quite complimentary of Sykes in particular as a top-flight talk show host.) Shelley notes: “I was often angrily asked, once by then-Mayor John Norquist, why we just didn’t change our call letters to ‘WGOP.’ The complaints were just another sign of our impact.”
'Differentiating' - Shelley writes that Sykes and Wagner “are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.” Hosts such as Sykes and Wagner “must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims,” he writes, “and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners. This enemy can be a politician—either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a ‘RINO’ (a ‘Republican In Name Only,’ who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the ‘mainstream media’—local or national, print or broadcast.… In the talk radio business, this concept, which must be mastered to be successful, is called ‘differentiating’ yourself from the rest of the media. It is a brilliant marketing tactic that has also helped Fox News Channel thrive. ‘We report, you decide’ and ‘Fair and Balanced’ are more than just savvy slogans. They are code words signaling that only Fox will report the news in a way conservatives see as objective and truthful.”
Vicitimization - One of their most successful strategies is to play into the perception that hosts and audience alike are “victims” of what Shelley sardonically calls “the left-wing spin machine.” Any criticism, especially personal epithets such as “right-winger” or “radio squawker” merely plays into those hosts’ hands, Shelley notes. “This allows a host like Sykes to portray himself as a victim… and will leave his listeners, who also feel victimized, dying to support him.”
One-Sided Discussions - However, talk show hosts rarely, if ever, present “fair, evenhanded discussions featuring a diversity of opinions.… Programmers learned long ago that benign conversations led by hosts who present all sides of an issue don’t attract large audiences.… Pointed and provocative are what win.” Shelley writes that callers never “win a disagreement” with Sykes or Wagner. Calls from listeners who disagree with them do not get on the air “if the show’s producer, who generally does the screening, fears they might make [the host] look bad. Sykes’s producer even denied calls from US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), the current and former mayors of Milwaukee, and other prominent figures. However, callers with dissenting points of view would get on the air if the host could “use the dissenting caller to reinforce his original point… [b]y belittling the caller’s point of view.” Shelley notes of Sykes: “You can always tell, however, when the antagonist has gotten the better of Charlie. That’s when he starts attacking the caller personally.”
More Diversity in Audience than Readily Acknowledged - Shelley writes that many liberals believe talk radio audiences are composed of “angry, uneducated white men.” Such is not the case, he writes. “Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads. Talk show fans are not stupid. They will detect an obvious phony. The best hosts sincerely believe everything they say. Their passion is real. Their arguments have been carefully crafted in a manner they know will be meaningful to the audience, and that validates the views these folks were already thinking.”
Shaping Opinion - Listeners cannot be “led like lemmings” to a particular conclusion, Shelley writes, but “they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.” Conservative talk show hosts, both national and local, receive “daily talking points emails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee, and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too.” Shelley writes that Sykes would “mine the emails, then couch the daily message in his own words.… Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim.” Both Sykes and Wagner keep abreast of what other conservative hosts are saying: “Rush Limbaugh’s Web site was checked at least once daily. Atlanta-based nationally syndicated talker Neal Boortz was another popular choice.”
Strategic Disagreement - On occasion, Shelley writes, “[a] smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine.” President Bush’s selection of his own lawyer, Harriet Miers, for the Supreme Court gave Sykes, Wagner, and other conservatives the chance to disagree vehemently with the administration. But, Shelley notes, “these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party. This is not to suggest that hosts don’t genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.”
Selective Facts - Shelley notes that it is often difficult to refute the arguments of a host such as Sykes, who builds “strong case[s] with lots of supporting facts.” Shelley notes that usually “those facts have been selectively chosen because they support the host’s preconceived opinion, or can be interpreted to seem as if they do.… Hosts… gather evidence, but in a way that modifies the old Joe Friday maxim: ‘Just the facts that I can use to make my case, ma’am.’”
Rhetorical Strategies - Shelley writes of the two main strategies conservatives (and presumably other talk show hosts of other political stripes) use to bolster weak arguments or refute strong opposing points of view. He calls them “You Know What Would Happen If” and “The Preemptive Strike.”
Shelley writes: “Using the first strategy, a host will describe something a liberal has said or done that conservatives disagree with, but for which the liberal has not been widely criticized, and then say: ‘You know what would happen if a conservative had said (or done) that? He (or she) would have been filleted by the “liberal media.”’ This is particularly effective because it’s a two-fer, simultaneously reinforcing the notion that conservatives are victims and that ‘liberals’ are the enemy.”
He then notes: “The second strategy, The Preemptive Strike, is used when a host knows that news reflecting poorly on conservative dogma is about to break or become more widespread. When news of the alleged massacre at Haditha first trickled out in the summer of 2006, not even Iraq War chest-thumper Charlie Sykes would defend the US Marines accused of killing innocent civilians in the Iraqi village. So he spent lots of air time criticizing how the ‘mainstream media’ was sure to sensationalize the story in the coming weeks. Charlie would kill the messengers before any message had even been delivered.”
Such strategies, and others, are reliable and effective, Shelley notes.
Double Standards - Shelley gives numerous examples of the hosts’ double standards with various issues.
“In the talk show world, the line-item veto was the most effective way to control government spending when Ronald Reagan was president; it was a violation of the separation of powers after President Clinton took office.”
“Perjury was a heinous crime when Clinton was accused of lying under oath about his extramarital activities. But when [Lewis ‘Scooter’] Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, was charged with lying under oath, it was the prosecutor who had committed an egregious act by charging Libby with perjury.”
“‘Activist judges’ are the scourge of the earth when they rule it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the rights heterosexuals receive. But judicial activism is needed to stop the husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state—say Terri Schiavo—from removing her feeding tube to end her suffering.”
Shelley adds: “To amuse myself while listening to a talk show, I would ask myself what the host would say if the situation were reversed. What if alleged DC Madam client Senator David Vitter [R-LA] had been a Democrat? Would the reaction of talk show hosts have been so quiet you could hear crickets chirping? Hardly. Or what if former Representative Mark Foley [R-FL] had been a Democrat? Would his pedophile-like tendencies have been excused as a ‘prank’ or mere ‘overfriendly emails?’ Not on the life of your teenage son. Suppose Al Gore was president and ordered an invasion of Iraq without an exit strategy. Suppose this had led to the deaths of more than 4,000 US troops and actually made that part of the world less stable. Would talk show hosts have dismissed criticism of that war as unpatriotic? No chance. Or imagine that John Kerry had been president during Hurricane Katrina and that his administration’s rescue and rebuilding effort had been horribly botched. Would talk show hosts have branded him a great president? Of course not.”
Katrina an Epiphany - Shelley notes that it was Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of that disaster that convinced him conservative talk show hosts such as Sykes and Wagner were extremists, and not merely a counterbalance to a left-skewed national media. Shelley was horrified when Sykes and Wagner, emulating their more prominent nationally syndicated colleagues such as Limbaugh and Miller, did not criticize the government’s lethally slow and callous response, but instead attacked the journalists who were obviously part of an “angry left” conspiracy to unfairly smear the Bush administration.
Conclusion - Shelley writes: “[T]he key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners. And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons. Because of that, there will always be listeners who believe that Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner, and their compatriots are the only members of the media who truly care about them.” (Shelley 11/13/2008; WTMJ-AM 11/13/2008)
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