A generation or two ago, a childhood riddle — which works better orally than in writing — posed the question: What’s black and white and re(a)d all over? Answer: The newspaper.
Now that newspapers are supposedly dead, and the remaining ones are using four-color printing on almost every page, the riddle needs to be restated: What’s black and white, heard by millions, and immensely profitable? Answer: Talk radio.
That’s the thesis of Brian Rosenwald, a media historian at the University of Pennsylvania whose doctoral dissertation, “Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy,” is being published in 2018 by the Harvard University Press. Rosenwald, a 2006 undergraduate alumnus of Penn, spoke recently at the Present Day Club in Princeton. I was there as a guest and took furious notes.
The Rush in Rosenwald’s dissertation title is Rush Limbaugh, whose politically influential nationally syndicated show began airing in 1988. But, contrary to what some of us today might believe, Limbaugh didn’t start the radio show to advance his political ideology. In fact, says Rosenwald, “Limbaugh’s love was radio, not politics.” And his goal was not to proselytize but to entertain and to build an audience that would make him successful. “The political repercussion” of talk radio’s huge conservative audience, Rosenwald says, “is a complete accident.”
Limbaugh had a head start over many of his on-air competitors because his father owned a radio station. Nevertheless he was fired from at least three previous jobs before getting the gig that turned into his long-running gold mine. Given that he wasn’t really genuinely concerned with current political issues, Limbaugh accepted fewer calls on his show than the typical talk radio shows. Limbaugh’s show become all about what and who he liked and what and who he did not like.
The good thing about opinions is that they can be rendered in black and white. Talking about the nuances of a social issue or a Congressional procedure is boring, Rosenwald says. “Black and white thinking is entertaining.”
“What the left has to understand,” says Rosenwald, “is that Rush Limbaugh is a completely talented guy.” He and others like him, Rosenwald says, are on the air because of their ratings. Some of the executives booking their shows are “card-carrying Democrats. They will tell you it was a business decision — neither red nor blue, they are green.”
And the black and white opinions resonate with the audience, often white men “maligned by the cultural elite,” in Rosenwald’s view. And that resonance, it turns out, has a special effect in terms of influencing public opinion. “Some people spend more time listening to talk radio than they do with their spouses,” he says. The host becomes a virtual friend of the listener. When that friend tells you how to think, you listen. Says Rosenwald: “it’s always more important when a friend tells you something.”
A member of the audience at the Present Day Club asked Rosenwald why liberals haven’t been able to use talk radio to cement a similar relationship with their base.
When Limbaugh and others sprang to their national prominence, people left of center already had a fair number of media sources to which they could turn, Rosenwald believes, including National Public Radio. Perhaps more importantly, he says, when liberals tried to build liberal networks such as Air America, “they didn’t try to put on the most entertaining show,” as people like Limbaugh did.
Moreover, Rosenwald says, “conservative grievances tend to be more personalized. Liberal causes are much more nuanced.”
In the 2000 presidential election Al Gore’s campaign had to react to a woman living in a rental house owned by Gore who complained that the house was in disrepair and the toilet leaked. Most of the national news media decided the tenant-landlord story was not relevant to the campaign, but, says Rosenwald, “to talk radio this was like catnip.”
About a week after the Rosenwald talk, I heard Sally Bedell Smith speak on her new biography, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life.” Now Charles may not exactly be catnip for the conservative talk radio (though Rush Limbaugh did take a few shots at the prince and the royal family, referring to them as “the biggest welfare case in the UK” when Charles suggested that capitalists could take a more active approach in the fight against global warming). But the queen’s eldest son is certainly a subject made for black and white coverage, in which the gossip columnists are as adept as any talk radio hosts.
You know Charles. He’s the sorry bloke who has spent his entire adult life hanging around waiting for his mother to die so that he can do the only job he’s qualified for. Trouble is that she’s 91 and still going strong (her mother lived to 101); he’s 68 and going nowhere.
You know Charles. He’s one of the cold fish royals whose parents shook hands with him when they returned after a six-month world tour (he was just five years old at the time). He grew up to become the ice cold husband who could only melt into the background while his hot young wife, Diana, stole the hearts of the public (and a few dashing suitors). On a royal trip to Canada in 1991, after Charles and Diana had been away from their children for the day, it was Diana who raced up to warmly bear-hug young William and Harry. Charles was — according to the press — cold-hearted even with his own two boys.
If anyone knows this dismal character, it should be Smith, whose other biographical subjects include Queen Elizabeth II (published in 2012) and Princess Diana (in 1999, two years after Diana’s death). Smith’s audience at the Union League Club in Philadelphia was not one that she could easily fool with some gossip magazine nonsense — it was a gathering of the Royal Oak Foundation, the American charity that supports Britain’s National Trust, the group that serves as a conservator of the country’s historic sites.
Rather than entertain the Anglophiles with scurrilous gossip, Smith educates them — illuminating in many tones of gray the man known to many of us only in black and white.
The fully rendered view of Charles should mention that he created scores of charities, wrote nine books, and built a model town in which streets were designed for pedestrians rather than cars. Charles, Smith tells the Royal Oak group, is the first heir to the throne to be educated outside the palace as a child and the first heir to earn a university degree. The prince is also a former Naval officer and licensed pilot of both jets and helicopters, an accomplished artist, a critic of modern architecture, an organic gardener whose country hideaway is a hut with no electricity, as well as “a bundle of insecurities,” in Smith’s words.
My favorite story is Smith’s account of that highly publicized reunion of Charles and Diana with their two boys. As she writes in her biography, “the images picked up by newspapers and magazines around the world were of Diana racing toward her boys and radiating love. A photo of Charles embracing William only appeared in a few places in Latin America and Canada. Those who witnessed the scene at close range were touched by Charles’s uncharacteristically public display of affection, but that was not the story the press wanted to tell.”
In a black and white world, shades of gray presented in a nearly 600-page book show the true colors. At her Philadelphia talk Smith quotes one of Charles’s sons: “I wish people would just give my father a break.”