How Talk Radio Has Ruined the Republican Party

I try not to listen to talk radio, but sometimes it's just there and, almost always, it seems like it's there merely to drive me insane. I want to call in and wait my turn in the queue with 200 other angry people, most of whom I don't think can even spell queue. Then I take a deep breath and remember that talk radio is slowly ruining the Republican Party.

Members of the energized right are spending time yelling at the top of their lungs about any number of perceived assaults on their values while politically motivated individuals on the left are utilizing new-media tools at a rate that should be alarming to conservatives. Others have expounded on the advantage liberal activists have gained from embracing the Web, including in fundraising and GOTV efforts, but few have noticed how a reliance on talk radio has provided diminishing returns for Republicans seeking elected office.

Conservative talk radio, as an alternative to what many believe is the traditional "liberal" media, has been a powerful force in American politics. It has provided a tool for conservatives to disseminate ideas, organize campaigns and keep stories alive. But a reliance on the radio and a resistance to Internet-based tools is becoming a liability.

Though it may have been useful in a previous era, talk radio is severely limited in what it can produce for Republican candidates compared to other media. The reasons?

1. Talk Radio Hosts Merely Preach to the Choir
Pundits on the right are speaking to a group of voters who have already made up their minds about the issues and thus aren't likely to be swayed any further. There's a value to talking to your base, but it isn't a way to get new supporters and, given the fickleness of talk radio hosts, moderate Republicans run a risk by getting involved.

2. Angry Phone Calls Aren't Google-able
A caller may spend all afternoon crafting what he thinks is a witty rant but, after he shares it, the thought dies in space. Even if a show is broadcast online or saved as a podcast, it isn't a searchable item. On the other hand, a blog post (like one on the maligned liberal blog DailyKos) is searchable. This is why searching for "Joe McCarthy Michele Bachmann" brings up some 73,000 results, none of them positive.

Even if someone takes what he hears on the radio and e-mails it to his friends, you run into the problem addressed above. If the strange e-mails I get attempting to convince me that Barack Obama was raised in the hills of Afghanistan are any indication, those e-mail lists are mostly closed loops full of people with @aol.com addresses. Most people I know attempt to get off them as quickly, and nicely (since the e-mails occasionally come from e-mails), as possible.

3. Radio Items are Less Actionable
Being able to get someone so upset that they go out and vote or send a brick to a congressman has always been one of the strong benefits of radio. Unfortunately, there's a limit to what radio can do relative to the Web. The biggest example of this gap is in fundraising. Republicans are running out of steam, being significantly out-raised by Democrats.

A good example came this week when GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) said on “Hardball” that the media should investigate members of Congress to determine who was and who was not anti-American. This little HUAC flashback led to a liberal blog firestorm, with lefty bloggers encouraging readers to give to the opponent. Using fundraising fast-track site ActBlue, groups like "Bloggers against new McCarythism" were able to raise more than $128,000 in a short amount of time from 2,720 donors for Bachmann's challenger.

On Slatecard.com, the underutilized Republican answer to ActBlue, Michele Bachmann has only raised $186 from 13 voters despite talk radio support. This could be because of the technology gap, but that just goes to prove my point.

4. Talk Radio Works ... To the Republicans’ Disadvantage
Does talk radio still work? Yes. It's an especially powerful force in getting people to jam the phones of legislators in order to affect policy. Unfortunately for the GOP, the people who call represent an increasingly small part of the American electorate.

Credit goes to the radio pundits and their listeners for killing immigration reform, a move that hasn't proved a winner for Republicans and is partially to blame for McCain underperforming among Latinos. Additionally, the anger focused towards supporters of the bailout sent the Republicans scrambling in a way unappealing to voters. Oh yeah, and Terry Schiavo. Those are some winning issues right there.

Do they drive the agenda? Sure. Do Republicans benefit from it? Not as much as they used to.

For many reasons, liberals had a difficult time breaking into the world of talk radio, eventually leading a group of progressives to create Air America in advance of the 2004 presidential election. It was providence that it took us that long to get our act together, because in its place we created a news-generating, voter-organizing and fundraising network that continues to help elect Democrats.

As Craig Newmark pointed out Monday, in a democracy the Internet can be a powerful tool, one that is far more powerful than the radio. As long as Republicans lean on talk radio they'll be at a distinct advantage. As Messrs. Williams and Christie, et al, have shown here, not all conservatives are averse to using the Web. Unfortunately for the GOP, they're in the minority.

To quote Elvis Costello from his song “Radio, Radio”:

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio