Many a conservative career were built on the back of Bill Clinton's shenanigans. The Drudge Report evolved from the obscure project of some basement dweller to a go-to news source after it started breaking news about the president's relationship with a White House intern. Dick Morris can likely attribute his successful transformation from a creepy Clinton political operative to a creepy political commentator to the nation's hunger for insider knowledge of the Clinton marriage in light of Monicagate. And of course, the thrice divorced Rush Limbaugh probably increased his dittoheadship exponentially as the nation sought a champion of traditional family values.
However, it was not only Clinton's failures that provided a boon to right wing talk radio. If anything lined Limbaugh's pockets, it was one of the Democratic Party's successes: The Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The act overhauled existing restrictions on ownership of radio stations. The idea was to allow for more competition by allowing media companies to compete in multiple markets and buy multiple radio stations in a single market. Instead of being limited to four radio stations per market, big companies are now allowed to buy eight. The result has been more radio stations but considerably fewer different owners. For instance, Clear Channel, the largest radio owner in the company, went from 65 stations in 1996 to 1,200 stations in 2003.
The product is terrible. Clear Channel, for instance, determines almost all of its programming for both music and talk radio at the national level. If you listen to a Clear Channel music station, chances are the DJ you are listening to is talking from the "DJ factory" in Florida, where he or she is paid a pittance to to do multiple shows in multiple markets every day. As for talk radio, local hosts have been cast aside for syndicated ones, who obviously pay no attention to local issues and events. Many radio stations are now ghost-towns, employing only a few people to oversee the programming of syndicated shows.
Furthermore, my belief is that even the local hosts who have survived are increasingly pressured to fit the mold of the syndicated hosts they compete with or accompany. Vicki McKenna, for instance, is a host cast in the mold of Rush and Sean Hannity, who she follows daily on WIBA. The Clear Channel format for talk radio is clear (no pun intended): Provocative talk works, thoughtful or nuanced discussion does not. As a result, many radio listeners have no where to go to find insight of things that matter to them on a local level -- those issues are deemed too small to merit rants, or too expensive for corporate HQ in New York and LA to employ personnel to cover.
The 1996 Act was one of many examples of a "pro-competition" bill that in fact fosters the opposite: Monopolization. Similar to the 1999 overhaul of the Glass-Steagall Act, which removed barriers between commercial banking and investment banking, the Telecommunications Act handed over an industry to a few giants, at the expense of small business and likely at the expense of consumers.
In the past, Rush Limbaugh became successful because he was a cheap and entertaining mid-day show that local stations purchased as a bridge for their local shows in the morning and afternoon. Now, however, those local shows have often been replaced by considerably less skilled versions of Limbaugh, such as Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Dennis Miller. These hosts have nothing unique to offer local audiences, but their voices keep the conservative listenership who tune in for Rush satisfied, even if they offer little more than regurgitations of his program from earlier that day.
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