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Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio

Jeffrey M. Berrya1 and Sarah Sobieraja2

a1 Tufts University

a2 Tufts University

Abstract

The number of radio stations airing political talk shows—predominantly conservative talk radio—has surged in the past few years. This massive change in the radio industry says something about the demand for such shows, but attributing the rise of talk radio to a corresponding rise in conservative popular opinion is misleading. We argue that this remarkable growth is better explained by the collision of two changes that have transformed the radio business: deregulation and the mainstreaming of digital music technologies. Regulatory changes have shifted much of radio production and control from local to mass production (managed by industry giants such as Clear Channel Communications) and created a context ripe for nationally syndicated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin. Meanwhile, rapid technological changes have given consumers more control over the way they listen to music. Technologies such as MP3 players, Internet radio, smart phones, and Pandora Radio have made it more difficult for stations with a music format to be profitable. As music programming has become more problematic, many stations have developed a highly successful business model by converting to talk formats airing nationally syndicated shows.

(Online publication October 18 2011)

Jeffrey M. Berry is Skuse Professor of Political Science at Tufts University. His books include The New Liberalism, A Voice for Nonprofits, and Lobbying and Policy Change. He is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of American Political Parties and Interest Groups. He can be reached at jeffrey.berry@tufts.edu.

Sarah Sobieraj is an assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University. Her most recent research on political media can be found in Political Communication and Social Problems, as well as in her (2011) book Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism. She can be reached at sarah.sobieraj@tufts.edu.

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