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How Conservatives Dominate TV/Radio Talk Game

The end of progressive talk in Los Angeles underscores the advantage conservatives hold

In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama garnered almost 69% of the vote in Los Angeles County, vs. 29% for Mitt Romney. Yet beginning Jan. 1, the U.S.’ second-largest media market lacks a dedicated progressive talkradio station, as KTLK-AM became the Patriot, espousing “True American values,” anchored by Rush Limbaugh.

KTLK’s format change, along with Limbaugh’s demotion from KFI-AM to its weaker-signaled sister station, raises an interesting question: Why can’t liberals talk — or more accurately, why can’t they get more people to watch and listen?

Sure, there’s MSNBC, but its ratings lag far behind those of Fox News Channel. Air America, an attempt to counter conservative voices in radio, was a mismanaged disaster. Current TV tried to set itself up as a liberal alternative, and eventually threw in the towel, selling out to Al Jazeera America.

Some conservatives would no doubt attribute this to a talent deficit, but the ranks of gifted blowhards can’t be limited to one ideology. Liberals blame the tilted playing field on consolidated radio ownership by vertically integrated groups like Clear Channel, which favor right-leaning views.

“Broadcast radio is hurting itself,” says Ron Hartenbaum of WYD Media Management, who manages talk personalities like Thom Hartmann and Stephanie Miller. “If you continue to take away program choice, consumers who want that choice will find it somewhere else.”

Indeed, Hartenbaum cites robust growth for progressive talk in newer venues — including satellite radio, mobile apps and video simulcasts of programs — as evidence of the shift, and the viability of such personalities.

Still, the roots of liberals’ handicap run deeper than that, and can be traced not just to the head start conservatives have enjoyed — Limbaugh launched his show a quarter-century ago, inspiring a horde of imitators — but to old-fashioned marketing, enhanced by newfangled twists.

Since its advent, conservative talk has positioned itself as a counterweight to a media ecosystem its purveyors portray as heavily stacked in liberals’ favor. Hosts regularly cite data about the disproportionate number of journalists who identify as Democrats, suggesting it’s impossible for Republicans to receive a fair shake.

The solution? Listen to us for the unvarnished story — or the “fair and balanced” one.

If that argument gained traction during the Clinton administration, it snowballed with Obama occupying the White House — someone presented as antagonistic to “true American values” and, to quote Glenn Beck, “the most radical president ever.”

Somehow, though, the cheerleading liberal media hasn’t sufficiently discredited him. And despite Sean Hannity’s prediction in 2010 that Obama’s “extremism” would lead to “conservative victory” and “a new political era,” the guy somehow got re-elected.

All of which merely reinforces, pretty brilliantly, the rationale for conservative talk. Even when the Republican Party loses, talkradio wins.

What remains puzzling is why progressives — particularly in some deep-blue bastions like L.A. — don’t appear to support like-minded media in numbers approaching the tune-in and ratings enjoyed by conservatives.

The conservative audience does skew somewhat older, and is thus more willing to watch or listen to news and opinion in general. By contrast, many who harbor progressive views get their fix elsewhere — say, from “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” or “Real Time With Bill Maher,” which cloak predominantly liberal viewpoints in comedy and satire.

A spoonful of entertainment, in other words, helps the ideology go down.

While there are plenty of successful progressive hosts — from Hartmann to Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes to Ed Schultz — they remain outgunned, and out-shouted, by the right’s bigger, older and better-marketed megaphone.

But Hartenbaum insists that’s changing, with new technology facilitating an end run around liberal radio hosts’ self-defeating reliance on weaker terrestrial signals. So if the L.A. market doesn’t have room for a progressive station to offset a handful of conservative ones, liberal voices can still be heard.

Granted, working in those alternative venues won’t  generate Limbaugh-like income (he signed a reported eight-year, $400-million contract in 2008), but cracking the code will certainly propel a few liberals into an enviable tax bracket — the kind where cynics will wonder why on Earth they’re not voting Republican.

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