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Radio Shock

Hegemonic talk radio programming carries with it the mechanism of its own self-destruction: its potential for deprogramming an otherwise fully programmed aspect of popular entertainment.
Patrick Burkart

Issue #23, December 1995

American liberals are largely unexposed to the barrage of AM commercial radio programming. This is a tragedy of epic proportions because AM is a territory where they can find some of their nearest and dearest ideals systematically destroyed and replaced by a new anti-democratic ideology. Right-wing, liberal-bashing talk radio is one of the most popular kinds of entertainment available today, and Liberals tune it out at their own expense. Maybe out of preference for balanced, documentary programming, live talk radio is unfairly ignored by the liberal media menu altogether. Could it be that this has, in part, permitted the New Right to claim some vast propagandistic territory won by opportunistic political positioning-and-maneuvering? Perhaps, from the liberal perspective, AM operates secretly and behind the back of level-headed, well-educated professional elites.

But perhaps not.

In 'The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of The Lord,' in Bad Subjects issue #21, Joel Schalit argues that the politically ascendant Religious Right operates in the open, across the wide bandwidth of mass media, but that it does so in bad faith, obscuring its cruel and highly calculating political intentions:

...[T]he religious right is repeating the Nazi tactic of disguising its own xenophobia through a strategy of deliberate and calculated self-marginalization. But the Evangelical community lacks a Versailles Treaty to blame its woes upon. The only difference between the new religious prejudice and its fascist predecessor is that it has simply replaced Jew with liberal and the free market with democracy.

Schalit's thesis is challenging because it calls attention to the most extreme cases of contemporary Republican propaganda. Contemporary political talk-radio programming in the United States is fueled with highly inflammatory, agitational, partisan political messages, interactively constituted within contemporary media markets. The rhetorical techniques used and the enormous appeal that dominant talk-radio themes have to economically unstable, chronically underemployed, electronically mobilized white commuters helped cinch many religious Republican appointments to the Unites States Congress in November, 1994.

As important as radio has become to the new conservative hegemony, the new administrative apparatus has a deep and complex history which deserves to be explored in order to understand the complexities of the new power of talk radio. The only period of history prior to the conservative revolution when broadcasting assumed the kind of significance that it has achieved today was the thirties and forties. Before we even begin to consider how to confront the technological hegemony of the New Right we need to understand radio as a propagandistic medium for mobilizing political assent and consensus building, and apply this understanding to the phenomena of right wing talk radio.

Civil Society or Circuit City?
Propaganda Theories in Comparison

There are different ways to approach political propaganda, all of which, at some level, understand propaganda as a kind of manipulation which commands obedience in the most cruel and demeaning ways possible. In Theodor Adorno's The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, in some of his smaller pieces on radio, and in The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno is obsessed with the ugly side of American culture industries. In all these works, Adorno's materialist perspective operates to explain extreme conservatism and fascism as predictable outcomes of technological domination of thought through the medium of modern culture industries such as talk radio.

Adorno's materialist orientation eventually found an outlet in writings about empirical obedience studies and American politics and culture. His cultural studies of anti-Semitism led him to an early interest in radio technology. In American radio history Adorno found rich veins of propaganda to mine for an argument about elite control of government and capital.

One of the basic assumptions of the empirical studies of American authoritarianism in The Authoritarian Personality was that the modern state and market forces mesh together to prepare the mass and their psyches for intensive, protracted propaganda campaigns. Adorno's personal experiences of persecution and exile for being Jewish in Germany profoundly influenced his belief that electronic propaganda techniques serve the interest of capital in its most brutal forms.

Slightly later than Adorno, Jacques Ellul considered propaganda to be a natural, ambivalent aspect of intensifying social rationalization in civil society. 'Not only is propaganda itself a technique, it is also an indispensable condition for the development of historical progress and the establishment of a technological civilization...Propaganda is usually regarded as an evil; this in itself makes a study difficult. To study anything properly, one must put aside ethical judgments.' This was certainly not Adorno's approach to repressive social manipulation through electronic mass media — indeed, Adorno criticized this scientific attitude rigorously in his polemics against Karl Popper.

In Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, Ellul argued that propaganda is a condition of modern progress because propaganda is the way symbols become common currency and support progressive political and social movements. But if wielded by an evil state, propaganda can be misused in lying campaigns, exerting secret, nefarious, and manipulative effects on society. Ellul notes a tendency for propaganda to become one of the most repressive institutional characteristics of modern state systems and warns the many readers of this internationally best-selling book to be vigilant and critical of manipulative media campaigns.

While not explicitly political, Ellul's book nevertheless has an implicit political philosophy of propaganda. On the one hand, it emphasizes the realpolitik of campaigns for maintenance or control of the state, and on the other hand it appeals to counterfactual conditions of pre-technocratic democracy. Ellul elicits neoclassical notions of virtuous, democratic government on the one hand, and on the other hand decries the tyrannies of organized lying campaigns in the manner of Hannah Arendt. His institutional approach is interesting for its material and symbolic dimensions, and for its comparative approach.

In the eighties, Jean Baudrillard wrote about media manipulation, but in his writings the political uses of spectacular culture are alluded to without particular attribution to specific regimes or political traditions. Nevertheless, his 'Implosion of Meaning in the Media' in the book In the Shadow of the Silent Majority is the closest thing to a contemporary political theory of propaganda that we have today, because it directly addresses how the contemporary technologies of professional journalists and shock jocks, operating on radio and television, sustain levels of political support and symbols of cultural legitimacy by staging a never-ending spectacle in the popular media.

Baudrillard himself writes spectacular prose, sacrificing social science analysis for metaphor. This has cost him a potentially wide American social science audience. His sardonic assertion that 'the Gulf War never happened' alienated and confused many readers who opposed the Gulf War. However, his intensive focus on the self-sustaining plays of symbols often unleashes some startling insights into the propagandistic uses of mass media. Baudrillard is a premiere postmodern theorist of power, and Shadow is one of the rare and delightful tracts dedicated to discussing contemporary media in a sociologically astute way. In places, he verges on a paranoid, subjectless conspiracy theory, writing of all popular electronic mass communication — and, notably emphasizing talk radio — as 'a gigantic process of simulation' and 'blackmail through speech.' Talk radio is a replacement for authentic political participation. 'All say: 'It's your concern, you are the event, etc.' ... It is a circular set-up in which the desire of the audience is put on stage, [in] an anti-theater of communication.'

Radio Jihad: Republican Talk Radio in 1994

I now turn to talk radio's tremendous success in the 1990s to show how technology has been utilized by partisan politics to construct the appearances of a conservative 'revolution,' and how the Republican 'revolution' is now threatened by the talk radio technology that took it to the national Congress in 1994. Shock radio is a technocratic forum, portraying its ideological perspective at an Archimedian point outside 'the media' delivering daily, oracular, absolutist insights. Rush Limbaugh reminds his audience regularly that he is the only voice of the truth in 'the media,' as does Roger Fredinburg and a host of other shock radio revolutionaries.

Better than any other technology, talk radio constitutes conservative political orthodoxy in American politics. Listeners are re-persuaded daily that they are participating in a democratic political reality when, in fact, talk radio callers and listeners inhabit a private virtual reality and fly into rhetorical fisticuffs at invisible 'liberals' who are closing in with Communism, the United Nations, the Gay Agenda, and so forth. On-air public lashing of the traditionally scapegoated groups are mirrored in congressional legislation.

Listeners perform speech acts of affirmation or disgust on live radio for a host and an audience whose interactions are a mirror turned upon topics believed to be responsible for the stuff of 'public opinion.' This is one of the reasons people take it seriously and suspend disbelief when participating in talk radio. Actually, the programs they are hearing are carefully pre-planned and controlled by marketing, advertising, and broadcasting technology. The effect is a semi-public electronic forum populated by estranged participants who don't know each other except as characters in an imaginary and endless storybook punctuated with lawn care ads.

The Authoritarian Personalities

Talk-radio shock jocks are the glaziers of the mass media, setting up virtual funhouses of glass and mirrors in which to trap radio listeners. But these mirror-men then audaciously proclaim the transparency of their talk-radio traps, insisting that their programs tap directly into uncorrupted sentiment ('truth' in Limbaugh lexicon) that set their program apart from the rest of 'the media.'

The most popular, national, and local talk show hosts earn (sometimes lucrative) reputations as democrats, but deserve more properly to be called technocrats. They portray themselves as beneficent benefactors of a democratic technology, giving the radio over to 'the public' and laying claim to detecting the very pulse of public opinion of the body politic. This is nothing more than technocratic bio-feedback. These shows do not reflect popular opinion, so much as construct the false appearance of a unified public opinion in the rhetoric of the talk show host.

On the market, talk radio is inherently conservative because disagreement and dissent are programmed out of talk radio shows de facto, by reaching only those audiences with lifestyles that support consumption of this entertainment technology. Technologically speaking, the mobile phone craze has facilitated talk radio's market growth and ease of transition into a hegemonic propaganda format.

Talk-radio markets are flexible networks of feedback between talk-show hosts, advertisers, the cars of commuters and people who commute to car by work. It's important to note that cellular telephony has followed the growth of the increasingly underemployed and contracted-out, privatized work force and has meant that an entire class of working people could make cellular phone calls from their private cars during commutes. These cellular calls are very often prioritized by talk show hosts, put at the top of the waiting list to get on the air.

If consumers make it to the phone to dial, they are then further screened for suitability, put on hold for thirty minutes, and even then their conversations with the hosts are finally processed through a seven second delay. The delay — a technology supposedly designed to guarantee filth-free radio — also allows the host the 'preemptive strike' capability that can cut a caller's words off completely, and even erase his or her speech, without the audience's knowledge.

These technologies leave listeners with the impression that there is a preexisting consensus, community standard, or moral code, confirmed with every call, along which all listener-callers should align. Even if the caller claims to 'disagree' with the host or his caller-allies, he or she really agrees with the iceberg of talk radio ethics lurking beneath the controversial tip. Rush Limbaugh's 'dittohead' clone phenomenon is the North American equivalent of Sieg Heil!

Shock Radio: Nineties Agit-Prop

The reason for talk radio's newfound prominence among the mass media is the authoritarian character of its on-air personalities, or hosts. In the desiccated, frosty regions of high-altitude, AM talk radio in the United States, only a few species of chilly talk radio personalities have carved out niches for themselves and nested. This harsh geography starves out all but the heartiest and authoritarian of on-air personalities. Mere survival in these radio homesteads requires taking extraordinarily harsh and energetic rhetorical measures to sustain interest and market-share.

It's tempting to argue that the propaganda value of radio programming is greater than that of television programming, but this argument would be misleading. Radio is no more monological than TV, despite some reflexivity built into both media in the form of interactive or 'call-in' programming. Moreover, radio listening as well as TV viewing is associated with leisure and leisurely activities, but considered functionally, these are both but new varieties of consumptive work generated by globally integrating economies which can increasingly produce more value with less and less labor.

Right-wing AM talk radio was blessed with highly profitable markets in the 1990s, and until 1994, it could claim commercial success and simultaneously enjoy identifying with underdog Republican interests. Limbaugh used his record-setting radio ratings to launch a nightly cable program and several books of his own, yet he has never tired of complaining about the control of the press and popular culture by 'liberals.'

Using Clinton's election in 1992 as a basis for a backlash, talk show programs directed momentum-building campaigns of mass fax-and-phone call petitions to national politicians, especially in response to changing federal policies towards abortion restrictions, discrimination against gays and lesbians, and strengthening national educational standards. It was nationally syndicated Christian talk radio programs such as 'Point of View' with Marlon Mattox, 'Break Point' with born-again, ex-Watergate con Charles 'Tex' Colson, and 'Beverly Le Haye Live,' among hundreds of similar programs, which claimed great victories with fax and phone blitzing campaigns before November, 1994.

Timeline to 1994

In Spiritual Warfare, Sara Diamond provides an excellent but now almost out-of-date historical account of the growth of radio and television empires such as Trinity Broadcasting and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Diamond outlined how the Reagan Revolution propagandized the then-unorthodox utilization of alternative, 'Christian' media outlets. Since the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Republicans have been able to achieve far more profound consolidation of power by mobilizing reactionary political sentiment in talk radio.

The first such use of talk radio was against Clinton's lifting of the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. The topic was the daily bait of talk radio show hosts around the country for nearly three months, and syndicated programs took advertisements for a new cottage industry of videotapes such as 'The Gay Agenda' in which 'gay experts' explain that all gays and lesbians prey on children, and are harbingers of disease and symbols of national decay. On the air, a thousand talk radio shows became bully pulpits for stridently homophobic hate campaigns, as talk show hosts and preachers merged their attacks against the dangers of homosexuality.

The second major wave of radio-administered populist complaint with the new administration came during Jocelyn Elders' abbreviated tenure as U.S. Surgeon General. Elders was widely ridiculed by Rush Limbaugh and his national and local clones for her emphatic denouncing of moralistic public policies favored by religious Republicans. Elders addressed the growing stable of punitive, federal public policies accumulated during twelve years of Republican executive leadership, including criminal sentences for drug abusers and abstinence-only sex education in public schools.

The Christian fundamentalists, predictable talk radio listeners and 'dittoheads' obeyed months of repeated instructions and pulled the levers on November 4, 1994. Talk radio claimed responsibility for the Republican Revolution, and rightfully so. Support from these large markets of disenchanted service industry workers added considerably to the money, coordination, and votes of big business interests with traditional Republican affiliations.

With much fanfare, the Republicans rolled into office. Suddenly, anti-Clinton, anti-incumbency, anti-establishment rhetoric had to give way to something new and reflective of the Democratic rout. Rush Limbaugh changed his introductory message, 'America Held Hostage (... by the Clinton Administration)' to 'America — The Way it Oughta Be (... with Republicans finally in charge).'

The voting, self-identified conservative underdogs tuned in to hear themselves praised as democratic revolutionaries and everyman-visionaries. Talk radio, while a new and exploding market for political media, is not an original source of Republican experimentation and novelty. In fact, the hype of Rush Limbaugh and other self-identified 'mainstream' (i.e. conservative) personalities on AM are the surface effect of a far more profound sea change in talk radio programming. On shortwave radio, call-in talk shows catering exclusively to racist, survivalist, right-wing audiences have proliferated in the past ten years. (For a list of current shortwave programs,

Shortwave broadcasters from the Patriot movement and The National Alliance floated the first rhetorical trial balloons in interactive programming on abortion, gun rights, gay rights, 'P.C.,' and the multitudinous, inflammatory political discourses which have since suffused shock radio on the AM dial. The Republican Party learned from shortwave, and made tremendous advances in 1994 using interactive talk radio technology. They are now learning from the electronic bulletin boards, Internet news groups, and web pages that have been used by the most extreme, violent, extra-political culture warriors in the United States (National Alliance, KKK, Christian Identity, and other 'Cyber Hate' sites) for propaganda. Party politicians and presidential wanna-bes have also begun to appropriate these decentralized technologies for controlled campaign purposes.

As long as Republican party-sponsored talk radio programmers could claim underdog status, it was in every programmer's best interest to portray unity and solidarity within the party. But ever since the congressional elections and the Oklahoma City bombings, the Republican party has shown strains, as the milleniarist counter-cultural fundamentalists go underground, the Christian Coalition collects new adherents, and moderate Republicans balk and show signs of moving Independent.

Meanwhile, new Republican presidential hopefuls seem to join the race monthly, pressing all the troublesome social agenda buttons at once in trying to upstage the competition. In this fractious political environment, talk radio can only play a divisive role in the Republican discourse. The technology is exaggerating the divisive function of the rhetoric. Pat Buchanan's radio commercials are suddenly accentuating the many differences within the party which threaten the convictions of his saved constituency, and his fundamentalist Christian competitor Alan Keyes is making his own debuts on syndicated talk radio programs across the country. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh has unveiled his 'kook test' designed to identify listeners who do not toe the party line.

Talk Radio's Contribution to Party Realignment

As party lines become increasingly polarized, American party politics are more vulnerable to exit today than any other time in 100 years. Ross Perot's third party experimentation in 1992 drew away more moderate votes from Bush than conservative votes from Clinton. The Republicans' present-day experiences with Log Cabin Republicans, Christian Coalitionists, and other renegade factions are rendering many unspoken consensuses and quiet tolerances audible.

Shock radio technology is still too autonomous for party leaders to exert message management or spin control in time to prevent ugly factions and in-fighting. This problem of uncontrollability emerged for the first time with the Republican victories in 1994. Now in late 1995, it is finally coming to the surface of popular talk radio discourse, as Republicans begin to compete with each other in talk radio terrain for eventual control of the White House.

Hegemonic talk radio programming carries with it the mechanism of its own self-destruction: its reflexivity and potential for deprogramming an otherwise fully programmed aspect of popular entertainment. Corporate and conservative control of talk radio markets and messages notwithstanding, the technology still has enough of a spark to help break apart some of the contradictory positions of Republican rhetoric in the fractious political environment. Despite Rush Limbaugh's increasingly vehement assertions to the contrary, talk radio is assisting the Republican Party's disintegration into two parties.

While the windbag Rush Limbaugh, the Christian conspiracy theorist Beverly LeHaye, the ex-con and First Amendment champion G. Gordon Liddy, and all the other frigid Republican personalities served their purpose well back in the heyday of shock radio, they may now be among the Party's worst liabilities.

Patrick Burkart is a professional social sciences researcher living in Austin, Texas. He is co-founder of (Sub)Tex magazine and Goy Division Online Services. He recently received his MA in Political Science from McGill University. He can be reached at and

Copyright © 1995 by Patrick Burkart. All rights reserved.