Radio talk shows command attention these days and 70% take the conservative view, according to Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the trade publication Talkers Magazine.
Despite the enormous success of talk radio, liberal talk show hosts in the national realm are few. While Rush Limbaugh has over 660 stations and 20 million weekly listeners for his program, many of his liberal counterparts would
be happy with a quarter of those.
While there are a number of successful local liberal talk hosts, so far few have achieved sizable, national audiences. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown has just 30 stations for his year-old "radical, common sense" show and, after a recent change in time slots, no advertisers.
ABC Radio's Jim Hightower is working to become the best-known voice of liberalism. The former Texas agriculture commissioner bills himself as a populist, and his 8-month-old show now has 150 affiliates with eight of the top 10 markets. He just signed on Jan. 8 at WABC-AM in New York, which also carries conservative Bob Grant.
Mr. Hightower also has a two-minute daily commentary syndicated to 80 stations separately.
"It feels great to be a trailblazer for other progressive, national voices," said Mr. Hightower, who said he thought not enough hosts like him have come forward. "Radio is a very democratic little box, it's everywhere. Some even shower with it, which is more than I want to know."
Still, Mr. Hightower is currently the exception. Why the imbalance in number of nationally known liberal hosts?
"There is a prejudice that women and liberals and independents can't be radio stars and that they can't be provocative," said Judy Jarvis, a host on Talk America Radio Network syndicator, with 50 stations. "Also, the gatekeepers think that angry, white men are the only people interested in talk radio. That couldn't be further from the truth."
Talkers' Mr. Harrison said the success of Mr. Limbaugh and others has little to do with politics and more to do with talent. "Seeking a liberal answer to Limbaugh is like polka being an answer to the Beatles," he said. "Limbaugh is an anomaly, a phenomenon, and advertisers go where the action is."
Some feel conservative hosts are popular due to inflammatory comments on their shows, which draw both listeners and wary advertisers. "Some clients have concerns on controversial material," said Peter Harrington, VP-manager of national radio for BBDO Worldwide, New York. "The non-controversial guys don't get the ratings, though."
By contrast, liberals on the radio are considered safe. According to Jay Marvin, a local liberal host on WLS-FM in Chicago, "My manager has a theory about liberal hosts: They're genetically engineered not to offend."
Some hosts have landed advertisers that have done little advertising to start with and would not go to Mr. Limbaugh. Dr. Martens shoes, popular with youth, are on Mr. Marvin's show, and Mr. Hightower has cultivated Mother Jones, union groups and Working Assets, a long-distance phone company that makes donations to interest groups, for his daily commentary. His ABC program, which airs Saturday and Sunday afternoons, also has mainstreamers Anacin and The Club.
Not everyone believes conservatives own the airwaves. "The perception is a myth," said Ed McLaughlin, president and CEO of EFM Media in New York, which syndicates Mr. Limbaugh's show.
With the change in the Capitol, many think things could be turning around for liberals on the radio. In fact, Mr. McLaughlin said he is in early discussions to land a show with former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. "I'd be very interested in pursuing it, but he's evaluating what he wants to do right now." Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.