During a recent radio interview, I was asked why it is that conservative broadcasters are so much more successful than their progressive, or liberal, counterparts.
The question was particularly intriguing considering its source: the host of a progressive radio show in Central California.
In terms of audience size, the canyon between right and left on radio's political spectrum is huge. Top conservatives - Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage - reach a combined audience of roughly 50 million listeners a week. The most successful liberal talk hosts, such as Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes, each pull about 3 million weekly.
The story is the same on cable TV, where Fox News Channel - with Hannity, Beck and Bill O'Reilly leading the charge - attracts twice as many viewers in prime time as liberal-leaning MSNBC - featuring Schultz, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.
November's election results notwithstanding, the political imbalance on radio and cable has little to do with the way the population splits to the left or right. The major parties have roughly the same number of ardent supporters year to year, and the fluctuations in voting numbers simply do not track with the radio and TV ratings.
Some say the success of conservative radio can be traced to 1987 when the Reagan administration put an end to the Fairness Doctrine, making it easier for broadcasters to be one-sided. Others cite the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to mega-chains of stations and the widespread duplication of successful formats - including conservative talk radio - which gradually took over the stronger radio outlets in most markets.
But such arguments really overlook the simpler truths of the matter: conservative broadcasters serve an audience that is often angry and easily stirred, that wants to be reinforced more than challenged, and that doesn't always feel compelled to slavishly adhere to the facts of a matter.
More importantly, conservative broadcasters across the dial are vastly more entertaining than their liberal counterparts. Limbaugh and Beck are polished performers, with enough shtick in the tank to keep truckers engrossed over the long haul, or to rouse tired shift workers on the drive to and from home. Indeed, the daring diatribe of the right is so compelling that it often seems as if the most dedicated listeners of conservative broadcasters are their progressive competitors.
Over the years, Keith Olbermann has gradually made his MSNBC program unwatchable as he obsessed over whatever outrageous statement Limbaugh had made on radio earlier in the day. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz, each highly acclaimed on radio, emulated Olbermann's style when they came to cable and they, too, became tedious to watch. Right-wing broadcasters, on the other hand, don't dwell on what left-wing hosts are saying - they and their listeners couldn't care less.
Worse, some liberal commentators have taken to name-calling and other tactics that they find so reprehensible in rants by the right. When Schultz calls Limbaugh "The Drugster" and House Speaker John Boehner "The Tan Man," he his taking the battle to the street, where he can't ever win. When Schultz says he doesn't want Republicans as guests because he "doesn't care" what they have to say, and refers to them as "bastards" out to destroy the American dream, he's surrendering in the war of words that his listeners want him to fight with eloquence.
The host who was interviewing me about all this, a fellow named Hal Ginsberg, has coined a slogan for his progressive outlet, KRXA: "Think for yourself." And therein, I believe, lies much of the problem for on-air liberals. Their audience "does" prefer to think for itself - it doesn't need the recurrent ramblings of broadcasters to show the way, at least not at great length.
A better slogan for progressives might actually be: "Speak for yourself." Which is why liberal radio works better for those behind the microphone than for those expected to sit and listen.
This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera," and may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.