How a new generation of left-wing podcasters are dethroning Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio
The left has long looked with envy and bitterness at the powerful network of right-wing radio hosts who hold so much sway over American politics. Starting with Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, influential personalities have projected their grievances and biases onto millions of listeners, who have rewarded these hosts with wealth and incredible influence in Republican politics. Efforts to deliberately build an alternative network of left-wing radio shows have all ended in the same way: with failure, none more spectacular than the 2010 implosion of Air America.
Suddenly, though, Limbaugh has company.
Since the election, subscribership to a series of left-leaning podcasts has exploded. The most prominent is Pod Save America, the brainchild of former Obama administration speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett, as well as former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor. Episodes draw anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million listeners. Those numbers rival major cable programs, and in some cases eclipse household name shows like Morning Joe and Anderson Cooper 360.
The Pod Save empire also includes programs like Pod Save the World and Pod Save the People, all of which have strong numbers. Vox's podcasts, including The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show, are also extremely popular — and not just with political junkies, but with many people who until recently did not follow politics very closely. Look at charts of America's top podcasts, and there's nary a conservative show to be found. That makes podcasting the first medium in which the left is structurally dominant since the FCC overturned the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which stopped forcing broadcast outlets to provide time for counterargument.
Right-wing radio's success was partly geographic. Republicans, who, very broadly speaking, tend to live outside of major cities and prefer the car-centric lifestyle of ranch houses, strip malls, and sprawl, spend more time driving to work than the average Democrat, making them available in huge numbers for over-the-air or satellite radio programs piped directly into their cars. By contrast, many urban-dwelling liberals walk, bike, or take public transit to work, and in many major cities, radio signals as well as the internet are unavailable on trains. Podcasts resolve this issue by downloading automatically onto smartphones for all subscribers, who can listen to the show even when they are being shunted to work 50 feet underground.
Conservative dominance of the airwaves allowed the right to do one of the most important things in public life: "agenda-setting." By communicating to conservative listeners what is important and what they should care about, Limbaugh and his fellow movement conservatives were able to direct which issues their listeners would feel most passionately about. Not only that, but they also engaged in "framing," which means they were not just setting the agenda but also offering a set of preferred options about how to achieve it.
In a 2000 study, David Barker and Kathleen Knight found that Limbaugh was able to move the needle on the issues he was most hopping mad about at any given time, and that his listeners showed "hostility toward those items beyond what can be accounted for by ideology, party identification, exposure to other conservative messages, affect for Limbaugh, or a host of other factors." Limbaugh's withering attacks on "the beautiful people," as well as "feminazis" (a disgusting term he helped popularize on the right), for example, were so effective that this year the scholar Robert Brown deemed him the "president of talk radio."
That is incredible influence for someone who possesses no meaningful advanced background in politics or policy. And while some major figures, like Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt, have experience in government, most don't. Sean Hannity is a broadcast lifer who has never spent a day of his adult life writing policy. Michael Savage has a Ph.D. in "nutritional ethnomedicine." Their qualifications to weigh in on the day's issues largely consist of being super mad about something and having the ability to theatrically communicate that outrage.
The left's new stars are actual experts in public policy — people like former Obama strategist David Axelrod (of The Axe Files) — more than people who are famous for being famous. While the hosts of these dense gabfests sometimes get angry about the latest policy abomination or legal violation emanating from this rogue White House, generally they come off as rational people who care about the fate of the republic rather than rabble-rousers interested in increasing their own ratings at the expense of civility and common purpose. Sometimes Vietor sighs theatrically and Favreau drops an F-bomb. Matthew Yglesias' voice may go up an octave when he's ticked off about something. But for the most part, their shows are earnest discussions of important problems, often featuring veteran politicians, policymakers, or journalists.
Podcasts are, of course, not new. But the relentless diffusion of smartphones has made them increasingly valuable as an alternative medium of contention. In The MoveOn Effect, George Washington University scholar David Karpf (full disclosure: David is a close friend) introduced the "out-party innovation" thesis, by which the party in the minority seizes on new technologies and strategies to challenge the dominance of the party in power. Podcasts have the potential to be that kind of "disruptive innovation" by offering the left a readymade architecture through which they can challenge the right's broadcast empire, and ultimately its grip on American politics itself. As Democrats face the prospect of years in the political wilderness, the opportunity to use this new medium to struggle over a platform and strategy is priceless.
Liberal Podlandia has a long way to go before it rivals the reach and power of Rush Limbaugh, whose 12 million listeners far outpace even the most heavily downloaded podcasts. But for the first time, the left has a financially viable and technologically appropriate medium through which to challenge the right's dominance of American politics. Podcasts might not actually save the world, but at the least, they can get the left into the fight.
Are you listening?