Book Review: "The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment" by Fred V. Lucas

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Review by Randall Moody

“The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment”
Author: Fred V. Lucas
Publisher: History Publishing Company

“The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment” by Fred V. LucasI hope he fails” were the words of Rush Limbaugh, the noisiest and best known of the right-wing radio talkers, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Arguably, it was Limbaugh who ensured President Obama’s re-election victory in 2012 with his nasty attack on a Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, when she called out the university for not including contraceptive coverage in its student insurance policy. Reproductive rights became a major issue in the presidential campaign, and Obama won the vote of single women by a whopping 36 percent over the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

The influence on the political landscape of Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and their long line of conservative predecessors is the subject of Lucas’s book, which explores the history of talk radio in America.

Lucas leans heavily to the right in his assessment of commentators throughout radio history whose names—H.V. Kaltenborn, Walter Winchell, Father Charles Coughlin, Fulton Lewis, Jr., Billy James Hargis, Joe Pyne, Bob Grant—may or may not ring a bell.

Lucas, by the way, was a sometime radio talker himself, but lately is the Washington bureau chief of an online news organization called CNSNews .com, launched in 1998 by L. Brent Bozell III, a conservative icon, and labels itself, “The Right News. Right Now.” So you know right away where they are coming from.

When I worked in Washington, D.C., for the teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), I was interviewed in 2004 by a reporter for CNSNews.com (but not Lucas) for a series of stories they did on the NEA’s conflict with the Bush administration and its Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, who called our union, “a terrorist organization” at one point. They entitled the piece on me, “NEA’s Chief Lobbyist is a Goldwater Republican.” Actually, I found it more than fair.

Lucas does an excellent job of describing the history and impact of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” adopted as part of the 1934 Communications Act; but it was never really a “law” but a “rule” adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the 1920s when radio was coming into its own, it was determined that the “public” owned the airwaves and radio stations needed a license from the government to broadcast. To get the license they had to promise to be “fair” and include all points of political view. That worked when there was a limited number of frequencies and stations, but as both proliferated over the decades, that restriction came to be viewed as a form of censorship. But even as recently as 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the “Fairness Doctrine” in the famous Red Lion case.

Following that, however, many challenges were made to the doctrine, mostly from conservative broadcasters, and court cases ensued. In 1987 the FCC repealed the “Fairness Doctrine,” and the radio talk free-for-all was on.

It can be argued that liberals have taken a beating on the airwaves ever since, but that has not stopped Democrats from being elected: Bill Clinton twice; Obama twice. However, Limbaugh is given some credit for popularizing the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, when the GOP took both houses of Congress and the House impeached Clinton even though the Senate failed to convict.

Lucas gleefully recounts the rise and fall of Air America, the liberal attempt to combat the right-wing talkers. It never gained an audience or sponsors and lasted only from 2004–10.

He has an interesting chapter on local talk radio, which, it can be argued, led to the rise of the tea party in Tennessee and the nationwide conservative “revolt” against President Obama and the federal government. Tea partyers within the Republican Party can be blamed or credited with ousting the Democratic majority in the 2010 House elections and contributing to the current extreme partisanship and stalemate in Washington, D.C.

There’s little discussion, however, of cable television with Fox News and its “fair and balanced” reporting and its right-wing stars Bill O’Reilly and Hannity; or even the lefty counter programming now of MSNBC with Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.

Will progressives in this country really ever find their own talk radio heroes? It’s doubtful. The over-the-top commentary of the right-wing talkers, which is designed to appeal to the most base instincts of their audience, just isn’t the liberal cup of tea.

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