You won’t hear the likes of him again. And not just because retirement has doomed him to wander the world in an over-sized bus, like some middling country music singer who can’t find enough studio work.
The larger reason is that talk radio and its conservative clout have probably peaked.
As a cause, Boortz fans are sure to point to the Talkmaster’s departure, after four decades on our airwaves and 20 years at AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB. But four months ago, Clear Channel’s WGST – once a burning bush of conservative talk in Atlanta – shifted to sports. In Spanish. Last week, Allen West, the fire-breathing, former congressman from Florida, joined the corps of professional talkers. His program will be on the Internet.
It’s all of a piece.
Forty-eight hours before he bade farewell from the basement studios of WSB, Boortz sat for a relaxed conversation about the mark he’s left, and the where the talk industry is headed. And why, after all the shouting was done, the combined forces of conservative talk radio had been unable to push Mitt Romney across the finish line and stop the re-election of President Barack Obama last November.
Possibly, he said, talk radio had been a little too hot and, at the same time, a little too cold. “The failure of talk radio in this election may have been a little less time on the dangers of this man’s political philosophy” – if you know Boortz, you know this “this man” is how he speaks of Obama – “and a little more time trying to empathize with some of these voters out there. ‘I understand why you feel that way. Let me try to explain to you why this guy is not the answer.’ Maybe a little more of that would have helped,” Boortz theorized.
As for the mark he leaves, the Talkmaster understands that, despite 14 years of national syndication, he was always a “backbencher.” His phrase, not mine.
“One of the things that hurt my syndication was broadcasting from Atlanta. I was a Southern show. There is a bias against the South. We are ignorant, we are uneducated, we have stills, we drag our knuckles, there are dogs chained under our porches,” he fumed.
He pointed to an article by a talk radio consultant on the website of Talkers magazine, forecasting success for Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, who will take Boortz’ seat before the mike on Monday. Boortz has nothing but good things to say about Cain, who he is sure, will thrive. What galled him was the writer’s contention that Cain, though he was born in Memphis, would come across as “less Southern,” while Boortz had regionalized himself by using phrases such as “up in Washington.”
And so Boortz doesn’t place himself in the ranks of giants who, like Uncle Miltie and Walter Cronkite before them, may be the last of their kind. “The whole radio thing is changing. I don’t think you’ll ever see another [Sean] Hannity or [Rush] Limbaugh come along, because the spectrum is so much broader now,” he said. “You have people that are streaming shows on the Internet. And whatever listeners they do have will probably be taken from somebody else.”
Prior to sitting down with Boortz, I’d put in a call to Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine. He didn’t write the article that Boortz had cited, but Harrison does think that parochialism – though not “bias” — had kept the Talkmaster in the second tier of talk jocks.
“His mark will really have been made as one of the great broadcasters in Atlanta history,” Harrison said. “He made an impact nationally – but not on an A-plus level. He would have had to abandon a lot of the flavor and the roots and the substance that made him such a star in Atlanta. And he didn’t do that. It hindered him going into that next national level.”
But Harrison agreed with Boortz’ larger point – that talk radio, over the next few years, is likely to become a more pallid version of itself. More voices, with less individual impact.
Talk radio, especially the conservative version, has enjoyed a fine run — for a couple reasons, Harrison explained. “Liberals are more likely to listen to a conservative host with whom they disagree. Many, many people love to listen to Rush Limbaugh because they enjoy hating him. The conservative listener is less tolerant of listening to a liberal,” he said. Result: Fewer liberal talk radio show hosts.
Conservative listeners are also a more compact demographic group, and thus easier for marketers and advertisers to target. “There is more of a diversity among people who might vote for Obama or vote for a Democrat or vote for a liberal,” Harrison said.
The looming problem for talk radio – as well as for talking heads on television and columnists in newspapers – is the Internet. “The Internet is causing a dilution of impact for everything. The bar to entry has been lowered. The bar to anyone paying attention to you has been heightened,” Harrison said.
As it shifts to a digital world, the talk industry on both sides of the political spectrum is likely to become more extreme, the publisher of Talkers said, because of the need to attract attention. But with hundreds of Boortzs, Hannitys and Limbaughs competing for your ear, chances are that no single set of voices will dominate as they do now.
The final question, of course, is what young up-and-comers Boortz sees on the horizon. He gave good marks to Erick Erickson, who handles WSB’s evening talk. But after that, his list is pretty short. He was never one for busman’s holidays. “I’ve never been much of a talk radio listener. So I can’t really tell you who’s out there. I’ve got friends in the business, but I don’t listen to them,” he said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider