God and Man on AM Radio
How rock and roll and the marketplace helped conservatives find a voice
Posted Dec 20, 2016
Conservative writer William F. Buckley wrote his classic God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” in 1951. At that time, he criticized the faculty culture at Yale for forcing liberalism on students and being hostile to religion, even though many students and alumni were religious. He wrote at a time when AM radio dominated the airwaves and political talk radio had yet to become prevalent in the United States.
FM radio began to grow as a viable platform in the 1940’s, though AM radio reigned supreme. By the 1970’s, FM radio had gained the capability to broadcast clear stereo high fidelity. This gave music fans better quality sound. A great deal of music programming moved from AM to FM radio in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, leaving AM a wasteland in need of programming. At the end of the 1970’s, 50% of radio listeners were tuned in to FM radio programming and by 1982 it was 70%. MTV debuted in 1981, providing a platform for listeners to see the artist in a music video. The combination of FM radio sound quality and television videos helped propel Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to worldwide, timeless status (Greenberg, 2012). FM radio programming was surging ahead and AM radio programming was being left behind.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) instituted a policy called the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. This required broadcasters to present both sides of a public issue, though equal time was not a requirement of the Fairness Doctrine (Matthews, 2011). President Reagan’s Administration revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 on the grounds that it restricted free speech (Ruane, 2011), with President Reagan vetoing a congressional attempt to solidify the doctrine. In 1991, President Bush also threatened to veto a similar congressional attempt. There were three major news networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) in 1987 and many in the Reagan Administration considered network coverage to have a liberal bias.
Within this context, the Media Research Center was founded in 1987 in response to perceived liberal bias in the media. The Media Research Center states that its “sole mission is to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media.” In 1988, the Rush Limbaugh Show gained the influence of national syndication in response to liberal bias in media. Limbaugh was broadcast on AM radio, and he also achieved a national TV platform (1992-1996) during this time to go along with the strong radio base. Limbaugh was influential to conservative voters during the 1992 Presidential election and the pivotal 1994 midterm elections, where Republicans won congress. His television show was produced by former Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, who was instrumental in founding Fox News in 1996 as a response to perceived liberal bias in the media.
Recently, I wrote an article for Psychology Today about how the social psychological processes of the hostile media phenomenon and group polarization helped to polarize voter attitudes. For this discussion, see “Fox News and American Politics Since 1994: The Interplay of the Hostile Media Phenomenon and Group Polarization” (Mather, 2016). I placed the argument in the context of a number of political events from 1994 to 2016, including the 1994 GOP “Contract with America,” the launch of Fox News in 1996, and the Presidential elections of 2000, 2008, and 2016.
In the 1970’s, Chicago, Neil Young, Grand Funk Railroad, The Rolling Stones, and the Bee Gees had sounds that contributed to the demise of AM radio. In the 1980’s the sounds and music videos of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Dire Straits helped to make sure that AM radio did not have a chance at a resurgence for popular music. With the removal of the Fairness Doctrine and the void left in AM radio programming by music’s defection to FM radio, conservative thinkers were able step into an open platform with which to distribute their ideas, building upon the success of Oklahoman Paul Harvey who was on ABC for 58 years reaching 25 million listeners (read or listen to his classic “If I Were the Devil” from 1965 for a sample of rare conservative radio predating the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine).
This chain of events highlights the value of deregulating governmental policies that restrict free speech. Our nation and society are stronger when voices are not silenced. Whether listening to Michael Jackson or Rush Limbaugh (or both, or neither), be thankful for the opportunity to do so.
Buckley, Jr., W. F. (1951). God and Man at Yale. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
Carlson, M. (2009, March 2). Paul Harvey: Influential conservative American radio host. The Guardian (online).
Greenberg, S. (2012, November 29). Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ at 30: How one album changed the world. Billboard (online).
Mather, R. D. (2016, June 3). Fox News and American politics since 1994: The interplay of the hostile media phenomenon and group polarization. Psychology Today (online).
Matthews, D. (2011, August 23). Everything you need to know about the Fairness Doctrine in one post. The Washington Post (online).
Ruane, K. A. (2011, July 13). Fairness Doctrine: History and constitutional issues. Congressional Research Service. (www.crs.gov).