Current Affairs

Why Is Talk Radio So Right-Wing? (And How Can The Left Compete?)

America’s leading progressive talk show host, Thom Hartmann, discusses how leftists can effectively counter the conservative talk radio behemoth.

Thom Hartmann is the #1 progressive talk radio show host in the country. He is the author of over 30 books including, most recently, his “Hidden History” series, which has dealt with guns, the Supreme Court, voting rights, and healthcare. He joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson recently on the Current Affairs podcast to talk about The Hidden History of Monopolies, as well as the factors responsible for the right-wing dominance of talk radio. Thom has managed to succeed on a platform where leftists mostly fail to compete with the right, and discussed what the ingredients of successful radio are. Thom wrote an article for the Nation last year called “Talk Radio: Democrats Can’t Win If They Don’t Play.” The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson 

I’ve always wanted to ask you why talk radio is so right-wing, why the right has managed to dominate this particular medium. And there are two parts to this: So there’s the “political economy” part about the companies that own radio stations around the country and that relates to your monopolies book. But then there’s also the question of the craft of talk radio and why conservatives seem to have perfected this craft. So before we get to the question of the economic structure of the radio industry, I do want to start with talk radio as a medium and why it is that all these people such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Michael Medved, Glenn Beck, why have they all managed to conquer this particular form of communication?

Hartmann 

It is a relatively unique medium that has its own rules. And if you understand those rules, then you can be successful in that medium. And if you don’t, you won’t, and the fact is that Limbaugh was one of the first to really go big with a conservative version of this. Talk radio has been around for a long, long time. The number one talk radio show in America, in fact, prior to Limbaugh, was Alan Berg out of Denver. And he was doing a show that you could hear in 27 states. It was on a giant station, it was blowing a huge signal across the western states. And he was assassinated by a couple of skinheads in the parking lot of the radio station. And they made a movie out of it: Talk Radio. And he understood the same thing Limbaugh understood, which is that when you open the microphone, for talk radio, you’re not talking to an audience, you’re not talking to 1000 people or 100 people or 10 people or, you know, according to talk magazine, I talk to 7 million people, I think that’s probably inflated, but you’re talking to one person. Everybody is listening on the radio one person at a time.

And so you have to reorganize the way you think, to only talk to one person. And it’s a lesson that I learned when I was 16 when I got a job as a DJ on a country western station in Lansing, Michigan. And my mom used to listen to my show. And so I would do my show for my mom—I didn’t tell anybody that—but I was talking to one person, and you learn how to have this very I’m talking to you here, we are together kind of presence.

And what happens is that because there’s 1,500 conservative radio stations across the country, there’s a huge farm team. There’s a mentoring system, there are people coming up through it on the right. And there’s nothing like that on the left. And for some reason, going all the way back to the 60s or 70s, on the left, people tend to think that talk radio means interviewing people, and it doesn’t. That’s not talk radio, that’s interview radio, and there are people who are really good at it. I’m sure you are, Nathan. There are a few people who got famous for being good at it. Larry King and Terry Gross. The magic is that they’re basically invisible. They’re transparent. They’re able to bring things out of their guests that probably the guests didn’t even know were there. That’s a real skill set to it. But it’s not talk radio.

Robinson 

But you wouldn’t say—I mean, I assume you wouldn’t say because you do it-—that there’s anything inherent about talk radio that means it has to be right-wing or that it’s inevitable that conservatives are going to succeed.

Hartmann

No, absolutely not. That’s my point. The number one show in America before he was assassinated was left-wing. And with the Alan Berg assassination, there was just this collective, oh my God, across America, where for several years nobody wanted to do talk radio. And then Limbaugh rolled out his show in, whenever it was—‘86, I think—and then there was this herd mentality that kicked in across broadcasting.

Robinson 

You wrote this article for The Nation about how Democrats and the left can’t can’t win if they don’t play, regarding talk radio. So there is this temptation to look at the field and say, “Well, look, all the conservatives dominate this clearly. Clearly, we just give up here, this is not where we play.” But you say in that article, “Well, no, I think we need to take this back. I think we can do it,” and you give some suggestions for what we ought to be doing in thinking about how we can succeed in this field.

Hartmann 

Yeah, absolutely. You know, when Air America [progressive talk radio network from 2004-2010] rolled out, I wrote the original business plan for Air America and when Air America rolled out, we leased stations, we leased time on—I think—54 Clear Channel stations around the country. And as I recall, when Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital took over Clear Channel, suddenly we started losing stations until basically it just bankrupted Air America.

On another occasion, there’s a another very large radio network with over 900 stations, and I met with the one of the two billionaires who owned that network in the offices of a United States Senator, and said “Why don’t you put”—and he had hundreds of right wing stations—and I said “Why don’t you put some left-wingers on?” I would offer myself, but just generically. And he simply said straight up, he said, “I’m never gonna put somebody on the air who’s gonna argue for raising my taxes.” This is a guy who owned 900 radio stations.

Robinson 

So this is the rigged economy of radio that is very, very difficult to fight against. If you have billionaire owners and they own all the stations and they just won’t put left-wing views on, that’s a really good answer to the question of why people don’t hear left-wing views. And I’m sure that the failure of Air America had a lot to do with the fact that companies just don’t want to [put on views that threaten corporate America.] But going back to Air America, are there things about the programming itself that should have been done differently in order to make sure it found an audience and succeeded?

Hartmann 

Yeah, you mean like, steps? Well, for example, we were on 54 Clear Channel stations. Clear Channel also had probably at that time 400 or 500 right-wing stations. And in fact, I was broadcasting out of a Clear Channel station here in Portland, Oregon, KPOJ, that was part of a group of five stations on Clear Channel. Their biggest station, their anchor station, was the station that carried Rush Limbaugh. Every single one of the stations that we were on was part of a pod of stations owned by Clear Channel that also had a right-wing show. The right-wing shows had been on for years and years. So their sales guys had developed networks that were right-wing show friendly. They had gotten to know the movers and shakers in the local Republican Party. They had gotten in tight with the Chamber of Commerce. They’d gotten to know the car dealers who were big Republican donors. They even hired people out of that universe. So we were suddenly on 50 radio stations across the country. And every single one of those radio stations had a sales team that was almost entirely either made up of right-wingers or had a customer base that was largely right-wing friendly. I realize there are some companies that are apolitical but those aren’t always the juicy ones, particularly locally. And so, one of the objections that you will hear when people try to revisit this is that “well, we here at Clear Channel couldn’t successfully sell advertising on the progressive stations.” First of all, it’s not true. I mean, we were doing just fine in Portland, for example, because the local management in Portland hired a separate guy to sell KPOJ who built his own networks and played golf with the local liberals and got in tight with the Democratic Party. But that was not the case to the best of my knowledge on any of the other stations. And I put together a one-day seminar for sales staff in radio stations and took it on the road and traveled all around the country visiting all these radio stations that we run, saying “here’s how you sell progressive talk radio.” First of all, you have to have one person on your sales staff who is completely devoted to it, and who understands the politics of it. And then they need to insert themselves into the local Democratic Party, and they need to get involved with local businesses that have progressive values. And to the best of my knowledge, none of those stations ever took me up on that outside of the one here in Portland, but I had a whole PowerPoint presentation and everything. I think that was probably one of the critical mistakes. There was another critical mistake that Air America made which I had nothing to do with, which was that their management was just terrible. They had at one point seven or eight executives who were all pulling substantial six-figure salaries at a time when the network was losing money. That was just crazy.

Robinson 

So it’s not that the content itself, the broadcasts themselves, couldn’t be done well. It’s that you face as progressives a very, very difficult environment. You’ve got a lot of obstacles that the right-wing shows don’t face. If you’re not able to surmount those, then your show could be fantastic and still fail because this is not a free market in which the most popular and the best shows win.

Hartmann 

Yeah, I mean, talk radio is talk radio. You’re gonna find an audience. Half of America is Democrat, half are Republicans. It’s not like we’re wired differently in really major substantial ways. I realize there are arguments about authoritarianism and all that kind of stuff, but still, left-wing talk radio works. It worked before Limbaugh; it’s worked since Limbaugh. It’s just these structural obstacles. And it’s not that it was necessarily a hostile environment. It was that it was a unique environment. It was a new environment. When Limbaugh started, there was some substantial money behind him. The guy who, Ron Hardenbaum, who is my agent and my business partner, essentially in this little company that does my radio show, helped start the Limbaugh show. And they had serious big money behind them. And so they were able to coast for a while. They were able to get enormous publicity. Suddenly it was a hot thing. “Hey, have you heard that crazy Rush Limbaugh who’s getting all the headlines?”

Everybody was tuning in, and it was easy to sell. And out of that grew this right-wing ecosystem of radio and radio advertisers, people who wanted to be associated with Limbaugh because he was cool and cutting edge at the time. This was in the late 80s. And, it was a Reagan time, too, you know. I mean, what really made Limbaugh and what really made right-wing talk radio was the Bill Clinton presidency, when Bill Clinton got elected in 1992.

That’s when they really took off. That’s when it became a multi, multi, you know, $100 million business rather than just a million dollar business. And left-wing talk radio never successfully went through that curve. It got halfway down the road. But when Air America started out, the guy who started it said that he had millions of dollars in funding and he had lied. The very first, you know, he was a con man. I did not know him. But it was a mess. And nobody has ever properly funded a progressive network in the United States. 

Robinson 

Yeah, well, the other side has all the money. 

Hartmann 

They’re preaching a message of tax cuts and deregulation. And so, of course, the very, very wealthy and very powerful are going to be pouring money down their throats. And I’m preaching a message of “raise taxes on rich people.” And I don’t know how many rich people are therefore going to go out and buy a radio station to put me on.

Robinson 

If perhaps some of our listeners are aspiring broadcasters or people who want to help build the infrastructure of progressive radio, that paints a little bit of a hopeless picture. So let’s talk positively. What do you think are the key things, how do we actually then build a real effective counterweight to the right-wing noise machine? I mean, you’ve done a piece of it yourself. What do we need to do?

Hartmann 

There are, at any given moment in the United States, hundreds of radio stations for sale, and they don’t sell for huge amounts of money, hundreds of 1000s to low millions at the very most. There’s also low-power FM, and there are increasing numbers of folks who are starting low-power FM stations. I’m on probably a dozen of them around the country right now. And, in fact, here in Portland, our affiliate is low-power FM. They throw a signal that anybody in Portland can get, but you can’t hear in the rest of rural Oregon. And you can put together a low-power FM station for $25,000 and run it out of your basement for that matter, if somebody can get a decent antenna and tower location. So there is the possibility of growing a progressive network. It’s actually happening. We’ve been adding a couple of stations, four or five, six, or eight stations a year, every year steadily for four years. You will lose some, typically the large corporate ones. We gain these smaller, independent ones. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it work and run with it. And that’s what I was trying to do with that Nation article, provoke that conversation.

Back around what must have been 2006 or thereabouts, Randi Rhodes and me and a bunch of other people from Air America went to DC to talk with a bunch of Senators, Democratic Senators, about talk radio, and we tried to convince them that that, you know, they’re raising billions of dollars every four years for elections, and with a fraction of that money, they could buy 400 or 500 radio stations or even 50 radio stations around the country. And it’s much more politically effective to have somebody 24/7 singing your praises on the radio in a way that has high credibility because people feel like they’ve built a relationship with you, than it is to buy ads every advertising cycle. And outside of Bernie Sanders, who totally understood what I was talking about, because for 11 years he had been on my show every Friday for an hour taking calls from listeners—outside of Bernie, we just got blown off, including by somebody who later became a candidate for president of the United States and lost. And I think they lost because right-wing talk radio just destroyed that candidacy.

Robinson 

Yeah, that’s an important point. The right has been not just effective at taking over this medium, but in using it really—

Hartmann

This is their secret weapon,

Robinson

—really well. Limbaugh has had a very serious effect on United States politics.

Hartmann 

Yeah. Oh, hugely, hugely. He transformed American politics. We underestimate—this is the problem. The Democratic Party constantly underestimated talk radio. And what’s happening right now is even more alarming. And I don’t recall if I got into that in the Nation article or not. But this is a phenomenon that has just been going on in the last four or five years. At any given moment there are a couple hundred radio stations around the country for sale, but there are also, at any given moment, probably 1,000 radio stations available for lease, where you just go in and say, I’ll rent your station for a year. This is how Air America did it with all the stations we leased from Clear Channel. And typically, on the lease stations, what you’ll hear is religious content or polka music or music that serves niche communities with niche advertisers just kind of hanging on. And what’s happening is that a group of deep-pocketed Hispanic right-wingers, mostly Cuban exiles, have been renting radio stations around the country, the best estimate is there might be 200 or 300 of them now, where they’re running some syndicated and some local Spanish language, right-wing talk radio, and in some cases, they’re playing music, but they’re hiring DJs who are delivering right-wing political messages, you know, snarky comments and things between songs. I saw an article like two weeks ago saying Democrats can’t figure out why the Hispanic vote has moved 7% towards the Republican Party in the last two years. And I’m yelling at the web page going, It’s the freakin’ radio, you know?

Robinson

Yeah, yeah.

Hartmann

You know, guys working on construction sites, listening to the music with the DJ coming on and going, “Oh my god, do you see what Joe Biden just did?” Well, here’s a new song in Spanish. The people listening are Spanish speakers. I’m telling you, you’re going to see by the 2024 election, you’re going to see Spanish language radio stations in every community in America with a significant Spanish-speaking population, pushing right-wing politics, and they’re already halfway there.

Robinson 

Wow. Yeah. On the left we all do podcasts. But the audience is so limited. We forget radio. It seems as if, well, it’s the 21st century, because people of a certain generation in cities just get everything on their phone, radio can cease to exist to us, or we can forget that there are still vast areas of the country in which the radio is in fact listened to.

Hartmann 

Oh, yeah. And you know, if you live in Wyoming, I mean, you might drive an hour to work, what are you gonna do, you’re gonna listen to the radio. And podcasts are great, and they’re growing rapidly, but they’re also growing rapidly in the 40 and under demographic. If you look at the 50 and over demographic, they still very, very heavily use radio. And those folks are more likely to be voting.

Robinson 

Yeah. And so we can’t give up on it. Well, before I get to monopolies, I do want to ask you one more question about how you create really good programming. You mentioned that you speak to one person. You build an intense connection with the listener. If we’re going to succeed in this very hostile territory, we’re going to have to be really, really good at what we do. There are other things that you’ve learned over your decades of broadcasting, from observing Limbaugh, from perfecting this yourself, about how this is done really, really well in a way that’s compelling to people.

Hartmann 

Sure. The first one is—and this is a lot easier for people who have a background in broadcasting, I started out as a teenager doing music radio. I did that for three years and then did news for seven years. So the first one is to use the basic rules of broadcasting: modulate your voice, get excited, belt out the show, don’t talk soft, you know, make it exciting. Make it interesting. Boredom is your enemy. Enthusiasm is your friend, right? And this is something any DJ can tell you. A lot of aspiring talk hosts don’t understand that. They think that, you know, having a Noam Chomsky kind of conversation is going to make it, and it just won’t work.

Robinson 

Much as I love Chomsky. 

Hartmann 

I love Chomsky, too, and I had him on my program, and he was so deadly boring, I’ll never have him back on again. I did three hours of talk radio today. I had one guest for eight minutes. That’s about my limit. Because I’m really clear that I’m not doing a podcast or an interview show. I’m doing talk radio, and it’s a completely separate thing. 

[…] And so I mean, there’s a lot of that kind of just good old-fashioned radio one-on-one stuff. And that’s why I said, with 1,500 right-wing radio stations in this country, and probably fewer than 100 left-wing stations, they’re building a farm team, and people learn these strategies. The other thing is that typically for a three-hour show, which is the normal format for talk radio, you don’t want to have more than two or three topics per hour. Otherwise, it’s not radio. And each topic has to be expressed in the form of a question that anybody can have an opinion on, not like, let’s rant today about abortion, but rather, should men be required to start paying child support from the moment of pregnancy? Or trying to figure out provocative questions that will then evoke a conversation. These are not like tricks. These are techniques that provide a creative show that will keep people engaged.

Robinson 

I’m always amazed by that—three hours. I remember being shocked when I first heard that Rush Limbaugh did three hours per day. How on earth do you keep people listening for hours at a time when you don’t have guests? It’s very easy when I have an interesting person that I’m speaking with, and I have this engaging dialogue. How do you sustain interest over a period of hours, where it’s just you and whoever calls in?

Hartmann 

If you’re talking to somebody that you really like, and you really care about, and you care about the topic you’re talking about, you can talk for three hours. Just think of the last party that you had with some friends that you liked, or the last time you got together with them. And so that’s another key to it. If you’re looking for a formula for doing effective talk radio, it’s to make sure that you’re only talking about things that you know enough about to speak authoritatively, and that you care enough about to have some passion, because that passion that you have is going to be picked up by your listeners and it’s going to cause them to get you know. It’s going to create a stickier interaction. It’s going to cause them to be more interested in listening to you and calling up and interacting.

Robinson 

I watched a couple interviews with you on this subject in preparation for this and I hadn’t realized how dependent talk radio is on the listener call-in stuff, that the audience is part of the show, which I assume is part of all of these shows, listener call-in? 

Hartmann 

It varies, the formula, for lack of a better word. I don’t always stick to it. But the typical formula that I use is, you take these four blocks in a show. The top of the show, 15, after 30, after 45 minutes. So in the first block, I’ll introduce a topic and I’ll raise a question. And I’ll do a deep dive as much as I can to inform people about that topic, you know, with history and background and whatnot. And then the second block is a second topic that you know and you do the same thing with and try to lay it all out. I haven’t taken a single call at that point. We’re at the bottom of the hour and 30 minutes into it. Then the last half hour, I just take calls on those two topics. And our call screener will only let calls through on those topics. And then at the next top of the hour, you reset it with a brand new topic. I do a half hour of two 15-minute rants, basically. And then open lines for the callers. Limbaugh used to do that, only he would only have the last 10 to 20 minutes at the most for callers. Other people like Sean Hannity would take calls throughout the show. My old colleague who’s now passed away—Ed Schultz is the guy who I was just thinking of—used to do nothing but calls. He would just open the microphone and say, okay, callers, this is the place where America comes to talk. I don’t think that works quite as well.

There’s a bunch of different kinds of ways that you can do talk radio. There’s guest-driven talk radio, which is what Terry Gross and Larry King do—absolutely brilliant. There’s news-driven talk radio, which is where everything focuses on the issues of the day, and the issues are really front and center. And let me just back up a little bit. With guest-driven talk radio, the weakness is, you’re only as good as your guest. If you get a dreadfully boring guest, your show dies. With news-driven talk radio, if there’s nothing really going on in the news cycle, then people turn away. Then there’s host-driven talk radio, which is where the host—oh wait, there’s caller-driven talk radio, which is what Ed Schultz used to do. The danger there is you’re only as good as your calls, right? You get a bunch of, Oh, I’m 90-years-old and, oh, I’ve been talking about, you know. All right. And then finally, you’ve got host-driven talk radio, and that’s where the host builds a relationship with the listener, singular—although you and I both know, it’s plural—the host builds a relationship with the listener. And the show is carried by the host. And that’s what Limbaugh was brilliant at. The same year that I started in music radio, so did Limbaugh, in Missouri. He was a DJ, too. It’s like we both have the exact same background. We were both teenage DJs. I started out in country-western and then went to rock-and-roll. He started out in rock-and-roll. So you learn those skills. But you had to learn it by doing it. The first six months I was on the air in Lansing were just God-awful. But you learn by experience. I now integrate into my show parts of caller-driven talk radio, and parts of news-driven talk radio, and parts of guest-driven talk radio, but it’s essentially a host-driven show. And I think those are the ones that will withstand the test of time, assuming the host has the basic skill set to do it.

Robinson 

Yeah, I’m always amazed by that, because it’s one of those things where the skills that are required are not necessarily obvious, right?

Hartmann 

They don’t teach you this stuff in high school.

Robinson 

You turn it on, and it sounds very natural, you understand it. When I have listened to some of these conservative shows, I’m always amazed. First I go, “I can’t believe that anyone would listen to this guy just ranting for hours.” And then I find myself going, “But I don’t want to shut it off.” There’s something charismatic and compelling. What is going on here? Why is this addictive?

Hartmann 

Exactly. Michael Savage is one of the best storytellers in America. I oppose everything Michael Savage stands for. I used to listen to him for years when I had to drive somewhere, and I hated his content. But I was always in awe of his skill as a talk radio host, by his ability to build that relationship with that one single listener that happened to be me in the car, and it just blew my mind. And I’m not that good. I’m not that good of a storyteller. He’ll take one incident one time where he went into a restaurant with his little dog and his wife or significant other, and they tried to throw him out because no dogs were allowed, and he turned this into an hour-long rant that ended up saying, this is how liberals are trying to destroy America, don’t you understand? Wow, it was like, this is a master class, you know?

Robinson 

What is that? What is that special magic? I don’t get it.

Hartmann 

I think that Michael Savage is a talented storyteller. I’m nowhere near as good as he is. But talk radio, if you listen to it the right way—when we decided to do this radio show, we listened to hours and hours and hours of Limbaugh and Savage and other right-wing talk shows because that’s all that was out there. And I went back and I listened to old talk radio from Gene—I’m forgetting his last name, he was a famous talk radio host in the 40s and 50s, and then also the guy who got assassinated in the 70s, Alan Berg—and what we figured out was that there was actually was a formula there with some consistency. So we just replicated that on the left. It tied into having that ability to be a good storyteller, to build suspense, to control your voice, to engage. It’s a talent. There are some people who are good actors, there are some people who are good singers, there are some people who are good talk hosts, it’s just that if you do it really well, it sounds effortless. That’s the magic of it. Talk radio is like painting, or writing. You know, I’m an author also, and I read other people’s work to look at how they structure things. How did they put this book together? Why did they start here? How did they decide to put this story in this place? That’s an amazing turn of words, right? You can literally see behind the canvas. You can see the scaffolding that holds up the structure of the art, with paintings and with literature. But the vast majority of people never do that, because they’re not painters or writers. Thinking like that, the same is true of talk radio.

Robinson 

Yeah. I wrote an article about Glenn Beck last year that required me to examine his career. One of the interesting things I found out, in going back and watching all these clips is, when he had his show on Fox, I mean, he looked insane. He was dancing on the desk, he had these diagrams on the chalkboard, and he just looked like a lunatic. But he swiftly became fantastically popular on TV. And when he had been on the radio, he had been hugely popular. And one of the interesting things was, when he was interviewed, he talked about learning from Orson Welles, listening to all the old Mercury Theater broadcasts. He really studied the craft of making entertaining radio. All the stuff that looks like pure idiocy actually results from a lot of skill.

Hartmann 

You bet. Glenn Beck is one of the better ones. He’s a very talented guy, and he paid his dues, and he worked his way up. He learned the craft. It’s like acting. You see a great actor and you don’t see them anymore, right? Like if you’re watching Leo DiCaprio or some of the really, really brilliant actors out there who can just literally become anybody. That’s not something that the average person can do. But it is something the average person, with a baseline level of skill, can learn. And that’s why there are acting schools. There are literally colleges for this. But there’s no place that you can go to learn how to do talk radio, outside of being thrown into the water in a small local market and making your mistakes for the first year.

Robinson 

Well, I hope we can encourage at least one or two people to try. I did want to ask you about your book, The Hidden History of Monopolies. This was just so fascinating, diving into the mechanics of talk radio. But as I mentioned before, you work in an industry where monopoly, the subject of your book, really does operate. 

Hartmann

And there’s a chapter in the book about radio monopolies. 

Robinson

Could you discuss what exactly has happened? You lay out so well in the book what the actual effects of corporate concentration are on people’s lives and what that actually means. You call it a hidden history. And indeed, it is, because these are things that people don’t notice going on around them but that shape their understanding of the world in ways they’re not aware of.

Hartmann 

America started out with small businesses all over. And we grew that way until the Industrial Revolution, around the time of the railroad, the 1860s to the 1890s. And then these monopolies started emerging—railroad monopolies, steel monopolies, oil monopolies, oil with Rockefeller, steel with Carnegie, the railroads with Jay Gould and his buddies. And, by the 1880s, and 1890s, we figured out that these monopolies were actually destructive to our economy as a whole. And not only were they ruining the lives of workers, and making massive inequality alongside massive riches, but they were destructive to our country. So we passed a law against this in 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act. And we held to that understanding, and that’s why prior to Reagan—talk to anybody who’s got a lot of gray hair on their head, and they’ll tell you that in the 50s and 60s and 70s, and even the 80s, you could travel around the United States—in fact, there was this incredible TV show that I used to watch as a little kid in the 60s, called Route 66, where Martin Milner and George Harris had this car and they would hit a different city every week and mix it up with the city, but you always knew the city, right? Because it was the Chattanooga bank, and the Chattanooga hotel, and the Jacobson’s furniture store, and everything was locally owned. Every city had its own unique characteristics, so unique that it became the world in which this TV show existed, and it changed every single week. Today, you could drop out of an airplane at 60,000 feet with a parachute and land in any random part of America and look around and say, “Where the hell am I? Oh, Wells Fargo Bank. Oh, McDonald’s, oh, Olive Garden. Oh, Marriott. Oh, I guess I have no friggin’ clue. I must be in America.” And that’s what happened when in 1983 Ronald Reagan took Robert Bork’s advice and Milton Friedman’s advice and directed the Justice Department of the Federal Trade Commission to stop enforcing those antitrust laws. And we have been there for 38 years since then. 39 years, I guess. And it’s just gutting small businesses in America and small town America.

Robinson 

And the consequences in the media are really quite frightening. I’m sure you’ve seen some of those clips where they show the monologues from local news in different places where the local news station is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and literally you have a different person who’s supposedly a local anchor reading the same right-wing monologue in every city around the country. And of course, local newspapers are disappearing. It really is difficult for independent media to flourish, or to have any dissent.

Hartmann 

Absolutely. And Sinclair has really taken advantage of the Telecommunications Act of ‘96. This used to be illegal. I mean, you know, we put in a law back in the late 20s and again in the early 1930s, a series of telecommunications acts, originally designed to keep radio stations from interfering with each other, frequency-wise, like road signs or stop lights for the broadcast spectrum. But then, in the early 30s, it became obvious that monopoly would be a bad thing as well. And so we got FCC rules that included local ownership caps. A single person or corporation couldn’t own both a radio station, TV station, and a newspaper in the same town. And you couldn’t own more than a certain number of radio stations or television stations in a state, and the result of that was that when I started in the 60s in radio in Lansing, Michigan, there were five stations in Lansing, and every single one was literally owned by a local family. WITL, where I spent most of my years, was owned by three guys—a salesman, an old radio guy, and an engineer who got together to mortgage their houses and build a radio station. Now every single one of the stations in Lansing, Michigan is owned by a big national chain. And the radio is completely homogenized. And what political radio there is, is entirely right-wing. It’s not healthy.

Robinson 

How does it work? Does corporate HQ just hand down the things that the local station is going to put on the air?

Hartmann 

It varies. But broadly, yeah. I can tell you that if a Clear Channel station, well, shouldn’t pick on Clear Channel. In fact, Clear Channel no longer exists, it’s now called “I Heart Radio,” so let’s talk about back when Clear Channel did exist four years ago, or if Cumulus existed five years ago, those being the two biggest networks of stations. If any of them were to decide that they were going to put on, for example, progressive radio, they would have to run it up the chain of command and have to get signed off on, build an economic case for it. They’d have to prove that it’s viable. Radio is a very conservative business. And I don’t mean that politically. I mean, as in, cautiously. No program director ever got fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air, because his show drew an audience, and it was easy to sell advertising. Anytime you decide to put somebody other than Rush Limbaugh on the air, and Limbaugh, of course, is no longer with us—any time you decide to experiment, you are putting your career on the line. And, there’s not a lot of good high-paying jobs left in radio anymore. And so people are very, very, very careful. And change happens very slowly.

Robinson 

Whereas in that old environment where there are five radio stations in the city and each is owned by a different family, you just have to convince one eccentric to give you a shot—

Hartmann 

Oh yeah, and they’re constantly trying things to compete with each other.

Robinson 

Yeah. A big part of your book is about the importance of competition and the lack of incentives that monopolies have to try anything because when you just are completely dominant, you can dictate terms to the consumer. And people don’t even get what they want. Amazon, of course, makes a big show of saying, we care about what the customer wants. But it’s not true. Monopolies just tell the customer what they want, because you have no choice.

Hartmann 

Yeah. Sadly, sadly. One of the points we tried to make back in 2006 in that meeting with those Democratic members of Congress was, it’s the platform. There’s nothing magic about Limbaugh. What was magic was that for the first time he opened his microphone on over 50 stations in 50 of the largest markets in America. And, as a consequence of that, you got a lot of press coverage. I mean, obviously, he had a good skill set. But had he not had that platform, had he just been on a little station in Fresno, he’d still be there. I mean, you know, if he was still alive.

Robinson 

There’s a lot in the book we don’t have time to discuss. Of course, you have all the other Hidden History books as well. One of the great things about it is that it is a hidden history, and it’s nice to have it laid out. Things weren’t always this way and don’t have to be this way. When you talk about these little businesses of the past that all disappeared through consolidation, there’s this psychological phenomenon, shifting baseline syndrome, where people who come of age in this generation haven’t seen what it was like before. And then they just assume that things have to be this way and that it’s always been this way. That’s not the case. What’s so great about this is that you lay out what an alternative could look like. Another thing that I like is that this book and your work in general—and I’m trying to work on this at Current Affairs with this podcast and the magazine—is about communicating left ideas to people in a really accessible way, in a way that’s compelling, that lays out the arguments clearly, and that speaks to normal people and doesn’t cede territory to the right [territory like talk radio] that could be ours if we were taught it.

Hartmann 

Yeah. I was born in 1951, I grew up in a world where there was a huge middle class. Ten years ago, 50% of the American population fell below the middle class. In the early 1980s, well over 60% was in the middle class. The middle class has been gutted. Our business landscape has been just terraformed, it’s been Walmart-ized. I’m old enough to remember a time in America that was very different, and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic, Trumpian, let’s Make America Great Again way. I remember the time before damage was done by Robert Bork theology, before Reaganism and Milton Friedman’s bizarre economic policies were put into place. I can tell those stories firsthand, which is kind of nice. And I think it helps give some of the stories credibility.

Robinson 

Well, Thom Hartmann, thank you so much for talking to me. The book is The Hidden History of Monopolies. You can find Thom Hartmann at Thomhartmann.com. And you can hear him on the radio all over the country. So thank you very much.

Hartmann 

Nathan, thanks so much for having me. It’s been an honor and a pleasure, a fascinating conversation. Thank you.

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