Mike Huckabee is set to launch a new national talk radio show on about 100 stations. For comparison’s sake, Rush Limbaugh is on about 600 stations, and Laura Ingraham is on roughly 325 or so. You won’t be surprised to learn that squishy David Frum really really hopes Huckabee can de-throne Rush Limbaugh. You may be surprised, though, to see just how poorly Frum understands the world of talk radio and its listeners.
Suddenly, in the worst month of Limbaugh’s career, somewhere else has appeared: a lower-priced alternative, with big audience reach and a host an advertiser can trust never, ever to abuse a student as a “slut” and “prostitute.”
The new Huckabee show’s slogan is “more conversation; less confrontation.” “I don’t want it to be a show that every day, every hour, pushes everyone’s buttons to raise their blood pressure,” Huckabee says. “I figure the cost of high blood pressure is enough already.”
Huckabee’s politics are emphatically conservative of course, both on social and economic issues. Yet his politics differ in important ways from those of the Limbaugh-influenced Republican electorate. “I don’t see a pathway for a person of my point of view getting through the land mine of the Republican primary. If that were to change in four years, if the Republicans were to get more serious about governing, not just campaigning—if we focused on what we were for and not just what we were against—then I might be a viable candidate.”
Way to insult your potential audience, Huck. Not a good way to start the new gig.
The less-strident Huckabee approach arises both from his experience as a long-serving governor in a Democratic-leaning state and from Huckabee’s famously genial temperament. “I have to believe that there are people who are highly opinionated but who actually find it informative and engaging to find out what the other side is thinking,” he says. “And not through a shouting match, but through an adult-level, civil conversation.”
Huckabee’s show will be on Cumulus Media, so it is a true competitor to Limbaugh (Clear Channel) and to Laura Ingraham (Talk Radio Network), Sean Hannity (ABC/Citadel) and other conservative talkers. And who knows, it may even succeed. I find Huckabee’s personality grating and a bit disingenuous, but he’s popular with much of the GOP grassroots and if I was still in talk radio and looking for a personality around whom to build a show, Huckabee is worth a serious shot. But his show won’t succeed for the reasons Frum seems to be hoping for, being less “strident” or whatever epithet Frum wants to toss at opinionators with whom he could never hope to compete. If Huck succeeds, it will be because he brings something unique to the show, or gets the right mix of stations and time slots, or has a solid production team to work with and listens to them, or some mix of all that plus good old fashioned luck: solid syndicate backing, aggressive sales team, the right pitch at the right time. But if Huck is going in hoping not to “push buttons” or raise listeners’ blood pressure, he will probably fail.
Frum, by the way, is insufferably strident in his own way. And he pushes buttons. And he knows it, and sets out to push those buttons. He just pushes conservatives’ buttons, because he isn’t really a conservative and he dislikes conservatives. His scoldy self-centered humorlessness adds to his insufferability.
Talk radio is a different beast from other media. It’s more intimate with the listener, right inside their head. The audience is usually alone when listening to talk radio; the host is many things to them. Good hosts tend to have a predictable set of values but a less predictable way of expressing them, sometimes pushing buttons, sometimes challenging their audience, sometimes serving as a talisman or rallying point, often reassuring the audience that they’re not alone, and often an outlet for the gripes and concerns that the audience brings to the show. Talk radio isn’t really about raising its fans’ blood pressure, it’s a pressure valve. Rush succeeds for a number of reasons, and high on the list is the simple fact that he understands his medium better than anyone else does. He knows when to go for the joke and when to go for the jugular. He knows where the lines are and generally gets right up to them without crossing them (the Fluke fracas is the exception that proves the rule). He is to talk radio what Pele was to soccer: Gifted beyond anything that anyone can teach, and born with killer instincts.
If Huck goes in unwilling to learn the medium, he will fail. If Huck goes in unwilling to be a champion and unwilling to push buttons, he will fail. And if Huck goes in thinking that David Frum offers any kind of worthwhile advice for succeeding in talk radio, he will fail spectacularly. Probably 75% of Frum’s schtick is ticking off conservatives. That’s why the Beast keeps him around, to act as one commenter on his own post describes it, the “left’s conservative sex slave.” With the mainstream media that we have, we don’t need to chain up a squishy talk radio show along with Salacious Frum.