Rush Limbaugh And The Birth of Participatory Radio

Watching a WTTW show on Eric and Cathy, it hit me just what the real change in Radio has been.

Think of it this way: In the seventies and eighties, would you have heard music on the radio, maybe some wild stuff on the morning shows, but little in audience response, and almost nothing in appearances from the musical stars. Think of it: Would Bad Company (never mind Led Zeppelin) have shown up at the Rock Station you listened to? Highly Unlikely, that was the level of separation between star musician and DJ. DJs communicated with their fans through requests and contests, but the fans rarely talked outside of that. WTRX had a talk-show in the evening (back when it was Adult Contemporary) in the seventies and early eighties, but that ended when the station went all Heavy-Metal in the late eighties.

That change started with Rush Limbaugh. Never mind that you had a conservative voice broadcasting nationwide in the middle of the day (after all, Sunday Mornings had Christian Church shows all over it); what made the show big was the fact that he took (well-screened) calls from a nationwide peanut gallery (aka Dittoheads). Thus, not only did you have a leading conservative voice on the radio talking about his beliefs, but you had thousands of conservative voices making cameos on that show, adding their assent, developing points, making distinctions and generally adding to the shared beliefs of the movement.

Participatory radio, in other words.

Sports radio would take that concept further, allowing for discussions that ranged from blindingly local (Junior High gymnastics sex scandals in the making) to national (Steroids and the Home Run Chase of 1998). Eventually, music radio (in part thanks to one of the few positive effects of Napster and P2P) started bringing in bands to play in the studio, hosting bands in intimate settings (complete with DJs working overtime) and even having working vacations where DJs mixed it up (pun not intended) with a group of fans who came for the privilege.

None of this was seen in 1985. Back then, you listened to radio either for news or for music, and that was it. Minnesota Public Radio had a variety show that was beginning to go national, but that was as much a throwback as anything else. Otherwise, chances to talk on the radio were small and limited, and no one saw the need for change, outside of a few AM stations noticing their audience growing smaller and older.

Now there’s a national dialog going on at various levels, over numerous subjects, over the airwaves. Plus the fans are actually closer to their stars than before, talking with them and spending real time in intimate settings. And guess what: these are the stations which are big, or getting big.

Things have changed.

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