Let’s Talk About Talk Radio

Like most people, I’ve been watching the US election results trickle in over the last few days. It is a very close competition in some states as I write this, and the media exaggerates this by referring to it as a race. So, it is exciting both because of the significance of the vote and because of the dramatic entertainment value. I am fascinated for both reasons.

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What seems clear is that there is an urban/rural divide in the political choices that the voters have made. This is interesting but not surprising. As I have mentioned before, the various regions of America that I have visited suggest to me that there is more than one America. At least, Americans don’t fall easily into simple categories.

Having said that, I have also become aware that there is a huge difference in the media that is consumed in rural areas as compared to urban areas, no matter which state I have been in.

I noticed during my drives from Edmonton to San Jose and back that, when I have stopped at various hotels along my route, the channel most often on the TV in the lounge has been Fox. After I had encountered this several times, during breakfast at a Comfort Inn I once asked the desk clerk if they would change the channel. He looked bewildered at the request and then replied that this was the channel most of their guests requested, so it would stay on.

When I am on a long drive, I like to listen to the talk radio some of the time. When I first started making my snowbird journeys, I would tune in to whatever local station was most readily available at any given point. As I drove through and around cities in my four-day journeys I would enjoy a variety of music and information stations. In the rural areas, though, the choices were limited to country music or right-wing talk radio stations. There didn’t seem to be any other kind, even though I repeatedly tried to find them. I soon realized that in huge parts of the country, the conservative and far-right voices were the only ones to be heard over the radio.

For five years I subscribed to satellite radio so that I could access a variety of music, news, and discussion. Over those years, though, the tone of the discussion channels shifted noticeably to the political right, the number of those channels increased, and the number of politically central or left-leaning channels went down to only one. At that point, I cancelled my subscription.

If you are wondering why there is such a stark rural-urban divide in the political identity of the USA, begin by asking which media the different constituent groups use when they are on the road. That, it seems to me, is the essence of the difference. If you are in your car, or truck, or tractor, and marinating in any one point of view all the time, it will become your own. I could be wrong, but my experience has been that many people in many rural areas have virtually no choice but to listen to right-wing points of view.

The question I have is, which came first: the chicken or the egg? Did right-wing media cause conservative audiences, or vice versa? That Comfort Inn clerk thought that the audience drives the media content, but I have my doubts.

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