How conservative talk radio influences US voters

The Take looks into the power of conservative talk radio in the United States.

A condenser microphone positioned near a mixing console.
A condenser microphone positioned near a mixing console [yanyong/Getty Images]

Conservative talk radio, a medium full of large personalities and strong opinions, is popular among much of the United States population. In 2016, it drove many Republican voters to pick one of the country’s most right-wing candidates running. Now, with an upcoming midterm election that will decide the political makeup of the US Congress, The Take looks at what the power of conservative talk radio looks like now.

In this episode: 

  • Flo Phillips (@phillipsflo), senior producer and reporter for Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post

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Full episode transcript:

This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions. Our email is 

Newsreel: We need to make a huge impact over the next six months.

Halla Mohieddeen: That’s the sound that millions of Americans tune into every day during their commute. And it’s how many Americans get their news.

Flo Phillips: Sometimes people are just listening to the radios as they’re working and as a result that is their main news source.

Mohieddeen: Ahead of the United States midterm elections on November 8, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post did a deep dive into the world of conservative talk radio.

Newsreel: The GOP needs to talk about the following three things: crime, the border and the economy. 

Mohieddeen: But what exactly is it and how is it driving the trajectory of voting choices for half of the country? I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.

Phillips: My name’s Flo Phillips. I’m the senior producer and reporter for The Listening Post, which is English’s weekly media analysis and critique program.

Mohieddeen: Tell us about your latest project you rode around the United States listening to talk radio. Is that right?

Phillips: Exactly right. So we put out a film, which is called The Right Frequency: Is Talk Radio Dividing America, and it’s all about the medium of talk radio, which is a uniquely American medium.


Phillips: I think it’s quite important off the top to flag that when we’re talking about talk radio in America, we’re specifically talking about conservative talk radio.

Mohieddeen: And Flo says, she was inspired to dig deeper into this space after former US President Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

Phillips: We started to think as well on the Listening Post, like, wow, did we miss a trick? Did we not understand? And I think we all realised that we hadn’t given enough time to understanding what was going on outside this relatively liberal legacy media echo chamber and that’s when we decided to spend a lot more time understanding the power of talk radio, how it is as successful as it is and with the midterms upcoming, we wanted to look at whether radio was still holding, as much power as it had done over the past kind of 30 years.

Mohieddeen: But before we continue, what exactly is conservative talk radio? Flo says it’s like sitting down at a dinner table.

Phillips: They’re talking about what everyone else is talking about that day, but they’re doing it from a conservative perspective. And one of the biggest misconceptions about conservative talk radio is that all that they do is kind of blather on about national politics all day. But that’s not actually what they do. What they’re doing is they’re talking about is kind of water cooler chatter that everyone else is talking about, but from a conservative viewpoint. It could be anything, any of the major partisan issues that are on the table right now. It could be the economy, it could be abortion, could be immigration, could be gun control, it could be, you know, democracy itself. You know, so Trump’s stolen election narrative.

Newsreel: May God forbid, that, uh, losers will be declared winners by fraudulent election officers or secretary of state candidates or governors or state legislatures.

Phillips: And you get this sort of unfiltered, unapologetically conservative host who is repackaging news of the day, making it more relatable, lacing it with their own opinion, an opinion that really resonates with the right wing.

Mohieddeen: And the reason they’re able to talk about this in such a one-sided way is because of a change in the law.

Phillips: The fairness doctrine had said that if you treat one side of an issue, you have to give equal time to the other side of the issue. But in 1987, the Reagan administration dissolved that, and all of a sudden talk radio, for example, was no longer beholden to tell one side of the story.

Podcast studio with audio, recording equipment, and technology.
Podcast studio with audio, recording equipment, and technology [Getty Images]


Mohieddeen: Tell me more about some of the personalities and the people talk radio.

Phillips: Well, I think, talk radio hosts, they are personalities. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so popular and they’re so powerful. There are not just hundreds, but thousands of them. They range in terms of how popular they are, how famous they are, how listened to they are widely. So you have national syndicated hosts.

Mohieddeen: One of the most notable hosts being Rush Limbaugh, who many credit as popularising this industry.

Rush Limbaugh: It’s a brand new week of broadcast excellence hosted by me, Rush Limbaugh, a household name in all four corners of the world.

Mohieddeen: His show The Rush Limbaugh Show aired on radios across the United States from 1988 until his death in 2021.

Limbaugh: I’m going to be sharing the thoughts I wanna share with you today. I’m gonna just do it at random whenever it hits me. Whenever I feel it. 

Phillips: But then you have many more local hosts and they’re doing something a little bit different.


Jeff Katz: You go into the gas pump $3.50, $3.60, that’s not Democrat or Republican, that just stinks to high heaven. Your pay cut that you took cuz of inflation, Joe Biden. 

Phillips: They’re not just talking about national politics, they’re talking about how national politics resonate on a local level and they’re often people who’ve been doing it for sort of 30-40 years. They’re very much part of their community.

Mohieddeen: And they have a lot of sway. Don’t they, local radio hosts? I mean, I know what people will tend to think that the big stars are the national hosts. But in actual fact, if you want real star power, you’re anchoring the local news.

Phillips: I totally agree. I mean, that really came through.

Phillips: So one of the things that we really wanted to do with this film was obviously to talk to people in and talk to analysts, but really to talk to listeners.

Mohieddeen: Yeah.

Phillips: Why do they find this medium so powerful and why it connects with them so strongly? And we met this lady in a place called Ashland, Virginia. She runs a barbecue restaurant. And she talks about her relationship with her local talk radio host, this guy called Jeff Katz. And the way that she talked about him was as if he was her closest friend in the world.

Wendy Yohman: But my main go-to guy here is Jeff Katz with the WRVA, who is my buddy, my pal… 

Phillips: And she said, you know, the thing is Flo, that I speak to him for three hours every single day. He’s talking one on one to me, that’s what radio feels like. It has such an intimacy.

Wendy Yohman: I feel like that when, right when Jeff’s show is over, that he and I have had a living room chat. 

Phillips: He makes it resonate with them on a local level. He makes them understand a lot of maybe the political jargon that otherwise might go over their head and he kind of helps disseminate some of the information that it more clearly relates to their everyday experience.

Mohieddeen: And people like Wendy, who you just heard from, are typical of the average talk radio listeners. They’re not extreme political activists. They’re regular everyday people, who lean conservative.

Phillips: They tend to be, not exclusively, right-wing, socially and culturally conservative, whites, evangelical Christians, they tend to live in the more kind of rural parts of America. Those who either don’t feel that they’re being heard by the corridors of power in Washington, DC or as we found a lot, don’t feel that they’re being heard by the mainstream, the legacy media.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh reacts as he is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. First Lady Melania Trump during U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh reacts as he is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US First Lady Melania Trump during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress in the House in Washington, DC, February 4, 2020 [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]


Phillips: Talk radio can be at times incredibly poisonous and toxic. You know, you listen to some of what Rush Limbaugh put out there, and there are commentary that is misogynistic, it’s xenophobic, it’s homophobic.

Mohieddeen: Here’s Rush Limbaugh talking about a female college student advocating for free contraceptives.

Limbaugh: What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. 

Phillips: There are lots of problems with what gets said on talk radio, and as a result, it has an understandably very bad reputation. But it’s not all like that. And the listeners aren’t all xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic listeners. They are your everyday Republican, classic voters. I think that what a lot of people like Wendy have felt, they felt that what talk radio offers them is news and views that align with their political values.

Phillips: And think does not mean that they are all the same type and mould. They are just people looking for information that suits their sensibilities.

Mohieddeen: And a sense of community as well, no?

Phillips: Yeah, I think it’s offered them a community, somewhere where people can go and share their ideas and their views and their values in a safe space, as it were. It makes them feel like they have a connection, like they’re part of a community, a companionship.


Mohieddeen: But how can that sense of community blur the lines between news and entertainment? We’ll get into that after the break.

Mohieddeen: I’ve been speaking with Al Jazeera journalist Flo Phillips, who drove across America listening to conservative talk radio ahead of the midterms. She’s been explaining why it plays such an important role in the American media landscape. And Flo says, this popularity stems from something uniquely American: long car commutes.

Phillips: One of the reasons that this medium is so powerful, the car is a big thing in America and everybody goes everywhere in their cars.


Phillips: And so people are on their commute. They’re travelling huge distances, or they’re sitting in a traffic jam. They are just listening to the radio and they’re tuning in for a host, a friend.

Mohieddeen: And Virginia-based host, Jeff Katz, who you heard about earlier, has the prime drive time slot.

Mohieddeen: Let’s talk about Jeff. Just explain who is he. And what did he have to say about his role in talk radio?

Phillips: So Jeff Katz is a local host. He’s based in the southern state of Virginia. He’s in Richmond.

Jeff Katz: It is a Wednesday afternoon…

Phillips: He is one of a number of local hosts, but pulls a strong listenership. I think his numbers range from sort of 60 to 100,000 a day on any given day of the week.

Mohieddeen: Jeff’s numbers speak for themselves. And Flo says that a large part of this is because he entertains. But, there’s a danger to this.

Phillips: People can’t often tell the difference between what is news and what is opinion, and that’s the really tricky thing about talk radio. Is it news or is it entertainment?

On air sign and microphone in a radio studio.
‘On air’ sign and microphone in a radio studio [Getty Images]


Mohieddeen: Talk to me about the Jeff Katz Show itself.

Phillips: It’s very engaging. It’s high energy.

Katz: It’ll be a victory for common sense. It’ll be a victory for those of us who are moms and dads. It’ll be a victory for every single one of us who gets up every single day and goes to work and tries to pay the bills. 

Phillips: He has a very good way with the microphone as he described. He makes sure that what he’s talking about are things that are going to interest and engage and keep his listeners. He understands that his role is to disseminate information, but he knows that he’s not going to be able to do it unless he does it in an entertaining way. And he assumes that his listeners know that’s part of his job.

Mohieddeen: What kind of topics does he cover and how does that affect the people you talk to about their voting decisions?

Phillips: Yeah, so I asked him, you know, what are hot-button issues that you find that your listeners are tuning in for? And he talked about Joe Biden.

Mohieddeen: Yeah. He doesn’t like Biden much, does he?

Phillips: I don’t think many of the talk radio hosts like Biden, and I think they utilise that to their advantage. I asked this to Jeff Katz. I said is your job easier when the Democrats are in power? And he’s like, it’s much easier. It’s really easy to take down somebody that you don’t agree with.

Katz: I think the Joe Biden faux pas of the day. I mean this, this is somebody that you, you couldn’t write the script for our president.

Phillips: And he says that a lot of things he talks about are how Biden’s policies and Biden’s decisions filter down to the people of Richmond Virginia. The price of gas or empty supermarket shelves, a lot of the real issues that you know are resonating with people every day, but he links them to how a decision made by the president in DC is impacting their daily lives.

Katz: People are having a real tough time again with the price of gas, with the fact that Americans for the first time are going into supermarkets and seeing empty shelves. That’s just not American. That’s not something we have dealt with. And so these are all real issues for real people.

Phillips: Everything that is discussed is localised and then has a conservative spin put on it.

Katz: Look at Loudon County. You got a young lady [who] goes into the bathroom. There’s a guy who shows up in a skirt, sexually assaults her. Well, that’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. That’s a hell, no, I want my kid to be safe in school and I, especially as the father of a daughter, wanna make sure she’s not sexually assaulted for God’s sake.

Mohieddeen: When you spoke with Jeff Katz, how did he respond to that? Did he see himself as a purveyor of news or opinion? How does he see his role?

Phillips: So Jeff Katz.


Phillips: He sees himself being there to be part of the community, bolster the community, talk about important issues. And he talks a lot about how he is there to put forward his point of view. But that is what it is. It’s a point of view. And people should understand that he’s giving them is his take on the news. He’s there to entertain. I very clearly asked him do your listeners understand that you are not telling them how to go out and vote?

Katz: I don’t tell people how to vote. I do share with people how I think and how I’m voting, and if they choose to agree, they choose to agree. 

Phillips: But the point is don’t necessarily always understand that they don’t make that differentiation and that is where the problem lies.

Mohieddeen: And when you talked to Wendy or other listeners, did you get the sense that they understood that the shows that they’re listening to are entertainment and not pure news?

Phillips: I think that was understood at different levels. People have opportunities to take in news in, you know, depending on their jobs or their time

Wendy Yohman: I get my news from Jeff, You know, he keeps me in the loop. We trust him, yeah. And he’s helped a lot of folks who didn’t feel like they were as well educated in the national front.

Phillips: And what we tried to show is that different people see talk radio in different ways, and that’s kind of where the problem can lie.

Shelly Perkins: I’m deciding based on other sources how much of what they’re saying is factual and how much is their opinion. I think you have to have a healthy dose of scepticism to understand that everybody has an agenda.

Phillips: So I think understood talk radio to be doing slightly different things sometimes to what it’s doing. Well, Katz says that, you know, he’s not telling people how to vote and he’s sharing how he thinks and how he’s voting. And if they choose to agree, they choose to agree.

A microphone with a blurred background.
A microphone with a blurred background [Getty Images]


Phillips: The problem is that actually, you know, his sign-off every day is…

Katz: Jeff Katz News Radio, WRVA. 

Phillips: That’s implying one thing, but actually doing another.

Phillips: That’s where the lines are blurred in talk radio. It’s very hard for people to be able to see that line is being drawn.

Mohieddeen: This isn’t just confined to the radio, is it though there is a larger conservative media ecosystem? Can you tell us more about that?

Phillips: Yeah. So Talk radio, as we know it today, sort of modern talk radio industry, really took off with Rush Limbaugh. And more and more people began to realise that they could, you know, be successful in his mould.

Mohieddeen: Shortly after Rush Limbaugh’s rise, Fox News was launched. That’s a popular conservative news cable TV station.

Phillips: The spirit and the aesthetic of what Rush Limbaugh was doing on radio became the aesthetic of what you got on Fox News.


Jesse Waters: Democrats are wetting their pants over the midterms. 

Tucker Carlson: Is a mentally ill drug addicted, illegal alien nudist who takes hallucinogens and lives in a hippie school bus in Berkeley with a BLM banner and a pride flag out front. What does this sound like to you?

Newsreel: It’s all based on identity politics. She’s Black, she’s lesbian. What else do you know about her?

Phillips: And Flo says that this has expanded outside of TV onto digital platforms like Breitbart and RedState, both conservative websites.

Phillips: And so talk radio and Rush Limbaugh became a central part in now a much larger right-wing media ecosystem where the templates and the topics and even some of the hosts move between different platforms. This kind of revolving door of right-wing rhetoric.

Mohieddeen: So, some TV personalities who are on air on Fox News are also big stars on talk radio stations. For example, this is Sean Hannity on his talk radio show with over 13.5 million listeners a week.

Sean Hannity: The Democrats have bought into a sick, ugly, failed ideology, and they’re all locked into it. They all need to be deprogrammed because none of the policies that they’re advocating for are working. They’re all hurting the American people. 


Phillips: And now they’re all part of this much larger conservative media ecosystem, all of which are revolving around this idea, that opinion actually sells better and is more successful than just objective journalism.

Mohieddeen: And this is all quite important really when you consider the reach and influence that conservative media has, not least because the US has midterm elections coming up. So what do you think this media ecosystem is gonna mean two things, A for democracy, but also for the future of the Republican Party?

Phillips: I don’t want to insinuate that having a right-wing media ecosystem is a problem in itself because I think that there should be a plethora of opinions out there.


Phillips: I think the problem lies when it is deliberately divisive. Or when it starts to push politics further and further to the extremes. And I think that’s one of the problems with the American media system is that it has been divided so clearly. Down liberal and conservative lines that people don’t necessarily, they’re exposed to any other beliefs or any other values or any other news. So that’s where it becomes very dangerous.

Episode credits:

This episode was produced by Chloe K Li, with Negin Owliaei and our host, Halla Mohieddeen. 

Ruby Zaman fact-checked this episode.

Our production team includes Chloe K Li, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei, Amy Walters, and Ruby Zaman. 

Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.

Source: Al Jazeera