The death of Rush Limbaugh yesterday provides a reminder of the power of mass media. Limbaugh was popular and he had a devoted set of listeners. My own experience in radio plus ongoing listening makes me wonder why radio has a special ability to connect with an audience compared to other mediums. Here are some of pieces that might be involved:
-Daily mass media can connect more than more episodic mass media. Many radio shows take place at the same time each weekday. People know where it is and when to listen. Some television shows have this but many other regular cultural products occur less frequently (think television shows that used to be weekly for part of the year or now released a season at a time on streaming platforms). Daily newspapers and columnists can also do some of this.
-The radio involves a voice but no images. It is a different interaction than with television or the Internet and social media. Listening only can require a certain amount of attention to focus and at the same time allows for the possibility of doing many other things while listening.
-Talk radio in particular provides an opportunity for broadcasters to share a persona or their personality. And they often get to do this over an extended amount of time. The show might have particular content – sports talk, political talk, religious talk, etc. – but the people behind the mic might be more important than the actual topics. Today, podcasts offer some of this as does social media.
-Radios are relatively cheap, portable, and available. At least for some decades, you could take a radio almost everywhere. No Internet connection needed (though there are some features of listening to the radio via Internet). And do not underestimate the ability to listen to the radio while driving; many other forms of mass media cannot be consumed in vehicles and Americans like driving.
Of course, the era of giants in talk radio may only be a thing of the past with fewer listeners and so many other options for consumers of media. Yet, these different platforms may appeal to different people in different ways. Radio was effective for decades – and it is worth noting how much of its early development including networks, sitcoms, and detective shows became part of television – and will likely continue in some form for quite a while.