Columnists, Jon Caldara, Media, Politics, Uncategorized

Caldara: Talk radio’s not dead, but is showing its age

(You can listen to this column, read by the author, here.)

I must have hit that age. Nostalgia keeps overtaking me.

I remember a Colorado that had thriving, competitive newspapers in every city, along with equally thriving local radio to keep them in check.

There was a time when local radio was big.

Colorado, and the Front Range in particular, had some of the most competitive radio wars in the country due to more stations than similarly sized metro areas.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated radio frequencies very miserly, so one station’s broadcast wouldn’t bleed into another’s. And since the Front Range market was so far away from other big urban markets, we had more radio real estate available.

Hard to have local talk radio in New York City without it spilling all over New Jersey. Not the problem here.

And Colorado stations wove their way into our community. You spent time with those local guys on radio. Love ’em or hate ’em, you might spend hours a day with them.

Recently we just lost one of the greatest as the voice of the University of Colorado Buffaloes and the Denver Broncos, Larry Zimmer, passed away.

I remember as a kid my old man turning down the sound on the TV set during the Bronco games and turning on “850 KOA,” along with most Bronco fans, to listen to Bob Martin and Larry Zimmer call the game. There were no better in the business.

Bronco fans brought portable radios into Mile High Stadium to hear their analysis as they watched live.

When the Broncos had their first magic Super Bowl season in 1976, Bob and Larry provided the soundtrack for the state.

Radio had a special bond with Coloradans then, especially talk radio.

Talk radio was a powerhouse of communication and the virtual town square where Colorado-centric politics and issues were hammered out. And unlike modern anonymous social media hate speech, you knew who was saying what.

We were fortunate to have Mike Rosen as our conservative talk radio host for decades. At one point every metro area was required, it seemed by law, to have at least one conservative host, and most were Rush Limbaugh wannabes yelling insults into a microphone.

Rosen by contrast was (and still is via a keyboard for these pages) a calm man of reason with a penchant for argumentation. He was devastating.

Argumentation and logic are no longer taught in schools which is one of the reasons no one can have a conversation about politics anymore without being called either racist or stupid.

Mike’s airwaves counterbalance was Pete Boyles, who also took on local politics in a much more emotional yet ferocious way. For decades these two masters of talk would take on Denver’s political powers to be, including the mainstream media.

And most importantly they conquered local and state issues. Elections and ballot issues were often won or lost by their influence, because there were large audiences then.

Here’s what makes talk radio so powerful: it is immediate and spontaneous at its very core, the very opposite of a newspaper or the centrally planned National Public Radio.

If you disagree with something on NPR, you can write them a letter and maybe, if the people you are criticizing allow it, an edited version of your argument might be read on air.

By contrast when a talk-show host says something stupid any truck driver with a cellphone can challenge him immediately. That caller has access to the exact same airwaves as the host, and in real time. Without being edited he gets as much wattage behind his voice.

Could you imagine what Colorado Public Radio might be with that kind of format? They’d never risk the loss of control.

Alas that was then, and this is now. Talk radio is not quite dead, but it’s aging fast.

Radio stations today are mostly owned by hedge funds. To squeeze money, local voices take a back seat to syndicated shows that care nothing for Colorado issues.

And with podcasts and so many other choices for audio entertainment, folks are hesitant to put up with 15 minutes of ads an hour. Quite simply, Coloradans no longer really tune in to talk radio.

There is still quality talk radio in Denver, but the golden age is over. And with it goes the accountability and citizen power over local issues when we need it most.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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