The sad passing of an early star of right wing talk radio highlights some of the profound changes in news broadcasting and the conservative movement in general. Those transformations may seem lamentable in this season of Republican self-flagellation but actually demonstrate an improved ability for right-of-center arguments to play a significant role in the national dialogue.
I knew and liked the late Ray Briem, who succumbed to cancer at age 82 on December 11th. His last radio gig before his final 1997retirement placed him on KIEV AM 870 in Los Angeles, the station (and dial position) that soon thereafter became KRLA “The Answer,” and my own Los Angeles affiliate for nearly fifteen years. I worked with Ray on several occasions as a guest on his show and counted myself as a frequent listener to the wildly popular late night program he hosted in South California between 1967 and 1994 on KABC.
Ray always came across as a kindly conservative but never pushed his ideology or partisan agenda with the same aggressive fervor popularized by Rush Limbaugh in the late ‘80s. Together with Michael Jackson—his long-time liberal counterpart on KABC—he represented an earlier stage of the news-talk format, when avuncular hosts generally kept their distance from political candidates or major office-holders and mixed their political posturing with a host of life-style and local issues that fit into no predictable philosophical grid.
Sure, Ray pushed for citizen initiatives like the Proposition 13 tax limitation measure in 1978 or Proposition 187 in 1994, meant to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the Golden State. But the Fairness Doctrine (enforced by the FCC until Reagan era changes in 1985) kept him from the open and impassioned partisanship that has always characterized “El Rushbo” and his many imitators and followers who now clearly dominate the talk radio industry. On his late-night show, airing from midnight to five a.m. for an amazing span of 27 years, Briem often discussed his passion for nostalgic Big Band music, or flying small planes, or ham radio. His resonant, mellifluous voice and patient, artful delivery perfectly suited the “graveyard shift” hours and gave him amazing traction among Southern California night owls: when he left his well-established perch on KABC, he drew an impressive 15.7 percent of the available listening audience.
Many observers say they miss the more courtly, relaxed, and neighborly tone of the Ray Briem era and decry the edgier atmosphere of hyper-caffeinated debate that typifies the most successful shows on talk radio today (yes, very much including my own). In part, the notable shift reflects two structural changes that altered the radio landscape, especially after the FCC abandoned governmental attempts to impose arbitrary notions of “fairness” and “balance.”
Most importantly, the rise of syndicated programming undermined the status of once-dominant local hosts like Briem. Rush led the way in showing the enormous profits available for even big stations in big markets by running programming by well-publicized national hosts. In return for giving the syndicator the opportunity of selling national ads on a few minutes of available ad time per hour, most stations get their syndicated hosts for free, saving them the investment in major salaries for locally-produced shows like Briem’s. Sure, down-home programming can still survive and thrive—as with Bill Handel in Los Angeles or Dave Ross in Seattle—but most talk radio stations now feature cost-effective syndicated shows most of the time. Briem’s old late night slot is almost totally dominated in major markets by Premier Networks’ “Coast-to-Coast” program, highlighting space aliens, supernatural phenomena and ancient conspiracies.
Meanwhile, Briem also exemplified the old career path for successful talk radio hosts: he emerged from the medium itself, not from the world of political advocacy and activism. Briem got his start as a teenager in Ogden, Utah, always loved radio and spent more than a decade “spinning records” as DJ in Seattle and LA before management forced him “kicking and screaming” to make the transition to an issues-oriented show. “I liked playing the music,” he told an interviewer at the time of his initial retirement in 1994. “I realized what a dumb head I was. I knew very little about politics or the workings of government, and the first year I was an embarrassment.”
This biographical pattern, typical of even the most revered icons of an earlier age of talk radio, looks increasingly dated with the air-waves increasingly filled with Ivy League educated lawyers with significant political experience. For instance, my honorable colleague Hugh Hewitt on the Salem Radio Network attended Harvard and the University of Michigan, then served as an aide to President Nixon and the Reagan Justice Department prior to his distinguished on-air career.
The Briem model featured radio guys (who often got their start playing music) using issues and politics to take their careers to a new level. Today, more and more successful hosts are political guys (often with considerable campaign or governmental experience) who use radio to take their advocacy on issues and politics to a new level. Perhaps the closest approximation to Briem’s folksy, easy-going demeanor in today’s talk radio landscape comes from syndicated host Mike Huckabee—but his background as a ten-year Governor-of-Arkansas and serious presidential candidate marks him as indelibly different.
That difference emphasizes the biggest advantage of the current talk-radio scene: some listeners might rightly prefer the more easy-going tone of the Briem era, but that epoch can’t compare with today’s medium in terms of informed substance. Contrary to common caricature by left-leaning critics suggesting a medium full of sound and fury and signifying nothing, right-leaning talk shows offer an intense focus on issues and controversies that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. In part, that’s because major talkers get so many more hours to discuss the biggest items in the news: through the 1980’s, most major markets boasted only one, or at most two, viable news talk stations. Today every big city offers several stations (sometimes five or six) with a far wider array of alternatives. Yes, the most successful shows with the most robust listening audience steer almost entirely to the right. But no one can deny that there’s far more conversation about politics on the air, which listeners can embrace or ignore according to their whims and inclinations. By the same token, the advent of cable news networks may upset people with the lack of “objectivity” on MSNBC or Fox. But why should any public-spirited American lament the fact that we now get 24-hours-a-day of news programming on multiple networks from which to choose, rather than a meager diet of a half hour of Walter Cronkite or Huntley & Brinkley, not to mention the paltry fifteen minutes of the sainted Ed Murrow?
In other words, while it’s natural to mourn the departure from the scene of a major talent and fine gentleman like the late Ray Briem, there’s no reason to mourn the passing of the old days when talk radio was less newsy, less opinionated, less feisty and above all less relevant to the ongoing debates that will shape the future of the nation. Committed conservatives and other patriotic participants in the political process can remember the past with affection but should feel gratitude and encouragement about the opportunities of the present.