Editor's Note: This column first appeared in the March issue of Townhall Magazine.
Talk Radio—in the parlance of music radio—is known for playing the hits. Obamacare, NSA spying, legalization of marijuana, Supreme Court rulings on forced unionization, and (thanks to Gov. Chris Christie) the on-ramps of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
It is the ongoing mission of your friendly neighborhood talk host to toss out issues, offer a personal opinion on them, and then watch the phones light up like a Christmas tree. It is a programming formula that—to talk radio’s critics—appeals to the lowest common denominator in society. To those critics, talk hosts are the linear equivalent of militia members challenging the liberal orthodoxy of President Obama and his clones in Congress.
But that talk radio stereotype has been set on its ear in recent years by another “hit” the format has adopted: tapping into the inherent generosity of talk audiences on behalf of civic and charitable causes.
Premiere Radio’s Rush Limbaugh has raised literally millions of dollars with his annual radiothons for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The Salem Radio Network, including hosts Bill Bennett, Hugh Hewitt and others, generated more than $2.4 million in donations to the relief organization Feed The Children to help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Cumulus Media host Don Imus continues to break fundraising records as listeners support his Imus Ranch in Ribera, New Mexico, which offers a real “American western ranch experience” to kids with cancer and blood disorders, as well as children who have lost a brother or sister to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Nationally syndicated talk host Mike Gallagher, who in 2004 launched a nonprofit foundation known as Gallagher’s Army Fallen Officer Fund, has with the help of his radio listeners raised and distributed more than $1 million to families of police officers killed in the line of duty.
“My experience has been that police officers are busier protecting lives and property than they are planning for their own financial futures,” notes Gallagher. As a result, an officer’s young widow and children are often left with almost nothing after a tragedy. “Being in a position to step in and help families of police officers is emotionally and spiritually very gratifying,” Gallagher adds.
(Full disclosure: I personally have experienced real blessings when I’ve pitched in on mission trips with organizations such as Food For The Poor, and then helped raise funds for them on the air. In 2013 I was on-the-ground in Guatemala and this year traveled with FFTP to help deliver essentials to Haiti.)
Given talk radio’s popularity as, alternately, America’s No. 1 or No. 2 format (talk’s formatic dominance nationally see saws back and forth with country music stations periodically) the opportunities to serve local and national charities are endless: individual hosts and their radio stations and networks are, even now, planning their 2014 efforts on behalf of the Salvation Army, Cure International, Rock of Africa, local food banks, and many other worthy causes. Not to mention being electronic “first responders” in the wake of floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.
So while talk radio isn’t abandoning its core appeal to listeners by tackling breaking news and hard issues while engaging in freewheeling debate, the next time you hear your favorite host asking for support of a worthy cause, know that your donations are part of a growing trend of Americans helping Americans via the private sector rather than through unwieldy and often ineffective government bureaucracies.
And at the end of the day, that message is a big part of the magic of talk radio.