When working in newsrooms in the 1990s, my journalism colleagues often asked me why Rush Limbaugh was so popular. They could not fathom it. I explained it was basic supply meeting pent-up demand; that is, conservatives had felt under attack in every area of media and here came a guy with a microphone giving voice to their worldview, and providing analysis and twists that were done no where else.
Limbaugh ushered in a revolution of talk radio hosts, creating an entire industry known as conservative talk radio and probably saving the AM dial. Before Fox News, conservative talk radio stood alone in the flood of liberal media. And spawned Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, Laura Ingraham and more. Most of these hosts are Baby Boomers and have a fairly set way of thinking and doing. (Notably, Beck the least in that regard, via both worldview and business model, and Prager with Prager U.) A lot of conservatism has reflected that old set way — at least in the Republican base.
But now we have something new in Ben Shapiro, who is arguably the most popular conservative in the country, although Rush and Sean fans may dispute that. Shapiro’s been on the scene for awhile, starting with a nationally syndicated column at 17 years old. But he’s exploded in recent years with the largest conservative podcast, a newly minted national radio show and best-selling books, while still writing for the Daily Wire and acting as Editor.
He’s simply sprinted past all of the much older and more established radio commentators.
Why? What makes Shapiro different?
Yes, he is smart, fast-talking, aggressive yet reasonable and has a quantum hard-drive for a memory. His worldview as a Christian-friendly, Orthodox Jew millennial conservative is almost hilariously unique. He’s fearless taking on the Left and usually acquits himself with a good pummelling. People eat up his “Ben Shapiro destroys…” Youtube videos usually answering questions at college campuses. He’s just a fresh voice in so many ways.
But there’s something else going on, and why people like me also gravitate to Shapiro. He simply puts more meat on the bone than the talk radio predecessors, throws far fewer bombs, rants less and more frequently explains what the other side is thinking or strategizing — fairly or not dependent on your worldview.
For too long, many of our talk radio hosts have spit out the same name-calling invectives and one-sided rants that have felt good but have not prepped any listener for dealing with an informed liberal. I can always tell my conservative friends who spend a lot of time listening to conservative talk radio. The vernacular is well-repeated. It too often boils down to: liberals are evil, they’re idiots, they hate America, and they think we’re all “racist, sexist, bigot, homophobes.” OK. Fair enough. Got it. But now what?
This is not a shot at these guys. I remember hearing Rush for the first time around 1989 or 1990 driving on U.S. 67 north of the Quad-Cities along the Mississippi River on the way home from my newspaper job in Davenport, flipping through stations when I came across this guy saying what I believe. I listened for a few minutes and was drop-jawed. This was no where else! I pulled into a dirt driveway, put it in park and just listened.
Supply was just beginning to meet demand and Rush was the pioneer.
But the supply of good red-meat conservative insights and rants (which I like as much as the next guy) is exceeding demand and has for awhile as everyone seeks to get in on the schtick. The typical pendulum of supply and demand seeking equilibrium and rarely finding it.
I’ve long wanted more, and sought it out in books and podcasts. Particularly podcasts in recent years where I can get long-form interviews and more in-depth information than what feels like the same old, same old on radio.
Shapiro goes at least part way toward meeting that demand. He provides reams more data and context on issues. While standard talk radio tells you X is a terrible idea. Shapiro frequently tells you why X is a terrible idea. That is a big step forward and one that obviously conservative millennials are attracted to — and there are growing numbers of those — but also that older conservatives are drawn to.
If Shapiro is roughly Rush 2.0 30 years later — William F. Buckley without the pretensions — then what we’re likely to see is a lot of people following his footsteps, just as we saw an entire industry follow Rush’s. We’re already seeing that with young conservative personalities. But young ranters a la old ranters is not the future. Depth, context, data and fearlessness with opponents (Rush never debates a liberal) may well be — and that does not have an age requirement attached.
Further, Shapiro’s radio program is utilizing his podcast format on radio, which has the potential to revolutionize a somewhat ossified radio industry facing stiffening competition from podcasts and new media.
Shapiro’s style and altered format — if it works — could be one of the healthier trends long-term for conservatism by creating a new breed of conservative-thought influencers, building on the first generation with a new and updated model that leaves conservatives more informed and armed than the 1.0 version.
Rod Thomson is an author, past Salem radio host, ABC TV commentator, former journalist and is Founder of The Revolutionary Act.