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Wed 27 May 2020
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Ellin Stein considers whether Times Radio could be part of a wider campaign against public service broadcasting in the UK

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There is no obvious reason why an announcement that The Times and the Sunday Times were launching a radio station should have raised an alarm. After all, the initial line-up promises such highly-regarded voices as Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman and John Pienaar, until recently the BBC’s respected deputy political editor.

There’s always a chance Times columnists like climate-change denier Nigel Lawson or the performatively politically incorrect Rod Liddle may get a berth, but on the whole Times Radio is positioning itself as a sober alternative to the news and politics aspect of BBC Radio 4.

So why the paranoia?


The Mortal Enemy

The announcement last winter came at the height of the government’s campaign to demoralize/kill off the BBC, leaking (to the Sunday Times) that the license fee would be scrapped and revving up its army of Twitter trolls to complain bitterly about BBC bias and taxes imposed by unelected bureaucrats. 

The concerted attack on the license fee brought to mind an online manifesto written by Dominic Cummings when he was heading up the New Frontiers Foundation. In it, Cummings declared that the Conservative Party needed to realize the BBC was a “mortal enemy”, that “the privileged closed world of the BBC” had to be “turned upside down”, that its very existence “should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign.”

Cummings went on to say that there were  “three structural things that the Right needs to happen in terms of communications… 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers etc. to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”

(The ban on political advertising was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. Though this is not changed by the UK departing the EU, there have been many Conservative voices arguing we should leave the ECHR too. If the ban was overturned it would give, as in the US, a big advantage to any British political party able to amass a huge war chest for such ad buys and enhanced influence for the donors who provide the funds.)

But why should Cummings have cared about radio (admittedly this list was written in 2004 and today he might well have substituted “podcast”)?


Radicalisation by Radio

Many British people may be unaware of the pivotal role AM talk radio played in the rise of the ’Alt-Right’ in the US and the radicalization of listeners that culminated in the creation of the Trump base. 

Starting in 1988, Rush Limbaugh pioneered a new form of talk radio best described as political infotainment. Originally Limbaugh combined slightly right-of-centre Republican politics with a Kenny Everett-like zaniness, but over the years raised the ante and grew more extreme to keep the audience engaged. Competition for the Republican audience became a race to the lunatic fringe, and hosts like Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and Bill O’Reilly — who would go on to be Fox News’ most visible editorial commentators – increasingly peddled a toxic blend of personal slurs, conspiracy theories, and thinly-disguised white nationalism.

There is a long tradition of US radio broadcasters using the airwaves to disseminate such views. In the 1930s, Father Coughlin — a Catholic priest who began by espousing social justice, supporting the New Deal, and denouncing the KKK and at his height reached some 30 million listeners — over time allowed his hatred of international finance to morph into a hatred of Jews in general (still a well-trodden path, it would seem). His shows stridently promoted an anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, pro-fascist agenda until he was finally taken off the air when war in Europe broke out.

In radio’s early heyday, AM stations dominated the medium. They were mostly owned by local entrepreneurs and formed a latticework that gave Americans something to listen to as they drove the long empty highways. Programming ranged from mainstream comedy stars like Jack Benny on stations affiliated to one of the big networks to, on small independents, regional music like Country & Western or fire-breathing religious programming, reinforcing the cultural linkage between rural communities, country music, and evangelical preachers that persists to this day.

There were successors to Coughlin’s virulent anti-leftist tradition on the airwaves during the Cold War but they were balanced out with more mainstream and even progressive voices. But then three factors led to AM Radio becoming dominated by not only conservative but increasingly demagogic right-wing voices. 


Higher Fidelity

One force towards extremism was the migration of listeners from AM to the FM band starting in the late 60s.

FM had always been the home of obscure rarified programming, like classical music or Latvian-language broadcasts, but when freeform rock stations started colonising it because of the better fidelity, the giant youth demographic followed, leaving AM with programming that didn’t need good sound quality like talk radio and baseball games. As a result, by the 1980s, audience numbers and the price of an AM license had plummeted. 

The biggest factor in unleashing the Conservative dominance of talk radio was the Reagan administration’s revoking of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. This regulation had meant that in order to keep their licenses, broadcasters had to devote airtime to issues of public importance while ensuring both sides of the debate were fairly represented. It also gave anyone subject to a personal attack on a program a right to reply. This ensured programs were less incendiary and more tethered to reality.

The final boost to conservative talk radio was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted restrictions on the number of stations that could be owned by any one company. The result was the relatively cheap AM stations being snapped up by conservative-leaning media corporations such as Clear Channel and, more recently, Sinclair Broadcasting, providing a bully pulpit for Republican candidates while pushing party politics ever further to the right and diminishing whatever party leaders they considered insufficiently zealous, like Mitt Romney.

However, with the rise of internet stations and the inevitable shrinking of its predominately over-50 demographic, the AM stations are once again on the decline.

Times Radio isn’t going to be on AM but on DAB and streamed. If Rupert Murdoch really wanted to create a beachhead for right-wing shock jocks, he already has Times Radio’s stablemate TalkRADIO, which features hosts like Dan Wootton, Julia Hartley-Brewer, and James Whale.

More than likely he just wants to siphon talent and audience from BBC Radio 4, and any resulting loss of BBC influence is an added benefit. Still, when Cummings has an ideological and Murdoch a financial interest in seeing a project succeed, it’s worth keeping a wary eye on.


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