The Republican insider will take on the likes of Sean Hannity,
Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage.
By David A. Patten
aving a gift for stirring up controversy is one of the secrets to successful talk radio. So based on the reaction to Rep. Mike Rogers’ news that he will leave Congress to host a radio talk show for Cumulus Media, he may have a very bright future indeed.
The backlash to the Michigan Republican’s announcement came fast and furious.
Commentator Michael Reagan labeled Rogers’ new show “RINO radio.” Conservative media watchdog L. Brent Bozell III charged that Rogers thinks conservative radio listeners are “knuckle-draggers unable to think for themselves, unable to be smart.”
Rogers had to know the firestorm that would follow after suggesting that his brand of talk radio would be more thought-provoking than that of current radio giants Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage.
Rogers sat down with Newsmax TV to explain why he was giving up his coveted chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee to join the likes of Mike Huckabee as politicians who enlisted in the media.
“It gives me an opportunity to talk to people all over the country about American exceptionalism, the future of America, the issues of the day, national security, and foreign policy,” Rogers told Newsmax TV.
He added he would do so “in a way I just don’t hear interjected into the public debate.”
Trying to raise up a “kinder and gentler” voice to compete with Rush is hardly a new idea. The scorecard of those who stepped into the ratings ring against Limbaugh reads like a Who’s Who of media: Joe Scarborough, Bill O’Reilly, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee, to name a few. All of their radio shows came to an ignominious end, mostly by being canceled.
Whether Rogers succeeds where others have failed, industry experts say, will probably depend on whether he can bridge the gap between the carefully parsed language of politics and the rousing rhetoric of talk radio.
Publisher Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine, which bills itself as the “Bible of talk radio,” says that Rogers is more compelling than the average dry politician — but still not as interesting as the more successful radio talkers.
He adds that having a flair for show business is at least as important to success in talk radio as whatever policy knowledge a host brings to the table.
“Sometimes the goals of success in talk radio are different from the goals of success in politics,” he observes, “which goes back to something I said before: Politicians do not make good talk-show hosts.”
Whether Rogers can succeed on the same battlefield where so many others have fallen really depends on how audiences react. And that, Harrison says, nobody can predict. On the positive side of the ledger, Harrison says Rogers has savvy media instincts, and can talk credibly on a wide range of issues thanks to his insider knowledge. The negative side of the ledger: Rogers is a politician.
“As a species,” says Harrison, who founded his magazine in 1990, “they don’t fully understand the show-business and human-element aspects of talk programming.
“They see it as another platform to further their political selves, as opposed to their personality selves.”
What’s needed are spontaneous expressions that touch people on a human level. That’s not easy for most politicians, who by instinct and training learn to keep their reactions under wraps. “I’m not saying Rogers doesn’t have it,” says Harrison. “I’m just saying we don’t know that he does.”
Harrison hastens to add that he’s rooting for Rogers to do well because his success would benefit the industry. He says that Cumulus will have to show Rogers that it’s OK to flirt with controversy in expressing his opinion.
At times, Harrison says, “I have the feeling Cumulus is trying to find a way to do talk radio that is safe, and bypass some of the hazards that the genre is facing right now in terms of advertiser boycotts and the heat you take from the general world when you take positions that not everybody agrees with.”
Cumulus will have to support Rogers’ evolution from political leader to radio talker, if he’s going to be successful, Harrison says.
Another longtime political analyst, professor Tobe Berkovitz at Boston University, says Rogers may be asked to fill the “acceptable conservative” role filled, for example, by columnist David Brooks at The New York Times.
“I believe there is a place for that particular perspective,” Berkovitz tells Newsmax. “The question is, In our highly polarized audience environment, can someone who is neither a firebrand conservative nor a firebrand liberal survive? Is there a place for
the more moderate, centrist voices?” That Rogers would have to defend his conservative bona fides may come as a surprise. He’s been a staunch critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and currently has an 88 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.
But on the radio dial, there’s no room for squishy Republicans. “If he irritates the core of the right-wing that loves talk radio,” says Harrison, “and doesn’t generate interest among the people who want to hear a moderate, he may wind up with nothing.”
So what does this apparent convergence between the worlds of politics and the media tell us? Berkovitz says it basically signals that “the circus is in town.” He says, “The people who become high profile for a while, who frequently also are shooting stars and burn out quickly, are people with strong personalities, aggressive techniques.”
But in what sounds like a homage to the very talk giants Rogers is hoping to depose, Berkovitz adds that the real test of any circus is how long you can fill up the tents. “Most of them are flashes in the pan,” says Berkovitz. “Longevity is a rarity.”
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