It's probably no accident that the most controversial pundits tilt to the conservative right of the political spectrum. They aren't afraid to stake out positions that turn heads and set tongues a-wagging. They also bring in listeners and advertising dollars, two things that are necessary to stay on the air and sell books. Pundits on the left side of the spectrum have never rivaled their conservative counterparts in the ratings game.
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Of the top 10 talk radio hosts cited by Talkers Magazine, the first five on the list are all conservatives. Three of them, along with writer and commentator Ann Coulter, are profiled in this article.
(15 million listeners)
The "lovable fuzz ball" known to his millions of fans as El Rushbo has been holding court as the king of talk radio since 1988. That was the year his popular show went national from its flagship base at WABC in New York City. Within the next five years, he published two books and hosted his own television show that focused on his conservative political views while criticizing the liberal opposition. He now pulls in $50 million a year delivering running commentary from his West Palm Beach, Fla. studio.
This college dropout is no stranger to controversy and his program has thrived as he has taken on politicians and public figures around the world. He dismisses global warming as a hoax, has called abortion-right activists "feminazis" and famously said after Barack Obama's election that "I hope he fails."
Limbaugh once accused Michael J. Fox of faking the effects of Parkinson's disease by intentionally shaking and not taking his medications. The attack on Fox was in response to an ad he appeared in supporting more funding for stem cell research.
Limbaugh withdrew his bid to become part owner of the St. Louis Rams after opposition surfaced because of alleged race discrimination. This stemmed from comments he had made years earlier as an ESPN football commentator. He publicly stated that the media was heavily invested in seeing Donovan McNabb succeed because they wanted a black quarterback to do well in the NFL. (For related reading, see How Much Revenue Do College Sports Produce?)
(8.5 million listeners)
While Glenn Beck no longer hosts his daily program on the Fox News Channel (FNC), he remains a formidable conservative media force. His syndicated radio show on Premier Radio Networks is broadcast by over 400 stations nationwide, and is currently fourth on the talk radio ratings list. His company Mercury Radio Arts produces best-selling books, live stage shows, Blaze Magazine and theblaze.com news and information website.
It was at FNC that Beck solidified his reputation as a take-no-prisoners conservative pundit. He garnered the highest ratings in cable history during his 5 p.m. time slot, usually a death zone for television programming. During his opening monologues, he took frequent shots at Barack Obama and liberal Democrats. When the White House accused him of making false statements about Obama, Beck installed a special red phone. He gave the number to the White House with instructions to call him during the show whenever he got something wrong. The phone never rang. Beck was also instrumental in forcing Van Jones's resignation from his White House job as the green jobs czar by exposing his past political activities.
After leaving FNC, Beck started his own Internet-based network called Glenn Beck Television (GBTV). For a monthly subscription fee, it includes a video broadcast of his radio program, exclusive documentaries, Beck University programs, special live appearances and a daily two-hour program featuring current events and news.
Coulter is best known for her books and biting commentary on both radio and television. A University of Michigan Law School graduate and former attorney, she developed her political chops while working for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Center For Individual Rights. In addition to frequent speaking engagements, she writes a syndicated column for Universal Press Syndicate.
The titles of her books make it clear which side of the political divide she occupies: "High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton"; "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right"; "Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism"; "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)"; "Godless: The Church of Liberalism"; "If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans"; "Guilty: Liberal Victims and Their Assault on America"; and "Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America."
Coulter prides herself on her ability to stir the pot and create controversy. While on the air she makes no pretense of being impartial or unbiased, preferring to fire cannonballs at the opposition and watch them explode.
(9 million listeners)
With master's degrees in medical botany and anthropology and a doctorate in epidemiology and nutrition sciences, Michael Savage changed careers in 1994 at the age of 52. He sent a demo tape to 250 radio stations and landed his first gig at San Francisco's KGO. He called his program the "Savage Nation" and five years later it was nationally syndicated by the Talk Radio Network. He billed himself as being "to the right of Rush and to the left of God," a reference to perennial talk radio champion Rush Limbaugh.
A New York native and master storyteller, Savage strays far and wide from the exclusive menu of daily politics served up by his conservative contemporaries. He'll tackle almost any subject, often relying on his audience to call in and tell him what they want to talk about. A self-described loner and sometime outlaw, he's accused Obama of being an impostor and regularly refers to the mainstream media as vermin. He was permanently banned from Great Britain in 2009 on the grounds that he fostered hatred and criminal acts that might incite violence.
He summarizes his philosophy with three words: borders, language, culture, as representing the defining characteristics of a nation. He wrote a book calling liberalism a mental disorder that has been primarily responsible for the degrading of American culture. Always outspoken and controversial, he's written 25 books and landed four of them on the New York Times' bestseller list.
The Bottom Line
There's no doubt that controversy draws attention and produces good ratings, and the resulting commercial success is necessary to maintain a personal political platform. The most successful political pundits have cultivated a loyal fan base that is fed with a regular diet of eagerly consumed red meat. While often accused of brainwashing their listeners and readers, most will say they are only reaffirming the opinions already held by their fans.
The liberal side of political punditry has yet to mount a convincing counterattack that has been as commercially successful. Maybe they just need to stir up more controversy. (For related reading, see The Market And Presidential Promises.)