At 5pm, last Friday. America was winding down for the Bank Holiday weekend: blowing the tops off Budweisers, barbecuing hotdogs, driving SUVs into sun-drenched ball-parks, and enjoying the myriad benefits of daily existence in the most prosperous nation on God's green Earth. It's a "slow news day", when the treadmill of current affairs grinds to a halt, and average Joes everywhere feel happy just to be alive.
Everywhere, that is, except in the New York TV studios of Fox News. Here, a man called Glenn Beck is 10 seconds into his daily talkshow, and already he's reached a rolling boil. "What are the mainstream media missing?" he wonders, bounding onstage like the Duracell Bunny. "I mean, besides EVERYTHING? You are not going to BELIEVE some of the crap that's going on in the world today!"
And so it begins: a fresh dose of outrage from the latest "hot" voice in US conservatism. In a live TV career spanning just four months, Beck, a 45-year-old radio jock, author, and occasional stand-up comedian has turned what was previously Fox's "graveyard shift" – between 5-6pm each weekday, when offices are emptying, but punters aren't yet home – into something close to required viewing.
Since launching in mid-January, Beck has increased the audience for his time slot by more than 150 percent, to 2.3 million regular viewers. This makes him the third most-watched person on US cable news. To quote a recent New York Times profile, the chubby, grey-haired impresario, who first appeared on America's TV screens in a pre-recorded CNN programme in 2006: is "suddenly one of the most powerful media voices for the nation's conservative populist anger."
Today, Beck is talking economics. He huffs and puffs about public finances, scrawling figures on a chalk-board which suggest that President Obama's fiscal regime has set the United States on a path to Third World status. Then he interviews some Reaganite pundits, who mostly agree with him. Finally, he introduces his daily "hot list" – news stories the "mainstream" news media has been wilfully ignoring.
This is Beck-land, where things tend to be black and white. Taxes are bad; guns are good. Abortion is bad; God is good. Gays are "faggots," torture is "enhanced interrogation", public healthcare should actually be called "socialised medicine," and so on. Global warming, of course, is a myth cooked up by left-wing scientists in a conspiracy to prevent Americans fulfilling their patriotic duty to guzzle gas.
He is, of course, the consummate showman: like a heterosexual Graham Norton, albeit with a mildly psychotic demeanour and a talent for speaking to the frustrations and prejudices of the disaffected. The show's opening credits consist of a dramatic countdown ("3-2-1... Beck!"), announce "the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment", and are often evangelical. "If you believe this country is great and the Government is trying to make us slaves, break open the shackles and stand up!" viewers were told last week. "Come on! Follow me!"
Anywhere else in the world, this kind of schtick might seem overblown; verging on the comic, even. But, in Barack Obama's America, it strikes a noisy chord. With an alleged socialist in the White House, and amid a financial collapse that has thrown much the traditional media into crisis, Beck and a small breed of TV and radio commentators just like him, working in supposedly outdated mediums, are at the centre of a vibrant growth industry.
It's an influential one, too. In January, Barack Obama's incoming Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, told CBS that the nation's heavyweight champion of right-wing radio controversialists, Rush Limbaugh, had now become firmly established in one of the most important political roles in the land: as "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."
His point, which inspired a welter of debate, was simple: with conservatism apparently on the ropes, and many voters unable to name a single truly inspiring Republican figure, the so-called "shock jocks" have taken the place of politicians. A group of talented, opinionated commentators – all of them conforming to the stereotype: white, angry and male – are driving Republican politics.
It's a valid argument, if the ratings are anything to go by. On TV, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, both proud conservatives, are the nation's two most-watched cable anchormen. On Radio, Limbaugh pulls in up to 20 million weekly listeners, only marginally less than the audience American Idol. Hannity manages another 15 million. Meanwhile, there's barely a single committed left-wing voice at the top table of radio talk hosts.
On TV, Fox News has achieved an almost unprecedented dominance of the cable news marketplace. Rupert Murdoch's right-leaning network (with the provocative motto: "fair and balanced") boasts more than twice as many viewers as any of its rivals, giving it a status much like the Daily Mail during the Blair era: the leading voice of opposition in a nation bereft of any coherent political leadership on the centre-right.
The rise of the talking class is also noisily evident in the headlines that it constantly attracts in the "mainstream media" (the phrase almost every conservative pundit uses to describe supposedly liberal US newspapers and TV networks). Beck and his peers do not just discuss the news: they have also now become the news.
Last week, Glenn rocked-up on The View, a popular daytime TV chatshow along the lines of Loose Women, and was promptly called "a lying sack of dog mess", to his face, by co-host Whoopi Goldberg. His crime: telling a very minor fib about a recent meeting they'd had to listeners of the radio show he broadcasts each morning. In a somewhat grovelling manner, he admitted to having "mis-spoken". But his ratings soared.
Hannity, meanwhile, is at the centre of controversy after welshing on an agreement to undergo waterboarding, to prove his thesis that the practise doesn't amount to torture. Then there's Michael Savage, the country's third most-popular radio talk host, who Jacqui Smith recently stuck on a list of 22 undesirables and extremists banned from Britain for having allegedly "fallen into the category of fomenting hatred."
Savage, whose dog-whistle right-wingery doesn't actually extend to advocating violence, responded by launching a defamation lawsuit against the Home Secretary. Its success (or otherwise) remains to be seen. But his 10 million listeners (no doubt more, now he's been properly name-checked) enjoyed the poetic pleasure of hearing him describe Smith as a "lunatic," "witch", "monster", "lowlife", "tin-pot dictator" and "beer swilling mutt".
Here, in three kerfuffles, is right wing shock-jockery at its best. Its advocates are loud and provocative. They intersperse bar-room insult with occasional wit, and extraordinary rhetorical flourishes. They also speak directly to the heart of an alienated sector of Middle America, of currently indeterminate size.
Beck and his colleagues are alternately noble sages, over-opinionated rabble-rousers, and extraordinarily talented entertainers. On the attack, they are formidable. In large doses they can be overbearing. And at present, their importance revolves around a billion-dollar question: will they shape the shattered Republican Party's route back to power, or condemn it to a generation of obscurity?
There is an old showbusiness saying, beloved by agents, box-office managers, and the sort of populist stars critics hate but middlebrow punters adore, which dictates that to find out exactly what's going on in the rich and endlessly varied world of entertainment, all you ever need to do is to follow the money.
By that token, the biggest and most important pay deal struck by any star, in any medium – from sports, to pop music, to Hollywood films, to broadcasting – in the last 12 months was the eight-year, $400m (£251m) contract that committed Rush Limbaugh to the syndication firm Clear Channel and was signed in July 2008.
The deal saw Limbaugh, a notorious, cigar-chomping 57-year-old, whose daily talkshow is syndicated to 600 US radio stations, garner a pay rise of $10m annually and a signing bonus of around $100m. As he inked the agreement, he announced: "I am not retiring until every American agrees with me."
One thing the nation does agree on is the scale of Limbaugh's success. He boasts perhaps the most committed, and certainly the most lucrative following of any news commentator in the history of humanity. Though his reach is limited by his reluctance to appear on television, he is the big beast to whom all other conservative pundits aspire. And the cornerstone of his success is simple economics.
Talk radio's business model has its roots in two developments that arrived in the US in the late Eighties. The first was political. In 1987, the Reagan administration scrapped the Fairness Doctrine, a government policy requiring broadcasters to report political issues in a manner that was deemed "honest, equitable and balanced." So began Limbaugh's rise.
The second change was technical. During the Sixties and Seventies, music stations began shifting en masse to FM broadcasting, with its superior sound quality. By 1987, the AM airwaves were remarkably uncluttered. In a vast country, full of major conurbations, new talk stations were able to buy up local broadcasting licences for a song. Operators like Limbaugh started being syndicated to local networks across America.
Suddenly talkshows made by one, noisy man in a small room, with a couple of producers manning the telephones, began to reach audiences of millions. It was a lucrative model: low costs, but high income, since advertisers loved the fact that talk radio's listeners were fiercely loyal, with a high disposable income (they were, after all, conservatives).
Today, the result is a vast meritocracy of talent: thousands of pundits, working for hundreds of stations, compete for share in one of the biggest marketplaces in global broadcasting. It's a cut-throat medium, in which the strong thrive and the weak are killed off. To make it, above all, you must be blessed with singular abilities to keep viewers and listeners from switching over.
"There's really only one rule in talk radio, and that is that, whether you're on the left or the right, you can never be uninteresting," says Dennis Prager, a syndicated conservative host based in Los Angeles. "You can be an idiot. You can be a moral fool. You can be primitive. But you cannot be boring. Every sentence must hold the attention."
This led to the rise of the Nineties "shock jock" – men (it was always men) who would push at extremes, or maintain a constant wattage of outrage, to keep their followings. The Christian right, traditionally obsessed with tribal social issues, like abortion and gun control, and latterly gay marriage, made an ideal audience for their fodder.
In Prager's eyes, there are further reasons why the most popular talk pundits have always been drawn from Republican ranks. "Firstly, there's much less need for left-wing hosts, because everything else is left wing. You've already got liberal commentary in the mainstream media, in TV news, newspapers, movies, so the thirst for yet another left-wing voice does not go all that deep."
"Secondly, and this is my own opinion, I think that left-wing voices tend to be emotive rather than thought through. Left-wing radio is far more emotion driven, calling opponents by names for example, than conservative radio... They're always calling people bastards and bitches, and it just gets boring after a while."
The icing on the cake, for any controversialist, is someone to rail against. The most successful right-wing voices of the modern era emerged during the presidency of Bill Clinton, which also spawned The Drudge Report, the right-leaning website that's still one of the world's most influential news aggregation mediums. Little surprise, then, that the fortunes of conservative talk radio are again buoyant.
"For me, this is the best of times, and the worst of times," says Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host from Orange County, whose afternoon show is syndicated on 120 US radio stations. "The Republicans are out of power, and I wish I didn't have so much to talk about, but our audiences are snowballing. The TSL [time spent listening] figures are through the roof. People who used to tune in for five to 10 minutes are now staying for an hour."
Hewitt, a relatively-moderate voice, is confident that the ebb and flow of politics mean that he and his colleagues, with their uncanny ability to tell viewers how to think and why to think it, will inevitably shape the Republican Party's future success: "We were part of the cycle that led to the ascendancy of the red majority from 1994 until 2008," he says. "And we will have our time again."
There is, however, a very large potential spanner in the works. It revolves around demographics. Put bluntly, right-leaning talk's audience is dying off. A recent profile of Limbaugh by Vanity Fair claimed that the average age of his listeners is 67 and rising. Fox's average viewer is said to be in their seventh decade. In a changing world, against a President catapulted to power with a staggering majority of the youth, they may (in the long term) turn out to be onto a losing bet.
A telling demonstration of the lie of the Republican party occurred in February this year, when Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and supposedly one of the party's most powerful elected figures, attempted on CNN to distance himself from Rush Limbaugh, describing him as an "incendiary" figure who should not be taken seriously, since: "his whole thing is entertainment."
It took 48 hours for Steele to be hauled back onto the airwaves, issuing a fulsome apology to Limbaugh, whose listeners had bombarded his office, and those of Republican donors, with angry complaints. The incident quite naturally raises serious questions about who, exactly, is running the show. Steele is elected. Limbaugh is not.
Some Republicans believe the party needs a strong conservative hand on the tiller, now more than ever, arguing that no political organisation can capture the middle ground from which elections are won until they are in touch with their ideological soul. People such as Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative news organisation Newsmax, touts Glenn Beck, and others, as part of the solution to the party's woes.
"There's an old saying that Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line," he says. "The party will fall in line eventually, but there's no particular hurry for them to do that now," he says. "Reagan had this saying that 'you've got to preach to the choir first'."
It's difficult not to wonder, however, if Barack Obama's Democrats aren't also cheering the rise of conservative talk. Rahm Emanuel was, after all, hardly subtle in talking up Limbaugh on the airwaves. So long as their opponents are perceived as shouty ideologues – rather than say the moderate, Colin Powell Republicans of this world – they pose no serious threat.
"One of the reasons you keep seeing Rush touted at the moment is because the folks who support the current administration want to keep him out there," says Jason Linkins, who writes on media affairs for the liberal Huffington Post website. "If you look at polling, his ideas aren't that popular, and he doesn't have a strong personal approval rating. His show gets huge ratings because it's great entertainment, not because people necessarily agree with him."
In other words, the angry white men are part of the problem. Their greatest gifts – their communication, showmanship, and fabulous lines of attack may be exaggerating a potential built on shaky foundations. They could be convincing the Republicans' remaining believers that an ideology made for a different era may one day win back power, without any need for a makeover.
This problem was perfectly captured a month ago, by none other than Glenn Beck. Broadcasting a special edition of his brilliantly Barnumesque programme from an anti-tax "tea party", he finished another hour-long broadcast by breaking down in tears at the size of the middle-class crowd who had turned out.
"I'm sorry... I just love my country," he explained, apparently overcome by emotion. "And I fear for it... It seems like the voices of our leaders, and the special interests, and the media... like they're just surrounding us. And it's intimidating. But you know what? Pull away the curtain and you'll realise there ain't anyone there. There's just a few people pressing the buttons, and their voices are really weak. The truth is. They don't surround us. We... surround... them."
Fighting talk: In their own words
On Obama: "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds... because his father was black." Rush Limbaugh
On the Presidency: "Can we pray for the re-election of George Bush?" Sean Hannity
On religion: "It doesn't say anywhere in the constitution this idea of the separation of church and state." Sean Hannity
On climate change: "If you believe the mainstream media hype, you'd think that every time you drive your SUV, the Earth's temperature rises six degrees." Glenn Beck
On waterboarding: "I am for enhanced interrogation. I don't believe waterboarding is torture... I'll do it. I'll do it for charity." Sean Hannity
On the UN: "I just wish [Hurricane] Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out, and I wouldn't have rescued them." Bill O'Reilly
On weapons of mass destruction: "If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologise to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?" Bill O'Reilly
On race: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." Bill O'Reilly
On Islam: "I have a number of things that I am gonna demand and one of them is that no more Muslim immigrants come into this country. No more mosques be permitted to be built in this country...and yes we need racial profiling immediately..." Michael Savage
On immigration: "You don't have the right to protest. You're allowed no demonstrations, no foreign flag waving, no political organising... you're a foreigner, shut your mouth or get out." Rush Limbaugh
On politics: "Good for you, you have a heart, you can be a liberal. Now, couple your heart with your brain, and you can be a conservative." Glenn Beck
On homosexuality: "The gay and lesbian mafia wants our children. If it can win their souls and their minds, it knows their bodies will follow. Of course, it wants to homosexualise the whole country, not just the children" Michael Savage
On feminism: "Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society." Rush Limbaugh
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