UPDATE: The deadline to vote in the recall election was September 14, 2021. Governor Newsom beat the recall.
A talk radio personality might win the California gubernatorial recall on September 14, and for that, we can thank Ronald Reagan.
Larry Elder is the latest in a long line of talk radio hosts to ride the airwaves into political office. The most famous is Mike Pence, whose path to the vice presidency began with 10 years in Indiana doing conservative, evangelical Christian radio. Pence had just lost his first bid for Congress in 1988 when his show debuted. This position kept Pence in the public earhole (and paid the bills) until he finally won his way into the House in 2000. In all likelihood, neither Pence nor Elder would have gotten so far without the Reagan administration’s decision to abolish the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
The Fairness Doctrine was the Federal Communications Commission’s standard for controversial issues in broadcast media from 1949 to 1987. In principle, radio stations and TV channels were expected to give coverage to both sides in any debate. Rather than networks with a singular perspective, viewers tuned in to programs where a conservative like William F. Buckley Jr. attacked gay people and Black people, followed by spokespeople for those communities (like Gore Vidal and James Baldwin) replying with a favorable view. So, under the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters needed to be careful in choosing how much space they gave to editorial opinion, knowing they would need to provide expensive airtime to the opposing view. Markets alone did not determine what consumers heard on radio or saw on TV.
During the deregulatory age of Reagan, however, the Fairness Doctrine became another victim of the president’s agenda to reduce the role of government oversight. Remember, Reagan promised huge tax cuts for the rich on an austerity platform that shrank social services like welfare benefits and spending on public housing. Libertarian ideologues set their sights on the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that it constrained the media instead of letting executives simply play whatever garnered the highest ratings and revenues.
Not just a supporter of the free market, Reagan was also an alum of pre–Fairness Doctrine 1930s radio. His career began in Midwestern sports announcing before the aspiring actor made his move to Hollywood. Celebrity won Reagan the California governor’s office in 1966 and, after two terms, he went back to radio instead of television. Michael Deaver, an adviser and publicist, later quoted the soon-to-be president as saying people would “tire of me” on the screen. Instead, Reagan hosted Viewpoint, which consisted of three-minute radio essays, five for each week. These played nationally on every weeknight at 6 PM to an estimated audience of 20 to 40 million suburban commuters. Beyond a mandated break for the 1976 GOP presidential primary, Reagan religiously kept to this schedule from 1975 to 1979. In those years, Reagan wrote and recorded roughly 600,000 words of original prose. This massive undertaking helped propel him to victory in the 1980 presidential election.
Only once did Reagan’s commentaries elicit an intervention from the FCC. After years of simple and relatively vague homilies, Reagan broadcasted a 1978 diatribe against the Mobilization for Survival, an antiwar coalition Reagan called “The Suicide Lobby.” He named names, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, Daniel Ellsberg, and Barry Commoner. Within weeks, they sent a signed form letter: “I’m sure you are aware that under FCC rules you were required to notify me of this personal attack within seven days and offer me a reasonable opportunity to respond over your facilities. You have failed to live up to this responsibility.” Reagan’s affiliated stations agreed to play a response, as required by the Fairness Doctrine, rebutting the former governor and pleading for an end to nuclear war.
Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric backfired, but he didn’t forget the blow to his ego after he reached the White House. The president packed the FCC’s leadership with his picks, and in 1987, they voted 4–0 to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. Democrats in Congress drafted and passed a bill to preserve the policy, but Reagan vetoed it. The country was primed for long-form talk radio. One of the new genre’s pioneers was named Michael Reagan. He received a surprise telephone call in the first minutes of his first show from none other than his father, the sitting president, whose reforms had just paved the way for the start of his son’s new career.
Radio stations from coast to coast hired shock jocks, many of whom spoke provocatively about politics and culture for slots as long as three hours a day. In the years since, such positions have become a gold mine of free publicity for future politicians. In 1994, the New York Times introduced a “bumper crop” of talk radio personalities running for the Senate or the House: at least nine of them. In the years since, Minnesota has had two talk radio alums go to Washington: Congressmen Jason Lewis (2017–2019) and Tom Emmer (2015–present, Chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee since 2019). Like Pence before, Emmer got into radio after losing a campaign (for governor in 2010) and worked in this capacity until winning his way into the House. Meanwhile in California, former politicians with talk shows include Roger Hedgecock, the disgraced mayor of San Diego who was ousted for corruption, and Daryl Gates, the LAPD Chief who was ousted for incompetence after the Rodney King uprising of April 1992.
In 1994, Larry Elder moved to his childhood home in California to launch a radio show. A Black man with libertarian views and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideology, he has proven a useful tool for the post–civil rights backlash. Conservative fans, known as “Elderberries,” call in with opinions that most Black leaders would likely consider implicitly anti-Black. Elder says otherwise. In fact, he has endorsed such views — including the opposition to affirmative action, supporting implicit trust in police, prosecutors, and war on crime propaganda in the press — while denying they have anything to do with racism. In 1996, the Black-oriented LA Sentinel declared such editorials to be acts of “real Black-on-Black crime.” These views also made Elder and his sponsors a fortune, so activists tried using economic strategies to fight back. The campaign to deplatform Elder began with boycotts targeting KABC radio’s sponsors. The show went on, even after the Walt Disney Company bought the network in 1996. Elder went on to publish books like 2008’s Stupid Black Men: How to Play the Race Card in America, which dog-whistlingly called for an end to “BMW: Bitching, Moaning, and Whining.” Only six years later the radio host was (literally) canceled, but Elder deftly switched to podcasting on the very next day. Within two years, in April 2016, he was back on national radio in time for the run-up to the presidential election.
Shock jocks have so far proven resilient to corporate censorship strategies. President Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 accelerated these trends by allowing broadcast outlets to merge into a few giant corporate conglomerates that control the airwaves. Rush Limbaugh lost too many sponsors to count over the years, and yet, he remained a huge financial and political success until the end of his life. Everyone who is concerned about the quantity of far-right political expression on radio, on TV, and on the internet ought to think about the possibility of reconstituting the Fairness Doctrine and adapting it to the needs of a new century. Otherwise, we may see more Larry Elders in our future.