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Talk radio's Covid death trend a metastasization of conservative media culture

But there is one final element driving talk radio’s doubts about vaccinations and masks — the bottom line.
Image: Marc Bernier of station WNDB of Orlando,
Marc Bernier of station WNDB of Orlando, Fla., during a radio interview at the White House on Oct. 24, 2006.Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images file

In recent weeks, several popular conservative talk radio hosts — including Phil Valentine of Nashville, Tennessee, and Marc Bernier of Daytona Beach, Florida, both longtime fixtures in their communities — died from Covid-19 after vocally opposing vaccination or questioning its value.

Their deaths pointed a spotlight at talk radio’s general resistance to pandemic mitigation measures, especially considering that the audience leans old.

Their deaths pointed a spotlight at talk radio’s general resistance to pandemic mitigation measures, especially considering that the audience leans old — one of the populations most at risk from Covid-19. Yet, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see hosts raging about mandates, questioning the value of vaccines, dismissing masks and largely minimizing the coronavirus. Talk radio and the conservative media that followed it are steeped in an anti-elite, anti-establishment culture that dates to the format’s rise in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, and these sentiments fit perfectly into it.

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On Aug. 1, 1988, Rush Limbaugh, a former DJ and group sales and marketing executive for the Kansas City Royals, launched a nationally syndicated radio show that was unlike anything most listeners had ever heard. His right-wing opinions were front and center, but Limbaugh’s program was also wildly entertaining and full of fun. It pitted heroes — hosts like Limbaugh, aligned politicians and, most important, listeners themselves — against villains, not just Democrats, but also Hollywood, the mainstream media, higher education and other elites.

Limbaugh, the consummate showman, deployed the same craft he had honed spinning Elton John records to talk politics. He used parody to sarcasm to derisive nicknames to impressions to make his points. He marked one Earth Day with a recording of a chain saw cutting down a tree and, as U.S. News & World Report recounted, in 1993, he hawked a Dan Rostenkowski commemorative postage stamp to “honor” the Democratic House Ways and Means Committee chairman accused (and later convicted) of wrongdoing tied to the House Post Office.

Zany though they were, these antics connected on a serious level with an audience that felt like its values were under siege. The rights movements that launched in the 1960s and the 1970s challenged what Limbaugh’s listeners had seen as immutable, God-ordained values tied to gender roles to sexuality and sex. Also under attack: racial hierarchies. With these movements came new language rules that left a pool of white Americans, especially men, unsure what they could say without being called a bigot.

In addition, these conservatives decried the new proclivity for sex, violence, vulgarity and blasphemy in songs like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horney” to the government-sponsored art of Robert Mapplethorpe. As Beverly Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition complained in 1989, television executives called LGBTQ groups to gauge the acceptability of shows, but not religious groups.

Worst of all, these Americans felt like the liberal establishment scorned them, looking down their noses at what they saw as unsophisticated rubes clinging to outmoded views. As Limbaugh explained to U.S. News & World Report in 1993, his audience consisted of people who “consider themselves laughed at and made fun of on sitcoms and in the movies.” That same year, one of his listeners, Jerry "Boogie" Gallant, a California oil field worker, told The Wall Street Journal that Limbaugh was “articulate to the common man like me,” adding: “Most of us out there are working people, and we get tired of getting blamed for everything.” Talk radio provided a clubhouse for these alienated Americans. But it also fought back.

Whereas some listeners worried about being accused of bigotry if they stood up for their values in public, hosts gleefully took on the opposition.

When hosts got called out by liberal elites, they simply doubled down, delighting listeners. After one 2007 incident in which he provoked outrage by questioning why none of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre defended themselves, the nationally syndicated Atlanta host Neal Boortz “started counting down the days until I once again said something that many people were thinking but were afraid to express and the howling dogs of the left-wing media would once again rise up in outrage."

Limbaugh’s wild success blazed a path for an entire format saturated with this ethos.

And the opposition to vaccination and mask mandates is simply a metastasization of this culture. Challenging elites and the imposition of government power is baked into the DNA of talk radio. Hosts have spent decades decrying the “nanny state” and reminding listeners that they have far more sense than government officials and highly educated elites.

The public health professionals creating guidelines and urging vaccination epitomize the elite villains of the talk airwaves — they’re clustered in coastal cities, with fancy degrees and ties to major universities. Other traditional talk radio bad guys, including Democratic politicians, universities, Hollywood actors and pop stars, are the ones demanding vaccination mandates, imposing them and pushing vaccinations.

Furthermore, for decades, hosts have chronicled how journalists twisted the news to boost Democrats and liberalism. To pick but one example embodying talk radio’s scorn for the media, host Mark Levin derides The Washington Post as “The Washington Compost.” Routine attacks on the media primed audiences to be skeptical of news reports about the deaths and destruction wrought by Covid-19, as well as information touting the efficacy and safety of vaccines.

Maybe the best example of how talk radio’s opposition to vaccinations came straight from the format’s longtime playbook: Before his death, host Phil Valentine expressed his skepticism in part through a parody called “Vaxman,” set to the tune of the Beatles “Taxman.”

Maybe the best example of how talk radio’s opposition to vaccinations came straight from the format’s longtime playbook.

But there is one final element driving talk radio’s doubts about vaccinations and masks — the bottom line.

Talk radio is a business. The main goal for local hosts, like Valentine and Bernier, to unvaccinated national stars, like Dana Loesch, and hosts who refuse to tell their audiences to get vaccinated, like Brian Kilmeade, is to build the biggest possible audience that tunes in for the longest possible time. As Limbaugh long joked, hosts want to be able to charge “confiscatory advertising rates.”

The key to pulling this off is the bond between hosts and listeners — which makes hosts loath to cross their audiences. And polling does indeed suggest that their listeners are skeptical about the danger posed by Covid-19. A Pew poll from October, for example, found that 78 percent of Republican-leaning voters who consumed only talk radio or Fox News thought that Covid-19 had been made a bigger deal than it really was. By contrast, only 47 percent of Republican-leaning voters who consumed only other news sources agreed with this assessment.

Of course, this is a mutually reinforcing cycle: Hosts stoke these sentiments, which then entrap them, making it harder to shift gears and creating potential economic risk for hosts who buck the pack and urge their listeners to get vaccinated.

While that hasn’t stopped all hosts, this combination of deeply rooted culture and economic incentives explains why so many of them have refrained from urging listeners to roll up their sleeves. It’s also why even tragic outcomes, including the deaths of colleagues, probably won’t change anything.