Radio isn’t just for listening to the latest chart toppers.
Over the years, radio has transformed society and culture around the world in a multitude of different ways. When it first arrived, it was a way to keep families informed of what was happening in the war and offer entertainment in an age before television.
In the search for human connection, our species created everything from the call-in competition, to the radio drama. However, few things have been more enduring, or as emotionally influential as talk radio.
Today, we’re inviting you to a conversation about the history of talk radio, and the rise of its various formats across the decades.
Here’s why talk radio stations are a trend worth discussing.
A brief history of talk radio
Talk radio may be one of the first forms of radio entertainment ever discovered.
Before we learned how to broadcast music over the airwaves, people were already tuning into channels to listen to the news, or hear people discuss trending ideas.
When talk radio became a genre of its own, the focus was often on complicated discussions, usually involving politics, culture, or society.
More than any other type of radio, talk radio gets the listener involved.
There are elements of audience participation, such as call-in polls, competitions, and even conversations with guests. However, more often than not, listener contributions are screened by the show’s producers, helping to create a specific theme or atmosphere for the program in question.
Types of popular talk radio stations include:
Progressive talk radio stations.
News talk radio stations.
Conservative talk/ Liberal talk.
Sports talk radio stations.
The history of talk radio began with broadcast content. However, internet-based talk shows have become increasingly popular in recent years too, including live streaming and podcasts.
While commercial shows primarily exist on AM talk radio stations, FM talk radio stations host non-commercial, public radio – particularly in the US. These shows frequently focus on entertainment and playful discussions. However, the most popular talk radio stations in most cases, are those that concentrate on political debates.
In the UK, political talk radio led to the rise of things like Question Time and the transformation of the LBC into “Leading Britain’s Conversation.” In the US, political talk radio became popular during the 1980s, featuring memorable radio hosts capable of keeping their listener’s attention via sheer personality. Hosts ranged from conservative people like Rush Limbaugh, to the shock jocks like Howard Stern.
We like to be aware of what’s going on around us. Before radio existed, we relied on the reports of newspapers to deliver information. Even then, most of the data that we got was restricted, stunted, and local. What’s more, while illiteracy and reach impeded the success of the newspaper, radio could connect to everyone, anywhere.
Radio, and its talk broadcasting stations became an instrument of social cohesion, bringing different classes and members of society together to discuss complicated topics.
One early example of popular talk radio stations in the US was “Vox Pop,” a show that was derived from interviews with people on the streets. In 1935, the program described itself as a cross-section of what average people know. It asked random people an assortment of questions, not just for entertainment, but to offer an insight into the culture of the time.
If you listen to UK talk radio stations today, or other stations around the world, you’ll know that most of their focus is on entertainment. In other words, despite their origins, the majority of talk radio stations aren’t about informing listeners. While they discuss the cultural and political issues of the time as they did in the past, the aim is more for entertainment than anything else.
Even progressive talk radio stations that are designed to rile up controversy and encourage thoughts of revolution are built around entertainment.
Because they work to create strong emotions in their listeners, attaching those feelings to a specific narrative that they can resonate with. Talk radio, more than any other kind of radio program, is all about provoking strong emotions in people. Political discussions on talk radio stations in the UK or conservative rants in the UK provoke fear, outrage, disgust, passion, and sympathy.
One of the reasons that talk radio continues to be so popular today is that people enjoy the negative emotions that these shows generate. The outrage or disgust that you feel about a topic makes you feel connected to the person on the other end of your radio, and the countless other listeners like you. Talk radio is a way to bring societies together and give them a voice too.
Popular talk radio stations know that getting people riled up about moral, ethical, and political issues is an excellent way to promote buzz. That’s why we’re still obsessed with news talk radio stations, and internet streams today.
The best talk radio stations even allow us to talk about our responses to the latest news. They allow us to phone in, share our thoughts in a poll, or rant about something online without fear of judgement.
UK talk radio stations and the LBC
Let’s take a quick look at UK talk radio stations.
LBC is probably the name you think of first if you live in London, or you’re a strong follower of talk radio. With a record audience of about 2.2 million, LBC reaches a huge portion of the public. When it first began, LBC, or the London Broadcasting Company as it was once known, was a radio station just like any other. However, eventually, its talk programs became so popular that the station was forced to go national and change its entire brand.
The LBC reworked its identity to become the king of talk radio stations in the UK. Now, LBC stands for “Leading Britain’s Conversation.”
So, how has LBC remained such an enduring part of British society since 1973? Simple – it completely ignored the desire for music, and other programming on its channel. LBC is where consumers go when they just want to listen to a story.
According to a study published by the New York Academy of Science in 2009, people emotionally connect to the stories that they listen to – particularly when they’re told by a person that they can empathise with. Crucially, the stories that we listen to don’t have to be positive to be engaging. This is good news for talk radio stations, as they often discuss the news of the day. Unfortunately, news throughout the UK, the US, and the world is rarely 100% positive.
The study above showed that when people feel tension, their bodies release a chemical called “oxytocin” – which is shown to increase feelings of empathy in humans. In other words, the more anxious or overwhelmed we feel when listening to a talk show, the more likely we are to feel as though we’ve been transported into the story itself.
UK talk radio stations, and indeed those all around the world, have remained popular because of this fact. They engage our emotions with increasing levels of tension, talking about dangerous villains and protagonists in the modern world.
Through the years, LBC has treated its audience to a wide variety of controversial and anxiety-provoking experiences. In 2004, Tony Blair appeared on the show to take calls from listeners. Ken Livingston also took to the show as part of his Tenure as London Mayor. Even Jeni Barnett appeared on LBC to discuss the MMR vaccine controversy. UK talk radio stations like LBC didn’t just give British listeners a place to rally – they also gave their consumers a voice.
In the world of talk radio stations for the UK, LBC became so popular, that it also emerged as the first radio station offering full-length podcasts for all its major shows, and specific podcast-only programs.
Why popular talk radio stations in the US are conservative
In the UK, the history of talk radio has been diverse and varied.
However, when you move into the US, you may notice a pattern trending towards the conservative side. As talk radio stations grew more popular during the early 1990s, American political parties saw the channel as an outlet for their discussions and ambitions.
California Governor Jerry Brown and Ed Koch, the New York Mayor, were some of the first politicians to host their own AM talk radio stations. Although the liberal party has attempted to enter the talk radio stations list over the years, many experts agree that it’s the conservatives that dominate the medium. Rush Limbaugh began his popular talk radio program a year after the appeal of the Fairness Doctrine, and he’s still popular today.
As times have changed, prompting the arrival of internet talk radio stations, podcasts, and other mediums for entertainment, conservative talk radio remains strong in the US. Nowhere is this popularity more prominent than amid a presidential primary season.
In the US, studies have shown a good reason why the majority of talk radio stations are conservative. According to one review, the people who vote conservatives are also more likely to list “local radio” as their main source of media.
This means that the most popular talk radio stations in the US were mostly “preaching to the choir.” When conservative AM radio stations began appearing in the US, they were initially a product of the times. Through the history of the radio station in the US, the Federal Communication Commission implemented something called the “Fairness Doctrine” This doctrine was intended to improve radio transmissions, but led to a lot of backlash from many communities.
The Fairness Doctrine required media outlets to present contrasting arguments on controversial topics. This meant that if you took one approach to an idea, you had to give the other approach too. The rule was repealed in 1987, and Rush Limbaugh launched his show in 1988. Within a couple of years, Limbaugh became the most popular host in the history of talk radio in the US. Stations everywhere were keen to replicate Limbaugh’s popularity for themselves.
Today, decades later, Limbaugh and other presenters like him have only grown more popular, thanks to an increasingly devoted party of listeners. Conservative talk radio stations in the US gave people an alternative to the “safer” shows approved by the fairness doctrine, and that appealed to a lot of people at the time.
As the years have gone by, Liberal and progressive talk radio stations have tried to take the same approach. However, many of their would-be listeners have already decided on their favourite radio stations and talk hosts.
Why do people still love the best talk radio stations?
Whether you listen to news talk radio stations, progressive stations, conservative channels, or something else entirely, it’s worth recognising that this mode of entertainment is still popular today. The best talk radio stations span across the world, often using the internet to get their message into different demographics or posting podcasts online. The history of talk radio is as fascinating today as it’s ever been.
The question is, what is it about talk radio that’s made it so durable? How has it continued to connect with a dedicated audience, even in the age of television and new media?
Simply put, throughout the history of talk radio, broadcast conversations have always been more than just a way to hear about the latest news and events. It was a way for people to experience things together, connect with their fellow man, and make their voice heard on a societal level. Talk radio allowed listeners to access a sense of empowerment. In the UK, it meant we could ask the questions that we had about politics and the news of the time and get answers from the people who mattered.
In the US, talk radio was a way to finally speak out about controversial topics, without feeling as though you were being censored by old-fashioned rules. 3 of the most compelling features of talk radio stations are:
1. They’re long-form
We might not have time to read an entire novel on the way to work each morning, but on a long commute, there’s nothing wrong with listening to an hour or two of talk radio. One of the things that makes talk radio such an effective vehicle for storytelling is that it’s not limited to a specific deadline.
When you’re interested in a topic, there’s time to get down into the meat of what you want to talk about. Some of the best talk radio stations engage in lengthy discussions with experts on a wide range of subjects. A single story might be discussed for hours at a time.
2. Audio helps us process stories
A lot of modern marketers think that visuals are the best way to make information more engaging. While it’s true that we love visual information, it’s important not to underestimate the value of audio too. According to a study by Emma Rodero – one of the professors of communication at the University of Barcelona, people engage with audio on a very emotional level.
Audio helps us to process a story as we hear it, painting our picture of what’s happening in our minds. This allows us to form more in-depth connections to the channel that we’re listening to, and the topic at hand.
3. Talk radio makes us feel better about ourselves
Ultimately, one of the main reasons that we engage with any kind of media is because we want to feel better about ourselves while enjoying entertainment. Standard music shows on a radio station are nice when you’re driving to work in a morning. However, when you arrive at your destination, you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything.
On the other hand, if you’ve listened to a talk radio station where the host has discussed something important, like the current state of politics, or what’s happening in your society, then you feel as though you’ve done something valuable with your time. What’s more, some of the most popular talk radio stations give people a chance to call in and make their voice heard too.
If you can contribute to a crucial conversation, you feel as though you’re making a difference. Even if no-one puts your ideas into practice, simply sharing your opinion is enough to make you feel as though you’re acting and moving things in the right direction.
Talk radio stations online: Moving into the digital era
Talk radio stations are still popular today – with millions of listeners around the world.
However, you’d be forgiven for wondering what might happen to these stations in the age of digital, when people are more progressively moving online in search of entertainment.
Internet talk radio stations are growing increasingly popular, particularly among companies that want to expand the reach of their shows. For instance, LBC has global versions of its show that can be downloaded around the world. There are even podcasts and entire programs that you can access whenever and wherever you want.
If internet talk radio stations exist on one side of the coin, then the other side is populated by the growing demand for podcasts. Podcasts are yet more evidence that talk radio history is still a prominent part of the media market. With a podcast, you’re not tuning in to listen to competitions or music; you’re actively engaging in listening to a specific monologue, or a conversation between a group of people.
Podcasts, like talk radio, offer an incredible opportunity for people to share stories with an increasingly digital community. Some of them are designed to discuss the current condition of the world, like the news talk radio stations of days gone by. Other podcasts are all about a specific topic, like gaming, music or sports.
Although podcasts take a slightly different approach to original talk radio and use different technology to reach their audiences, the concept is the same. These programs rely on storytelling to connect with consumers on a deeper level and build stronger connections with a dedicated audience.
In the digital era, the need for talk radio isn’t decreasing. Instead, we’re finding ourselves more drawn to this medium as a convenient way of catching up on information or connecting with other people on the go. More than any other media in this fast-paced world, podcasts, and talk radio offer a mode of entertainment that we can access wherever and whenever we like.
These two similar solutions are perfect for when you’re driving to work, when you’re stuck on a lengthy commute, or when you’re working on a boring project, and you need something to keep your brain active. They don’t require the visual attention of reading or watching a video, but they still deliver useful information and entertainment.
What’s next for talk radio?
In a world where consumers have less time to read newspapers, reduced patience for television, and a greater need for media that they can control, talk radio remains popular.
The best talk radio stations will allow customers to download their shows and connect with them in a multitude of ways in the years to come. Already, we’re seeing talk radio hosts responding to messages sent to them from social media and other channels.
We’re finding new ways to communicate as a society while tapping into the traditional benefits of radio that we discovered when the medium first emerged.
Talk radio is about more than just listening to a conversation. It’s about being part of a wider discussion about society and politics. It’s a chance to make your voice heard and experience the emotions that make us feel more passionate about life. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article on the history of talk radio.
Stay tuned to the latest radio industry insight with Radio Fidelity.