Yesterday, I went to another excellent YouGovStone event at the US embassy (you may remember that Andy addressed an earlier meeting on online politics). This seminar was on the role of talk radio in election politics. I didn’t find it as intellectually rigorous as the first seminar, but it was very entertaining nonetheless, and offered some great first hand accounts by a number of practitioners (the panel consisted of American talk show hosts Stephanie Miller and Neal Boortz as well as British radioman Nick Ferrari and Indy journalist Yasmin Albi Brown).
The central question the panel aimed to address was what exactly was the influence of talk radio on the electorate. The hosts were keen to play down their role. Conservative Boortz claimed that he encouraged his audience to away and check the facts for themselves (the slightly odd implied logic of this argument is that one person can only influence another if they are telling them a lie). Miller agreed that she didn't greatly influence people; instead, those who listened to progressive radio were whipped up by the actions of the White House. Likewise Ferrari said that he didn't have influence, his show just reflected what his listeners were thinking. In contrast, Albi Brown argued that talk radio did influence people, citing the argument that there is a level of equivalence between what we feel able to say and what we actually aspire to do.
My first reaction to these positions is to think they aren't so mutually exclusive, although they can seem so if they are taken to be two polar opposites, as seemed to occur last night. Remember, the classic definition of power is the ability to get someone to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. That doesn't necessarily entail changing their mind, but might involve catalysing opinions they hold into action or even giving them the confidence to express them in public. For that reason, both the positions expressed by members of the panel last night seem a bit wide of the mark. Albi Brown's view that Talk Radio generates alien opinions that would otherwise not be there is far too simplistic (and, as I blogged before, a position which the left is too frequently comfortable retreating to when seeking to explain their electoral failings). However, it is also wrong to claim, as the Talkshow hosts did, that the ability to broadcast and harness latent political feeling is not influence - and like any form of influence, that can be abused.