“I’m registered as an Independent because I don’t want to be associated with the thought processes of either one.”
“Warning: the following program may be inappropriate for ideologues at either end of the political spectrum,” the anonymous announcer intones. “This is the Michael Smerconish Program on SiriusXM’s POTUS. Proving there is passion in the middle.”
If you’re a talk-show executive, chances are you believe that getting someone to tune into a political discussion requires making their amygdala light up like a hot-weather map of Texas. Moderation is for dim bulbs. And yet, as a growing number of voices warn about the dangers of political extremism and polarization, the idea of a hot-purple (red-and-blue) talk-show zone may yet gain some traction. If, of course, the centrist in question has the chops to pull it off.
“In some ways what Michael’s doing is a bit of an experiment—can you succeed by being more pragmatic, more in the center?” notes Michael Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, who suggests that there may be enough “frustration with the extremes” to support someone who is passionate about being moderate. “Certainly you can find examples of that working, though it tends to be almost always on PBS and NPR. But any time you’re dealing with the media it’s a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. You can say that whatever you hear on talk radio is a reflection of what people ‘want,’ but media doesn’t just react to public sentiment—it also shapes public sentiment.”
“It’s going to take some level of passion in the middle to truly change things, where I really believe the great majority rest,” says Smerconish. “Polling data suggests that more people identify themselves as Independent than as Republican or Democrat. More people would say that their own view of the issues is mixed or moderate as opposed to liberal or conservative. They’re out there. But they’re not the ones who are heard from oftentimes in these debates.”
Shades of Nixon’s Silent Majority, I suggest. Smerconish nods. “I was just thinking that.”
The problem, he adds, is that “passion has the power in this country, not raw consensus of votes. And passion is driving the bus. And passion is expressed at the extremes of the radio dial.”
Which is partly what caused him to light out for the satellite territories.
“What satellite radio has going for it is that it’s premium content,” says Cooke, the radio consultant. “People who hear it have paid to hear it. People who hear Michael Smerconish now really want to hear him. And frankly, the coverage that he gets is better than what he would have attained on AM radio. No, not everybody has satellite radio, but now he’s heard on all 50 states from sea to shining sea, and that would have been a long, hard slog one [terrestrial] station at a time.”
SiriusXM doesn’t give out audience numbers for individual programs, though it does note that the station has 24.4 million subscribers and roughly twice that many total listeners.
“Michael knows that Americans are actually hungering for smart and compelling talk radio,” says SiriusXM’s Greenstein. “But you would be wrong to think his show is in some mellow middle ground. If you’ve listened, you know that he brings fire and passion—and intelligence—to an incredible range of topics.”
Smerconish says he takes the same approach to callers that he used on terrestrial radio, which is to be “keenly interested” in them, “but not to assume that that’s great science in terms of who’s really listening.”
So far, the callers to his program on SiriusXM have shown a “variety of mindsets,” he adds. “And there frankly has not been an edge to them the way that I grew accustomed to hearing from many of those in terrestrial talk radio.” Asked if that edge was one of ideological extremism or anger, he says: “Both.”
“I think there’s a discernible burnout on this sorehead caricature that talk radio has turned into,” says Holland Cooke. “And part of what’s driving this is demographics. Millennials have no appetite for bloviating, for bias, for 100-round ammo clips—you know, society itself is moving in the direction where Michael resides.”
Whether that’s true about society remains to be seen (though a recent survey of younger Republicans conducted by the College Republican National Committee suggests that Cooke may be right). But what is unquestionably true is that Smerconish hasn’t always resided in the place where he is now.