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Long an outlet for the GOP message, talk radio undergoes a shift

WASHINGTON—When the White House wanted to talk to its political base about a Supreme Court nominee this week, there was no doubt where to go: talk radio.

Vice President Dick Cheney took the administration's case to the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity programs, speaking simultaneously to the normally sympathetic hosts and their audiences of like-minded Republicans.

A decade after Republicans credited Limbaugh with helping them win control of Congress—they called him the Majority Maker—they still look to his conservative-dominated medium for a lopsided communications edge over Democrats. Today, they count on talk radio to rally support for President Bush, attack those who criticize or question him, and stir passions leading into the 2006 midterm congressional elections.

There are signs that the Republicans could be losing some of their overwhelming edge, however. Ratings for Limbaugh and Hannity slipped this spring in some markets. Liberals such as Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller and Al Franken are carving out their own radio niche. And Democrats argue that they have an edge on the Internet, where explosive growth could dwarf the political impact of radio.

Some of that could be just wishful thinking by Democrats. The slip in ratings, for example, could be a normal drop in political interest after an election year. They also could be untrue—radio ratings are difficult to measure. And even if Limbaugh and Hannity have fewer listeners than they did in the past, they still have millions more than liberal talk show hosts.

"We're not there yet," Franken said in an interview.

"My numbers are going up, and theirs are going down. But if I have a million and half people listening to me, that's still just one-tenth of Rush's audience."

Like most people in and around radio, Franken credited Limbaugh's personal talents for creating the genre of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and dominating it ever since.

"He's very talented, I'll give him that," Franken said. "He's a good storyteller. He's good at framing an issue, whether honest or not. ... He's very good at kicking dust up in the air so you don't see the crap on the ground. It's an evil talent. But he's talented."

Yet Limbaugh, who didn't respond to a request for an interview, lost ground this year in several markets.

Limbaugh lost 30 percent of his audience in Minneapolis-St. Paul this spring from a year earlier. He also lost 9 percent in Miami and 7 percent in Kansas City, Mo. He did have gains in some smaller markets, however, including Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Some of the loss can be attributed to listeners tuning out after an election year. But they also might be growing weary of the Limbaugh and Hannity format.

"They're pretty much talking about the same thing every day," said Holland Cooke, a Cleveland-based radio industry consultant who said the hosts tend to talk about the same subjects and interview the same guests over and over.

"Last week, Sean Hannity had Newt Gingrich coming on. I've already heard that show. Then he said he had Ann Coulter coming on. I've already heard that show. It's a rerun. You already know what he's going to say."

The 40-somethings with their hands on the driving wheel and money in their pockets—prime radio audience targets—are more likely to listen to news about gas prices than the Supreme Court and more interested in new approaches to their lives than old opinions of politics, Cooke said.

"Most political talk stations (ratings) are down over last fall, conservative or not," added Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, an industry publication owned by Clear Channel Radio. "You can surmise that people are a little burned out on the partisan back and forth. Culturally, this may not be a time when political talk sells."

Democrats insist they have some radio outlets that help them take their case to targeted audiences. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, for example, spent as much time courting urban radio host Tom Joyner as they did television network anchormen, said former Gore aide Chris Lehane.

And they think they can reach more people through the Internet than Republicans. Internet users are younger and more independent-minded than radio listeners and more open to the Democratic message, Lehane said. Democrats Howard Dean and John Kerry showed in their 2004 presidential campaigns that they could reach and organize millions of people through the Internet.

Yet if the communications of politics is changing, it hasn't changed that much yet.

Limbaugh still has about 14.75 million listeners, according to Talkers Magazine. Hannity has about 13 million.

Even the most successful liberal hosts, such as Schultz, Miller and Franken, don't come close yet. None made the top 30 talk radio shows as ranked by Talkers Magazine.

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For Ed Schultz, http://www.bigeddieradio.com/

For Stephanie Miller, http://www.stephaniemiller.com/

For Al Franken, http://shows.airamericaradio.com/alfrankenshow/

For Rush Limbaugh, http://www.rushlimbaugh.com

For Sean Hannity, www.hannity.com

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050506 TALKSHOWS

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