Democracy  &  Nature, Vol. 5No. 1

The myth of electronic populism: talk radio and the decline of the public sphere

Carl Boggs and Tina Dirmann


Abstract: Talk radio has become the fastest-growing and one of the most significant forms of mass media and popular culture in the 1990s, with presently more than 1200 shows that reach an audience of tens of millions.  It has been hailed by participants, media observers, and even social scientists as the potential mechanism of a new electronic populism, a kind of town-meeting of the airwaves that could help rejuvenate an otherwise relatively dormant public sphere.  It is highly interactive, participatory, spontaneous, lively, and much less formulaic than standard TV and film fare, for example.  Our investigation into the contemporary talk show phenomenon, however, reveals severe limitations to this medium in terms of both its format and substance.  A critical analysis of talk radio suggests that this supposedly populist medium is far removed from any authentic participatory venue that could effectively revitalize citizen involvement within the public sphere.  We found that it represents, more than anything else, a convergence of media spectacle, commodified culture, and postmodern diffuseness that in the end helps to reproduce, rather than challenge, overall corporate agendas in the U.S