Talk radio’s influence on American life is supposed to be on the wane. But whoever thinks that—and even some of the industry’s cheerleaders believe it to be so—hasn’t been listening lately. In the past week, Rush Limbaugh ignited a firestorm—again—by rallying behind White House Chief Rahm Emanuel’s impolitic reference to some liberal activists as “ retarded.” The Senate swore in its newest member, Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, whose upset in the race to replace the late Ted Kennedy was fueled in no small part by talkers and their fans. And then there’s this weekend’s Nashville tea party, just the kind of grassroots brushfire made possible by drive-time populists all across the country.
“There are no overnight sensations in talk radio,” says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine.
The numbers remain staggering: Limbaugh reaches 600 stations and around 14 million listeners a week. If you combine his audience with that of Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and Laura Ingraham (other national conservative stars who have plenty of audience overlap), you’ve got a crowd of 40 million listeners per week: a figure double the online readership of The New York Times per month and larger than the population of California. The left has struggled on-air lately—as the creditors of newly bankrupt Air America can attest-- liberal audiences helped mint a new star in Rachel Maddow, a talk jock who has made her way from radio to cable TV, hosting her own show on MSNBC. Maddow’s rapid rise makes her an anomaly in the talker world—where stars climb slowly to the top, and enjoy epic reigns. Limbaugh started working as a disc jockey in 1972. Savage has been broadcasting for 15 years, Hannity for 20. Glenn Beck got into radio in his teens. “If Glenn and I had a conversation three years ago, and I said, Glenn, you’re going to be on the cover of Time magazine, all this is going to happen. He would have looked at me and told me I was crazy,” says Bill Handel, who hosts a morning show on Los Angeles’ KFI-AM station and used to fill in for Beck on his Headline News television show. As Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, a trade magazine, says, “there are no overnight sensations in radio.” So who out there is vying to join the ranks of these legends? The Daily Beast—with the help of Harrison and a group of influential national radio hosts—surveys the 10 talkers with the chance to become the next really big things.
Neal Boortz Atlanta
A career radioman, Boortz started broadcasting in Atlanta in 1969. The self-described Mighty Whitey reaches around five million listeners with his boisterous libertarian views (counting audience size in radio is a tricky phenomenon, more art than science). Author of “ The Terrible Truth About Liberals”, Boortz is likely proud of his inclusion in a recent book, identifying him as one of the “top 10 worst shock jocks.” Liberal critic Rory O’Connor wrote: “He may not rank in the top five among nationally syndicated talk radio hosts in popularity, but he’s certainly near the top in toxicity.”
Jerry Doyle Los Angeles
Those in radio seem to discourage celebrities from joining their ranks. “Whenever I hear about a company signing a celebrity…we always roll our eyes,” says Harrison, “they are not going to like radio. Radio is like a factory job. You sweat over a hot microphone.” But one celebrity-turned-radio host who has caught Harrison’s eye is conservative Jerry Doyle, one-time star of the television show, Babylon 5. Last year, Doyle, 53, came in at No. 17 on Talkers’ most influential list. He had a failed run for the House of Representatives in 2000. In December, Doyle published Have You Seen My Country Lately? Says a reviewer at the right-wing Human Events, “If you like your politics straight up, with a commonsense chaser and a shot of dry wit, I recommend this book.”
Mike Gallagher Irving, Texas
Gallagher got his start in radio in 1978 in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. He came to national attention by hosting the morning show on New York’s WABC-AM station. Now Gallagher reaches more than 200 markets and was ranked as the 15th most important talk radio show host in the country by Talkers magazine. No shrinking violet, Gallagher likes the stage and will appear in a production of Love Letters with Sally Struthers this spring. Leading conservative politicians regularly check out his show. Last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner appeared on the program and told Gallagher, "There really is no difference between what Republicans believe in and what the tea party activists believe in.”
Bill Handel Los Angeles
Handel can rely on his Los Angeles audience as a great launching pad for expanding his national audience; the City of Angels may be the last place people abandon their cars, and their radios. That he was given a star on the Walk of Fame last year is a testament to his local popularity. The former Beck stand-in says his politics defy definition. “I’m all over the place,” he says. “I’m a left-wing wacko and a right-wing wingnut. If I piss everybody off on all sides, I guess I’m doing my job.” The 58-year-old caught the attention of many on 9/11 when he broadcast throughout the day as Rush Limbaugh was unable to find a signal from his New York studio.
Thom Hartmann Portland, Oregon
The man identified by Talkers magazine in 2009 as the 10th most influential radio host in the country (Glenn Beck was No. 5) would shudder at any comparison to Beck. He was tapped by Air America to replace Al Franken on its network when he started to steal shows away from the comedian/politician. With more than two million listeners, Hartmann, 58, says more listeners are tuning in to his liberal show now that “the Democrats look like they are going to shoot themselves in the foot.” The figure on the right who Hartmann may most resemble—indeed, he calls him a “role model”—is not Beck but Michael Savage. He’s published works on ecology and psychiatry—matching Savage’s eclectic tendencies.
Joe Madison Washington, D.C.
Known at the Black Eagle, Joe Madison is a “powerful force in African-American affairs,” says Talkers’ Harrison. Two years ago, he received the magazine’s “Freedom of Speech Award.” (This year the honor is going to Jack Rice, who lost his job in the Air America bankruptcy.) Madison began broadcasting from Detroit 29 years ago and is now carried nationwide by XM radio. Madison’s progressive politics reach outside the studio. He’s gone on a hunger strike to protest the federal government’s handling of crack cocaine and led voter registration drives as well.
Steve Malzberg New York City
A veteran of New York radio, Malzberg was a columnist for the conservative Newsmax magazine. He’s broadcasted through the WOR Radio Network in the afternoons. “He shows no signs of stopping,” says Harrison. Malzberg, like any good Beck wannabe, enjoys using cable TV liberal hitman Keith Olbermann as a piñata. He went after the MSNBC host last month for his portrayal of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown. Malzberg said, "In the warped, sick, demented world of Keith Olbermann, you're a homophobe if you think that two women having a baby isn't normal.”
Stephanie Miller Los Angeles
“Her star is continuing to rise,” says Harrison of Talkers. Miller is syndicated by Dial Global like Hartmann, her fellow liberal. Her rise went unaided by Air America; she sought distribution outside the network. She keeps an eye on the enemy with a popular on-air bit called “Rightwing World,” lampooning conservatives. Miller also shares with Ron Reagan the special appeal of a leftie who grew up in a conservative household; her father, former New York Representative William Miller, was RNC chairman and Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964. Like Hartmann, Miller is out to prove that progressive radio can be commercially successful. Conservative critics continue to find that idea laughable. "Every time liberals take on talk radio, it has failed," says conservative talker Monica Crowley.
Todd Schnitt Tampa Bay, Florida
Based in a former broadcasting base of Glenn Beck’s, Schnitt has two radio personalities. The first, DJ MJ Kelli is more of the morning-zoo variety. In December, a stunt involving a deep-fried turkey landed Schnitt in hot water with the local fire department. When flames erupted, Tampa Bay’s smoke eaters arrived on the scene. One was hospitalized with an injured back. On his afternoon show, Schnitt is more likely to mock President Obama, who in a recent visit appeared to bow before Tampa’s mayor, than light a turkey on fire. "The worldwide Obama bowing tour continues," Schnitt told the St. Petersburg Times. "You shake the mayor's hand, you can give the mayor a hug, you can even give the mayor a kiss on the cheek if you want. But bowing is considered a sign of weakness." Schnitt’s drive-time show now reaches more than two dozen stations and is carried nationally by XM Radio.
Michael Smerconish Philadelphia
Smerconish made headlines last summer, hosting a live radio interview with President Barack Obama from the White House. He’s a mainstay on MSNBC, where he has filled in for Chris Matthews on the nightly Hardball broadcast. But his politics don’t fit in so neatly with the left-leaning MSNBC crowd; Obama was the first Democratic candidate for president that he says he voted for. Smerconish, an occasional contributor to The Daily Beast, certainly has Beck’s flair for attention-seeking—check out his buck-naked photograph in last May’s Philadelphia Magazine. But he claims that his preference for the political center makes him a bad candidate for national ascendancy. “Look, if I were looking for a bang in the ratings,” Smerconish told the magazine, “…I would follow Rush and Sean and Glenn and Michael Savage. Because that is the easy career path to success in what I’m doing. But I’m not comfortable—I never have been—saying things I don’t believe.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.