Relatively under the radar, the jewish lifestyle magazine Tablet reported a story on Premiere Radio Network’s Premiere On Call service which provides voice actors to call in to radio shows. Premiere is the syndicator for the nation’s top conservative talk radio programs like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The article’s author, Liel Liebowitz, quotes an anonymous voice actor employed by the service and gets a Premiere spokesperson to acknowledge the service on the record.
The story quickly built steam this week, with many liberal and left commentators openly wondering if Premiere’s biggest mouths were in fact fielding calls from plants prepped to set them up. Neither Limbaugh nor Hannity took the insinuation lying down. In fact Limbaugh took to the air Tuesday spending 20 minutes on the issue, in part criticizing Premiere Networks for offering the service in the first place. He claimed no knowledge of the service and said, “if somebody had told me we were going to do this, I would put the kibosh on this.” On his program Sean Hannity also denied ever using the service.
Now there has been conjecture for years that many callers to Hannity and Limbaugh were in the pocket, in part just to set up the host for the next rant or joke. Critical listeners on the hunt for a good conspiracy for years have been discussing callers that just seemed to well timed to be true. However, even if this were true, I’m sure Hannity and Limbaugh would still deny it.
Premiere has gone on the record claiming, “The service is not utilized by News/Talk programs or stations.” The target market for the service appears to be morning shows in need of extra schtick. Limbaugh suggested as much on his show, while taking an opportunity to get in a jab at the FCC, saying that making prank phone calls used to be the bread and butter of wacky morning DJs until the evil Commission stepped in to say airing a call without consent was impermissible.
In the big picture, however, I don’t think it really matters whether Hannity’s, Limbaugh’s or any other talk show’s callers are ginned up or not. Anyone who thinks that call-in talk radio is a fair and equal forum for public discourse is living in fantasy-land. Nationally syndicated programs, in particular, receive far more calls than they could ever put on the air and have always used screeners to decide which are most useful and entertaining to put on the air. Sure, plenty of liberals have complained that they aren’t able to get through to debate Limbaugh or Hannity on their programs. I don’t think the picture would be much different if these hosts were using plants instead of just selecting the most ideologically compatible callers.
Now, I’m not defending the Premiere On Call service, nor am I defending Hannity or Limbaugh. I actually doubt that either hosts gin up calls — they don’t need to. I do believe that plenty of third-rate morning shows do take advantage of actors because it’s easier to plan a wacky call than wait on luck to deliver you one. But in the case of the morning shows — which typically don’t have open lines as a feature of the show in the first place — I really don’t see a problem either.
I have to agree with Rush, much of entertainment radio is about the art of the prank, whether it was Bob and Ray staging “man on the street” interviews or Phil Hendrie’s multiple-personalties as guests. At it’s best radio really is the theater of the mind, and what is theater but a big put-on?
I get how lying is still lying, and that it sounds a whole lot worse when programs that pose like they have serious discussion of news and public affairs seem to be taking phony calls. But I guess you have to believe that Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk are actually serious public affairs shows. Limbaugh himself loves to hide behind the excuse that he’s really just an entertainer, even if he’s in no rush to disclaim any influence he might appear to have over our political landscape.
Callers who can mount a convincing counter argument to these conservative hosts are never going to get on the air, whether or not the other callers are fake or real. So in the end it doesn’t really matter if listeners believe the callers are real or not, either. Only in the case that a fake caller were leveling accusations or making allegations of fact that impact the national debate do I think it would be of particular concern. But there is no reasonable evidence any such thing has occurred.
I also understand how plenty of folks fed up with Limbaugh’s and Hannity’s whole approach would love to find that gotcha moment to undermine their credibility and possibly foment FCC action. There are plenty of good reasons to have a problem with Limbaugh and Hannity, especially when they’re guilty much more egregious fabrications and racist remarks. But these guys are symptoms of the failed political economy of the radio dial brought on by massive consolidation. As long as Clear Channel owns hundreds of stations in need of cheap programming that draws in large numbers of the dwindling AM radio audience, then we will have Limbaugh and Hannity, or their copycat replacements. It’s a system that needs changing.
Go ahead and attack them and their employer. I just don’t think this particular tempest in a teapot will be an effective weapon.
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