Staying on the conservative course

Ratings have dipped a bit, but with a vital 2006 election approaching and a slew of strong personalities, the conservative press' influence remains powerful.

Ratings have dipped a bit, but with a vital 2006 election approaching and a slew of strong personalities, the conservative press' influence remains powerful.

When ratings declined last spring for right-wing talk stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, some questioned whether the public had grown weary of overtly conservative coverage.

But industry observers suggest that the influence of the partisan press has held strong and can be an effective vehicle for delivering a message.

Michael Harrison, founder and editor or Talkers, a trade magazine that covers both talk radio and the cable TV news shows, stresses that the ratings drop was more cyclical than anything else.

"Every four years after a presidential election, the spring book is usually down for all political talk because you're coming off a high of an election year, and election years are wonderful for the ratings," says Harrison. "So there was a little bit of drop, as there has been historically, but they're already starting to come back."

"There's always an ebb and flow to interest, depending on whether there's an election or a national debate over a judicial nominee," adds Craig Shirley, president and CEO of Shirley & Bannister Public Affairs. "But I've seen no slacking of the influence of conservative media because you'll always have a base listening, reading, or watching."

Although the left has seen the launch of progressive radio network Air America and a number of influential bloggers, the popularity of conservative outlets and commentators has fueled most of the growth in partisan media.

"In truth, conservatives are more in competition with each other than they are with liberals," says Harrison, who adds that even declining poll numbers for Republicans in the White House and Congress hasn't impacted the popularity or importance of conservative talk radio. "Talk radio is not a political campaign; it's entertainment, in much the same way that sports-talk radio is entertainment about the game. It can be just as interesting if your team is losing as it is when it is winning."

An important demographic

Consumer product and service companies tend to shy away from pitching the partisan press, much like they tend to skirt the religious media. But Stephen O'Connor, group publisher for the conservative weekly Human Events, notes that the conservative press covers more than just "Inside-the-Beltway" politics. He adds that his newspaper appeals to what should be a highly sought-after demographic.

"I recently met with the big ad agencies in New York, and they told us that not only are our readers activists, they're serious, they're older, they have money, and they're buying stuff," he says. "So while our mission statement remains keeping the activist informed, we have been looking to add more business issues that entrepreneurs may be interested in - such as trial lawyers who are poised to take the whack out of a particular sector. We're expanding our efforts to really educate people, but at the same time keeping a conservative focus."

Even among the conservative press, there are ideological differences, which were seen for instance after Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination.

"I think these debates are absolutely healthy," Shirley says. "Because you have to realize in 2005 that virtually all conservatives are Republicans, but not all Republicans are conservatives. It's not a perfect overlay."

Rebound is around the corner

Talkers' Harrison notes that a ratings rebound should be evident within a few months - especially on the TV and radio talk shows - as the country heads into another key election season. "I expect a spike in interest in 2006 because there's always interest in politics in these shows," he says.

Shirley adds that the number of conservative outlets has also gone up. "The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and Human Events are still influential. On radio, Rush is still king, but now you have the advent of Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, so the conservative press continues to grow," he says.

Pitching the conservative media is not unlike pitching the mainstream media.

"Relationships are very important because they'll open doors," Shirley says. "But once you get the door opened, it really comes done to the quality of the product - the issue, the book, the campaign, or the legislation - that's going to maintain that interest."

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