Call-In Talk Radio: Compensation or Enrichment?

From a 2005 essay:

* This study focused on call-in talk radio because it provides a unique opportunity to test competing hypotheses drawn from two different perspectives about the appeal of media programming. A good deal of research on call-in talk radio grows from a deficiency perspective, which holds that people seek out media content to fill gaps in their lives. More recent research, however, suggests that, like the selection of other media content, the appeal of talk radio lies in enrichment, or its ability to provide content for specialized interests. A random telephone survey tested competing hypotheses that compared listeners to call-in talk radio with nonlisteners. For the most part, the results supported an enrichment explanation. Compared to nonlisteners, listeners to call-in talk radio listened to the programs for information, perceived themselves as more mobile, and valued arguments. Compared to nonlisteners, callers to the programs were also more civically engaged. Moreover, listening to various subformats of talk radio programs was also likely to signal enrichment.

* A good deal of research was conducted from this mass-media-as-compensation orientation. Television was seen as one source for “escape,” a way to deal with daily pressures and stress.

* Riley and Riley (1951) found that children who were not well integrated into peer groups watched more television. Rosengren and Windahl (1972) characterized television as a functional alternative to social interaction. They argued that people need social interaction, and that when their needs cannot be met in “natural” ways, people will find alternatives. Because television can mimic social interaction, television use can be motivated by that need. Rosengren and Windahl found that when people had fewer opportunities to interact socially, they were more likely to become involved with television content.

This notion of media use as a compensation for deficiencies in social activity undergirds much of the research on call-in talk radio. Researchers expected that call-in talk radio would be popular with people who were “deprived of interpersonal contact” (Turow, 1974, p. 173) and with those who would be constrained in their search for social contact by economic circumstances. In general, those research expectations were supported. Turow observed that callers to a Philadelphia talk radio show were more likely to live alone and had lower incomes than the typical person. Avery, Ellis, and Glover (1978) found that many listeners to talk radio had lower incomes and were retired. The researchers suggested that these socially isolated listeners viewed the format as a “window on the world.” Tramer and Jeffries (1983) asked callers to Cleveland talk radio shows why they called the programs. Whereas sharing information was the most commonly mentioned reason for calling, the listeners who called for companionship were among those who called most often. Tramer and Jeffries characterized these callers as “isolated listeners.” More recently, Armstrong and Rubin (1989) found that callers to talk radio programs appeared to use the programs as a substitute for interpersonal contact. Compared to listeners who did not call, callers were less mobile and found interpersonal communication less rewarding. Research, then, has found some support for a compensation-oriented approach to listening to call-in talk radio. In general, an illusion of social contact appears to motivate listeners and callers to turn to the programs. This research presented a dismal view of the audience for call-in talk radio.

* Media Use as Enrichment. There are limits, however, to considering media use solely from a need-oriented compensation standpoint. It is hard to reconcile findings that characterize the audience for call-in talk radio as socially isolated and economically insecure with the growth of the format. Neither station owners nor advertisers
would find much appeal in such an audience. Moreover, not all research supports the view that mass media use is motivated by a desire to compensate for life’s deficiencies. Rubin, Perse, and Powell (1985), for example, found no support for a hypothesized relationship between loneliness and parasocial interaction, or a sense of friendship with television newscasters. Instead, substantial research suggests that people select mass communication to enrich their lives and to promote their interests.

* Research on call-in talk radio shows that these programs are used to enrich people’s interest in politics. Hollander (1996) observed that listeners to issue-oriented call-in talk radio were more educated, of higher socioeconomic status, more likely to read newspapers, and reported higher levels of political participation and political self-efficacy than nonlisteners. Hofstetter and Gianos’s (1997) survey of the San Diego political talk radio audience found that listeners were not a socially deprived group. Compared to nonlisteners, listeners were better educated and reported higher incomes. Moreover, listeners were more politically involved than were nonlisteners. They reported higher political efficacy, greater political involvement, and greater likelihood to vote in local and national elections. Listeners were also more attentive to political news in other media, suggesting that talk radio was part of media use that grew out of political interest, rather than deficiencies in political knowledge. Interestingly, this portrait of callers to political talk radio differs dramatically from that of the socially deprived callers in early research. Callers to political talk radio programs evidenced even higher levels of political participation than those who listen and do not call.

* Scholars have noted that the talk radio audience is gaining in social capital. Lee, Cappella, and Southwell (2003), for example, found that listening to political talk radio is linked to interpersonal trust and talking about politics. In fact, their experiment found that listening to talk radio can increase interpersonal trust. Clearly, research on the social capital of talk radio listeners also supports an enrichment explanation.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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