Historians typically explain the rise of the New Right by pointing to various shifts in the demand for conservative ideas. In this view, public outrage over new social developments—like the sexual revolution, desegregation, and legalized abortion—is the key to understanding how potential conservatives became actual conservatives. For example, a housewife, previously apathetic about politics, finds a sex education book in her child’s backpack and runs for a seat on the school board in protest. The process is as follows. Exposure to a cultural transformation alienates a group of people. That sense of alienation creates a demand for conservative alternatives, something to explain what went “wrong” in America and what could be done to fix it. The most motivated of these converts engages in local activism. While conservatives certainly did react to a litany of social developments in the mid-twentieth century, the problem is that the other half of the equation, the supply of conservative ideas, has been neglected because of the fixation on demand.
Ideas do not just float through the ether like spores infecting human hosts in an ideological invasion of the body-snatchers. A person must transmit those ideas to interested individuals via some form of media. Prior to the twentieth century ideas spread via print, but the advent of broadcast media—radio and television—enabled immediate and inexpensive distribution to audiences in the millions. As the major radio networks shifted their attention to television in the 1950s, radio became the preserve of independent stations which could not afford to be picky about programming. Niche political groups were suddenly able to buy airtime on stations all across the country. In the early 1950s not a single, non-network conservative broadcaster aired on more than a handful of stations. Within a decade, a dozen conservative broadcasters aired on a daily basis over a hundred or more stations. This was the first wave of Right-wing, talk radio and it dramatically transformed American politics.
Conservative ideas could now be instantly disseminated to millions of listeners. Those who listened to Right-wing radio skewed female, middle-class, and middle-aged. They formed boycotts, started book clubs, passed out flyers, and knocked on doors for conservative causes and candidates. With the encouragement of conservative broadcasters, a wave of grassroots activism swept the nation in the late-1950s and early-1960s. In one such instance in 1962, a local Miami boycott of communist imports spread to 260 cities in 48 states and forced a Congressional response. Actions like the boycott empowered local activists and made them feel a sense of connection to a national movement. This was the “stuff” from which the grassroots New Right was knit and it was radio that made it possible.
To give you a sense of the boom in Right-wing radio at the turn of the 1960s, I’ve embedded an animation showing the spread of stations airing Carl McIntire’s radio program the “20th Century Reformation Hour.”
The rapid growth in conservative broadcasting caught the baleful eye of newly elected President John F. Kennedy. In public, the administration dismissed these grassroots activists as, in the words of Democratic National Committee Chairman John Bailey, “grandmothers dressed in cowgirl costumes passing out Barry Goldwater buttons.” In private they were less sanguine. As one of Kennedy’s White House aides reported to him, these radio listeners were causing significant problems by “harass[ing] local school boards, local librarians, and local governing bodies.”
Worried that the re-election campaign in 1964 would be another squeaker like that of 1960, the Kennedy administration took action. They used Internal Revenue Service audits to revoke conservative broadcasters’ tax exempt status, scaring away donors, and pushed the Federal Communications Commission to discourage radio stations from putting Right-wing programs on the air. Kennedy was assassinated before the plan came to full fruition, but the Democratic National Committee and several allied interest groups carried on with the campaign after his death.
It remains the most successful episode of state censorship since the Second Red Scare, yet it has almost entirely escaped scholarly attention. This calculated campaign against conservative broadcasting halted the advance of the New Right for the better part of a decade. Not until Jimmy Carter relaxed enforcement of FCC regulations in the late-1970s did a new crop of Right-wing broadcasters arise to bolster the conservative takeover of the Republican Party and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.