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How Sean Hannity Became Influential In Conservative Media And Politics

Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives on stage to speak during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March 2016 in National Harbor, Md. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Sean Hannity of Fox News arrives on stage to speak during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March 2016 in National Harbor, Md. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

During the presidential campaign, Sean Hannity, host of the Fox News show “Hannity” and a syndicated talk radio show, helped rally conservative support for Donald Trump. That trend will most likely continue throughout the Trump presidency.

But how did Hannity become so influential in conservative media and Republican politics? Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Brian Rosenwald ( @brianros1), a media historian and fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who is writing a book about the rise of talk radio and its influence on public policy.

Interview Highlights

On Hannity’s talk radio background

“One thing that people sometimes forget in the political world is, TV might be sexier, but radio can often reach more listeners, and the audiences are intensely loyal. And Sean Hannity, his background is radio. Before he was doing TV, he was doing radio in Huntsville, Alabama, in Atlanta, Georgia, and a lot of these guys who do both will tell you they like radio more, they reach more people, they have more time, they like the medium better.

“He started out, he actually flopped on a college radio station in Santa Barbara, that was way to the left, where he went out there after he dropped out of college, and he admittedly says, ‘Look, I was terrible.’ And then he ended up starting his rise in Huntsville, Alabama, and he migrated to Atlanta, and he was doing morning drive on a talk station down there, and then he did some TV work, and Roger Ailes discovered him. And he comes to New York to do ‘Hannity & Colmes,’ and joins the powerhouse station on WABC. And he’s there for a few years, and they decide in 2001… they’re looking for syndicated stars, especially conservative ones. ABC Radio decided to syndicate Hannity, and they have him set up to go in a bunch of major markets, and he has the, sort of, fortune to have his national debut be Sept. 10, 2001. And obviously the next day, sort of changes the face of the country, and the ratings for talk radio across the board skyrocket — people want to talk about it, they want to hear what other people are saying, it becomes kind of a virtual community, and people who had never heard Sean Hannity start to hear him, they like what they’re hearing, and he sort of goes from there to become the No. 2 guy in talk radio.”


On Hannity’s relationship with his radio listeners

“I’ve heard callers say, ‘Thank God you’re out there Sean, we have a voice now.’ There are some people who spend more time with their favorite talk radio host than they do with their spouses. People who were driving a truck all day, or out on a tractor, or doing some other job where they can listen three hours a day, five days a week, 48, 50 weeks a year, to the same person, they feel like they get to know that person, and that person reflects their views. And then in a lot of cases, for conservatives, that person punches back at people who they feel like are maligning them and scorning them and mistreating them.”

On Hannity’s impact on the 2016 presidential election

“I think that, in the primary election, had people like Sean Hannity really been hardcore against Donald Trump, from day one — we’re going back to 2015 here — they might have been able to knock him off in the primary. In terms of a general election, people were bombarded on all sides with information, and usually, I don’t think talk radio has a huge influence in presidential general elections for that reason, but in this case, insomuch as the key to the election, or one of the keys, was getting conservatives who had misgivings about either Trump’s morals or his qualifications, or some of what he said, or some of the policies he supported, to go out and vote for him.

“I think talk radio’s kind of drumbeat of, ‘Hillary is worse,’ and attacking her and keeping her emails front and center from day one for a year and a half, that helped drive those conservatives with misgivings back onto the reservation, and this is what Hannity and other talk radio hosts do at election time, which is, they frame tings in such a way, and they keep their audience kind of understanding the stakes, and why Republicans — whatever misgivings you might have — Republicans are still the best way to go.”

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