Katie Thornton: This is a bonus episode of The Divided Dial from On the Media. I'm Katie Thornton. First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who listened to this series over the last few weeks. It was an honor and a joy to report it. If somehow you're coming to this OTM midweek podcast and you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can scroll down the feed in whichever app you use and find all five episodes of our mini-series, The Divided Dial, or go to onthemedia.org. We covered a lot of ground in this series. In this bonus episode, I just wanted to have an opportunity to hear from some of the folks who I couldn't fit into the series, but whose stories I really wanted to share with you all.
We're going to hear from a concerned citizen who tried to take the issue of combating on-air conspiracy theories into her own hands, a journalist who went into the belly of the beast, and a former talk radio host. First, let's hear from some of the people on the receiving end of the right-wing broadcast, the listeners in the On the Media newsletter a couple of weeks ago. At the end of Episode 4, I asked you, OTM listeners to send us voice memos describing your experiences with this type of talk radio.
As you may remember, Episode 4 talked a lot about Rush Limbaugh and how he was the right guy at the right moment when deregulation, technological changes, and some innovative distribution tactics helped him explode across the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of you left us voicemails about Limbaugh, so let's hear those messages.
Jen: Hi, my name is Jen and I'm what they call a rush baby.
Speaker 3: I became a Rush Limbaugh listener when he debuted on KNBR in San Francisco during the Clinton presidency.
Speaker 4: Hey, OTM. I was a young girl in the '90s and I grew up in South Texas in a home with Rush Limbaugh on the radio.
Speaker 5: When I was growing up, my father would play Rush Limbaugh whenever we were going on long road trips.
Jen: I grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh for four hours each and every day with my parents. My mom especially loved Rush. The day he died, she was heartbroken. My brother is in heaven now. She texted me. I had no idea what to say.
Speaker 3: I despise Clinton because of his sexual harassment and constant lying. Limbaugh called out Clinton and the absurd rationalizations of the liberals who defended Clinton. I stopped listening to Limbaugh when he failed to apply the same scrutiny to George W. Bush.
Speaker 5: I'm shocked that so many people who consider themselves to be Christian or conservative or protectors of the children, that they were so swept up in this basically shock jock voice and how degrading and debasing it is for people like my father and the damage that it did to his family, to me.
Speaker 4: My dad listened every weekday afternoon at home and in the car. I tried to understand Rush's logic so I could talk to my dad and engage with him. I remember going so far as asking my dad, "Hey, yes, how could a woman run for office and be in office if she's getting her period once a month?" Oh, there's so much wrong with that question, but I don't remember my dad giving me a clear answer or rebuttal. We just left it hanging.
Katie Thornton: Thank you so much to everyone who sent us voice memos. The voices we just heard were Jess, Nelson, Alex, and Jen, and now I want to hear from a few other folks who I talked with throughout this process. Beth Sir was not a talk radio listener herself, but her life was changed by it anyway. Here's a message she recorded for me recently.
Beth Sir: I live in Montana. I'm a nurse practitioner. Probably around 2017 or so, I was motivated to actually file a report with the FCC. I had read that the FCC was established to promote the public interest because you have to get a license to have a radio station. In my own mind, I saw it as having a duty similar to a nurse's duty. We have a license and we're not allowed to lie to people. We have a duty to care, a duty to always try to share evidence-based information with people that is considered standard of care, not just our opinion. That's just the duties as I saw them associated with licensure. I was concerned about what was going on on the radio by a number of different radio hosts.
Specifically, Alex Jones is obviously now everybody knows how bad he is, but Rush Limbaugh was especially insidious because he was on pretty much all the local radio stations around the state of Montana, three hours a day, five days a week. What I started noticing is patients coming to me saying things that I had not seen in any regular news sources, concerns with a QAnon and anti-vaccine issues, and the promotion of Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine that was taking place on these radio programs as well. At any rate, I have been told by the FCC that four of my complaints are still open, but these are all multiple years old.
I do periodically call in and add to them and my plan is to add some more in writing to my complaints via email just to keep updating them.
Katie Thornton: Beth Sir filed complaints with the FCC because she was frustrated and alarmed at what she was hearing from her patients. Audrey Dutton is now the senior investigative reporter at the Idaho Capital Sun. Back in late 2020, she was working at the Idaho Statesman, a newspaper tirelessly reporting on the pandemic in her home state. She felt similarly to Beth that her work wasn't reaching everyone who really needed the facts when it came to COVID,
Audrey Dutton: There were situations where I would be listening for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours to families, survivors explaining what they had gone through and being so angry and sad and frustrated. Then I would hang up and I would open my email and I would have a letter from someone saying that I needed to go to hell or rot in jail because I was scaring people and I was killing people. What do you do with that? I have loved ones here. I have vulnerable loved ones and I care about my community. I was worried that people were going to die. How can I get the information out to people who aren't already polarized? How can I get it out to people who may not be consuming it in any other way?
I thought, where are the people who are most likely to gather without masks and without testing and things like that? I thought maybe AM talk radio.
Kevin Miller: Audrey, good to have you with us. Thank you for reaching out and coming up with this idea.
Katie Thornton: Kevin Miller is a host on KIDO a talk radio station in Boise, Idaho. He shares the airwaves with National host Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, among others in November 2020, Audrey and Dr. James Suza, an ICU pulmonologist, spent an hour on Miller's show answering questions from callers.
Kevin Miller: We've heard people speculating that hospitals are making money off of COVID cases, which would incentivize them to have people that come in with a flu that all of a sudden that they have COVID, which has led to some skepticism. Audrey, would you like to add anything?
Audrey Dutton: Yes, I pay a lot of attention to healthcare finance and what's happening right now is that the hospitals are having to pay nurses more to come in and work extra shifts. They're spending a lot of money on N95 masks and other personal protective equipment because there's such a shortage there, and they've had to stop doing the procedures that really make them money, the elective surgeries. Those have historically been where they make a lot of their money.
Kevin Miller: Audrey, your thoughts on the media hype, then we'll go back to some more phone calls.
Audrey Dutton: On Monday, on your show you talked about the media and wanting to cancel Thanksgiving and things like that and the media doesn't have anything to gain from this. We've actually suffered greatly financially as a result of the pandemic because--
Kevin Miller: My first question would be is what is the fatality rate for the seasonal flu or what's the survival rate for the seasonal flu?
Dr. James Suza: It does vary from year to year, but our most recent seasonal flu epidemics have been around 0.1%.
Kevin Miller: All right. And then what's the survival rate for COVID?
Dr. James Suza: There have been some good studies done recently that would suggest that the mortality rate may be as low as 0.5%. It's still about five times more lethal than flu. I do want to point out though, in answering that question that I don't dwell on the mortality rate. That's not the issue. The issue is the morbidity rate and the morbidity rate from COVID-19 is substantially worse. We simply don't see this much ICU utilization from influenza. We don't, we haven't seen severe viral cardiac inflammation from influenza. We don't. We see those things with COVID and--
Kevin Miller: Spinner on KIDO Talk Radio. What questions do you have?
Spinner: Good morning, Mr. Miller. How are we doing bud? Me, as you know Mr. Miller, I'm very much pro in the aspect of this being a hoax for quite a few reasons. During Obama's administration, when SARS hit, 2.5 million people died. We didn't have to wear masks then. It wasn't during an election year. I've been driving around the hospitals. They're not at full capacity in Idaho. I have COVID right now, sir, and if it's my time, it's my time. To put this fear-mongering in people's eyes, that this mystical angel of death isn't real like it's going to happen. Why put the fear into people's eyes?
Kevin Miller: Spinner, I appreciate the call. Thank you. Nothing personal, but I don't think everybody wants to die if they don't have to. Audrey?
Audrey Dutton: Yes, thanks. The caller said that there were 1.5 million deaths from SARS which was the SARS coronavirus one, the early 2000s. That's not accurate. There were 774 deaths around the world, and there were none in the US. It was contained--
Katie Thornton: For Audrey going on one of the few, actually, local shows on this Boise station was a pretty positive experience. One listener reached out to her after the show by email, and they talked on the phone for 45 minutes. She got to answer questions he had about things he had heard. By going on talk radio, she said she felt she might have gotten through to people that she never would've reached with her newspaper journalism. Lastly, we go to the other side of the microphone. What motivates the talk radio host? It might be the case for some of them that they believe all the things they say.
We spent a lot of time in this series talking about how a company like Salem is about much more than making money by appealing to existing audiences. It's an ideological project, but former North Dakota talk radio host Daniel Dewald, now out on the other side of it, explains that for him, the motivation was something else altogether.
Daniel Dewald: It was not about being credible, it was not about being honest, it was not about being ethical. It was not about any of those things. It was about being a good troll before we really had the word for it. My name's Daniel. I'm now almost 39 years old, and I did a talk show for two years, maybe it was a year and a half. During that time, day after day, I would talk about whatever I wanted to with no mandates other than that it needed to be engaging and it needed to be interesting. It was about knowing how somebody would react, what would get their vote, what would get them going. The tone I took was disingenuous often. It was one that was angry.
Also, you should know there was no need for me to be, again, truthful, credible. I did not have to meet any standard of journalistic credibility. It didn't matter if they liked me or if they didn't like me. It mattered that they listened to me and they called my radio show and they complained to my managers. That is just as good as having a glowing letter of recommendation in the talk radio world. You have just given me job security because now he knows this. My general manager, he knows he can sell commercials to this person. It doesn't matter if you're taking advantage of the audience, who cares? It doesn't matter if you're not being truthful, who cares? You have your job, right?
This is where I was coming from. Now take that and think about what it is transpired into. Ironically for me as somebody who formerly did it in our current political world, I don't like what it has done to my family. I don't like my parents identifying with QAnon conspiracy theories. They have no interest in science. They have no interest in truth. That has happened because of shows like mine, thinking it was benign at the time, but helping develop people into hardcore conservatives and into very far right viewpoints. [unintelligible 00:15:16] [inaudible 00:15:26]
Katie Thornton: Thank you so much to everyone who sent us voice memos, and thank you once again to everyone who listened to The Divided Dial. If you liked it, please tell your friends. If you've appreciated this reporting and everything that On the Media does week in, and week out, please consider supporting the show with an amount that feels right to you. For just $5 a month, you can get an On the Media coffee mug as a thank-you gift, which is pretty awesome. It just takes a couple of minutes to let the team know you're there for them. Just text dial to 701-01. That's the word dial, D-I-A-L to 701-01. For now, I'm Katie Thornton. See you on the airwaves.
[00:16:29] [END OF AUDIO]
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