The Divided Dial: Episode 1 - The True Believers
KATIE THORNTON: A few weeks after the 2020 election, radio host Eric Metaxas had one of his frequent guests back on the air.
ERIC METAXAS: Colonel Doug Mastriano. This man is an American hero.
KATIE THORNTON: Doug Mastriano, freshman Pennsylvania state senator and recently defeated 2022 Republican nominee for governor, was at the vanguard promoting allegations of widespread fraud right after the 2020 election. And so was conservative, Christian talk show host Eric Metaxas. So, this was familiar fare to his listeners.
METAXAS: What happens if these people don't join you in this?
DOUG MASTRIANO: You can kiss fair and free elections goodbye.
KATIE THORNTON: Mastriano had a plan to get the state’s General Assembly to intervene in the election results. It was a legal longshot — or, more accurately, an impossibility. Even the plan’s creator, Trump lawyer John Eastman, said it wouldn’t hold up in court. But Metaxas and Mastriano begged listeners to get their Senators on board.
METAXAS: I just want to say to my audience, if you live in Pennsylvania and you don't do this, when things go to hell, which they will, I want you to know you're responsible.
KATIE THORNTON: But right before this interview with Mastriano, something unexpected happened. Something that Eric Metaxas called “divine intervention.” Mastriano got a call…
MASTRIANO: Hey sir. I'm here with Eric Metaxas. He wants to know if you want any message to go out on this show today…
KATIE THORNTON: …from lame duck President Donald Trump, seeing how the attempt to change the Pennsylvania election results was going. And Trump was happy to go on speakerphone with Metaxas.
MASTRIANO: Can you hear him, Eric?
METAXAS: Yes I can hear the President. Mr. President, I want to know, what can I do?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Fantastic. Your whole show and your whole deal is great. So, just keep it up. We’re making a lot of progress, actually.
KATIE THORNTON: With a cleanly parted shock of salt-and-pepper hair, sport coats over button-down shirts, and bookish round glasses, Metaxas’ style suggests more Manhattan dandy than would-be crusader. But when it came to defending Trump’s seat against a supposedly stolen election…Metaxas was ready for battle.
METAXAS: I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Thank you, Mr. President. God bless you.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yep. They stole an election, but we’re not going to, we’re just not going to let it happen.
METAXAS: No, we’re not. [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: A fight for everything — with God on our side. A fight… worth dying for. It’s a sentiment that many on the right became convinced of... and that some took to the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
[AMBIENT JAN 6 SHOUTS ]
KATIE THORNTON: Spoiler alert: Metaxas did not die in this fight. But he fired off many of the lies that fueled the attack.
Metaxas is not a fire-breathing talk show host on some fringe local radio station. In fact, there’s a very good chance that his voice floats into your home on invisible radio waves every day; just waiting for you to press a button, turn a dial, and tune him in. His show is beamed from the heart of New York City, out of a corner-office radio studio in the Empire State Building — to cities and towns across the United States. One estimate puts his audience at 8 million listeners each week — way more than many of the most popular NPR shows, and enough to sell out Madison Square Garden almost 50 times over, every single night.
This is the Divided Dial - a five-part podcast series from On the Media about how one side of the political spectrum came to dominate talk radio — and how one company is using the airwaves to launch a right wing media empire.
I’m Katie Thornton and I’ve worked and volunteered in radio since I was a teenager, doing everything from hosting music shows, to legal and operational support, to selling ads. I love radio. In an era so driven by distant, virtual connection, it's a medium that is so intimate and immediate — and so inherently local, delivering information that is relevant to my community. At least… in theory…
But flip around through the AM and FM dial and you notice that radio writ large is pretty homogenous. And that’s especially true on talk radio, where one political, and religious, perspective reigns.
UTT: With the Covid plandemic, this has been the biggest global dry run to prepare the world to receive the mark of the beast in the seven year tribulation in the history of mankind.
BEN SHAPIRO: The vast majority at this point of gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.
CARL JACKSON: Racial profiling is good for your health. It could save your life. I know a lot of people, Oh my God, this was racist. No, no it's not. No it's not.
CHARLIE KIRK: Drill. Build a keystone pipeline, deport illegals, build the wall… I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't wanna hear about Biden's Overreach… Defy the federal government.
KATIE THORNTON: I wanted to know how we got to this divided dial. How rhetoric like Metaxas’ — far-right conspiracies and incitements to violence — has found a comfortable home on the public airwaves. And how many talkers who have been deplatformed on social media still have a haven on the radio dial. As it turns out, radio is still really influential, and a crucial component of the American far-right movement. And getting here didn’t happen by accident.
But let me finish telling you about Eric Metaxas.
HOST: Welcome, Eric Metaxas… [clapping]
KATIE THORNTON: To a lot of people who knew him a decade ago, his current role as a spokesperson for election fraud conspiracies and an evangelist for a politicized God who would support going to battle for Donald Trump…came as a surprise.
METAXAS: That is idolatry. Thank you very much. Thank you. If you don’t know what idolatry is you’re probably not saved…
KATIE THORNTON: Ten years ago, Metaxas was known as an up-and-coming Evangelical “public intellectual” type. He wrote a book about Martin Luther, and one about German anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He hosted a Manhattan lecture series called Socrates in the City, where he interviewed people like Malcolm Gladwell about faith and public life. Before all this, he was a writer on VeggieTales!…
LARRY THE CUCUMBER: Have we got a show for you!
KATIE THORNTON:…the Evangelical kid’s show featuring talking vegetables and life lessons…
LARRY THE CUCUMBER: We know that God’s word is for everyone, and now that our song is done we’ll take a — hey! That’s cold! (1:00 - 1:13)
KATIE THORNTON: Metaxas was even a featured speaker at President Barack Obama’s prayer breakfast in 2012.
METAXAS: I’m the son of European immigrants who met in an English class in New York City. My mom is German, hence my deep love for Sigfried and Roy
KATIE THORNTON: Two years later, he came out with one of the Wall Street Journal’s most engaged-with articles eveplanr titled, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” And when businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump entered the presidential race halfway through 2015, Metaxas poked fun at Trump’s plea for Christian votes. He wrote satirical tweets mocking Trump’s lack of understanding of Christianity, calling it “hashtag Trump Bible.” Things like, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. For a season.” And “Jesus went out into the desert. But he should've invested in hotels there. I mean, I'm killing it in Vegas.” “Trump Bible” was featured twice in the New Yorker.
But as the 2016 election season bore on, Metaxas changed his tune. And it all started not long after he was recruited to have a radio show… by this guy.
PHIL BOYCE: How about this? Hey, look, I'm a program director. What do I know about microphones?
KATIE THORNTON:This is Phil Boyce — a talk radio programming veteran, speaking here in 2018 to a group of industry professionals.
BOYCE: So we're going to talk a little bit about what's going on in talk radio and, uh, how the news talk format continues to make a difference in America. Notice I resisted the urge to say, make America great again. But I did come up with kind of a cool, sexy secondary title. "How to take advantage of the biggest boon to talk radio to come along since Monica Lewinsky wore a blue dress." [Laugh.]
KATIE THORNTON: Boyce was talking about, you guessed it, Donald Trump.
PHIL BOYCE: So we call him the gift that keeps on giving. // This guy right here is a game changer for our format. And you can take advantage of this every single day.
KATIE THORNTON: Boyce spent 14 years programming WABC, one of the most listened-to talk radio stations in the country. He discovered Sean Hannity and put him on the air. So he knew how to turn a profit from invective.
PHIL BOYCE: I'm sitting there in November of 2016, thinking it's all over for me, I really thought Hilary was gonna win… How many of you thought Hillary was gonna win? Come on, be honest. Okay. We all thought Hilary was going to win! Okay. And if she had, I was fearful, it was going to be damaging to our format. She might try to hurt talk radio, knowing her… Well guess what? 2017 was a great year because of Donald Trump winning that election.
KATIE THORNTON: That year, Boyce smashed the revenue record for the network he helps run.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: This is America First on the Salem Radio Network, broadcasting across the nation from just outside the insalubrious swamp that is Washington DC.
CHARLIE KIRK: The Salem Radio Network proudly presents our newest nationally syndicated program…
RADIO: Salem Radio Network…
RADIO: Live from the Salem Radio Network Studios in Washington, D.C., to officially kick off the Second Amendment march…[END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: Salem Radio Network is part of the larger Salem Media Group. And Salem just may be the most influential media entity you’ve never heard of. Named after a biblical title for Jerusalem, Salem is the country’s largest conservative, Christian multimedia company. Phil Boyce has overseen all national talk programming there since 2015. In their public filings, they write that they are, quote, “fundamentally committed to programming and content emphasizing Christian values, family themes, and conservative news.” And, that their quote, “commitment to these values means that we may choose not to switch to other formats or pursue potentially more profitable business opportunities in response to changes in audience preferences.” In other words; Christianity and conservatism, 24/7. 365.
From my home in Minneapolis, I can tune into four different Salem stations. Philadelphians and New Yorkers? You have two a piece. Portland, Oregon has six. Little Rock, Sacramento, Atlanta — four each. Five in Dallas. That’s only a fraction of Salem’s stations. They have conservative talk stations.
RADIO: On Philadelphia's AM 990 The Answer.
RADIO: Atlanta’s home for conservative talk
RADIO: Right here on 1280, The Patriot.
RADIO: Intelligent radio… [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: They have Christian talk stations…
RADIO :AM 980, The Mission the Twin City's Christian Voice.
RADIO: KDAR 98.3AM THE WORD, you are on the Men Show [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: And Christian music stations.
RADIO: 104.7 The Fish!
KATIE THORNTON: In addition to the stations they own, they syndicate their talk shows on over 3,000 other stations. In some cases they give their shows away in exchange for nothing other than advertising time. So Salem hosts can be heard on stations across the country
One of the first things Phil Boyce did in his new role at Salem was to bring in up-and-coming Evangelical celebrity Eric Metaxas. Metaxas, who’d never worked as a radio host before, was eager. But not long after Boyce hired him, there was a shake-down on the company’s airwaves. Conservative commentator Elisha Krauss was the first to go.
HOST: She is the former Sean Hannity producer, and also the co-host of “The Answer” in the morning with Sean Hannity and Brian Whitman…
KATIE THORNTON: She co-hosted the morning show on Salem’s Los Angeles station with Ben Shapiro. Now one of the country’s most popular conservative podcasters. Krauss, then an anti-Trump conservative, said staff pressured her to cover Trump more favorably during the 2016 election. She didn’t, and she said she felt she was fired because of it. The company said it was because she didn’t have great chemistry with one of her co-hosts — who was a very rare liberal voice on the station, but who was also eventually let go. Back in 2016, their other co-host Ben Shapiro didn’t support Trump either. When he sent Phil Boyce an email asking how to cover the candidate, Boyce responded with a message saying Salem didn't have an official position — but that the CEO of the company had argued that beating Hillary would mean supporting Trump.
Boyce wrote, "I suggest that you become a trial lawyer. You suspect your client is guilty, but you are paid to get him off." Shapiro left of his own accord. The weeding out continued into 2018. Here’s Phil Boyce at that conference again.
BOYCE: I've got a host right now. I'm coaching him out of bad habits. He, he, he understood that Trump is, is good for our audience, but there's some days he just can't bring himself to say good stuff.
KATIE THORNTON: A few years earlier, former republican congressman and Salem host Joe Walsh had suggested that President Obama and BLM activists were to blame for a lone gunman’s murder of five police officers. His tweet read, “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” But he was fickle on Trump.
BOYCE: And I said, what are you doing? Your listeners rely on us. We are the antidote to the mainstream media. If you align yourself with them, you'll eventually lose.
KATIE THORNTON: Salem pulled the plug on Walsh’s show shortly after — though they said it wasn’t because of his stance on Trump. That same year, host Michael Medved — also an anti-Trump conservative, and who had been with Salem for more than 20 years — was let go, too. Salem said it wasn’t because of his politics. But A lot of company staff who were fired around this time went on the record saying there was a purge of anti-Trumpers at Salem.
Eric Metaxas, though, was safe. Despite his earlier wavering, by 2016 he was committed to the Salem company line, even writing an op ed for the Wall Street Journal arguing that Christians needed to throw their support behind Donald Trump.
METAXAS: If you care about America, you sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for the person who's going to do the least damage or who's going to maybe pull you back from the brink. I'm genuinely convinced that that means voting for Trump.
KATIE THORNTON: Metaxas was an early recruit to Phil Boyce’s new national radio team. But there were more to come. After the break, we meet the line-up.
KATIE THORNTON: This is The Divided Dial, I’m Katie Thornton. And I was about to introduce you to the lineup.
GORKA: The number is 833-33-GORKA but don’t call us on a cell phone because they are utterly woke and hate us....
KATIE THORNTON: Sebastian Gorka, host since 2019. He was an anti-terrorism adviser to President Trump but failed to get the necessary clearance to work on national security issues. He’s been shown to have ties to a Hungarian far-right, neo-Nazi group that is on a U.S. Department of State watch list. And there’s Charlie Kirk…
CHARLIE KIRK : Let's talk about this war on white people. That's a thought crime, Douglas.
KIRK: You're not allowed to say that…You're obviously welcome to say it here. We agree.
KATIE THORNTON: Kirk runs the ultra-conservative, anti-higher-ed youth organization Turning Point USA. Boyce brought him on in mid-2020. Along with longstanding Salem hosts Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, and Mike Gallagher, these new voices make up the core of Salem’s national talent. A sort of B-list of right-wing celebrities who don’t get reported on in the same way that your Alex Joneses or your Tucker Carlsons do.
And by the time the 2020 election season came around, listeners across the country heard a unified message from Donald Trump and Salem talkers alike.
DONALD TRUMP: This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen... All run by Democrats... It’s a rigged election.
KIRK: If we lose, if the President loses, they will come for us all. They will come for your children. They will come for your schools. They will come in every fashion. And they won't stop.
KATIE THORNTON: And on January 4th, 2021, Salem host Charlie Kirk used his radio show to lay out a roadmap to a second Trump term.
KIRK: Believe it or not there is a almost guaranteed way that Donald Trump serves four more years. ...Mike Pence says "based on the power and the authority granted to me as President of the United States Senate, and my oath to the Constitution of the United States, I refuse to certify at this very moment the election results of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
KATIE THORNTON: This is not true. But it was an idea that was making the rounds in right-wing circles.
Two days later that’s exactly what the crowds on the steps of the Capitol were calling for...complete with a hangman's noose, and chants to string up the Vice President.
GORKA: Those who elect our representatives and our senators have had enough and they are in their house.
GORKA: [Laugh] Should I feel guilty for feeling good?!
KATIE THORNTON: As protesters poured into the rotunda, Salem host Sebastian Gorka celebrated live on air.
GORKA: As we saw a protester just moments ago on television say to the shock and the chagrin of Fox News. That's our house. It's not the Senator’s! It's not Nancy Pelosi's! It's not Chuck Schumer's! God willing it will continue to be peaceful, but a message has been sent.
KATIE THORNTON: It’s hard to remember now, but right after January 6th, there was a brief moment of almost unity. Even many in the broader right-wing media ecosystem, like hosts on Fox News, said that maybe the falsehoods about the election had gone too far.
JEANINE PIRRO: I want to be clear. The actions at the United States Capitol three days ago were deplorable, reprehensible, outright criminal. And I don’t care what happened in the past, or whether those who did it think the election was stolen.
KATIE THORNTON: Though no one from the company confirmed it, there were reports that Cumulus, one of the biggest radio chains in the country, with tons of conservative talkers, sent a memo to their hosts.
It said, The election is over. If you suggest otherwise, you can expect to be fired. People in the radio world speculated that Cumulus was worried about losing advertisers.
Because in commercial radio, the threat of an ad boycott looms large. But Salem is different. Nearly half of their radio income comes from paid programming — mostly conservative Christian ministries that run on their Christian talk stations. And the overwhelming majority of those programs — more than 95% — come back year after year, even as prices go up. So Salem doesn’t have to be so concerned with placating advertisers.
At Salem, there was no January 6th memo. The lies about the stolen election continued. And soon, the rest of the right wing media ecosystem caught up with Salem followed closely by a large contingent of the Republican party. This midterm season, well over half of all Americans had a 2020 election denier on their ballot. And while they didn’t all perform as well as many on the right hoped, their influence is not going away. At least 170 of those candidates were elected to state and national offices. Some of those winners will be in charge of future elections.
Throughout their campaigns, Some of those candidates had been cited a key piece of “evidence” for their claims about the stolen election; evidence brought to the public… by Salem Media.
DINESH D’SOUZA: We must now face the chilling reality. The Democrats conceived the heist, they funded it, they organized it. Then they carried it out.
KATIE THORNTON: In May of this year, Salem released a film hosted by far-right activist Dinesh D’Souza.
D’SOUZA: They rigged and stole the 2020 presidential election. We cannot be okay with this. We cannot simply move on.
KATIE THORNTON: You remember D’Souza. He was convicted of felony campaign finance fraud for making campaign contributions in other people’s names — but was pardoned by Trump. The film, 2,000 Mules, claims to “prove'' election fraud in 2020. It relies on cell phone geotracking data that they say identifies over 2,000 people in five key states who made multiple trips to unnamed “nonprofits” which were “stash houses” for fraudulent ballots. Then, allegedly, those mules went to drop boxes.
D’SOUZA: What you are seeing is a crime. These are fraudulent votes.
KATIE THORNTON: The movie is rife with shortcomings and outright falsehoods. For one, they repeatedly say that they have video footage of the same individuals going to multiple drop boxes to drop off fistfuls of ballots…
TRUTH THE VOTE: This particular individual we have in a number of different locations and a number of different times, he's actually a mule.
KATIE THORNTON: …but they never show it. Tech experts have said that our phone’s geotracking is not precise enough to tell if someone went up to a drop box, or just walked by one. They are in highly trafficked areas. State Bureaus of Investigation actually did look into some of the cases the film showed — and they found no wrongdoing.
Regardless, the film was a hit. Trump himself held an early screening at Mar-a-Lago, where the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rudy Giuliani, and Kenosha, Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse all came to watch. It has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes! In a moment when election fraud conspiracies had finally broken through to the national stage, 2,000 Mules gave supposed “evidence.” And it applauds those who stood behind the lie.
D’SOUZA: And therefore, does it follow that the people who suspected fraud, even though they didn't have the proof, their suspicion was right.
TRUTH THE VOTE: Absolutely. Their instincts were right.
KATIE THORNTON: According to Salem, the film grossed $10 million in under two weeks. Nearly two months after it came out, when I made an account with “Truth Social,” Trump’s alternative to Twitter, Dinesh D’Souza was second only to Trump in my list of recommended accounts to follow.
Last year, Salem launched their own podcast network, and the Dinesh D’Souza Podcast was their debut feature. They’ve added over a dozen daily conservative podcasts since then — often featuring young hosts who vye for a new generation of listeners. And now every Salem radio host has a Salem podcast, too.
Those radio hosts can also be found as talking heads on the company’s new 24/7 internet television station, Salem News Channel, which they launched this summer. Salem also has their own movie streaming service and production house, a rapidly growing conservative Christian influencer network, a series of Christian websites like Christianity.com and “Godtube,” and a long running conservative publishing house called Regnery. ” They even run a service that sells sermons to pastors. And for over a decade they’ve been quietly purchasing some of the biggest conservative “news” sites: Townhall, Hot Air, Red State.
But for all of Salem’s varied media strategies, broadcast radio is still central to their operations. According to Nielsen, broadcast radio has a higher reach than television. Pew research says it's nearly neck and neck with social media for how Americans get their news.
Surveys repeatedly show that Americans trust radio more than any other medium.
And that's why we'll be focusing our investigation in the coming episodes of this podcast series — on the airwaves.
NICOLE HEMMER: Radio is a sort of perfect medium for the spread of misinformation...
This is Nicole Hemmer. She’s a historian and scholar of conservative media. We’re going to be hearing a lot from her throughout this series.
HEMMER: You have to listen to it live in order to capture what's being said. And that gives a lot more freedom to people who are on radio to say things that aren't true.
BOYCE: Remember with social media, anything you say can and will be used against you.
KATIE THORNTON: Salem VP, Phil Boyce.
BOYCE: It's almost better to say it on the air than to post it in a Tweet because you post it in a Tweet, it's out there for the end of time. You say it on the air, maybe they didn't hear it..
KATIE THORNTON: A single talk radio host goes on the air for hours every day. That’s a lot harder to cull through than 280-character tweets. Radio is hard to parse, hard to clip, hard to share… and not particularly glamorous to report on. It’s seen as the cast-aside, no-big-deal medium only us “flyovers” in middle America have to contend with.
HEMMER: So not only is it largely unseen and understudied, but it's not taken seriously, even though it has very serious consequences for culture and politics in the United States. And so it just operates out of sight... Nobody pays any attention. And it has so much power.
KATIE THORNTON: Next time on The Divided Dial… We dive into Salem’s history… and find out that the company has deep ties to the Republican party. And thanks to their involvement with a secretive group of Evangelical and conservative leaders, they are tightly networked with right wing political strategists, pollsters, and big donors.
ANNE NELSON: It began when these... brothers in law, acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California...
ADAM PIORE: I was looking at major campaign donors... for George Bush, I kept seeing Salem communications.
PASSION OF THE CHRIST PROTESTER: Anyone who mocks the crucifixion… will burn in hell.
PAUL WEYRICH: How many of our Christians have what I call the Gogo Syndrome, good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote.
The Divided Dial is written and reported by me, Katie Thornton, and edited by Katya Rogers. We had help from Max Balton and Tom Colligan.
Music and sound design is by Jared Paul, Jennifer Munson is our technical director.
This series is a production of On the Media and WNYC Studios with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Listen to the upcoming episodes of the series wherever you get your podcasts and follow my work on Instagram at itskatiethornton. Thanks for listening.