BROOKE: This is episode two of the divided dial; our brand new 5-part series about the power of talk radio and of one company in particular...Salem Media. A little-known but highly influential network whose hosts peddle in rightwing conspiracies and election denial. In this episode host Katie Thornton is going to unpack how the company came to be movers and shakers in the political world. But honestly, you’re going to want to go back and listen to the first one if this is the first you’re hearing about the series.
Adam: Hi, Katie,
Katie: Hi Adam, how are you?
I called up reporter Adam Piore last fall. And I happened to catch him just as a storm was slamming his home state of Connecticut.
Adam: Good. Although, um, my power just went out, so my wifi just went out.
Katie: Oh, shoot!
Adam: So I'm using the personal hotspot on my mobile phone, but, um, I don't know…
I wanted to learn more about Salem and Adam - who has written several lengthy articles about the company...is a good guy to ask.
Adam Piore: The way that I found out about Salem was… I was looking at major campaign donors to both Democrats and Republicans. ...At the time, for George Bush, I kept seeing Salem Communications.
That was in 2004 when George W. Bush was running for reelection.
TAPE: GWB re-election rally.
Adam: I knew who many of the donors were the major Republican donors, but I didn't, I never heard of them. So I began poking around to see what Salem was.
What Adam found when he was poking around was that Salem - though not the largest radio network in the country, and lacking the name recognition of Fox News or Breitbart… is nevertheless a powerhouse political influencer.
I’m Katie Thornton and 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.
In this episode we’re going to dig into Salem’s 50 year backstory, from their scrappy start to where they are today. It’s a history that paralleled the growth of the national Religious Right… and led to the company’s longstanding involvement in a secretive group of powerful Evangelical leaders, big donors, and mainstays of both the Republican party and the far right.
Our story begins, fittingly, in a small Southern Virginia town called Ararat — named after the final destination of Noah’s Ark. Here, in 1935, against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a boy named Stuart Epperson was born into a family of tobacco farmers.
They didn’t have electricity in their farmhouse — no one in the area did back then. But the Epperson household was connected in a different way. When Stuart was a kid, his older brother Ralph had fallen in love with the new medium of radio, and convinced his parents to get a mail-order Montgomery Ward radio set. Without power, he set up a windmill on top of the house to recharge the device’s battery. The blades of the mill would cause the house to shudder on windy days. But the rudimentary generator worked.
TAPE OF A PRIZEFIGHT OR GRAND OL’ OPRY
The Eppersons invited neighbors and passersby in to listen along. And when their house got too full, they would open the windows so everyone out there could hear too. Ralph’s radio set was the neighborhood’s line to the outside.
TAPE OF A PRIZEFIGHT OR GRAND OL’ OPRY
But young Stuart’s brother Ralph didn’t just want to listen to the radio. In a high school correspondence course, he learned, via mailed letters from instructors, to build radios. And eventually Stuart Epperson watched his brother use his passion to serve his country — and then his community. Adam Piore.
Adam: During World War II, his older brother worked for the Navy developing radar. And when he got home, he built a radio station on the second floor of their farmhouse.
Just two years after getting hooked up to the grid, the Eppersons’ house was transformed into an electrical wonderland of tubes, gadgets, and microphones. Aspiring singers and musicians flocked to the home with banjos and fiddles, filling the Epperson’s living room and the local airwaves with what they called “hillbillery.”
Music: Johnson’s Old Grey Mule
The family would take the mic…
Okay, Thanks a lot. That was mother who is also known as Mrs. AK Epperson. Yes, sir. We appreciate that expression. All together a hundred percent.
And, preachers were invited to sermonize to unseen congregants within the station’s reach.
Adam: And Stuart Epperson, at the age of 10, he read the 23rd Psalm over the radio.
It was the essence of a community radio station — homegrown and accessible, beloved, a little haphazard. And it must’ve left an impression on Stuart Epperson. Because he went on to study broadcasting at the Evangelical Bob Jones University in South Carolina. He married his classmate, Nancy Atsinger, and soon started a radio business with his brother-in-law and fellow Bob Jones alum, Edward Atsinger.
Anne Nelson: In 1973, they started a small FM radio station.
Anne Nelson is an author and Professor at Columbia University. She wrote about Salem in her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.
Anne: these…brothers in law, acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California… It was almost like a, a patch of the south... that was detached and sat down north of Los Angeles.
Bakersfield had been a sort of Southern outpost since the days of the Dust Bowl, when farm workers from Oklahoma and other southern states fled there.
But Epperson and Atsinger didn’t just want to reach other Southern transplants. They had a vision: to bring the message of their Evangelical faith to new audiences. Soon they bought a second station: KDAR in Oxnard, California — just outside Los Angeles.
Adam: They realized that…Christians wanted a platform where they could tune in and listen to people talk about biblical truth, and their beliefs... And it's kind of there that they began developing the formula that they would later replicate so successfully.
At the time, a lot Christian radio stations were small, not-for-profit, educational projects with noncommercial broadcast licenses. That meant they couldn’t take money in exchange for running specific programming. But Epperson and Atsinger did something different. They got commercial licenses…meaning they could sell airtime.
Anne: And they found that they could charge these preachers a fairly substantial fee for carrying their programs.
For Epperson and Atsinger, it was a win-win. They gave a platform to preachers, and, with some money coming in, they were able to buy more radio stations, and turn them into pulpits. They were not a lone wolf Christian station…they were building a network.
Adam: they mortgaged their houses … and this was a scary time… They, kind of bet everything on this.
The vehicle for their godly mission was a radio format known as “Christian Teach and Talk.”
Anne: From the beginning, they really emphasized what they called biblical values…
EARLY “GRACE TO YOU” SERMONS
Anne: And this was promoting these very conservative, social values, anti LGBT
Anne: favoring Christianity over other religions…
MACARTHUR: The idea of a Christian marrying a non-Christian is totally in disobedience to scripture.
But, for many who grew up with these radio broadcasts, they were more than just socially conservative messages.
John: My father was a contractor. So he was in the truck all day… He had his radio locked in… to Christian radio all day…
This is John Fea. Today he’s a professor of history at Messiah Christian University in Pennsylvania. But growing up, John was just another kid whose family converted to Evangelicalism… and who heard a lot of Christian radio.
Some would look at this as kind of crazy. Right. You know, like who does this? Who cranks John MacArthur at that maximum volume in the middle of a construction site or whatever?
(MacArthur is a minister who started on Salem’s Oxnard station in 1977)
But… The idea here is you're not only growing and learning how to be an evangelical Christian by listening to these radios. But if you're playing it on 11, you know, with the doors open in the truck
people are hearing it… That was kind of a way of living out your faith. Right? One of the key components of evangelical Christianity is evangelism, right? Sharing one's faith…
Fea also remembers hearing a show called Focus on the Family with James Dobson.
Dobson was a big name in Evangelical radio — still is. He’s known for his homophobic rhetoric, and for preaching corporal punishment and that a wife’s place is in the home. But in the Fea household, the broadcasts communicated another message.
John: My father didn't need James Dobson to tell him how to be an authoritarian figure in the family. Or that people must submit to my father, to his will in the family [laugh]... He was doing it well before he became an evangelical Christian. so when James Dobson came along and said, Hey, you gotta, you gotta be a Christian man. You have authority, right? You have, people must submit to you, but you need to be a good husband. You need to be a good father. You need to show love. That changed my father's life.
Salem’s co-founders were out to save souls — so the more people they could reach, the better.
Adam: Their big breakthrough was when they acquired KKLA, which was a thousand times more powerful than the one in Oxnard…
KKLA Station ID
And once they had this, this blue chip Los Angeles area station as collateral, they could get a lot bigger loans. …From ‘86 to 1990, They moved into Chicago. They bought two stations in Portland. one in San Diego, they got a strong signal in New York city.
In a handful of years, Salem more than doubled their stations. And they started producing their own religious shows too.
Adam: They would tape shows at KKLA… and they'd beam them out to affiliates, offering the company a big advantage over… single operators.
This way, they could use their own programs to fill the airtime they didn’t sell to preachers — rather than paying a whole cast of local hosts in every city. You know, economies of scale and all that. And to drive home just how much this business model worked for them — let me tell you about that big New York City station that they bought.
WMCA Home of the Good Guys
Years after Salem took over WMCA, they still didn’t have enough listeners to rank among the city’s Top 24 stations. That's a key metric for advertisers — and most commercial stations live and die on advertising dollars. But with money coming in from paying ministries and their homemade shows filling some gaps, Salem had built a media network that wasn’t all that dependent on a large audience and advertisers. With this model, they could broadcast their socially conservative religious programming to a niche audience… and still get bigger. Still grow their platform, still buy more stations.
But we need to back up a little bit. Because all of this growth didn’t happen in a vacuum. So let me tell you another story about a political movement that was gathering steam in America and how it came to be intertwined with Salem.
In the early 1970s, while Epperson and Atsinger were sowing the seeds of their empire in California, in Washington DC, a young Republican activist named Paul Weyrich was at his wits end. He was a transplant from Wisconsin, and only 30 years old. But for the previous decade he'd been trying — and, by his later account, quote "utterly fail[ing]" — to get conservative Christians to vote. And to get Republicans to welcome them into the party.
Weyrich: I remember calling the Republican Party chairman,, in 1962 when the ruling came down against prayer in the schools.
This is Weyrich reflecting on his life’s work in a 2005 interview with C-SPAN.
And I said, you know, the party ought to come out really against that. And he said, oh, why would we want to mix up, you know, the party in that kind of an issue? And I said, well, because it's wrong.
Weyrich believed that Evangelicals were an untapped voting bloc for the right. But, try as he might, he could not find an issue that got Evangelicals out from the pews and to the polls. Not the ban on prayer in public school, or the Women’s Rights movement. Not the ‘60s counterculture, or pornography. Not even abortion!
CBS News: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. The majority in cases from Texas and Georgia says that the decision to end a pregnancy belongs to a woman and her doctor, not the government.
According to popular lore, the Roe v Wade ruling in 1973 was the point at which morally outraged conservative Christians finally entered the political fray. Anne Nelson.
Anne: But in terms of the Protestants and even the conservative sects, like the Southern Baptist, there wasn't a huge diversion from mainstream public opinion, which was that abortion should be available under certain circumstances… As of the 1970s, the Southern Baptist convention was far more liberal in its approach to abortion policy than it is now.
Southern Baptists are the country’s largest Evangelical sect. At the time of the Roe ruling, their official newspaper said that quote, “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” A lot of other evangelicals just didn’t have much to say on abortion — before or after Roe. They saw it as a Catholic issue.
But in the early 1970s, one issue was getting a response from some Evangelical leaders.
Anne: When the schools were integrated, over the objections of certain communities, they opened what they call Christian schools, also known as segregation academies and offered the so-called religious education as an opportunity for basically a white students to go to school without any black students.
Citing freedom of religion, some religious groups created non-profit, tax exempt organizations to run these “segregation academies.” Since 1970, the IRS had been threatening and occasionally cracking down on several of these schools. And among the schools the IRS was battling with… was Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger’s alma mater, Bob Jones University.
Tape: Bob Jones preaching (just to hear him)
Anne: Bob Jones…was somebody…who // had a whole theology of segregation where he said, the Bible said that races should not mix, it's against God's law… And eventually the federal government said, well, if you do not follow our integration requirements, you will lose your tax exempt status....
In 1976, that’s exactly what happened. Bob Jones University became the latest victory in the federal government’s integration campaign — and some leaders in the Evangelical community were not happy.
Weyrich saw that this was a winning campaign. But he was politically savvy enough to know that a rallying cry in opposition to integration wasn’t a good look. So he hitched the anger over the school fight to another, more palatable cause: abortion.
Anne: Once abortion became legally available the numbers rose precipitously, and… People looked at at the number of abortions at a lot of people… found it concerning.
NEWS REEL TAPE: About 40 people gathered outside a clinic to demonstrate their opposition to abortion.
Catholics, many of whom were long opposed to abortion, spent the eve of the 1978 midterm elections leafletting church parking lots in three states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Minnesota — my home — trying to get voters out for anti-abortion Senate candidates there. And it worked — in a low-turnout election, those candidates won.
Archive tape of election victories
So Weyrich took a cue from the Catholics, and tried the cause again with Evangelicals. He and a few of his fellow conservative activists teamed up with an Evangelical pastor Francis Schaeffer, who was against abortion. Schaeffer and his son made a series of films, and showed them in churches and theaters across the country starting in 1979.
We have killing quotas on whales and porpoises, but it is always open season on unborn babies. While we can appreciate this protection of our environment, do you wonder why I ask, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race” and to our sense of values.
Schaeffer’s son recalled that, by the end of the film tour, they were calling for an anti-abortion takeover of the Republican party. But though the abortion issue was getting more support among Evangelicals, it still wasn’t crystallizing as the issue.
In August of 1980, presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech to 10,000 Evangelicals at the legendary Reunion Arena in Dallas — often considered the first large gathering of the new Religious Right.
Reagan: Now, I know this is a non-partisan gathering, and so I know that you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you're doing.
The candidate didn’t mention abortion at all. But he did mention the IRS’ censure of “independent” schools.
Anne: The year of the elections, 1980 you had a substantial vote in the south for Ronald Reagan... against the Democrat who was an actual evangelical Christian, Jimmy Carter.
In this burgeoning fusion of politics and religion, policies trumped faith. Reagan was given a pass.
NEWSREEL TAPE: Reagan projected to win over Carter
Paul Weyrich’s work had come to fruition. And he wanted to be sure there was no going back. So in 1981, he helped found the Council for National Policy.
Anne: The Council for National Policy was founded as a very secretive organization that networked big donors, political strategists and media operators.
The New York Times has described the CNP as, quote, “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.” In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center called it, “a key venue where mainstream conservatives and extremists mix.”
According to leaked rosters, recent membership in the CNP and its lobbying arm has included the likes of Ginni Thomas, Mike Pence, Morton Blackwell who runs the conservative activist training hub the Leadership Institute, and Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who worked with Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election results. And… Salem co-founders Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger.
How did the Salem leadership come to be part of this exclusive network?
It was all thanks to the power of radio. When Paul Weyrich helped form the Council for National Policy, he knew that strategizing among elite leaders wouldn’t be enough —they would need megaphones. And he knew how compelling radio could be. Before he was a political strategist, Weyrich had been an on-air host and Program Director at a Kenosha, Wisconsin radio station, and news director at a Denver station. Radio was to be a crucial communication channel for the new Religious Right… and a way to help the CNP reach a very specific constituency.
Anne: You could go after older, white Protestant voters. And engage them… through fundamentalist radio broadcasting combined with their churches… and you mobilize them around certain issues… then you could turn them into highly motivated, high propensity voters who could really make a difference in, in strategic elections.
Strategic is the key word here. Not widespread get-out-the-vote efforts.
Paul Weyrich (1980): How many of our Christians have what I call the 'Goo-Goo syndrome'? Good government. They want everybody to vote.
Weyrich explained his strategy in a speech he gave to Evangelical leaders in 1980.
I don't want everybody to vote! Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
This was the goal of the Council for National Policy: to reach the right people. And around this time, a certain fledgling Christian radio network was doing just that. That’s coming up, after the break.
This is the Divided Dial, I’m Katie Thornton. When we left the Salem story, Epperson and Atsinger had developed a solid business model unencumbered by audience preference or the whims of advertisers. In the 1980s their Christian radio stations were multiplying. And as more and more Evangelicals became immersed in politics, Salem’s co-founders were no exception. Stuart Epperson ran for Congress twice in the mid-80s.
Meanwhile, the on-air content was getting more political, too. Their programs, though socially conservative from the start, had been Christian first, politics second. But in 1987 there was a change on the national radio stage that let the political stuff run wild.
Adam: The Fairness Doctrine... required that you give… airtime to opposing views,
Reporter Adam Piore.
which of course, limited Salem's ability to talk about abortion and homosexuality and many of the hot button issues that they care about.
The decades old-Fairness Doctrine had required stations to have a degree of ideological balance in their coverage, and to present multiple sides of controversial topics. We'll talk about it more in later episodes. But the Fairness Doctrine was declared dead by Reagan's FCC.
And once that was lifted, they were able to opine on those positions all the time.
For an increasingly politicized Salem, the end of the Fairness Doctrine was a godsend.
Adam: Terry Fahy, who was the manager for KKLA the big, LA station was telling me he recognized the power that they had after the Fairness doctrine was repealed when Martin Scorsese's, the last temptation of Christ hit the theaters in 1988.
Many Evangelicals were upset with how the film portrayed Jesus. They felt he wasn’t Christ-like enough.
Last Temptation of Christ
KKLA spearheaded a demonstration at MCA universal studios and, uh, you know, protestors mobbed the entrance waving signs.
Protestor: Anybody who mocks the crucifixion will burn in hell!
Adam: They blocked route 101. Tens of thousands of people participated in protests at theaters and video stores nationwide. And that was when they sort of realized that… the radio station did have the ability to mobilize.
In the early 1990s, Edward Atsinger formed a political action group that was among the largest political donors in California. In 1994, Republicans gained control of the state Assembly for the first time in 25 years after two thirds of the candidates he backed won their elections.
And around this time, Stuart Epperson was welcomed into the Council for National Policy — followed soon by Edward Atsinger. And not long after … Salem announced a major change to their mission.
WWTC Sign on: … A station that covers the current news in depth and then gives YOU a chance to talk about it, all times of the day…
In 1995, they officially expanded from pulpit to politics.
WWC Sign-on: Let me introduce you to that station. The all new AM 1280 Wwtc, or as we around here are gonna call it... The Patriot! More Power than a tomahawk cruise missile. AM 1280. The Patriot!
Salem started building conservative talk stations in cities where they already had Christian Teach and Talk stations. They’d save costs by putting everyone in the same office — and then they’d promote their new conservative talk station on their religious station.
It was a transformative step for the evermore ideological company. And it made good business sense, too.
Adam: They surveyed their listenership and asked their listeners who were listening to sermons where they were turning the dial after. They found them turning the dial to talk radio and people like Rush Limbaugh.
Salem’s answers to Rush Limbaugh were hosts like Oliver North of Iran-Contra infamy, and Alan Keyes, a member of Reagan’s cabinet. And some names you still hear on Salem stations — or could until recently.
Michael Medved: “You put more people in jail for longer terms, crime goes down.” Hugh Hewitt: "but he was an assistant council in the White House and he's just conservative. He's not even close to being a member of the far right." Dennis Prager. "You are saying that in, in many important parts of this world, mafiosi run the society.”
On Salem’s news/talk stations, the company took a “big tent” approach. Alan Keyes was an early Black conservative activist, and Prager and Medved are Jewish. These new hosts weren’t necessarily spouting theology, but they all communicated what the founders saw as the Judeo-Christian stance on political issues like abortion, gay marriage, and, eventually, the War on Terrorism.
Adam: These are all hosts who are sort of unified in their belief that the secularism that has bled into mainstream America, that we've kind of lost something, right? That we've lost our moral compass, as Stuart Epperson put it.
All the while, on Salem’s original Christian teach and talk stations, politics were muscling in.
Anne: What this is is right-wing talk radio dressed in the fundamentalist equivalent of priestly robes…
Salem describes itself as a Christian network. Now they monopolize the term Christian. There are millions and millions of Christians who would not agree with their approach to Christianity…
On their religious stations and their new secular stations, Salem’s talk show hosts built an audience that would support the kind of work that Epperson and Atsinger — and the Council for National Policy — were doing behind the scenes. And Salem kept buying up frequencies.
Adam: At a certain point they began bumping up against FCC laws, limiting the number of stations any one company could own nationwide and in each market.
Since the 1940s, the FCC had laws that ensure no one company could grow too large. But then, in February of 1996….
Clinton at Library of Congress, 1996: Today with the stroke of a pen our laws will catch up with our future.
President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act.
Clinton: I’d like to thank the various interest groups who had sometimes conflicting concerns about this bill…
And among the many things it did was eliminate the cap on the number of stations a single radio chain could own nationwide. Salem gave money to lobby for the bill. And between 1994 and 2005, Salem grew from 18 stations to 103.
You know what happens next. With their radio empire secured, Salem looked to digital media, buying up conservative blogs and “news” sites, eventually launching their podcast network, streaming service, and production house.
All the while, the company’s founders were rising in the Council for National Policy. By the early 2010s, both Stuart Epperson and Edward Atsinger were in leadership positions. In 2014, Epperson was President of the CNP, overseeing members like Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. A new recruit, according to the most recently leaked roster, is Salem host, election denier, and right wing conspiracy theorist, and election denier Charlie Kirk.
Four decades ago Paul Weyrich used radio to help republicans reach a new religious audience and change the destiny of their party. Today the right wing talk radio ethos is inextricable from the party’s DNA — thanks, in part, to Salem Media
Next time on The Divided Dial; 17 of the nation’s top 20 most-listened to talk radio hosts are conservative. Only one is progressive. And yet, on talk radio, there is a constant refrain of victimhood... Salem VP Phil Boyce.
Phil Boyce: Talk radio is one of the most powerful forms of communication to the base. They do want to kill us.
...and when it comes to claims about censorship… they’re not entirely wrong; in the century-long history of radio in the United States, there has been censorship on the airwaves. It just hasn’t all been directed at the right.
The Divided Dial is written and reported by me, Katie Thornton, and edited by Katya Rogers. We had help from Max Balton and Sona Avakian.
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.