In the early 1980s the radio dial was a bustling town square. Voices from across the political and cultural spectrum jostled for airtime. A leading liberal voice on the air was Alan Berg.
Berg: Alan Berg on KOA. 3: 17 in the afternoon. There's about 10 minutes in the show. Let's go to line one. You're on air. ...
With his gray, shaggy mop top, scruffy beard and reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, Berg looked more like a high school geography teacher than a shock jock.
Alan Berg: (10:04) My dear, anybody who’s programmed like you is persay a racist.
Caller: …(indecipherable) I am good Christian mother…
Alan Berg: Honey, you are committable. Goodbye.
Behind the mic, his style was caustic, as he faced off with the bigots who often called in to his show.
David Lane: I think the Jews are still firmly in control of the soviet union, I think they’re responsible for the murder of 50 million white Christians.
Alan Berg: You think so, huh?
David Lane: Yes, I do, and I think ...
Alan Berg: I think you’re sick, I think you’re pathetic, I think your ability to reason … any logic is…
David Lane: Why don’t you put a Nazi on your program and then you’ll have somebody that can -
Alan Berg: You are nazi by your very own admission, thanks so much, and that’s right you
heard it. Ok.…
But on the evening of June 18, 1984…
KOA Announcer Ken Hamblin: 10:39 KOA time. And we're, I'm still trying to piece information together....the best, um, investigative efforts through the DP has indicated that someone… fired upon Alan Berg when he was exiting his vehicle in front of his home…
Alan Berg was shot and killed by a white supremacist. His murder a milestone on the road to an ever more violent radical right. And for radio...it heralded the end of an era.
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.
By the early ‘80s, the right had staked out their place in the media ecosystem - despite repeated claims of censorship and liberal bias. But the airwaves still hosted a diversity of voices and there were policies in place to keep it that way. In this episode... how the last four decades saw the undoing of that arrangement..
Mike Mallace: I’m Mike Wallace.
Safer: I’m Morley Safer.
Sawyer: I’m Diane Sawyer… Tonight on 60 Minutes…
Morley Safer: Talk is the most popular kind of radio today, at least on AM… More popular than country and western and rock and roll. More popular than any of the forms and formats stations put together to get the ratings to make the money.
In the 1970s, talk and public affairs shows exploded. In part because of the FCC’s “public interest moment,” which encouraged stations to better reflect what their audience wanted to hear. But also because of a great technological leap.
Steely Dan, “FM”: [Fade up] // No static at all // No static, no static at all // FM (No static at all)
“No static at all.” That was the promise of FM radio. The year this Steely Dan song came out, 1978, the FM band beat AM in listeners for the first time.
1960s RCA RADIO INFOMERCIAL: (0:14): The difference in reception will leap to the ear…
With AM, or “amplitude modulation” radio, there was always sort of an ambient hum. Lots of interference. Like looking through a dirty window. But with FM, or “frequency modulation,” sound was encoded into radio signals differently. And compared to AM’s muck, it was freshly shined glass.
Nicole: As the FM dial opens up, radio stations that play music are like we were, we're goin' over there, we're going to be an FM station now
Historian and author Nicole Hemmer.
…And that actually leads to some languishing on the AM dial and for AM stations…
At first low-quality, old-timey-sounding AM struggled to find its competitive advantage. That is, until it landed… on talk.
Safer: Talk and more talk. Advice to the lovelorn, to the investor, to the shopper…
Talk radio was AM’s salvation. And the special sauce was the listeners themselves.
But among the most popular of talk is the invitation to the audience to talk back… "Hello, you're on the air" is as familiar a phrase on radio these days as the stations call letters.
In radio’s earlier days, it was awkward and clunky to get a listener on the air, with hosts either holding the phone up to the mic or… holding it to their ear and saying “mhmm mhmm,” before reiterating to listeners what the caller said.
But changes in broadcast regulations and improved telephone technology made it easier for listeners to get on the air.
Nicole: The idea that somebody can hear themselves on the radio by calling in and talking to the host -- it sounds so old school at this point, but it really was a revolution…. You could now be like a local celebrity because you're calling in and able to have your voice heard on a station. And it changes the medium because… it makes people feel invested in shows… Even if they don't call in, they hear people like themselves calling in and they feel like they're being represented on this new talk radio.
Around this time in the late 70s and early 80s, satellite dishes were also becoming more accessible, allowing some larger networks to beam a select few shows across long distances in real time. Combine that with easier and cheaper long distance calling...
Nicole: And once you have those two things, where I can make a toll free call to a show that is being aired around the nation all at the same time, so that people in Oregon and people in New York can... be listening to the same content at the same time can be calling in at the same time.... now you can have a national conversation on radio.
Mutual VO: Network radio’s most listened to coast to coast program...featuring guests from around the world, and calls from all across america...and now network radio’s number one interviewer...Larry king.
National slots for talk radio were prized, going to the rare host like Larry King.
“Larry king” End of tape pops up...
But in local markets, call-in shows with local hosts and local listeners ruled. And these call-in shows, while very egalitarian weren’t always the most civil.
Stern: You still got your teeth, the original teeth?
Caller: Of course.
Stern: Imagine this woman being your grandmother.... Something about old people -- when they get on the phone, they love to talk about their personal life. And I know it's real interesting to you, but we gotta move along....
The early 1980s saw the dawn of the “shock jock” era, with Baltimore’s Howard Stern, famously, at the helm.
Howard Stern: Man, when I get to your age, I hope they shoot me!
Caller: Oh, I hope so too.
Hosts like Stern and those who followed in his footsteps were usually confined to local markets early on. And their shows weren’t always political, mostly just… lewd, and abrasive.
Remember that time you had that affair with Ernest… I wondered what it was like. I mean, did he sweat much?
Get your lazy asses out of bed...you can’t say the word penis anymore.
Steve Kane: Excuse me ma'am, can you turn your radio off and back please?
Caller: I don't have a radio on …
Host: ma'am. Do you know what happens? You don't have a radio on? You know what happens when one lies? I can hear it on in the back. Turn it off.
But by the early-1980s, some shock jocks were adding politics to their shows.
Gary Dee: I have been called by my program director, God, to bring the truth to Washington DC!
Don Imus: Why would we have any democrats on? They’re losers
Caller: I am a working mother… And my kids are fine. They have -
Gary Dee: No they are not! Who's raising them? You don't have 'em. The babysitter's got 'em. You ain't no… mama. Get off my program, you Liberal. [Click]
And they weren’t just conservatives, there were liberal shock jocks too...like sharp-tongued, former-attorney Alan Berg who broadcast out of Denver on an AM station called KOA. Its powerful signal allowed Berg to reach listeners in about 30 surrounding states.
Caller: If you don't like it, you can move to Moscow. Correct?
Berg: In other words if, if you're not, if you're not a Christian, you're unAmerican. Is that your point, sir?
Caller: That's right.
Berg: Good point, sir. You and your redneck, go to bed.
VO: You're listening to Alan Berg on Koa. Alan Berg on KOA in Denver.
Berg was Jewish, and he goaded the right wingers, racists and anti-Semites who flooded his phone lines. In a poll, Denver residents were asked to name the city’s most beloved media personality, and it’s most despised. Alan Berg won both. And by early 1984, he was making a splash nationally. Here he is on 60 Minutes.
Safer: Isn't there something a little dangerous about this kind of broadcasting for.
Berg: There is a danger. I agree with you, but I think that's the danger that we exhibit in all free, all rights of free expression. Be it columnists who write newspapers.
Safer: Indeed. But, but you say yourself, you often go on there, you don't know quite what you're gonna say.
Berg: Hopefully my legal training will prevent me from saying the one thing that will kill me. And I've come awfully close.
It was less than six months after that segment aired that 50-year-old Alan Berg was gunned down in his driveway by members of the newly formed white supremacist group The Order. And driving the getaway car was the caller we heard at the beginning of the episode…
David Lane: Why don’t you put a Nazi on your program and then you’ll have somebody that can -
Berg: …You sir are a nazi by your very own admission
David Lane, a member of the Denver area KKK and founder of The Order, died in prison in 2007, serving time for his role in the murder of Alan Berg. While in prison, Lane wrote and published a manifesto that remains a major influence in present-day white supremacist movements.
Hamblin: It's 10 42 on a very, very, very blue evening.
There were other liberal talkers, but for Berg’s colleagues and his listeners… and for left-wing radio, this was a huge loss.
Hamblin: You're on the air. Go ahead.
Caller: I am so sorry for your grief. Um, I it's, I find it so hard to believe that that he's really gone.
Second Caller: I could not believe what I heard. I cannot believe how low people will go.
At the time Berg was murdered, radio was undergoing another colossal change — this one from the halls of government.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 he inherited a media ecosystem that was flourishing - buoyed by hard-won regulations. But....
Mark: The Reagan administration came in… and began to eliminate all of those regulations.
This is former FCC counsel Mark Lloyd, who we heard from in Episode 3. He says that, not long after his inauguration, Reagan’s FCC started killing off the policies and guidelines that had been built up during the Civil Right Era.
Mark: We had ascertainment… we had a set of guidelines about how to serve local communities… It was an entire regime that enforced local service… Reagan came in, all of it was gone…
Newsreel: … the FCC made some major changes in how radio stations are run…
No more requirements to go out and find out what local residents want to hear. No more mandate to run educational shows. The FCC also made it harder for people to challenge broadcast licenses — like Civil Rights groups had done by the hundreds to get fairer representation. The long-standing Fairness Doctrine was still on the books — but without these other policies, it didn’t have as much bite.
Mark: You get rid of all that, the result is, um, Rush Limbaugh [laugh]
That’s coming up, after the break.
This is The Divided Dial, I’m Katie Thornton. When broadcasting’s public interest moment was in full swing in the 1970s, Rush Limbaugh wasn’t really a part of it. He was on the air, but he was a deejay, cuing up songs and reporting on the weather and traffic in between.
Rush: 1360, Solid rock and gold. And for the morning rush hour, sunny and cold today. Radar says a near 0% chance of precipitation.
Limbaugh had been in love with the medium since he was a kid. His dad, who was once a part-owner of a station in their hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, got young Rush his first radio gig there in the 1960’s when Rush was only 16. But after that… he found it hard to keep a job. By the early 1980s, after well over a decade in the industry, Limbaugh had been fired from five stations — mostly for interpersonal reasons.
Rush: High temp below freezing at 31. Tonight's clear and cold. A low tonight down to 22 degrees. Nippy nippy nippy…
Limbaugh spent a few years working in sales for the Kansas City Royals. But he was back behind the mic in 1983 — now in his 30’s and trying his hand at news coverage. He lasted less than a year before being fired again. But the next year, 1984, a station out of Sacramento took a gamble on Limbaugh and gave him his own show. And it was here that Limbaugh really honed his pitch. Less weather and traffic...more politics and preening.
Limbaugh: Welcome to the Rush Limbaugh program, a program exclusively designed for rich conservatives and right-minded Republicans, or those who want to be either, or both…
And, the phones lit up. Whether callers wanted to argue or agree with Limbaugh’s right-wing hot takes, they all wanted to talk. Ratings soared. And advertising dollars poured in. For Limbaugh, who had made it clear that he was an entertainer and a moneymaker first, pundit second, it was a goldmine.
Limbaugh: The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the station, its staff, or the advertisers, but they ought to be.
Limbaugh was, in many ways, representative of the new, post-“public interest” radio dial of the mid-1980s. After deregulation began in earnest in 1981, the number of complaints to the FCC about racial stereotyping went up. So did complaints about a lack of programming for minority groups. And then of course, in 1987, Reagan’s FCC dealt the death blow.
C-SPAN: This week the FCC voted down the Fairness Doctrine by a vote of 4 to 0.
Anne: The logic of doing over the fairness doctrine was, oh, well, now all of these towns have a hundred, 500 a thousand channels on their cable systems.
Anne Nelson is the author of Shadow Network, media money and the secret hub of the radical right”
Anne: So anybody can find any opinion they want, and we don't need to have that requirement for individual broadcasters anymore.
But, she says, there were a couple issues with the FCC’s argument.
Anne: First of all… you can't watch a hundred channels… In fact, this fire hose of information is going to be so overwhelming. You'll probably just stick to one or two channels
Also, not everyone had cable. And even if you did, you can’t watch cable while commuting to work. Or working on most job sites. Plenty of people still relied on radio, not television, for their news. And the existence of cable TV didn’t suddenly mean there were more radio frequencies.
The Fairness Doctrine had not been perfect. Adhering to it was a big logistical headache. Station staff had to monitor hosts for controversial material, and figure out how to make free airtime available to people who wanted to respond. Many scholars believe that it kept some broadcasters who didn’t want to do their due diligence from broadcasting controversial material at all.
But for many, including some conservatives, it had been an important means of getting ideas out.
Nicole: By the time you have the repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987, you have a whole cohort of conservatives, people like pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, who want to see the fairness doctrine kept in place.
The Democratic-led Congress, with the help of some of these conservative leaders, actually passed a law to codify the Fairness Doctrine — which had just been an FCC policy. But Reagan vetoed it. And as it turned out, it wasn’t a loss for the right.
Without the Fairness Doctrine in place, highly political, often vitriolic talk radio skyrocketed. And Sacramento area’s Rush Limbaugh was the breakout star of the moment. He’d nearly tripled his show’s ratings in less than four years, and his station plastered an ad for his show on a downtown Sacramento billboard, with a picture of a finger on a radio dial and the question “Don't you just want to punch Rush Limbaugh?” Limbaugh was the big winner in this deregulatory bonanza. And a year after the doctrine was overturned, his show went national.
KCRA host: It was a day of well-wishes and autographs and a limo ride to the airport. Limbaugh said goodbye to Sacramento this morning.(fade) He’s taking his act to New York City, where his show will be nationally syndicated.
Limbaugh quickly made a name for himself from WABC in New York with his misogynist rants, his vilely homophobic recurring segments, his mocking of the poor and disabled…and of course… his racism.
Limbaugh (“Limbaugh Dinkins WABC 90”): For those of you who are not in New York, we have severe racial tensions here in New York. The first African — I almost said Black, that would’ve been insensitive — the first African American mayor…
Limbaugh looked to get a rise out of listeners… including liberals who made up a quarter of his audience in the early days. But as time went on, he appealed more to those who felt that popular culture was edging toward greater representation of the marginalized - and, consequently, they felt, leaving them out.
Talk about a woman who's not anything without her husband! It's Raisa Gorbachev...
Host: She has a PhD!
Limbaugh: You know what that PhD means? You go to a Marxism course for 20 minutes...
Limbaugh-NFL.wav Limbaugh (2007): Let me put it to you this way. The NFL, all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.
Brian Rosenwald: People start calling them and saying, thank God you're on the air Rush. We finally have a voice…
Brian Rosenwald is the author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.
Brian: And it's ironic, right? Because this is the eighties… Ronald Reagan is still in office. They have the white house, they have the biggest platform in the world, but they don't feel that way. And in some sense, the right to be honest, that the liberals are still winning the culture wars. Even as the conservatives are gaining more political power… And over time… they start to lose the liberal audience.
Eventually, even the skeptical conservatives came around on deregulation. Nicole Hemmer.
Nicole: It's not until rush Limbaugh takes off and they see the power of this deregulated medium that suddenly the conservative line is yes, the fairness doctrine is bad. It only exists to shut up rush Limbaugh, and we all oppose it.
But it wasn’t just political conservatives fueling Limbaugh's growth. It was also his large following of Evangelical Christians.
John: I was in seminary. Uh, this would have been 90, maybe 89, 90… And everybody on my floor, all these seminarians were listening to this new guy, Rush Limbaugh.
This is John Fea, the professor of history at Messiah Christian University in Pennsylvania, who in Episode 2 told us about the omnipresence of Christian radio in his childhood.
John: …and, you know, you'd go into the lounge or you'd go into the restroom bathroom or whatever… and they're talking, "hey, did ya hear what Rush said?" And I had no idea who this guy was and I started listening to him. … So I remember being quite entertained by Limbaugh in seminary.
John eventually grew to be a Limbaugh critic, but in the early days, he was on board. And not unlike his dad who evangelized with Christian radio blaring from his truck, John turned around and shared the word of Rush with his old man.
John: I introduced my father to Rush Limbaugh. …So I'll never forget this… My parents kind of convinced me to come home from Chicago for our annual trip to the Jersey shore. And I remember… I remember saying, dad, you gotta hear this guy. I think you'll like him. And I remember putting, you know, turning him on and, and he was hooked. He listened to him every single day that vacation, and then continued to listen to him. …This replaced Christian radio in his truck.
Years of well-organized Christian media networking and socially conservative programming — from the likes of The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, or Salem’s early teach and talk stations, — meant that, in content if not tone, Limbaugh wasn’t a giant leap from what a lot of Christians were already listening to.
John: shows like Rush Limbaugh and other conservative shows were upholding certain kinds of values that were compatible with Christianity, whether it be pro-life or attacking the liberals… Any historian would find the roots of Limbaughism in Christian radio, in the seventies and eighties.
It was around this time that Salem — then just a Christian network — surveyed their listeners, and found that when they turned the dial, they tended to stop at conservative talkers like Limbaugh. Christian radio helped prime audiences for Limbaugh… and Limbaugh, appealing to anxieties around cultural change, helped shape Christian radio.
John Fea: This anxiety and fear… turned Christian radio into a kind of political, outlet…to serve the culture wars.
Republican politicians soon realized that getting in good with Limbaugh meant getting in good with his listeners. President George H. W. Bush literally carried Limbaugh’s bags into the White House when he came for a visit.
Limbaugh imitators abounded. And by 1995, about two thirds of talk radio leaned right. End of story. Right?
Mark Lloyd: The story that's often told... is that the Fairness Doctrine ended and that made the way for Rush Limbaugh to come on the air and really reach an audience that had never been served before and provide conservative views… It’s nonsensical…
Rush Limbaugh was a very talented talker. But his talk castigating feminists, his talk about… people of color, uh, his talk, frankly, about people who were asking for better services from, uh, the government was nothing new…
So if it wasn’t just Limbaugh’s firebrand personality that drove his success, what did?
Brian Rosenwald: Syndicated shows, you know, starting with Limbaugh come along and their offer programs by what they call the barter method… Which essentially means that you don't pay for the show.
Brian Rosenwald says that with the barter method, Limbaugh’s group offered the show to stations across the country for free, just in return for ad time within the show, which they could sell to advertisers who wanted to reach a national audience.
Brian: So essentially you're not losing anything if you're the station… You're not handing out money. You're not paying a salary, you’re not paying a flat fee or something.
Barter-based syndication is common practice now — and Limbaugh eventually went on to charge stations to carry his show — but as a business model, it was pretty new back then. And then there were those satellites.
(SUBTLE TAPE) Rush will still be heard here via satellite
As the cost of the technology went down, satellite transmission became more affordable… and going national wasn’t as big a deal.
But perhaps the single most important factor contributing to the right’s dominance of the radio dial was the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and its elimination of national ownership caps. Those were the longstanding legal limits on the number of stations that a single company could own. That number had been increasing for years under Reagan. But in ‘96, the national limit for radio chains was eliminated.
Brian: And that ends up triggering massive, massive, like frenetic consolidation in the radio business in the late nineties, where companies are merging, companies are buying each other up. It basically becomes clear to most owners that you're not going to survive as an individual owner. You either need to get big or get out.
Mark: We ended up with an operation…. called ClearChannel that owned over 1200 radio stations… This is, uh, which was just unheard of in the night during the public interest moment. The idea that any one entity could own 1200 stations!
Before the ‘96 Act, ClearChannel — now called iHeartMedia — had just 43 stations. And starting in 1998...
Mark: Clearchannel owned premiere networks…and guess who Premiere Radio Networks owned? They own the Rush Limbaugh show. And guess what ClearChannel and the Premiere Radio Networks promoted and put on every station they could? Well, they put on the show that they owned — Rush Limbaugh.
And while no other company got as big as ClearChannel, others, like Entercom — which soon acquired Sinclair’s radio stations — and Salem, grew exponentially. Cumulus, a media giant, was formed in the wake of the Act. And all of this economic consolidation changed what could be heard on the airwaves.
Brian: Why does this affect programming? Well, it affects programming because you end up getting these companies that become vertically integrated. …For one set of talent... and one set of production costs, you can program a show that you can then air on... a huge chunk of your... stations…
It was cheaper for a company to invest in one big host they could blast out across the country than it was to hire local hosts in every city. And as the higher-ups were programming for their newly expanded networks they stuck to tried and tested formats.
Brian: Consolidation and these big corporate ownerships... create risk adverse companies, risk adverse executives, executives who want to program something that they know will work. And... conservative talk is it.
In the 90s and early 2000s, more and more talk stations switched from showcasing a variety of opinions to airing one political perspective all day, mirroring an approach called “format purity” in music radio.
Brian: If you turn the country station on and you hear Beethoven's fifth, you're going to be confused… Radio executives think that people feel the same way about talk — that if you turn on the conservative talk station and there's a liberal guy on you're like, well, did I turn the wrong station on? That there needs to be predictability.
From a station managers’ perspective… platforming talkers like Rush Limbaugh was predictable, and also safe.
Brian: What is dangerous is raunch.... Stuff that's going to threaten your FCC license… Conservative talk, for as harsh as it can be, is largely safe… So it's one decision upon one decision upon one decision that makes this make more and more and more sense, um, to the point that you get to the 2000s, and then they're like, okay. Yeah. All conservative, all political, all nationally syndicated, or mostly nationally syndicated. That's how we make our money.
Mark: There were no progressive or liberal talkers on commercial radio in Philadelphia… And certainly there are liberal and progressive people in Philadelphia. There were no progressive or liberal talkers on commercial radio in Houston. And certainly there are liberal and progressive folks who were interested in that programming, but nah… They were not being served by commercial radio stations in those markets.
In 2007, Mark Lloyd worked on a study that looked at news/talk radio stations owned by the country’s five biggest commercial radio companies — including Salem.
Mark: What we found was that…conservative talk, dominated liberal, or progressive talk by 10 to 1…
The study also noted that, in some markets where left-leaning talk was aired, it could bring in money and ratings. But the big conglomerates hardly bothered. They could afford not to.
The only real attempt by liberals to give conservative radio a run for its money. … came in 2004.
Air America Air Check: “With even more intensity!” “Politics and cultures.” “[Laugh] We need them!” “I believe that they did succeed…” “Air America radio! Real facts in a filtered world.”
Air America had hosts like Al Franken,
Al franken tape: …today is both an ending and a beginning...an end to the right wing dominance of talk radio...
Public Enemy’s Chuck D., and Rachel Maddow. But, from the get-go, there were some issues: one of the cofounders was a grifter, securing a huge and sketchy loan that he appeared to give largely to himself… and he pushed a product through that was not ready for prime time. A lot of the hosts were new to radio and just… weren’t that great.
But importantly, Air America lacked the structures that had benefited Limbaugh. Air America didn’t own any stations, they just made shows. So they had to convince existing stations to run Air America programs. Not easy in this era of format purity and big, chain ownership.
Air America was off the air by early 2010. Brian Rosenwald.
Brian: What happens is that a lot of people in the radio business take the air America failure and say, see, liberal radio won't work.
The “end to right wing dominance of talk radio” that Al Franken had predicted never materialized. Anne Nelson.
Anne: In terms of the Democrats having any kind of… radio presence that is this uncritical support for Democrats… it doesn't exist.
In 2020, 12 of the top 15 talk radio hosts were conservative. And Rush Limbaugh was still on top.
Nicole: When Rush Limbaugh's unhappy, or was unhappy. Um, Republicans felt the need to make him feel better and quickly.
No Democrat feels that way about Rachel Maddow.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act was an economic decision, not one that regulated content. But in practice, it hit both. It meant that the loudest voices didn’t have to be the most representative ones.
Extreme rhetoric like Rush Limbaugh’s might have remained on the fringes if his ideas and attitudes hadn’t been echoed by host after host on station after station. Because with the infrastructure working in your favor, you can bring the extreme into the mainstream… and make it look organic.
Mike Pence: It's my honor to be with you to celebrate the life and legacy of a truly great American. Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh died of lung cancer in early 2021. And his death inspired a slew of memorials …
Pence: He made us believe in our country, in our values, and in each other…
Including this one from Mike Pence.
Pence: He also inspired a generation of conservatives to take to the airwaves of America just like he did and many others to enter public life, and I know what I'm talking about. In the 1990s, rush inspired me to start a radio broadcast of my own. I used to say I was Rush Limbaugh on decaf.
Mike Gallagher: Hey, Phil. A sad day and a, and a, a voice that will never, ever be replaced.
Phil Boyce: A very sad day, Mike.
In segments dedicated to Limbaugh after his diagnosis and then his death, Salem radio host Mike Gallagher brought on his boss, the architect of the network’s current talk radio programming, who we met in Episode 1… Salem’s senior vice president...Phil Boyce.
It's like the first time you hear Rush, I'll never forget it.
Before Boyce came to Salem, he was program director at WABC in New York, Limbaugh’s home station.
Mike: as his program director. Rush had to be the dream host.
Phil Boyce: He was the dream host… It was like, Eureka, this guy saying what I'm thinking.
Gallagher: Right. Right.
Rush Limbaugh was not the first to do what he did… but he was the right guy at the right time when years of deregulation were coming to a head.
But because the narrative is that conservative talk radio started with Limbaugh and in many ways was Limbaugh a lot of people predicted it would end with Limbaugh, too.
Boyce: I've heard this narrative now several times since Rush has passed… that talk radio is over without Rush Limbaugh…
But as Phil Boyce knows well, radio still has an enormous reach — and today, without Limbaugh on the dial, it's still the case that 12 of the top 15 talk radio hosts are right wing.
Boyce: We will go on, talk radio will go on. Those of us here at the Salem Radio Network, uh, we've built the strongest conservative radio platform on the planet. Uh, you guys are great for morning noon tonight, and, uh, uh, this, this battle will continue.
Next time, on the final episode of The Divided Dial:
VM: You’ve reached Salem Media Group! The leading media corporation serving America’s Christian and conservative communities....
After a lot of unanswered calls, emails, and some rejections, we finally got to hear directly from someone at Salem. Someone with a lot of sway.
Boyce: Hi Katie.
Katie: Hello Mr. Boyce, can you hear me?
I talk to Salem VP Phil Boyce about how Salem is soaring today, what it has in store for the future, and how the company is appealing to unexpected new audiences. And I try to parse whether or not the company’s repeated broadcasting of disinformation, election lies, and conspiracy theories… is legal.
The Divided Dial is written and reported by me, Katie Thornton, and edited by Katya Rogers. We had help from Max Balton and Graham Hacia. 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 final episode of the series wherever you get your podcasts and follow my work on Instagram at @itskatiethornton.
By the way, we really want to hear from you, our listeners. Do you or a loved one have personal experience with ultra conservative or Religious Right radio? If so, we'd love to hear how talk radio has shaped you or your loved one’s politics and relationships. Email us a short voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may use it in a future feature. And thank you so much for listening.