The Most Influential Christian Talk Radio Network You've Probably Never Heard of
Brooke Gladstone From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Are you one of our million something listeners a week who catch OTM on the radio? Do you listen to any other stations on the dial other than public radio? Because a lot of people are listening to the radio and they're tuning in in huge numbers and the content is almost all conservative.
Radio Clip The vast majority at this point, gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.
Radio Clip Racial profiling is good for your health. It could save your life. I know a lot of people. Oh, my God, this is racist. No, no, no, no. It's not.
Radio Clip Drill. Build the Keystone pipeline. Deport illegals. Build the wall. I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't want to hear about Biden's overreach. Defy the federal government.
Brooke Gladstone While engaged media consumers may fret over who said what on Twitter or video clips of the latest Fox hosts outrages --- is anyone paying close attention to the radio waves?
Nicole 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.
Brooke Gladstone Nicole Hemmer is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
Nicole 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.
Brooke Gladstone It can move the political needle across the country. And that's why On the Media decided to investigate the most powerful Christian media company you probably never heard of and how the landscape of talk radio came to be so politically one sided. Our guide on this expedition is reporter Katie Thornton. Here's Katie.
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 Battle What happens if these people don't join you in this? 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 the 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 get on speaker phone with Metaxas.
Mastriano Can you hear me?
Metaxas Yes, I can hear the president. Mr. President, I want to know, what can I do? Fantastic. You sing your whole show and your whole deal is great. So just keep it up. We're making a lot of progress…
Katie Thornton With a cleanly parted shock of salt and pepper hair, sports coats over button down shirts and bookish round glasses. METAXAS His 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 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 You know, it's a stolen election, but we're not going to. We're just stuck in it. No, we're not.
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 U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
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. His show is beamed from the heart of New York City out of a corner office radio studio in the Empire State Building, two cities and towns across the United States. One estimate puts his audience at 8 million listeners each week. 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 a distant virtual connection. It's a medium that's so intimate and immediate and so inherently local, delivering information that's relevant to my community, at least in theory. But flip around through the 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. I wanted to know how we got to this divided dial, how rhetoric like metastases, far right conspiracies and incitement 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.
Katie Thornton To a lot of people who knew him a decade ago, his current role as 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.
Veggie Tales Have we got a show for you!
Katie Thornton The Evangelical Kids show featuring talking vegetables and life lessons.
Veggie Tales We know that God's Word is for everyone, and now they're gone. Then we'll take.
Katie Thornton Metaxas was even a featured speaker at President Barack Obama's prayer breakfast in 2012.
Metaxas On the son of European immigrants who met in an English class in New York City. My mom is German, hence my deep love for Siegfried and Roy.
Katie Thornton Two years later, he came out with one of the Wall Street Journal's most engaged with articles ever called 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 Jesus went out into the desert. But he should have 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 programing veteran speaking here in 2018 to a group of industry professionals.
Phil 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 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 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 programing there since 2015. From my home in Minneapolis, I can tune in to four different Salem stations, Philadelphians and New Yorkers. You have two apiece. Portland, Oregon has six. Little Rock, Sacramento, Atlanta, four each, five and Dallas. And that's only a fraction of Salem 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.
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, Salem syndicates, their talk shows on over 3000 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 shakeup on the company's airwaves. Conservative commentator Alicia Krauss was the first to go.
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, and 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 understood that Trump is good for our audience, but there are some days he just can't bring himself to say good stuff.
Katie Thornton Former Republican congressman and Salem host Joe Walsh 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 to 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 is means voting for Trump. It doesn't mean that I think.
Katie Thornton Metaxas was an early recruit to Voice's new national radio team. But there were more to come. After the break, we meet the lineup.
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Before the break, we learned that Salem CEO Phil Boyce had cleaned house and was replacing old hosts with new ones. And let's meet the lineup.
GORKA: The number is 833-33-GORKA but don’t call us on a cell phone that's connected to one of the big cell phone providers because they are utterly woke and they hate you.
Katie Thornton Sebastian Gorka host since 2019. He was an anti-terrorism adviser to President Trump but failed to get the necessary clearance to actually work on national security issues. He's been shown to have ties to a Hungarian far right neo-Nazi group. That's 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. You're not allowed to say, Oh, yeah, Yeah. 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 long standing Salem host 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 the same way your Alex JonesES is or your Tucker Carlson's 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.
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. As protesters poured into the rotunda. Salem host Sebastian Gorka celebrated live on the 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.
Katie Thornton It's hard to remember now, but right after January six, 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. At Salem, there was no January six 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. In the midterms last fall, well over half of all Americans had a 2020 election denier on their ballot. At least 170 of those candidates were elected to state and national offices. Some of those winners will be in charge of future elections. A favorite piece of evidence of election deniers was brought to the public by Salem Media.
Dinesh D’Souza We must now face the chilling reality. The Democrats conceived the highest. They funded it, They organized it. Then they carried it out.
Katie Thornton In May of last 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 The film 2000 Mules claims to prove election fraud in 2020. The movie is rife with shortcomings and outright falsehoods. 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. 2000 Mules has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, according to Salem. The film grossed $10 million in under two weeks. In 2021, 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 vie for a new generation of listeners. Every Salem radio host can also be found as talking heads on the company's new 24 seven Internet television station Salem News Channel, which they launched a couple of years ago. 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, Tor.com and God Tube 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 Town Hall, Hot Air and RedState. 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 over any other medium. Now that I've brought you up to speed on where Salem is today, let's go back to where they started. Oh. 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.
Radio Clip What do you do, everybody?
Katie Thornton And convinced his parents to get a mail order. Montgomery Ward Radio.
Radio Clip Set your Grand Ole Opry without power.
Katie Thornton 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 shutter on windy days, but the rudimentary generator worked.
Radio Clip God was on the shoes on. God. Meyers sitting down, having a good time tonight.
Katie Thornton 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.
Radio Clip Friends, come with us again to the Grand Ole Opry House and join in another half hour of fun music and song.
Katie Thornton 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 is a reporter who has written several lengthy articles about Salem Media over the years.
Piore During World War Two, 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.
Katie Thornton Just two years after getting hooked up to the grid, the person's 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 Appleton's living room and the local airwaves with what they called hillbillery.
Music Johnson had it all gravy with a name of Sam Slick invited out in the back, and Howard would kick.
Katie Thornton The family would take the mic.
Radio Clip Okay. Thanks a lot. That was Mother, who is also known as major daycare. And we appreciate that expression.
Katie Thornton And preachers were invited to sermons to unseen congregants within the station's reach. It was the essence of a community radio station, homegrown and accessible, beloved, a little haphazard. And it must have 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 ad singer, 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.
Katie Thornton 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.
Nelson These brothers in law acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California. It was almost like a patch of the South that was detached and set down north of Los Angeles.
Katie Thornton Bakersfield had been a sort of southern outpost since the days of the dustbowl, when farm workers from Oklahoma and other southern states fled there. But Epperson and Ad Singer 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, KTAR, in Oxnard, California, just outside Los Angeles.
Piore They realized that Christians wanted a platform where they could tune in and listen to people talk about biblical truths and their beliefs. And it's there that they began developing the formula that they would later replicate so successfully.
Katie Thornton At the time, a lot of 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 programing. But Epperson and Atsinger did something different. They got commercial licenses, meaning they could sell airtime.
Nelson And they found they could charge these preachers a fairly substantial fee for carrying their programs.
Katie Thornton 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.
[Early “Grace to You” Sermons]
Nelson And this was promoting these very conservative social values, anti LGBT.
Nelson Favoring Christianity over other religions.
Katie Thornton But for many who grew up with these radio broadcasts, they were more than just socially conservative messages.
John Fea My father, he was a contractor, so he was in the truck all day and had his radio locked into Christian radio.
Katie Thornton 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.
Fea Someone look at this as kind of crazy, right? Like, who does this? Who cranks, you know, John MacArthur at maximum volume in the middle of a construction site or whatever you want.
Katie Thornton MacArthur is a minister who started on Salem's Oxnard Station in 1977.
Fea The idea here is if you're playing it on 11, you know, with the doors open in the truck, people are hearing that was a way of living out your faith. What are the key components of evangelical Christianity? Is evangelism, right? Sharing one's faith.
Katie Thornton 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 fear household, the broadcast communicated another message.
Fea 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, you know, his will in the family. He was doing it well before he became an evangelical Christian. So when James Dobson came along and said, Hey, yeah, you have authority, right? People must submit to you, but you have to be a person of God that people want to submit to. 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.
Katie Thornton Salem's co-founders were out to save souls, so the more people they could reach, the better.
Piore Their big breakthrough was when they acquired Kayleigh, which was a thousand times more powerful, and then one in Oxnard. And once they had this blue chip Los Angeles area station as collateral, they could get a lot bigger loans. From 86 to 1990. They moved into Chicago, bought two stations in Portland, one in San Diego. They got a strong signal in New York City.
Katie Thornton In a handful of years, Salem more than doubled their stations and they started producing their own religious shows, too. This way, they could use their own programs to fill the airtime that 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.
Piore They would tape shows at K Clay and they feed them out to affiliates, offering the company a big advantage over single operators.
Katie Thornton And to drive home just how much this business model worked for them. Let me tell you about that big New York City station they bought.
Radio Clip WMCA the home of the good guys.
Katie Thornton 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 programing 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.
Brooke Gladstone That's coming up after the break. This is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. We've heard how Salem went from a single station to a growing network. Now let's dive into a nascent political movement that was also gathering momentum. Here's Katie.
Katie Thornton In the early 1970s in Washington, D.C., a young Republican activist named Paul Weyrich was at his wit's 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 failing 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.
Katie Thornton This is Weyrich reflecting on his life’s work in a 2005 interview with C-SPAN.
Weyrich: And I said the party ought to come out really against that. And he said, oh, why would we want to mix up the party? And that kind of an issue? And I said, Well, because it's wrong.
Katie Thornton 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 said that the decision to end the pregnancy during the first three months belongs to the woman and her doctor, not the government.
Katie Thornton 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. And Nelson.
Nelson But in terms of the Protestants and even the conservative sects, like the Southern Baptists, 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.
Katie Thornton 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.
Nelson When the schools were integrated over the objections of certain communities, let us go to our neighborhoods where they opened what they called Christian schools, also known as segregation academies, and offered the so-called religious education as an opportunity for white students to go to school without any black students.
Katie Thornton Citing freedom of religion. Some religious groups created nonprofit 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 Everson and Edward AtSinger's alma mater, Bob Jones University.
Nelson 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.
Katie Thornton 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 this as 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 hit the anger over the school fight to another, more palatable cause abortion.
Nelson Once abortion became legal and available, the numbers rose precipitously. People looked at the number of abortions and a lot of people found it concerning.
Katie Thornton Catholics, many of whom were long opposed to abortion. Spent the eve of the 1978 midterm elections leafleting church parking lots in three states Iowa, New Hampshire and my home of Minnesota, trying to get voters out for anti-abortion Senate candidates there. And it worked in a low turnout election, those candidates won.
Katie Thornton 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.
Clip We have killing quotas for 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?
Katie Thornton 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. Reverend chairman often considered the first large gathering of the new religious right.
Ronald Reagan I know this is a nonpartizan gathering, and so I know that you can't endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.
Katie Thornton The candidate didn't mention abortion at all. But he did mention the IRS censure of independent schools.
Nelson 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.
Katie Thornton In this burgeoning fusion of politics and religion, policies trumped faith. Reagan was given a pass.
Katie Thornton 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.
Nelson The Council for National Policy was founded as a very secretive organization that networked big donors, political strategists and media operators.
Katie Thornton 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 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 Ad Singer. 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. Why Rick 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 channel for the new religious right and a way to help the CFP reach a very specific constituency.
Nelson You could go after older white Protestant voters, and if you 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 strategic elections.
Katie Thornton Strategic is the key word here, not widespread. Get out the vote efforts.
Weyrich How many of our Christians have what I call the Goo Goo syndrome --- good government. They want everybody to vote.
Katie Thornton Weyrich explained his strategy in a speech he gave to evangelical leaders in 1980.
Weyrich 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.
Katie Thornton 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. When we left the Salem story, Epperson, an ad singer, had developed a solid business model unencumbered by audience preferences 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-1980s. Meanwhile, the on-air content was getting more political to 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.
Piori The Fairness Doctrine required that you give airtime to opposing views.
Katie Thornton Reporter Adam Piori
Piori Which of course limited Salem's ability to talk about abortion and homosexuality and many of the hot button issues that they care about.
Katie Thornton 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. But the Fairness Doctrine was declared dead by Reagan's FCC.
Piori And once that was lifted, they were able to opine on those positions all the time.
Katie Thornton For an increasingly politicized Salem. The end of the Fairness Doctrine was a godsend.
Speaker 7 Terry Fahy, who was the manager for KLR, the big L.A. station, was telling me he recognized the power that they had after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. When Martin Scorsese used The Last Temptation of Christ hit the theaters in 1988.
Katie Thornton Many evangelicals were upset with how the film portrayed Jesus. They felt he wasn't Christ liked enough.
Piori KKLA spearheaded a demonstration at AMC Universal Studios. Protesters mobbed the entrance, waving signs.
Protester Anybody who mocks the crucifixion will burn in hell.
Piori They blocked Route 101. Tens of thousands of people participated in protests at theaters and video stores nationwide. And that was when they realized that the radio station did have the ability to mobilize.
Katie Thornton In the 1990s, Salem announced a major change to their mission.
Radio Clip: A station that covers the current news in-depth and then gives you a chance to talk about it at all times of the day, 24 hours a day.
Katie Thornton In 1995, they officially expanded from pulpit to politics.
Radio Clip: So let me introduce you to that station. The all new AM 1280 wwt C or as we around here are going to call it the Patriot, more power than a Tomahawk cruise missile AM 1282 The Patriot!
Katie Thornton 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 ever more ideological company, and it made good business sense, too.
Piori they surveyed their listenership and asked their listeners who were listening to the sermons where they were turning the dial after they found them turning the dial on the talk radio. When people like Rush Limbaugh.
Katie Thornton 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.
Katie Thornton 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.
Piori These are all hosts who are sort of unified in their belief that the secularism that has led into mainstream America, that we've kind of lost something that we've lost, our moral compass has started ever since, put it.
Katie Thornton 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 at Sanger and to the Council for National Policy were doing behind the scenes. And Salem kept buying up frequencies.
Piori At a certain point, they began bumping up against FCC laws, limiting the number of stations any one company could own nationwide in each market.
Katie Thornton Since the 1940s, the FCC had laws to ensure that no one company could grow too large. But then in February of 1996.
Bill Clinton Today, with the stroke of the pen, our laws will catch up with our future.
Katie Thornton President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act.
Clinton I thank the vast array of interest groups who had sometimes conflicting concerns about this bill, who were able to work together.
Katie Thornton And among the many things it did was eliminate the cap on the number of stations a single radio chain could open nationwide. Salem gave money to lobby for the bill, and between 1994 and 2005, Salem grew from 18 stations to 103. All the while, the company's founders were rising in the Council for National Policy. By the early 20 tens, both Stewart Apperson and Edward Ad Singer were in leadership positions. In 2014, Apperson was president of the CFP, 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 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.
Brooke Gladstone Next week, we take a detour from Salem's story to look at the landscape of talk radio writ large and shine a light on the bigger history of the ascendancy of the right on the air. Because as of today, 17 of the nation's top 20 most listened to talk radio hosts are conservative. Only one is progressive. How did the public's airwaves come to be so politically lopsided?
Brooke Gladstone This week's show was written and reported by Katie Thornton with production help from Max Balton and fact checking by Tom Colligen and Sona Avakian. Music and sound design is by Jared Paul. Jennifer Munson is her technical director. The show is edited by OTM executive producer Katya Rogers. This series is a production of On the Media and WNYC Studios with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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