BARK AND BITE
NEWS REPORT We begin this hour with the latest on the mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, we explore how hate speech turns into action.
JO YURCABA Community that is constantly vilified, that experiences violence — you can feel when a tragedy is coming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Speaking of which, have you heard talk radio lately?
CHARLIE KIRK Let's talk about this war on white people. That's a thought crime. Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah. You're obviously welcome to say it here. We agree.
CARL JACKSON 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, it's not. No, it's. Not.
CHARLIE KIRK Drill. Build a Keystone pipeline. Deport illegals, build the wall. I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't want to hear about Biden's overreach. Defy the federal government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems there's a method to the madness or rather the angry-ness. It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Happy Thanksgiving. Even in the worst of times, there's something to be thankful for. I learned this years ago when my large family initiated a family tradition suggested by my niece: go around the table and say what you're thankful for. At first I was pretty snarky. Not so much anymore. Every year we suffer losses. But when you don't focus on what's good, you can forget what to cherish and what to protect. The New York Times noted there'd be lots of empty seats around holiday tables this year, in part because this was a bad year, a bad month for mass shootings.
NEWS REPORT This Thanksgiving, the community in Chesapeake, Virginia, is still grappling with the loss of six lives inside a Walmart Tuesday night.
NEWS REPORT Six people were shot and killed inside of that store. Police say the suspected gunman was also an employee at the store and then turned the gun on himself.
NEWS REPORT In Virginia, the suspect accused of killing three UVA football players and injuring two other students was arraigned in court today. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's one of those issues where reality is so unfathomably divorced from the political rhetoric, it's hard to breathe. Fact: guns and hate are killing the soul of the nation. Take last Saturday.
NEWS REPORT But we begin this hour with the latest on the mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs.
NEWS REPORT A 22-year-old suspect in custody today after police say he opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle in an LGBTQ nightclub. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Robert Fierro, who served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was at Club Q with friends and family to watch his daughter's friend perform. He dragged the gunman down, pistol whipping with the assassin's gun and then called for medics. Reliving the nightmare of combat:
ROBERT FIERRO This whole thing was a lot. My daughter and wife should have never experienced combat in Colorado Springs and everybody in that building experienced combat that night — not to their own accord, but because they were forced to. They had to live with this now through whatever – it's a lot for any human man. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tucker Carlson on FOX News.
TUCKER CARLSON So the most obvious question is why did Anderson Lee Aldridge shoot 30 people? And the truth is, we don't know. We do know he was clearly a troubled person. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Troubled enough, we learned, to threaten their own mother with a homemade bomb last summer. Someone whose parents dabbled in drugs and crime. Someone who, according to their lawyers, used they/them pronouns, now. Someone who spoke disparagingly of gays like their father. So with all that, ‘for the love of God,’ say the right wing pundits – ‘don't let the woke-ists dishonor the memory of the five victims by speculating on why they were singled out for murder.’
TUCKER CARLSON These were human beings. They were Americans. They were not props in a larger ideological war. And to reduce them to that is wrong. That's exactly what many politicians are doing right now. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Carlson again, 3 minutes after scolding others for politicizing the dead.
TUCKER CARLSON Children's Hospital in Boston, one of the most famous hospitals in the world, has admitted performing double mastectomies on children for no medical reason at all. There is no scientific justification for sexually mutilating kids. Is pointing that out an attack on gay people. Of course it is not an attack on gay people, period. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's just say that he didn't know that trans-affirming surgeries are not performed on minors, with very rare exceptions. Let's assume he was somehow ignorant of the alarmingly high rates of suicide, especially among trans youth — rates that increase if they lack the support of their families and communities. Take a breath and assume Tucker doesn't hate, quote, “gays.” He just really cares about the children. The focus of right wing politicians and media on hospitals offering gender-affirming health care has compelled the Children's Hospital of Boston, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to beef up security in the wake of rising threats of violence, bomb scares, and attacks on clinicians and staff. Fox News:
FOX NEWS The Democrats message going into the midterms is ‘Let's neuter your son. He's going through a phase, so cut it off. It's wrong not to. The drag shows, sex changes, and 45 pronouns are now a part of American foreign policy.’ [END CLIP]
FOX NEWS There is a sort of far-left LGBT activist contingent that will stomp over the blood of these dead bodies in order to push their agenda. Whether it is a gun control agenda, whether it is an agenda to bully and shame the people that are speaking up against drag queen story hour, against the sexualisation and grooming of children that is coming from these far left….
FOX NEWS Why do they do this? I mean, why do they play this game? Well, because they know that they can't defend their positions otherwise. They want the kids at the drag shows. They want them in the sex change clinics. But they dare not defend either stance out loud. They can't. So instead, they resort to the worst kind of emotional manipulation. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apparently, Matt Walsh is emotionally manipulated by the sight of blood. But even before Club Q was sprayed with bullets in Colorado Springs, the intensity and volume and vehemence of the rhetoric left some in the LGBTQ community, reporters included, reflecting on a previous tragedy in 2016 — the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando.
NEWS REPORT That mass shooting leaves 50 people dead, 53 others wounded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they were just waiting for another violent inflection point.
JO YURCABA So my colleagues and I have talked about “When is the next Pulse going to happen?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo Yurcaba is a reporter for NBC Out the LGBTQ+ section of NBC News.
JO YURCABA When I was talking to people in Colorado Springs, for example, Parker Gray, who is a trans man who's lived there for about five years, he said something that really struck me. He said, “When you have a community that is constantly vilified, that experiences violence, you can feel when a tragedy is coming.” He told me that the climate there has just been getting increasingly hostile for LGBTQ+ people, in part due to things that are being said at school boards related to, you know, any topic that touches on the LGBTQ+ community or just using the correct pronouns for transgender students. But it's also due to the national climate where we've seen more than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills filed this year and a wave of them over the past two years, and the majority of those targeting trans people in towns like Colorado Springs because it's also next to a military base, it's already more conservative. And so then when you have this national rhetoric coming and influencing that, he said it made him feel less safe going out to a place like Club Q.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And he wasn't the only one.
JO YURCABA No, he's not the only one. I've spoken with a number of people there now who say that they felt the same. I spoke to a trans woman named Elizabeth who said that she had eggs thrown at her. She was attacked after the Uvalde shooting. When there is a false conspiracy theory going around on the Internet that the shooter in that case was a trans woman. But she said, you know, she feels similarly that Colorado Springs isn't very safe. And for her, the case is particularly troubling because she actually moved to Colorado from Texas, hoping to find a more accepting environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's dig into the nature of Colorado and Colorado Springs for a minute. Lauren Boebert is one of Colorado's congressional representatives. She's been way out in the extreme over her disdain for gay rights.
LAUREN BOEBERT It's kind of like what we've been seeing on the national news when a common athlete decides he feels pretty and wants to be a girl, then he can go and beat girls and win national championships. Where is the equality in this legislation for the young girls across America who have to look behind their backs as they change in their school locker rooms. Just to make sure there isn't a confused man trying to catch a peek. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Colorado Springs, where this shooting happened, not only hosts a military base, but also one of the largest mega-churches in the country. I don't know if that's relevant. The city was even called “the evangelical Vatican” at one point. So talk to me first about the environment in Colorado Springs.
JO YURCABA From what I've heard from people there, it really feels like a small town. And as someone who's lived near a military base because my parent was in the military, you just know that it feels much different than anywhere else. It feels like there's this strange underlying current of conservatism of what you'd think of as traditional American values. And then there's also, like you mentioned, the religious environments. That it's home to a large church, and there are actually four anti-LGBTQ hate groups located in Colorado. And so all of that comes together to make a place like Colorado Springs hostile for LGBTQ people. I actually spoke to a poet named James who wrote a poem about Club Q in 2019, and he told me that, you know, being from there, it just never felt like you could really be yourself out in public. We've also heard from people, you know, who say that they're afraid to hold hands with their partner out in public. And so that's why Club Q is really — places like that are so important for the LGBTQ community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Naturally, the school board has been involved. They always seem to be. The vice president of the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education posted transphobic memes on social media. He later apologized. And in Colorado Springs, a transgender girl was kicked out of the homecoming dance because she wore a dress.
JO YURCABA Yeah, and these are a couple of the incidents that people have said have contributed to this climate feeling less safe. We're hearing similar things happening in Texas, in Florida, where the parental rights and education bill or the "Don't Say Gay" bill was passed. So this Colorado Springs is really an example of what we're seeing nationwide too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The state has a kind of liberal reputation. It was among the first to legalize marijuana in ‘75. Colorado had the first county clerk to issue gay marriage licenses. It has some of the best legal access for transgender and non-binary people to update their gender markers on identity documents. And in fact, the Board of Education finalized and improved more inclusive K through 3rd grade social studies standards that will allow mention of the LGBTQ community. So I wonder whether the collision of human rights and far-right politics may have had something to do with this.
JO YURCABA Outside of just the biggest cities in the U.S., you're seeing a huge backlash to LGBTQ people gaining more rights or trans people being able to use the correct bathrooms in school. So what's happening is there are these little bubbles where LGBTQ people feel safe, but as soon as you get out of those cities, you're in communities where this disinformation being spread by the wave of legislation that we're seeing is really taking hold, and people are pushing back on the movement for inclusion and for more rights for LGBTQ+ people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned Parker Gray, who can pass as a cis man. He knows that other people don't have that luxury and they fear walking down the street. And I think many people who may think, oh, well, ‘trans is now a familiar word. People aren't invisible anymore. They're fighting for their rights’ may not realize that 2021 was the deadliest year on record for trans people.
JO YURCABA Yes, exactly. I think that some people, especially living in larger cities, think that trans people would be safer because we have so much more visibility. There are actors like Laverne Cox, Elliot Page, openly trans people who have a lot of visibility. But what's happening is that in response to that, there's been significant pushback from the far right and from people, you know, after marriage equality who think that LGBTQ rights has kind of gone too far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The narratives that we hear, the anti LGBTQ narratives tend to be about how people in that community are dangerous groomers, so they pose a threat both to children and to the culture — that kind of thing. I'm just wondering where they're hearing these narratives, where they're coming from, and what news sources are propagating them. Is it still purely the province of niche right-wing media, or has it begun to filter out?
JO YURCABA Yeah, I think it's absolutely started to filter out. You mentioned Lauren Boebert earlier, and a report earlier cited that she, along with nine other politicians, are driving rhetoric that labels LGBTQ+ people as grooming children. So it's coming from these people who have huge platforms, national platforms, and then the media is reporting on that. And so their messages are getting spread that way. But then we're also seeing increased coverage of, for example, gender-affirming medical care for minors and advocates. And people I speak to every day have told me that what really troubles them is coverage, for example, in The New York Times that paints gender affirming care for minors as something that is debatable, as something where the medical community is split 50/50 and doesn't agree on it, when in reality that isn't accurate. All relevant major medical associations believe that this is necessary care and life saving care. And so this like false narrative in some media sources that's painting it as you know, there's a debate can be really troubling and dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when The New York Times reports on something like this, there are people who legitimately have concerns in certain instances. I mean, is that not true?
JO YURCABA Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. And there are doctors who definitely don't agree with providing gender-affirming care to minors, but they're absolutely in the minority. I've spoken to, you know, dozens of doctors who provide this care, who say that it's been provided for decades, it's backed by research, and that there really isn't a 50/50 type of debate within the medical community. And what's happened is that the small number of people who disagree with it has been distorted by religious groups, by far-right groups, and played up to make it seem like it's more significant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a long time, commentators have characterized mass murders, especially committed by white people, not as a as a mounting threat, but as lone wolves. They're mentally ill. But step back and look at the phenomenon as a whole and maybe a different picture emerges. If they're mentally ill, then it's a national illness of hatred. And you see it normalized through outlets on the radio and TV and the Internet. What do you think, NBC reporter, is the role of media in perpetuating violence against LGBTQ communities? Is it offering a megaphone? Is it funneling that rage? You can't not report on it. That would be a journalistic crime.
JO YURCABA Katie Barnes at ESPN said something to me one time where they were like, you know, I cover all sides of the story. But you also have to clearly show readers, you know, what side has more support for it and what is grounded in science versus, you know, misinformation or religious extremism. And so I think that that is our job. We just need to accurately show, you know, where are these different motivations coming from, why are certain groups supporting different politicians, to really show people how this has come to be rather than just to sort of paint it as ‘there's like a large percentage of people who oppose gender affirming care and a large percentage who support it,’ which isn't an accurate picture. And we also need to give voice to the people who are actually affected. You know, I speak to doctors and trans people all the time who say that they're just shocked by the number of articles that come out that don't quote a single trans person when they're about the health care that trans people receive. So I think centering those voices is also critically important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So where do you think this hatred begins? Let us assume that simply by becoming visible, which is a human right, puts the trans community at risk. So that said, does it begin with the politicians? Does it begin with the media? Is it just a propensity towards fear of others and the human soul?
JO YURCABA Mm hmm. I did an interview with Heron Greensmith, a professor at the Boston University School of Law, and this was months back, about growing anti-trans sentiment and the wave of anti-trans bills and really the root of them. And they told me that all of this is connected to incredibly well-funded religious groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Institute, and that their influence as a result is really powerful. And, I mean, if you take a look at all of the bills attempting to ban gender-affirming medical care for trans minors in the country, the majority of them are titled Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act or the SAFE Act. They all have almost that exact same name. Their text is almost identical, and that's because they've been put together by the same religious groups and passed to Republican legislators in those states. Researchers have said to me that this is a coordinated effort with those groups, and that's where a lot of this is coming from.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo, thank you very much.
JO YURCABA Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jo Yurcaba is a reporter for NBC news where they cover LGBTQ+ issues. Coming up, an original OTM exposé of right wing talk radio. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. When hateful rhetoric spews forth from cable news and Twitter, it's often scrutinized, and fact checked by media watchers and media consumers alike. But there's a medium that confounds and defies such efforts, and it's called talk radio. A Pew study found that around 83% of Americans tune in to terrestrial radio in a given week and that almost as many people get their news via radio than they do from social media. In other words, though it's often overlooked, radio is still very powerful. What follows is episode one of our brand new five part podcast series called The Divided Dial, in which we explore how the right came to dominate talk radio and the rise to power of one company in particular. From its start as a lone Christian teach and talk station to a network of stations and media outlets, and most crucially, to a position of influence in right wing politics. Here's the host of the series, Katie Thornton.
KATIE THORNTON A few weeks after the 2020 election, radio host Eric Metaxas had one of his frequent guests back on the air.
CLIP OF 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.
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: What happens if these people don't join you in this?
CLIP OF DOUG MASTRIANO: You can kiss fair and free elections goodbye.
KATIE THORNTON: Mastriano had a plan to get the state’s General Assembly to intervene in the election results. It was a legal longshot — or, more accurately, an impossibility. Even the plan’s creator, Trump lawyer John Eastman, said it wouldn’t hold up in court. But Metaxas and Mastriano begged listeners to get their Senators on board.
CLIP OF ERIC 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…
CLIP OF DOUG MASTRIANO: Hey sir. I'm here with Eric Metaxas. He wants to know if you want any message to go out on this show today…
KATIE THORNTON: …from lame duck President Donald Trump, seeing how the attempt to change the Pennsylvania election results was going. And Trump was happy to get on speakerphone with Metaxas.
CLIP OF DOUG MASTRIANO: Can you hear him, Eric?
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: Yes I can hear the President. Mr. President, I want to know, what can I do?
CLIP OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: Fantastic. Your whole show and your whole deal is great. So, just keep it up. We’re making a lot of progress, actually.
KATIE THORNTON: With a cleanly parted shock of salt-and-pepper hair, sport coats over button-down shirts, and bookish round glasses, Metaxas’ style suggests more Manhattan dandy than would-be crusader. But when it came to defending Trump’s seat against a supposedly stolen election…Metaxas was ready for battle.
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Thank you, Mr. President. God bless you.
CLIP OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yep. They stole an election, but we’re not going to, we’re just not going to let it happen.
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: 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 US Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
[AMBIENT JAN 6 SHOUTS ]
KATIE THORNTON: Spoiler alert: Metaxas did not die in this fight. But he fired off many of the lies that fueled the attack.
Metaxas is not a fire-breathing talk show host on some fringe local radio station. In fact, there’s a very good chance that his voice floats into your home on invisible radio waves every day — just waiting for you to press a button, turn a dial, and tune him in. His show is beamed from the heart of New York City, out of a corner-office radio studio in the Empire State Building to cities and towns across the United States. One estimate puts his audience at 8 million listeners each week — way more than many of the most popular NPR shows and enough to sell out Madison Square Garden almost 50 times over every single night.
This is The Divided Dial - a five-part podcast series from On the Media about how one side of the political spectrum came to dominate talk radio — and how one company is using the airwaves to launch a right-wing media empire.
I’m Katie Thornton, and I’ve worked and volunteered in radio since I was a teenager, doing everything from hosting music shows, to legal and operational support, to selling ads. I love radio. In an era so driven by distant, virtual connection, it's a medium that is so intimate and immediate — and so inherently local. Delivering information that is relevant to my community. At least in theory.
But flip around through the AM and FM dial and you notice that radio writ large is pretty homogenous. And that’s especially true on talk radio, where one political, and religious, perspective reigns.
CLIP OF UTT: With the Covid plandemic, this has been the biggest global dry run to prepare the world to receive the mark of the beast in the 7 year tribulation in the history of mankind.
CLIP OF BEN SHAPIRO: The vast majority at this point of gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.
CLIP OF CARL JACKSON: Racial profiling is good for your health. It could save your life. I know a lot of people, ‘Oh my God, this was racist.’ No, no it's not. No it's not.
CLIP OF CHARLIE KIRK: Drill. Build a keystone pipeline, deport illegals, build the wall… I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't wanna hear about Biden's Overreach! Defy the federal government!
KATIE THORNTON: I wanted to know how we got to this divided dial, how rhetoric like Metaxas’ — far-right conspiracies and incitements to violence — has found a comfortable home on the public airwaves, and how many talkers who have been deplatformed on social media still have a haven on the radio dial. As it turns out, radio is still really influential, and a crucial component of the American far-right movement — and getting here didn’t happen by accident.
But let me finish telling you about Eric Metaxas.
RADIO CLIP: Welcome, Eric Metaxas…
KATIE THORNTON: To a lot of people who knew him a decade ago, his current role as a spokesperson for election fraud conspiracies and an evangelist for a politicized God who would support going to battle for Donald Trump…came as a surprise.
CLIP OF ERIC 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!…
CLIP OF LARRY THE CUCUMBER: Have we got a show for you!
KATIE THORNTON:…the Evangelical kid’s show featuring talking vegetables and life lessons…
CLIP OF LARRY THE CUCUMBER: We know that God’s word is for everyone, and now that our song is done we’ll take a — hey! That’s cold!
KATIE THORNTON: Metaxas was even a featured speaker at President Barack Obama’s prayer breakfast in 2012.
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: I’m the son of European immigrants who met in an English class in New York City. My mom is German, hence my deep love for 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 “#Trump Bible.” Things like, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. For a season.” And “Jesus went out into the desert. But he should've invested in hotels there. I mean, I'm killing it in Vegas.” #TrumpBible 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.
CLIP OF PHIL BOYCE: How about this? Hey, look, I'm a program director. What do I know about microphones?
KATIE THORNTON: This is Phil Boyce, a talk radio programming veteran, speaking here in 2018 to a group of industry professionals.
CLIP OF 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."
KATIE THORNTON: Boyce was talking about, you guessed it, Donald Trump.
CLIP OF PHIL BOYCE: So we call him the gift that keeps on giving. This guy right here is a game changer for our format. And you can take advantage of this every single day.
KATIE THORNTON: Boyce spent 14 years programming WABC, one of the most listened-to talk radio stations in the country. He discovered Sean Hannity and put him on the air. So he knew how to turn a profit from invective.
CLIP OF 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, and if she had, I was fearful, it was going to be damaging to our format. She might try to hurt talk radio, knowing her. Well guess what? 2017 was a great year because of Donald Trump winning that election.
KATIE THORNTON: That year, Boyce smashed the revenue record for the network he helps run.
CLIP OF SEBASTIAN GORKA: This is America First on the Salem Radio Network, broadcasting across the nation from just outside the insalubrious swamp that is Washington DC.
CLIP OF CHARLIE KIRK: The Salem Radio Network proudly presents our newest nationally syndicated program…
RADIO CLIP: Salem Radio Network…
RADIO CLIP: Live from the Salem Radio Network Studios in Washington, D.C., to officially kick off the Second Amendment march…
KATIE THORNTON: Salem Radio Network is part of the larger Salem Media Group. And Salem just may be the most influential media entity you’ve never heard of. Named after a biblical title for Jerusalem, Salem is the country’s largest conservative, Christian multimedia company. Phil Boyce has overseen all national talk programming there since 2015. In their public filings, they write that they are, quote, “fundamentally committed to programming and content emphasizing Christian values, family themes, and conservative news.” And, that their, quote, “commitment to these values means that we may choose not to switch to other formats or pursue potentially more profitable business opportunities in response to changes in audience preferences.” In other words, Christianity and conservatism — 24/7, 365.
From my home in Minneapolis, I can tune into four different Salem stations. Philadelphians and New Yorkers? You have two apiece. Portland, Oregon has six. Little Rock, Sacramento, Atlanta — four each. Five in Dallas. That’s only a fraction of Salem’s stations. They have conservative talk stations.
RADIO CLIP: On Philadelphia's AM 990 The Answer.
RADIO CLIP: Atlanta’s home for conservative talk
RADIO CLIP: Right here on 1280, The Patriot.
RADIO CLIP: Intelligent radio…
KATIE THORNTON: They have Christian talk stations…
RADIO CLIP: AM 980, The Mission, the Twin City's Christian Voice.
RADIO CLIP: KDAR 98.3AM The Word…
KATIE THORNTON: And Christian music stations.
RADIO CLIP: 104.7 The Fish
KATIE THORNTON: In addition to the stations they own, they syndicate their talk shows on over 3,000 other stations. In some cases they give their shows away in exchange for nothing other than advertising time. So Salem hosts can be heard on stations across the country
One of the first things Phil Boyce did in his new role at Salem was to bring in up-and-coming Evangelical celebrity Eric Metaxas. Metaxas, who’d never worked as a radio host before, was eager. But not long after Boyce hired him, there was a shake-down on the company’s airwaves. Conservative commentator Elisha Krauss was the first to go.
CLIP: She is the former Sean Hannity producer, and also the co-host of “The Answer”…
KATIE THORNTON: She co-hosted the morning show on Salem’s Los Angeles station with Ben Shapiro. Now one of the country’s most popular conservative podcasters. Krauss, then an anti-Trump conservative, said staff pressured her to cover Trump more favorably during the 2016 election. She didn’t, and she said she felt she was fired because of it. The company said it was because she didn’t have great chemistry with one of her co-hosts — who was a very rare liberal voice on the station, but who was also eventually let go. Back in 2016, their other co-host Ben Shapiro didn’t support Trump either. When he sent Phil Boyce an email asking how to cover the candidate, Boyce responded with a message saying Salem didn't have an official position — but that the CEO of the company had argued that beating Hillary would mean supporting Trump.
Boyce wrote, "I suggest that you become a trial lawyer. You suspect your client is guilty, but you are paid to get him off." Shapiro left of his own accord, and the weeding out continued into 2018. Here’s Phil Boyce at that conference again.
CLIP OF PHIL 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's some days he just can't bring himself to say good stuff.
KATIE THORNTON: A few years earlier, former Republican congressman and Salem host Joe Walsh had suggested that President Obama and BLM activists were to blame for a lone gunman’s murder of five police officers. His tweet read, “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” But he was fickle on Trump.
PHIL BOYCE: And I said, what are you doing? Your listeners rely on us. We are the antidote to the mainstream media. If you align yourself with them, you'll eventually lose.
KATIE THORNTON: Salem pulled the plug on Walsh’s show shortly after — though they said it wasn’t because of his stance on Trump. That same year, host Michael Medved — also an anti-Trump conservative, and who had been with Salem for more than 20 years — was let go, too. Salem said it wasn’t because of his politics. But a lot of company staff who were fired around this time went on the record saying there was a purge of anti-Trumpers at Salem.
Eric Metaxas, though, was safe. Despite his earlier wavering, by 2016 he was committed to the Salem company line, even writing an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal arguing that Christians needed to throw their support behind Donald Trump.
CLIP OF ERIC METAXAS: If you care about America, sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for the person who's going to do the least damage or who's going to maybe pull you back from the brink. I'm genuinely convinced that that means voting for Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Metaxas was an early recruit to Phil Boyce's new national radio team, but there were more to come. After the break, we meet the lineup. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We're listening to part 2 of a new OTM series called The Divided Dial, hosted by Katie Thornton.
KATIE THORNTON: And I was about to introduce you to the lineup.
CLIP OF SEBASTIAN GORKA: The number is 833-33-GORKA but don’t call us on a cell phone that is 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 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.
CLIP OF CHARLIE KIRK : Let's talk about this war on white people. That's a thought crime, Douglas… You're not allowed to say that; you're obviously welcome to say it here. We agree.
KATIE THORNTON: Kirk runs the ultra-conservative, anti-higher-ed youth organization Turning Point USA. Boyce brought him on in mid-2020. Along with longstanding Salem hosts Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, and Mike Gallagher, these new voices make up the core of Salem’s national talent — a sort of B-list of right-wing celebrities who don’t get reported on in the same way that your Alex Joneses or your Tucker Carlsons do.
And by the time the 2020 election season came around, listeners across the country heard a unified message from Donald Trump and Salem talkers alike.
CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP: This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. All run by Democrats. It’s a rigged election.
CLIP OF CHARLIE 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.
CLIP OF CHARLIE 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.
CLIP OF SEBASTIAN GORKA: Those who elect our representatives and our senators have had enough and they are in their house. Should I feel guilty for feeling good?!
KATIE THORNTON: As protesters poured into the rotunda, Salem host Sebastian Gorka celebrated live on the air.
CLIP OF SEBASTIAN GORKA: As we saw a protester just moments ago on television say to the shock and the chagrin of Fox News, “That's our house. It's not the Senator’s! It's not Nancy Pelosi's! It's not Chuck Schumer's!” God willing it will continue to be peaceful, but a message has been sent…
KATIE THORNTON: It’s hard to remember now, but right after January 6th, there was a brief moment of almost unity. Even many in the broader right-wing media ecosystem, like hosts on Fox News, said that maybe the falsehoods about the election had gone too far.
CLIP OF 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 whether those who did it think the election was stolen.
KATIE THORNTON: Though no one from the company confirmed it, there were reports that Cumulus, one of the biggest radio chains in the country, with tons of conservative talkers, sent a memo to their hosts.
It said, “the election is over. If you suggest otherwise, you can expect to be fired.” People in the radio world speculated that Cumulus was worried about losing advertisers.
Because in commercial radio, the threat of an ad boycott looms large. But Salem is different. Nearly half of their radio income comes from paid programming — mostly conservative Christian ministries that run on their Christian talk stations. And the overwhelming majority of those programs — more than 95% — come back year after year, even as prices go up. So Salem doesn’t have to be so concerned with placating advertisers.
At Salem, there was no January 6th memo. The lies about the stolen election continued. And soon, the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem caught up with Salem followed closely by a large contingent of the Republican party. This midterm season, well over half of all Americans had a 2020 election denier on their ballot. And while they didn’t all perform as well as many on the right hoped, their influence is not going away. At least 170 of those candidates were elected to state and national offices. Some of those winners will be in charge of future elections.
Throughout their campaigns, some of those candidates had been cited a key piece of “evidence” for their claims about the stolen election; evidence brought to the public by Salem Media.
CLIP OF DINESH D’SOUZA: We must now face the chilling reality. The Democrats conceived the heist. They funded it; they organized it. Then they carried it out.
KATIE THORNTON: In May of this year, Salem released a film hosted by far-right activist Dinesh D’Souza.
CLIP OF DINESH D’SOUZA: They rigged and stole the 2020 presidential election. We cannot be okay with this. We cannot simply move on.
KATIE THORNTON: You remember D’Souza. He was convicted of felony campaign finance fraud for making campaign contributions in other people’s names — but was pardoned by Trump. The film, 2,000 Mules, claims to “prove'' election fraud in 2020. It relies on cell phone geotracking data that they say identifies over 2,000 people in five key states who made multiple trips to unnamed “nonprofits” which were quote, “stash houses” for fraudulent ballots. Then, allegedly, those mules went to drop boxes.
CLIP OF 2000 MULES: What you are seeing is a crime. These are fraudulent votes.
KATIE THORNTON: The movie is rife with shortcomings and outright falsehoods. For one, they repeatedly say that they have video footage of the same individuals going to multiple drop boxes to drop off fistfuls of ballots.
CLIP OF 2000 MULES: This particular individual we have in a number of different locations and a number of different times, he's actually a mule.
KATIE THORNTON: …but they never show it. Tech experts have said that our phone’s geotracking is not precise enough to tell if someone went up to a drop box, or just walked by one. They are in highly trafficked areas. State Bureaus of Investigation actually did look into some of the cases the film showed — and they found no wrongdoing.
Regardless, the film was a hit. Trump himself held an early screening at Mar-a-Lago, where the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rudy Giuliani, and Kenosha, Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse all came to watch. 2,00 Mules has a 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes! In a moment when election fraud conspiracies had finally broken through to the national stage, 2,000 Mules gave supposed “evidence.” And it applauds those who stood behind the lie.
CLIP OF 2000 MULES: And therefore, does it follow that the people who suspected fraud, even though they didn't have the proof, their suspicion was right.
CLIP OF 2000 MULES: Absolutely. Their instincts were right.
KATIE THORNTON: According to Salem, the film grossed $10 million in under two weeks. Nearly two months after it came out, when I made an account with Truth Social, Trump’s alternative to Twitter, Dinesh D’Souza was second only to Trump in my list of recommended accounts to follow.
Last year, Salem launched their own podcast network, and the Dinesh D’Souza Podcast was their debut feature. They’ve added over a dozen daily conservative podcasts since then — often featuring young hosts who vie for a new generation of listeners. And now every Salem radio host has a Salem podcast, too.
Those radio hosts can also be found as talking heads on the company’s new 24/7 internet television station, Salem News Channel, which they launched this summer. Salem also has their own movie streaming service and production house. A rapidly growing conservative Christian influencer network, a series of Christian websites like Christianity.com and GodTube, and a long running conservative publishing house called Regnery. They even run a service that sells sermons to pastors. And for over a decade they’ve been quietly purchasing some of the biggest conservative “news” sites: Townhall, Hot Air, and Red State.
But for all of Salem’s varied media strategies, broadcast radio is still central to their operations. According to Nielsen, broadcast radio has a higher reach than television. Pew research says it's nearly neck and neck with social media for how Americans get their news.
Surveys repeatedly show that Americans trust radio over any other medium.
And that's why we'll be focusing our investigation in the coming episodes of this podcast series — on the airwaves.
NICOLE HEMMER: Radio is a sort of perfect medium for the spread of misinformation
KATIE THORNTON: This is Nicole Hemmer. She’s a historian and scholar of conservative media. We’re going to be hearing a lot from her throughout this series.
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.
CLIP OF PHIL BOYCE: Remember with social media, anything you say can and will be used against you.
KATIE THORNTON: Salem VP, Phil Boyce.
CLIP OF PHIL BOYCE: It's almost better to say it on the air than to post it in a Tweet because you post it in a Tweet, it's out there for the end of time. You say it on the air, maybe they didn't hear it.
KATIE THORNTON: A single talk radio host goes on the air for hours every day. That’s a lot harder to cull through than 280-character tweets. Radio is hard to parse, hard to clip, hard to share, and not particularly glamorous to report on. It’s seen as the cast-aside, no-big-deal medium only us “flyovers” in middle America have to contend with.
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.
KATIE THORNTON: Next time on The Divided Dial… We dive into Salem’s history and find out that the company has deep ties to the Republican party. And thanks to their involvement with a secretive group of Evangelical and conservative leaders, they are tightly networked with right-wing political strategists, pollsters, and big donors.
CLIP OF ANNE NELSON: It began when these brothers in law, acquired a radio station in Bakersfield, California...
CLIP OF ADAM PIORE: I was looking at major campaign donors... for George Bush, I kept seeing Salem communications.
CLIP OF PASSION OF THE CHRIST PROTESTER: Anybody who mocks the crucifixion will burn in hell.
CLIP OF PAUL WEYRICH: How many of our Christians have what I call the Gogo Syndrome, good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Divided Dial is a five part podcast series hosted by Katie Thornton and edited by OTMs executive producer Katya Rogers. Sound Design and Original Music is by Jarrett Paul Production Help and Max Balton and Fact Checking by Tom Collagen. The series technical director is OTMs, Jennifer Munson. The series received support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Go to the On the Media podcast, feed wherever you listen to podcasts and make sure you don't miss any of the upcoming episodes.
On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lily. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.