The True Believers: Part 1
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.
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.
ERIC METAXAS: What happens if these people don't join you in this?
DOUG MASTRIANO: You can kiss fair and free elections goodbye.
KATIE THORNTON: Mastriano had a plan to get the state’s General Assembly to intervene in the election results. It was a legal longshot — or, more accurately, an impossibility. Even the plan’s creator, Trump lawyer John Eastman, said it wouldn’t hold up in court. But Metaxas and Mastriano begged listeners to get their Senators on board.
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…
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 go on speakerphone with Metaxas.
DOUG MASTRIANO: Can you hear him, Eric?
ERIC METAXAS: Yes I can hear the President. Mr. President, I want to know, what can I do?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Fantastic. Your whole show and your whole deal is great. So, just keep it up. We’re making a lot of progress, actually.
KATIE THORNTON: With a cleanly parted shock of salt-and-pepper hair, sport coats over button-down shirts, and bookish round glasses, Metaxas’ style suggests more Manhattan dandy than would-be crusader. But when it came to defending Trump’s seat against a supposedly stolen election…Metaxas was ready for battle.
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.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yep. They stole an election, but we’re not going to, we’re just not going to let it happen.
ERIC METAXAS: No, we’re not. [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: A fight for everything — with God on our side. A fight… worth dying for. It’s a sentiment that many on the right became convinced of... and that some took to the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
[AMBIENT JAN 6 SHOUTS ]
KATIE THORNTON: Spoiler alert: Metaxas did not die in this fight. But he fired off many of the lies that fueled the attack.
Metaxas is not a fire-breathing talk show host on some fringe local radio station. In fact, there’s a very good chance that his voice floats into your home on invisible radio waves every day; just waiting for you to press a button, turn a dial, and tune him in. His show is beamed from the heart of New York City, out of a corner-office radio studio in the Empire State Building — to cities and towns across the United States. One estimate puts his audience at 8 million listeners each week — way more than many of the most popular NPR shows, and enough to sell out Madison Square Garden almost 50 times over, every single night.
This is the Divided Dial - a five-part podcast series from On the Media about how one side of the political spectrum came to dominate talk radio — and how one company is using the airwaves to launch a right-wing media empire.
I’m Katie Thornton and I’ve worked and volunteered in radio since I was a teenager, doing everything from hosting music shows, to legal and operational support, to selling ads. I love radio. In an era so driven by distant, virtual connection, it's a medium that is so intimate and immediate — and so inherently local. Delivering information that is relevant to my community. At least… in theory…
But flip around through the AM and FM dial and you notice that radio writ large is pretty homogenous. And that’s especially true on talk radio, where one political, and religious, perspective reigns.
UTT: With the Covid plandemic, this has been the biggest global dry run to prepare the world to receive the mark of the beast in the 7 year tribulation in the history of mankind.
BEN SHAPIRO: The vast majority at this point of gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.
CARL JACKSON: Racial profiling is good for your health. It could save your life. I know a lot of people, Oh my God, this was racist. No, no it's not. No it's not.
CHARLIE KIRK: Drill. Build a keystone pipeline, deport illegals, build the wall… I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't wanna hear about Biden's Overreach… Defy the federal government.
KATIE THORNTON: I wanted to know how we got to this divided dial. How rhetoric like Metaxas’ — far-right conspiracies and incitements to violence — has found a comfortable home on the public airwaves. And how many talkers who have been deplatformed on social media still have a haven on the radio dial. As it turns out, radio is still really influential, and a crucial component of the American far-right movement. And getting here didn’t happen by accident.
But let me finish telling you about Eric Metaxas.
HOST: Welcome, Eric Metaxas… [clapping]
KATIE THORNTON: To a lot of people who knew him a decade ago, his current role as a spokesperson for election fraud conspiracies and an evangelist for a politicized God who would support going to battle for Donald Trump…came as a surprise.
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!…
LARRY THE CUCUMBER: Have we got a show for you!
KATIE THORNTON:…the Evangelical kid’s show featuring talking vegetables and life lessons…
LARRY THE CUCUMBER: We know that God’s word is for everyone, and now that our song is done we’ll take a — hey! That’s cold!
KATIE THORNTON: Metaxas was even a featured speaker at President Barack Obama’s prayer breakfast in 2012.
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 “hashtag Trump Bible.” Things like, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. For a season.” And “Jesus went out into the desert. But he should've invested in hotels there. I mean, I'm killing it in Vegas.” “Trump Bible” was featured twice in the New Yorker.
But as the 2016 election season bore on, Metaxas changed his tune. And it all started not long after he was recruited to have a radio show… by this guy.
PHIL BOYCE: How about this? Hey, look, I'm a program director. What do I know about microphones?
KATIE THORNTON: This is Phil Boyce — a talk radio programming veteran, speaking here in 2018 to a group of industry professionals.
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: So we call him the gift that keeps on giving. This guy right here is a game changer for our format. And you can take advantage of this every single day.
KATIE THORNTON: Boyce spent 14 years programming WABC, one of the most listened-to talk radio stations in the country. He discovered Sean Hannity and put him on the air. So he knew how to turn a profit from invective.
PHIL BOYCE: I'm sitting there in November of 2016, thinking it's all over for me. I really thought Hilary was gonna win… How many of you thought Hillary was gonna win? Come on, be honest. Okay, and if she had, I was fearful, it was going to be damaging to our format. She might try to hurt talk radio, knowing her… Well guess what? 2017 was a great year because of Donald Trump winning that election.
KATIE THORNTON: That year, Boyce smashed the revenue record for the network he helps run.
SEBASTIAN GORKA: This is America First on the Salem Radio Network, broadcasting across the nation from just outside the insalubrious swamp that is Washington DC.
CHARLIE KIRK: The Salem Radio Network proudly presents our newest nationally syndicated program…
RADIO: Salem Radio Network…
RADIO: Live from the Salem Radio Network Studios in Washington, D.C., to officially kick off the Second Amendment march…[END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: Salem Radio Network is part of the larger Salem Media Group. And Salem just may be the most influential media entity you’ve never heard of. Named after a biblical title for Jerusalem, Salem is the country’s largest conservative, Christian multimedia company. Phil Boyce has overseen all national talk programming there since 2015. In their public filings, they write that they are, quote, “fundamentally committed to programming and content emphasizing Christian values, family themes, and conservative news.” And, that their quote, “commitment to these values means that we may choose not to switch to other formats or pursue potentially more profitable business opportunities in response to changes in audience preferences.” In other words; Christianity and conservatism, 24/7. 365.
From my home in Minneapolis, I can tune into four different Salem stations. Philadelphians and New Yorkers? You have two 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: On Philadelphia's AM 990 The Answer.
RADIO: Atlanta’s home for conservative talk
RADIO: Right here on 1280, The Patriot.
RADIO: Intelligent radio… [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: They have Christian talk stations…
RADIO: AM 980, The Mission, the Twin City's Christian Voice.
RADIO: KDAR 98.3AM THE WORD, you are on the Men Show [END CLIP]
KATIE THORNTON: And Christian music stations.
RADIO: 104.7 The Fish!
KATIE THORNTON: In addition to the stations they own, they syndicate their talk shows on over 3,000 other stations. In some cases they give their shows away in exchange for nothing other than advertising time. So Salem hosts can be heard on stations across the country
One of the first things Phil Boyce did in his new role at Salem was to bring in up-and-coming Evangelical celebrity Eric Metaxas. Metaxas, who’d never worked as a radio host before, was eager. But not long after Boyce hired him, there was a shake-down on the company’s airwaves. Conservative commentator Elisha Krauss was the first to go.
HOST: She is the former Sean Hannity producer, and also the co-host of “The Answer”…
KATIE THORNTON: She co-hosted the morning show on Salem’s Los Angeles station with Ben Shapiro. Now one of the country’s most popular conservative podcasters. Krauss, then an anti-Trump conservative, said staff pressured her to cover Trump more favorably during the 2016 election. She didn’t, and she said she felt she was fired because of it. The company said it was because she didn’t have great chemistry with one of her co-hosts — who was a very rare liberal voice on the station, but who was also eventually let go. Back in 2016, their other co-host Ben Shapiro didn’t support Trump either. When he sent Phil Boyce an email asking how to cover the candidate, Boyce responded with a message saying Salem didn't have an official position — but that the CEO of the company had argued that beating Hillary would mean supporting Trump.
Boyce wrote, "I suggest that you become a trial lawyer. You suspect your client is guilty, but you are paid to get him off." Shapiro left of his own accord. The weeding out continued into 2018. Here’s Phil Boyce at that conference again.
PHIL BOYCE: I've got a host right now. I'm coaching him out of bad habits. He, he, he understood that Trump is, is good for our audience, but there's some days he just can't bring himself to say good stuff.
KATIE THORNTON: A few years earlier, former republican congressman and Salem host Joe Walsh had suggested that President Obama and BLM activists were to blame for a lone gunman’s murder of five police officers. His tweet read, “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” But he was fickle on Trump.
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.
ERIC METAXAS: If you care about America, you sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for the person who's going to do the least damage or who's going to maybe pull you back from the brink. I'm genuinely convinced that that means voting for Trump.
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.