Matt Katz: It's The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz, in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Today, election deniers and far right conspiracies made themselves at home on talk radio shows and it's largely thanks to one company.
Katie Thornton: Salem Radio Network is part of the larger Salem Media Group. Salem just may be the most influential media entity you've never heard of. My name is Katie Thornton. I am a freelance reporter out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Matt Katz: Katie is the host of a new five-part series from our friends at On The Media, The Divided Dial. Salem Radio Network programming is heard on thousands of local stations across the country, even more than two of the biggest public radio organizations combined, National Public Radio and PRX, which co-produces The Takeaway. Of course, I have to ask, why do we know so little about Salem Media Group?
Katie Thornton: I think one of the reasons that they often get overlooked is because their bread and butter is really AM and FM radio. They started as a small Christian radio chain and they have grown into really this powerhouse in not just politically leaning Christian talk radio, but secular talk radio as well. They have some Christian music stations. They have such a secure base on the radio, it's really a good financial proposition for them.
They've used that base to launch a multimedia empire that a lot of people haven't heard of. They own a lot of the leading conservative news sites, Red State, Hot Air. They also have an influencer network. They have their own production house, their own streaming network. They have a program that sells sermons to pastors. Salem really is everywhere.
Matt Katz: Are they in every market in America?
Katie Thornton: If you're in New York City, you can pick up two different Salem stations. Where I live in Minneapolis, we have four Salem stations. Salem is interesting because their stations are primarily centered in large urban hubs. When they started as a small Christian Media Group, they wanted to go to the areas where they could save the most souls, and that was American cities. That's really where they have their foothold.
They're not the largest station owner. They own just over 100 stations, largely in a lot of the country's major markets, but they also syndicate to about 3,000 other stations. If you are driving through Illinois, you can hear Salem hosts, just not necessarily on a Salem-owned station.
Matt Katz: Who owns and runs Salem? We know of the influence of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. Who is Salem's Rupert Murdoch?
Katie Thornton: There are these two brothers-in-law who really started their media empire in the early 1970s. What began as a small radio operation grew into an increasingly political and eventually increasingly far-right media outlet. What we uncover in the next episode is that those cofounders who are still intimately involved have very, very close connections both to the Republican establishment and the farther right reaches of the Republican party.
They're part of a very secretive, powerful, influential group of big donors, evangelical leaders and political strategists. Especially since they joined that group in about the '90s, they have been veering more and more into this highly influential, highly politicized, and often vitriolic talk radio.
Matt Katz: Who are their voices and can you distinguish how that vitriol might be different from what we may hear and watch on Fox News?
Katie Thornton: What we chronicle in the first episode is that since about 2015, there was really a purge of anti-Trump voices at Salem. There has been a sort of new brash, sometimes younger, very far-right-leaning voice and attitude dominating on Salem's national roster. Some of the voices and some of the names that folks may know are Charlie Kirk, who runs Turning Point USA. He has pushed many, many conspiracy theories, including about stolen election.
Eric Metaxas is somebody who we profile in the beginning. He's a crossover conservative and Christian Host who has also pushed a lot of conspiracies, and Sebastian Gorka. Sebastian Gorka was Trump's top antiterrorism guy, but he never got the necessary security clearance to actually work on pressing matters of anti-terrorism.
Matt Katz: When we come back, Katie's going to walk us through Salem's role in the rise of the far-right on The Takeaway.
Journalist Katie Thornton is with us talking about her new five part series, The Divided Dial, which, like The Takeaway, is produced by WNYC Studios. It examines the rise of Salem Media Group, a conservative Christian media powerhouse. Katie explains Salem wouldn't have been so successful were not for the collapse of local news outlets that we've seen over the past few decades.
Katie Thornton: The history of the radio industry and the talk radio industry is really the history of the hauling out of local news, especially after the 1996 Telecommunications Act, it became very, very, very easy for those who were already at an advantage in the market for big companies, for wealthy station owners to consolidate their grasp.
There had previously been limits on the number of stations that a company could own nationwide. That was eradicated in 1996. One company went from 43 stations to over 1,200 stations in less than a decade. Salem also had a very, very large explosion of growth after 1996. It wasn't nearly as big, but they multiplied their stations by more than five times.
The Salem leadership was part of lobbying for the bills that ultimately ended up consolidating the radio industry. I also think that because Salem is a multimedia network, they end up hitting people in a lot of different formats and in a lot of different places, a lot of different times throughout their day. Oftentimes folks may think that they have a fairly balanced media diet because they're, say, getting news from talk radio. They're reading a different website for news online. They're seeing things shared through social media. They're watching movies, they're watching TV shows.
What salem does is get into every single one of those platforms. Somebody may be listening to a Salem radio station, be getting news that way, come home, see an article from Red State shared on social media. They may go to a church then where a pastor is reading a sermon that was sold to them by Salem Media or they may follow an influencer account that's owned by Salem Media.
Salem has been able to get into all these different media platforms, not just radio, and to give the perception of a balanced media diet, when in reality they may own every single one of those.
Matt Katz: What's the relationship between Salem and then big conservative Christian leaders in the country?
Katie Thornton: Salem's history, Salem's growth follows a trajectory that parallels the growth of the religious right and eventually becomes inextricable from the growth of the religious rights. That's something that we explore a lot in episode two. We look at how this Christian Radio Network, virgin and Christian Radio Network, ended up becoming intimately linked with this secretive group of evangelical and conservative political leaders as well as big donors. Through that connection with that group, they end up becoming a vital mouthpiece, a vital megaphone for the religious right as the religious right was growing and becoming the powerhouse that it is today.
A lot of their Christian programming is their bread and butter in a lot of ways because a lot of it is paid programming, paid ministries. Different church groups will pay to run their programs on these Salem stations. 95% of those programs come back year after year, even after rate increases. That gives them this really solid financial base from which they can grow into other areas, in which they can expand into conservative talk, into other multimedia outlets. It makes it so that they're less dependent on the whims of advertisers or even on listener preference. It allows them to speak to a niche audience, even when it isn't necessarily the most profitable.
Matt Katz: Did Salem Media have a role in the January 6 insurrection?
Katie Thornton: I was able to explore that, and I think I'd be hesitant to draw super direct linkages in almost any instance. I think it's really, really important to note that the overwhelming majority of Salem's host, their national hosts, never backed down from the lie about the stolen election in 2020.
There's a moment in the first episode where host Eric Metaxas is talking with Doug Mastriano, recently defeated gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, and Donald Trump calls up Doug Mastriano just by chance, he puts Donald Trump on speakerphone with Eric Metaxas. There's a moment where Eric Metaxas says, "We're talking about this every day."
It is true. In the aftermath of the election, they were talking about the lies of the stolen election nearly every day. There's a moment that you can also hear in the first episode where Charlie Kirk is explicitly spreading the same lies that folks were calling for on the steps of the Capitol on January 6.
Matt Katz: In terms of setting the agenda for the American conversation and getting ears onto their programming, Salem clearly knows what it's doing. I'm a public radio reporter by day. Are there any lessons that public radio can take from the story of Salem Media?
Katie Thornton: Someone whom we profile in this series, Phil Boyce. He is the Senior Vice President of all the talk content at Salem, and he is a radio guy through and through. He found Sean Hannity and put him on the air. He really knows radio that's going to grab listeners. He is the one who's currently in charge of shaping the sound of Salem.
Something that I think he and his hosts do well is that they know how to be engaging. They know how to speak to people in a warm, approachable way. I hesitate to put it all on the shoulders of the hosts because there are so many economic factors at play that allow these messages to get out to so many people so easily, but these are seasoned, well-trained hosts.
These are folks who want to hear from their audiences, who engage their audiences, whether through callings or through messages or through social media. Something they do is they address issues that are important to folks across the country. They're not local hosts, they are national hosts, but they make folks where I live in the Midwest, for example, feel heard and feel seen.
Matt Katz: Katie Thornton is a journalist and host of a new show from our friends at On The Media. It's called The Divided Dial. New episodes of The Divided Dial premiere on Tuesday, so keep an ear out. Check out the On The Media feed wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks again for joining us, Katie.
Katie Thornton: Thanks so much for having me.
Matt Katz: Listeners, we've got a preview for you of the next episode of The Divided Dial.
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. 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.
Paul Weyrich: So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome, good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the election quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
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