The former news director of WTMJ reveals how talk show hosts like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner work to get us angry.
by Dan Shelley
Illustration by David Vogin
I first got into journalism because I thought I could make a difference.
I wrote for the school newspaper and did “news” reports on a radio station a friend and I started at my high school in Springfield, Mo. I got my first professional job at age 20, while still in college, at a local radio station’s news department. Three years later, I became a news director, and 12 years after that, in 1995, I was recruited to move to Milwaukee to become news director at WTMJ, one of the largest and most successful news/talk radio stations in America.
That was where my real education occurred.
I worked for three years as news director, and then, in 1998, gained the additional title of assistant program director, a role I held until leaving the station in July 2006. From that position, I worked closely with our talk show hosts and became intimately familiar with how they appeal to listeners and shape their vision of the world. Let me tell you some of the lessons I learned.
To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.
To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms
. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.
This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.
Sometimes, it can even be their own station’s news director. One year, Charlie targeted me because I had instructed my midday news anchor to report the Wimbledon tennis results, even though the matches wouldn’t be telecast until much later in the day. Charlie gave out my phone number and e-mail address on the air. I was flooded with hate mail, nasty messages, and even one death threat from a federal law enforcement agent whom I knew to be a big Charlie fan.
In the talk radio business, this concept, which must be mastered to be successful, is called “differentiating” yourself from the rest of the media. It is a brilliant marketing tactic that has also helped Fox News Channel thrive. “We report, you decide” and “Fair and Balanced” are more than just savvy slogans. They are code words signaling that only Fox will report the news in a way conservatives see as objective and truthful.
Forget any notion, however, that radio talk shows are supposed to be fair, evenhanded discussions featuring a diversity of opinions
. The Fairness Doctrine, which required this, was repealed 20 years ago. So talk shows can be, and are, all about the host’s opinions, analyses and general worldview. Programmers learned long ago that benign conversations led by hosts who present all sides of an issue don’t attract large audiences. That’s why Kathleen Dunn was forced out at WTMJ in the early ’90s and why Jim and Andee were replaced in the mid-’90s by Dr. Laura. Pointed and provocative are what win.
There is no way to win a disagreement with Charlie Sykes. Calls from listeners who disagree with him don’t get on the air if the show’s producer, who generally does the screening, fears they might make Charlie look bad.
I witnessed several occasions when Sen. Russ Feingold, former Mayor John Norquist, Mayor Tom Barrett or others would call in, but wouldn’t be allowed on the air.
Opponents are far more likely to get through when the producer is confident Charlie can use the dissenting caller to reinforce his original point. Ask former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Publisher Keith Spore, or former Police Chief Arthur Jones. How can Charlie do that? By belittling the caller’s point of view. You can always tell, however, when the antagonist has gotten the better of Charlie. That’s when he starts attacking the caller personally.
But the worst fate comes for those who ignore Charlie when he asks on the air why they did or didn’t do something, and they never respond. That leaves him free to make his point unabated, day after day. The most frequent victims of this were Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley.
Charlie knew they would rarely call or e-mail to answer his criticism, so he could both criticize decisions they had made and blast them for not having the guts to come on his show and respond. What little credibility they had among Charlie’s audience would decline by a thousand cuts. It would have been far better for them to face Charlie head on and take their lumps so he would move on to the next victim – I mean, topic.
One entire group that rarely gets on the air are the elderly callers – unless they have something extraordinary to say. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often. The theory is that old-sounding callers help produce old-skewing audiences. The target demo is 25 to 54, not 65 and older.
Talk radio, after all, is in the entertainment business. But that doesn’t mean it has no impact on public policy. Quite the contrary.
The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads. Talk show fans are not stupid. They will detect an obvious phony. The best hosts sincerely believe everything they say. Their passion is real. Their arguments have been carefully crafted in a manner they know will be meaningful to the audience, and that validates the views these folks were already thinking.
Yet while talk show audiences aren’t being led like lemmings to a certain conclusion, they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.
Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations.
They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.
Charlie and Jeff would also check what other conservative talk show hosts around the country were saying. Rush Limbaugh’s Web site was checked at least once daily. Atlanta-based nationally syndicated talker Neal Boortz was another popular choice. Select conservative blogs were also perused.
A smart talk show host will, from time to time, disagree publicly with a Republican president, the Republican Party, or some conservative doctrine. (President Bush’s disastrous choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was one such example.) But these disagreements are strategically chosen to prove the host is an independent thinker, without appreciably harming the president or party.
This is not to suggest that hosts don’t genuinely disagree with the conservative line at times. They do, more often than you might think. But they usually keep it to themselves.
One of the things that makes a talk show host good – especially hosts of the caliber of Sykes – is that his or her arguments seem so solid. You fundamentally disagree with the host, yet can’t refute the argument because it sounds so airtight. The host has built a strong case with lots of supporting facts.
Generally speaking, though, those facts have been selectively chosen because they support the host’s preconceived opinion
, or can be interpreted to seem as if they do. In their frustration, some talk show critics accuse hosts of fabricating facts. Wrong. Hosts do gather evidence, but in a way that modifies the old Joe Friday maxim: “Just the facts that I can use to make my case, ma’am.”
Hint: The more talk show hosts squawk about something – the louder their voice, the greater their emotion, the more effusive their arguments – the more they’re worried about the issue. For example, talk show hosts eagerly participated in the 2004 Swift Boating of John Kerry because they really feared he was going to win. This is a common talk show tactic: If you lack compelling arguments in favor of your candidate or point of view, attack the other side.
These attacks often rely on two key rhetorical devices, which I call You Know What Would Happen If and The Preemptive Strike.
Using the first strategy, a host will describe something a liberal has said or done that conservatives disagree with, but for which the liberal has not been widely criticized, and then say, “You know what would happen if a conservative had said (or done) that? He (or she) would have been filleted by the ‘liberal media.’
” This is particularly effective because it’s a two-fer, simultaneously reinforcing the notion that conservatives are victims and that “liberals” are the enemy.
The second strategy, The Preemptive Strike, is used when a host knows that news reflecting poorly on conservative dogma is about to break or become more widespread. When news of the alleged massacre at Haditha first trickled out in the summer of 2006, not even Iraq War chest-thumper Charlie Sykes would defend the U.S. Marines accused of killing innocent civilians in the Iraqi village. So he spent lots of air time criticizing how the “mainstream media” was sure to sensationalize the story in the coming weeks.
Charlie would kill the messengers before any message had even been delivered.
Good talk show hosts can get their listeners so lathered up that they truly can change public policy. They can inspire like-minded folks to flood the phone lines and e-mail inboxes of aldermen, county supervisors, legislators and federal lawmakers. They can inspire their followers to vote for candidates the hosts prefer. How? By pounding away on an issue or candidate, hour after hour, day after day.
Hosts will extol the virtues of the favored candidate or, more likely, exploit whatever Achilles heel the other candidate might have. Influencing elections is more likely to occur at the local rather than national level, but that still gives talk radio power.
By the way, here’s a way to prognosticate elections just by listening to talk shows: Except in presidential elections, when they will always carry water for the Republican nominee, conservative hosts won’t hurt their credibility by backing candidates they think can’t win.
So if they’re uncharacteristically tepid, or even silent, about a particular race, that means the Democrat has a good chance of winning. Nor will hosts spend their credibility on an issue where they know they disagree with listeners. Charlie, for example, told me just before I left TMJ that Wisconsin’s 2006 anti-gay marriage amendment was misguided. But he knew his followers would likely vote for it in droves. So he declined to speak out directly against it.
This brings us to perhaps the most ironic thing about most talk show hosts. Though they may savage politicians and others they oppose, they fear criticism or critiques of any kind. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.
One day during a very bad snowstorm, I walked into the studio during a commercial break and suggested to Charlie that he start talking about it rather than whatever conservative topic he’d been discussing. Charlie assumed, as he usually did in such situations, that I was being critical of his topic. In reaction, he unplugged his head phones, stood up and told me that I might as well take over the show because he wasn’t going to change his topic. I was able to quickly strike a bargain before the end of the break. He agreed to take a few calls about the storm, but if it didn’t a strike a nerve with callers, he could return to his original topic.
The snowstorm was the topic of the rest of his show that day. And afterward, Charlie came to my office and admitted I’d been right. But we would go through scenarios such as this many times through the years.
Another tense moment arose when the Harley-Davidson 100th anniversary was captivating the community – and our on-air coverage – in 2003, but Charlie wanted to talk about school choice for seemingly the 100,000th time. He literally threw a fit, off the air and on, belittling other hosts, the news department and station management for devoting resources to Harley’s 100th coverage. “The Green House” newsman Phil Cianciola countered that afternoon with a joke about Charlie riding a Harley wearing loafers. Charlie complained to management about Phil and wouldn’t speak civilly about him in my presence again.
Hosts are most dangerous when someone they’ve targeted for criticism tries to return the fire. It is foolish to enter into a dispute with someone who has a 50,000-watt radio transmitter at his or her disposal and feels cornered. Oh, and calling a host names – “right-winger,” “fascist,” “radio squawker,” etc. – merely plays into his or her hands. This allows a host like Sykes to portray himself as a victim of the “left-wing spin machine,” and will leave his listeners, who also feel victimized, dying to support him. In essence, the host will mount a Hillary Rodham Clinton “vast right-wing conspiracy” attack in reverse.
A conservative emulating Hillary? Yep. A great talk show host is like a great college debater, capable of arguing either side of any issue in a logical, thorough and convincing manner. This skill ensures their continuing success regardless of which political party is in power. For example:
• In the talk show world, the line-item veto was the most effective way to control government spending when Ronald Reagan was president; it was a violation of the separation of powers after President Clinton took office.
• Perjury was a heinous crime when Clinton was accused of lying under oath about his extramarital activities. But when Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, was charged with lying under oath, it was the prosecutor who had committed an egregious act by charging Libby with perjury.
• "Activist judges" are the scourge of the earth when they rule it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the rights heterosexuals receive. But judicial activism is needed to stop the husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state – say Terri Schiavo – from removing her feeding tube to end her suffering.
To amuse myself while listening to a talk show, I would ask myself what the host would say if the situation were reversed. What if alleged D.C. Madam client Sen. David Vitter had been a Democrat? Would the reaction of talk show hosts have been so quiet you could hear crickets chirping? Hardly.
Or what if former Rep. Mark Foley had been a Democrat? Would his pedophile-like tendencies have been excused as a “prank” or mere “overfriendly e-mails?” Not on the life of your teenage son.
Suppose Al Gore was president and ordered an invasion of Iraq without an exit strategy. Suppose this had led to the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. troops and actually made that part of the world less stable. Would talk show hosts have dismissed criticism of that war as unpatriotic? No chance.
Or imagine that John Kerry had been president during Hurricane Katrina and that his administration’s rescue and rebuilding effort had been horribly botched. Would talk show hosts have branded him a great president? Of course not.
It was Katrina, finally, that made me truly see the light. Until then, 10 years into my time at TMJ, while I might have disagreed with some stands the hosts took, I did think there were grounds for their constant criticism of the media. I had convinced myself that the national media had an intrinsic bias that was, at the very least, geographical if not ideological, to which talk radio could provide an alternative.
Then along came the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Journalists risked their lives to save others as the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Afterward, journalists endured the stench and the filth to chronicle the events for a stunned world. Then they documented the monumental government incompetence for an outraged nation. These journalists became voices for the voiceless victims, pressing government officials to get help to those who needed it.
Yet, while New Orleans residents were still screaming for help from the rooftops of their flooded homes, journalists were targeted by talk show hosts, Charlie and Wagner among them. Not the government, but journalists. Stories detailing the federal government’s obvious slowness and inefficiency were part of an “angry left” conspiracy, they said.
Talk show hosts who used e-mailed talking points from the conservative spin machine proclaimed the Katrina stories were part of a liberal “media template.” The irony would have been laughable if the story wasn’t so serious.
I went to Charlie and Jeff and told them my concerns. They waved me off. I went to Program Director Rick Belcher and told him I thought Charlie and Jeff had things terribly wrong. He disagreed. I was distraught. I felt I was actively participating in something so inconsistent with reality that even most conservative talk radio devotees would see this. But in a way, it was merely a more obvious example of how talk radio portrayed reality selectively.
I was a dedicated program manager. I helped the hosts at my station do show prep by finding stories I knew would pique their interest and fire up their constituencies. I met with Charlie Sykes daily, about a half-hour before show time, to help him talk through topics before going on the air. Charlie is one of the smartest people I know, but he performs at his best with that kind of preparation.
I often defended Jeff Wagner from upset moderates and liberals in the community. Jeff’s a very good talk show host whose brilliance is overshadowed only by his stubbornness.
I helped our program directors try to find the right role for Mark Reardon, who, in my opinion, was always miscast (he wasn’t as right-wing as Sykes or Wagner and his job was switched several times). Ultimately, that miscasting helped his career, because WTMJ laid him off, after which he became a talk show star in St. Louis, a much larger market.
I worked with news and sports hosts, too – Robb Edwards, Jon Belmont, Ken Herrera, Jonathan Green, Len Kasper, Bill Michaels – to help them craft ways to sound human and “real” behind the microphone without violating the separation of church and state that existed between the station’s talk and news programming. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I didn’t.
And we were successful, consistently ranking No. 1 among persons 12 and older and in the top five in the advertiser-coveted 25 to 54 demo. Yet I was often angrily asked, once by then-Mayor John Norquist, why we just didn’t change our call letters to “WGOP.” The complaints were just another sign of our impact.
I left WTMJ with some regret, attracted by an offer to work in the cutting edge field of digital media at one of the nation’s largest news and entertainment conglomerates. By then, I had worked more than 26 years in radio news and more than 23 as a news director. In the constant push for ratings, I had seen and helped foster the transformation of AM radio and the rise of conservative hosts. They have a power that is unlikely to decline.
Their rise was also helped by liberals whose ideology, after all, emphasizes tolerance. Their friendly toleration of talk radio merely gave the hosts more credibility. Yet an attitude of intolerance was probably worse: It made the liberals look hypocritical, giving ammunition to talk show hosts who used it with great skill.
But the key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners.
And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons.
Because of that, there will always be listeners who believe that Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner and their compatriots are the only members of the media who truly care about them.
Dan Shelley now works as a digital media executive in New York City. The views he expresses are purely his own. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org