How government action encouraged shock jocks and talk radio that changed the political game

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On the divided dial illustration
Katie Thornton

More than half of all Americans found an election denier on their ballot this month during the primary election. At least 170 of those candidates were elected this month. And many of them gained popularity on ultra-conservative talk radio. Host Cathy Wurzer talks with Minneapolis-based independent journalist Katie Thornton just came out with a new 5-part series on WNYC’s show "On the Media" about how the the American right came to dominate talk radio, and how one company is launching a conservative media empire on the airwaves.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: More than half of all Americans found an election denier on their ballot during the primary election. The influence of politicians who believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump is not going away. At least 170 of those candidates were elected this month, and many of them gained popularity on ultraconservative talk radio.

Minneapolis-based independent journalist Katie Thornton just came out with a new five-part series on WNYC's show On the Media about how the American right came to dominate talk radio and how one company is launching a conservative media empire on the airwaves. And Katie is on the line right now to talk about it. Welcome back to the program.

KATIE THORNTON: Thanks so much, Cathy. Nice to be here.

CATHY WURZER: I started working in talk radio at about the time it started to take a turn to the right with Rush Limbaugh. Was Rush the kingpin, or were there others who lit the fuse?

KATIE THORNTON: Yeah, such a great question. So often the story that we hear told is that Rush Limbaugh was sort of the catalyst for a lot of the talk radio that we hear today. And there's definitely an ounce of truth to that. But what we found out in this series is that the history runs much, much deeper.

It starts far earlier than Rush Limbaugh. And a lot of folks said that when Rush Limbaugh passed away that his listeners would perhaps go to different podcasts or different websites, find that type of brash, very conservative-leaning content elsewhere on different media platforms. But a lot of that content is still circulating on the public airwaves.

CATHY WURZER: And who's behind it now? I mean, Rush had his own empire. But there are other companies that are also involved.

KATIE THORNTON: Yeah, absolutely. So it's a far-reaching and multifaceted industry. In the series, in particular, we end up looking at one company called Salem Media Group in particular. We call them perhaps the most influential media company you've never heard of.

They are a multimedia company, but their bread and butter is really the AM and FM radio stations. They have four stations in Minneapolis. And I can pick up four Salem stations from my home in Minneapolis. There are cities in the US that have five Salem stations, a lot of cities have two Salem stations. They're just one company, but they are highly influential.

A lot of their program hosts are very far-right, often pushing right-wing conspiracy theories on the airwaves. And not only do they own over 100 stations across the country, they also syndicate their programs to over 3,000 stations across the country. So whether you're in a large major city or you're in a small town, you can likely hear a Salem host on the airwaves.

CATHY WURZER: And you mentioned that Salem has a lot of AM radio stations. For listeners who don't understand our business, a lot of this started on AM radio stations as those stations became-- they were bought up by a lot of these companies. Can you talk about the role of AM radio stations, specifically, in this mix?

KATIE THORNTON: Yeah, sure. In the series, we do a couple of episodes that take a deep dive into the history of the talk radio industry, which it's really just endlessly fascinating and sets us up to understand the present in a much more robust way. But one of the things that happened in the 1970s was that the FM band opened up. The FM band is, compared to AM, crystal clear sonically.

And so a lot of the music stations went over to the AM band. And that sort of has left the-- went over to the FM band. I'm sorry. And that left the AM band struggling to find what set them apart. And in the 1970s and into the 1980s, they really landed on talk radio. In the 1980s, it was the era of the shock jock, and it became popular pretty quickly for talk radio hosts to bring some of the brash shock jock energy to political talk shows.

And that was really when you saw this surge in highly politicized, somewhat abrasive talk radio really took off in the 1980s. Some of the other things we detail in this series are these deregulatory measures that happened over the course of the 1980s, and especially into the 1990s, that deregulated the industry, both economically and in terms of content, which led to a lot of consolidation, which ended up having a-- pushing the radio dial very far towards the right.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. Good history lesson there, by the way. So we are now in this situation where we have had January 6. And there are, as you say, still very strong, ultraconservative talk shows out there. I'm curious, how do these stations maybe affect January 6 and fuel so-called election deniers?

KATIE THORNTON: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I think we really need to understand is that talk radio, and radio in general, still has an incredibly large influence in the country. I think rumors of radio's death have been very overblown for many, many, many years. And talk radio still has a high-- or I'm sorry-- radio still has a higher reach than television. Radio is nearly neck and neck with social media for how Americans choose to get their news.

And talk radio, and especially some of these Salem stations' hosts who we look into, were really among the loudest voices who were pushing the ideas of the stolen election after 2020. Even before the 2020 election, they were sort of parroting the idea that Donald Trump was saying that if the election wasn't won by him it would have had to have been stolen.

And in the immediate aftermath of the election, talk radio was a place where lies about the stolen election really, really took hold. A lot of the talk radio shows that you listen to-- if you can find them in archives or if you record them-- in the interim period between the election and January 6 were promoting a lot of the same falsehoods about how Trump could secure a second term that a lot of people were then calling for on the steps of the Capitol on January 6.

CATHY WURZER: So you did, obviously, a lot of research for this series, and it's terrific. What surprised you the most during your reporting?

KATIE THORNTON: Yeah, it's such a good question because I am a huge fan of radio. I started doing this project because I love the medium, and I wanted to have a greater understanding of how it came to be that one side of the political spectrum came to have such a grasp on talk radio. I've worked on and off in radio since I was quite young, since I was a teenager working behind the scenes, doing reporting as well. And even I was still surprised at just how much influence radio still has in the American public and on American politics. The reach is just extraordinary. A lot of people still rely on it.

And I would also add that the other thing that surprised me is just how organized and strategic and, frankly, well-connected some of these radio companies, including Salem, are to leaders in the right-wing movements and also in the Republican Party, and also that their reach is not just limited to radio, although radio is very, very influential.

The company Salem is a multimedia company. They own some of the largest conservative news sites like Hot Air and RedState and Townhall. They also have an influencer network. They have a production house and a streaming service. They have daily podcasts.

They have a sermon-- or they have a service that sells sermons to pastors. So they really are far-reaching. And somebody may be listening to a Salem radio station and then getting their online news from a Salem website, perhaps hearing a sermon shared by a pastor that was sold through a Salem service and never know that these are all coming from the same company.

CATHY WURZER: Do you have advice for listeners to be a smart consumer of this information? What would you recommend for them

KATIE THORNTON: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think building on the last point, it's not always clear just how consolidated the media industry is. So I think it's possible to have what one may perceive as a somewhat balanced media diet without it be glaringly obvious that some of that-- a lot of that material might be coming from the same company or the same very small group of people. So ensuring that you have a diversity of perspectives within the media that you're consuming.

Radio is the most trusted medium, very frequently ranks as the most trusted medium among Americans. And I think that there is a lot of potential to that because radio also has a lot of incredible content too. This takes a deep dive into the right-wing conspiracy radio networks and far-right radio networks, but there's a lot of potential to reach people where they're at and to get a variety of voices on the air using radio too.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. And that's why I love radio. Thank you so much, Katie Thornton. I appreciate it. Good work, by the way.

KATIE THORNTON: Thank you very much. It's great to talk with you.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. Katie Thornton is a Minneapolis-based independent journalist and a historian.

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