For better than half a lifetime, I’ve studied media and its effects on the public psyche. Teaching broadcast history and directing a student radio station, the larger picture seemed pretty clear.
But one question always frustrated and perplexed me: How did AM talk radio, in particular, come to program such venomous, outrageous programming? Why do station managers, salespeople, even some listeners insist that Rush rants are what the public wants? And how did “Christian” radio come to carry such un-Christian messages?
One of my students, fresh from his daily Glenn-Beck-listening commute, touted Glenn’s latest — on Salina, Kansas, radio. Certainly, it provoked earnest discussions, in class and out. Our respectful relationship culminated with his presenting me a Cuban cigar at retirement. Our mutual respect didn’t, however, end my frustration at Beck’s seeds planted daily on local AM.
What forces shape, often without general awareness, a combative story about who we are? Why have we tolerated, even encouraged, these voices, when the threat they pose culminated in the election of a philandering, draft-dodging, election-denying, serial-lying, consummate con man, tax cheat — and television show host — as president of the Divided States of America?
On the Media’s recent public radio series, “The Divided Dial,” provides an answer, and a fresh perspective on U.S. radio history.
Building an empire
Consider young Stuart Epperson, who went from listening to local casting. His small enterprise grew into one of the most influential public-mind propagandizers you never heard of: Salem Broadcasting.
In his small 1930s Southern Blue Ridge Mountain town of Ararat, named for Noah’s Ark destination, his brother Ralph mail-ordered a Montgomery Ward radio set. They eventually opened windows wide for neighbors who flocked there to listen.
The Eppersons soon expanded from receiving to sending. A maze of wires and tubes enabled them to create their own broadcasts. According to the series: “Aspiring singers and musicians flocked to the home with banjos and fiddles, filling Epperson’s living room and the local airwaves with what they called ‘hillbillery.’ ” Soon, local preachers were invited to sermonize to a vaster congregation than they could have imagined.
They became part of an electronic war of equipment and bandspace. That free speech eventually demanded federal regulation. The Communications Act of 1934 imposed station licensing for specific frequencies and power. It provided enforcement to stop stations from overwhelming or interrupting each other’s signal. The question was how to get a license.
Fast forward to 1973. Epperson got one. A big one. And many more.
He graduated from South Carolina’s white supremacist evangelical Bob Jones University. With classmate and wife Nancy Atsinger, he joined her brother, fellow Bob Jones alum Edward Atsinger, to establish Christian stations in Bakersfield and Oxnard, California. They defied standards right away, making the stations businesses, not nonprofits. As commercial stations, they sold airtime to preachers.
Again, according to the series: “It was a win-win. (As) a platform for preachers, … with money coming in, they (bought) more radio stations, and turned them into pulpits. They were not a lone wolf Christian station, (but) a network.” By 1990, Salem Broadcasting had two stations in Portland, San Diego, and New York City. Prominent in their programming, which included James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, were voices for segregation academy “independent schools” (like Bob Jones University), and against LGBTQ people and abortion rights.
Quick to see the power in such conglomeration, Paul Weyrich, a 1970s conservative leader, got on the air through Salem. He knew that elite-leader strategizing wouldn’t be enough. They needed megaphones. They needed radio. As an on-air host and program director at a Kenosha, Wisconsin, radio station, and a news director in Denver, Weyrich knew radio to be a crucial communication channel for the new Religious Right. He also understood it could influence elections by getting the “right” people to the polls.
As Weyrich explained to evangelical leaders in 1980: “I don’t want everybody to vote! …. Our leverage … goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
He founded the Council for National Policy in 1981. Today, the CNP and its lobbying arm has included the likes of Ginni Thomas, Mike Pence and Cleta Mitchell, a Donald Trump lawyer working to overturn the 2020 election results. According to the series, it also includes Salem co-founders Epperson and Atsinger.
Salem is important, but only one player in the historical dominance of Christian nationalist, xenophobic, antisemitic, racist themes on radio.
A master of, and tool for, that dominance was legendary Kansan John R. Brinkley. Brinkley operated KFKB (Kansas’ First, Kansas’ Best) radio out of Milford. Widely known for his quack “goat gland” operations to restore male virility (and likely killing dozens on the operating table), Brinkley also preached sermons and inveighed against federal and state authorities.
Brinkley “garnered the support of fascists, including Gerald B. Winrod, a Wichita preacher and Nazi sympathizer who blamed all of society’s troubles on an international Jewish conspiracy,” wrote the Kansas Reflector’s Max McCoy.
In 1930, Radio Digest named KFKB the most popular station in the United States; shortly after in the same year, Brinkley’s license was revoked as “not in the public interest.”
Without shame or remorse, Brinkley ran a write-in campaign for Kansas governor, and lost — by only 251 votes. Some report he also garnered enough votes to be governor of Oklahoma.
If Brinkley touted his bogus medical credentials, with sermons as a sideline, Father Charles Coughlin led primarily with religious credentials. Known for his smooth and entrancing voice, Coughlin sucked the faithful into his frequency with amazing alacrity. But in time, his voice grew more shrill, moving from faith to factionalism. Like Brinkley, he attacked authority (including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and promoted fascism.
According to America magazine’s James T. Keane, his broadcast content featured “tropes that have become all too familiar in recent years: Anti-Semitism; a nativism ‘combined with alarm in response to foreign invaders’; open praise for dictators; ‘both-sides’ arguments designed to excuse … genocidal strongmen; the rhetoric of victimization (for) whites; dog-whistles encouraging sedition and vigilantism; (and) identification of Christianity as the true American religion.”
Like Brinkley, Coughlin’s reach was vast. His estimated listenership was 30 million, in a nation of fewer than 130 million. Coughlin saw all his villains as part of a campaign to persecute Christians. His enemies, he evangelized, were communists, Roosevelt, and Christ-killing Jews. His hero was Hitler, who, Coughlin said, was doing the right thing.
In 1938, according to the podcast Ultra, “just a few days after Kristallnacht, Coughlin got on the radio to assure his American listeners that they shouldn’t be too worried about what they might be hearing out of Germany about Jews being persecuted and murdered. … (He) told his followers democracy was ‘doomed.’ He said ‘We are at the crossroads. I take the road to fascism.’ ”
Coughlin’s on-air attacks were manifested in his militarized Christian Front, whose violence is now our heritage. Attempts at on-air reason and dialogue would be defeated by regulatory failure of the 1980s Fairness Doctrine, and the 1996 takeover by satellite-driven, mega-company broadcasters. That’s for next time.
Thanks for listening.
This commentary was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate.