If you’re in talk radio—a media sector that traditionally skews conservative—you slag off Donald Trump at your peril.
It’s far safer—and potentially more profitable—to love-bomb the loose-lipped, brass-knuckled 45th president and keep the criticism to a respectful minimum, thus retaining the loyalty of Trump’s political base.
That, anyhow, was the message Friday of the right-leaning, Christian-oriented Salem Radio Network’s chief news-talk programmer, Senior Vice President Phil Boyce, at Talkers magazine’s day-long radio industry conference in Manhattan.
Urging around 100 attendees “to take advantage of the biggest move in talk radio to come along since Monica Lewinsky wore a blue dress,” Boyce cited Salem’s market research that suggested that a combined 62 percent of the talk radio audience wants on-air hosts to back Trump uncritically (19 percent) or, at worst, mix criticism with dollops of praise (43 percent) for the former reality television billionaire.
“This guy right here is a game-changer for our format,” Boyce said as a Time magazine cover of Trump appeared in his PowerPoint presentation. “We call him the gift that keeps on giving,” he added, noting Trump’s ability to drive ratings and lure eardrums.
“This guy does have the support of our audience, despite the daily attacks of the mainstream media,” Boyce continued. “Our listeners despise the mainstream media. You can capitalize on that despisement,” he added coining a word to illustrate that talk radio is more popular than newspapers or network television news—which he derided as “fake news”—as a source of information.
Boyce said the election of Hillary Clinton, however, would have posed an existential threat to talk radio. “I’m sitting there in November 2016 thinking it’s all over for me,” he said.
“I really thought Hillary was gonna win… If she had, I was fearful it was going to be damaging to our format. She might try to hurt talk radio, knowing her, but even if she didn’t our listeners would be so unhappy, there’d be a downer on the format, and 2017 was going to be bad year. But guess what? 2017 was a great year because of Donald Trump winning an election.” (Later in a phone interview, Boyce elaborated that Clinton “and the people she runs with” probably would have tried to reinstate the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine that requires political balance in news programming.)
Boyce also exhorted the conference attendees not to go chasing after ostensibly desirable, but ultimately unreachable, audience demographics.
“The problem is we’re reaching for a 25-to-54 demo that’s not going to come,” he said. “A twenty-something isn’t going to listen to us. A 26-year-old who’s living on his parents’ couch in the basement, who’s more worried about his video games or watching porn, is not gonna listen to us. So why do we change, and go after him, and risk running off the ones that will come and listen to us?”
Boyce warned about advertising boycotts instigated by the left.
“Remember, this is now a culture war. The other side is going to try to take you out by any means necessary,” he said. “Ad boycotts have become the weapon of choice. They know how to use this weapon. They don’t hesitate. Ad boycotts have cost talk radio millions over the years. Some advertisers just can’t take the heat, so they bail.”
The 2012 advertising boycott of Rush Limbaugh’s show over misogynistic comments he made about feminist activist Sandra Fluke “is still hurting us today,” Boyce lamented. “When one teenage highschool student can cause 15 advertisers to drop Laura Ingraham,” he added, “you know he didn’t do it alone. He had help. That little kid—that 18-year-old David Hogg—he had help. And, trust me, if you attack that kid, they’re coming after you like you wouldn’t believe… They do want to kill us.”
Without providing evidence, Boyce made the factually challenged claim, “George Soros has spent billions of dollars trying to kill talk radio.” (Later, he explained that he was referring hyperbolically to the Hungarian-born financier’s backing of the liberal-leaning Media Matters press watchdog organization.)
Salem, among the nation’s more influential media empires, serving more than 2,000 affiliated radio stations, boasts a formidable roster of conservative personalities, including Hugh Hewitt, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Larry Elder—all of whom are generally sympathetic to Trump on the air.
Surprisingly, however, Boyce took a barely veiled shot—without naming him—at Salem’s Chicago-based evening talk jock, former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, for being disparaging of Trump on some days, while flattering the president on others, resulting in a muddled message, Boyce complained.
“I’ve got a host right now—I’m coaching him out of bad habits,” Boyce said. “He understood that Trump is good for our audience, but some days he just can’t bring himself to say good stuff. So Monday he’ll be good Trump. Tuesday he’ll be bad Trump. Wednesday he’ll be good Trump. Thursday he’ll be bad Trump. And Friday he’ll be horrible Trump. That’s not consistent.”
Later in his presentation, Boyce returned to the theme of bashing his wayward host, saying that while it’s okay to be critical of Trump, “Now that doesn’t mean trash him. I’m talking to this host I told you about, and he put a tweet out there that Trump is an ass, and that Trump is a liar, 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. So there’s a reason you get a paycheck. It’s your ability to attract the biggest audience possible so you can make money with it.”
Afterward, Boyce declined to put a name to his target, but Walsh, in a phone interview, confirmed that he’s the thorn in Boyce’s—and Donald Trump’s—side.
“I love being with Salem, but here’s my deal: I can only speak honestly,” the blunt-spoken Walsh said with uncharacteristically diplomatic tact. “When Trump is good, I say it. When Trump is bad, I say it, too. That creates some tension with Salem.”
Walsh, who is halfway through a three-year contract with the radio network, added: “I think tension can be healthy. I can’t say anything on the radio that I don’t believe. I hope I can make some success for Salem. But I’m not gonna change.”