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'The Divided Dial' examines how right-wing radio spreads misinformation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Before the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021, a talk radio host was on the air. Eric Metaxas interviewed a man who denied the presidential election results and who in turn got a call from Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE ERIC METAXAS SHOW")

ERIC METAXAS: Mr. President, I want to know, what can I do...

DONALD TRUMP: Fantastic. Your whole show and your whole deal is great. So just keep it up. We're making a lot of progress, actually.

INSKEEP: The talk show host said he was willing to die for the cause. Another host on the same network, Charlie Kirk, fired up listeners on January 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE CHARLIE KIRK SHOW")

CHARLIE KIRK: Believe it or not, there is a almost guaranteed way that Donald Trump serves four more years. Mike Pence says, I refuse to certify at this very moment the election results of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

INSKEEP: Radio hosts were part of the backdrop for the January 6 attack. They have audiences of many millions. And they are the focus of a podcast series, "Divided Dial," hosted by Katie Thornton. She says the series grew out of a long drive she took in a rural part of her native Minnesota.

KATIE THORNTON: And my car radio dial- only one station was strong enough for it to pick up. And it was playing this sort of long-standing, evangelical, very conservative show, "A Focus On The Family." And it was a long drive, and it was pretty lonely, and it kept me company. And I started to think about what sort of options people have to listen to on the radio dial and how it might be shaping their worldview and their political view.

INSKEEP: Thornton learned that conservative radio is as old as radio, but it grew in the 1990s, when looser federal regulations made it easier to give one-sided opinions on the radio without equal time for other views. One star rose above all.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Talk about a woman who's not anything without her husband. It's Raisa Gorbachev.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She has a Ph.D.

LIMBAUGH: You know what that Ph.D. is? It means you go to a Marxism course for 20 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

LIMBAUGH: Let me put it to you this way. The NFL, all too often, looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.

INSKEEP: Rush Limbaugh inspired many imitators. He also shared the dial with conservative religious broadcasters. And of today's influential companies, a big one is the Salem Media Group.

THORNTON: Today, they own over a hundred stations, and they syndicate to over 3,000 stations. And they've had this sort of strong base on the radio for so long that they've been able to use that as a sort of launching point to expand into being this multimedia empire, in a way. They own many of the largest conservative news sites. They also have services that sell sermons to pastors. They have a podcast network. They have an influencer network. And so they're really hitting people wherever they are, whether that's on the radio or online.

INSKEEP: Is Salem arguably more influential than Fox News?

THORNTON: That's a really tough thing to parse, but I do think that I would put them in the running. Their hosts have been some of the most vocal about the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, for example. Many of them also have encouraged people not to take the vaccine, have spread falsehoods about the vaccine. There is a lot of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "UNDERSTANDING THE TIMES")

BILLY CRONE: The COVID plandemic - this has been the biggest global dry run to prepare the world to receive the mark of the beast in the seven-year tribulation in the history of mankind.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE BEN SHAPIRO SHOW")

BEN SHAPIRO: The vast majority at this point of gender confusion is being driven by societal mania.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE CARL JACKSON PODCAST")

CARL JACKSON: Racial profiling is good for your health. It could save your life. I know a lot of people - oh, my God, this is racist. No, no, it's not. No, it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE CHARLIE KIRK SHOW")

KIRK: Drill. Build the Keystone pipeline. Deport illegals. Build the wall. I don't want to hear about the EPA or the Department of Energy. I don't want to hear about Biden's overreach. Defy the federal government.

INSKEEP: Sometimes, when people report on Fox News, they will make the observation that people at Fox News do not necessarily believe everything that is said on Fox News, that they're in a business. They're just saying things, in some or many cases, rather than saying what they believe. When you spoke with Phil Boyce, a top executive of the Salem Media Group, did he indicate that he believes what he's doing?

THORNTON: Yes, absolutely. I think that, sometimes, the idea that people are only in it for the money almost sort of degrades the influence that this has. Absolutely, there is an ideological motivation, as well. I was sort of expecting to get sort of a wall of professionalism, you know, a lot of sort of media-trained PR speak, in a way. And I was very surprised - and honestly quite grateful - for the honesty that he showed me in demonstrating that this really, really is an ideological project from top to bottom.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE DIVIDED DIAL")

PHIL BOYCE: There is something different about Salem that I think you need to understand. The difference with Salem is even though we always want to make money - and we do make money - we're in this to save America.

THORNTON: Something that he said is that he wants the country to sort of go back to what he saw as the conservative and Christian values that it was founded on, which I think many people, including many evangelical and Christian scholars, have contested. But he described something called the Salem worldview, which he said they don't have anything necessarily in writing about. But it's sort of a gut feeling that they have within Salem, within the leadership and within their house.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE DIVIDED DIAL")

BOYCE: We believe that America is the greatest country on Earth, and we should do everything we can to protect the Constitution, to help foster the conservative values that we think the country was founded on. We think we're performing a really important job in America.

INSKEEP: You know, when I've heard conservative radio over the years, I find myself often reflecting as someone who loves radio, as someone who is a journalist, who is on the radio, that whatever I may think of their political views, they're good at what they do. Rush Limbaugh...

THORNTON: Oh, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Was a good broadcaster, I thought. Hugh Hewitt is good at what he does. What did you come away with after who knows how many hours of listening to this programming to prepare for your series?

THORNTON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. These hosts are fantastic at what they do, oftentimes. Something that I think is on one hand daunting and on one hand very exciting is that radio is still - you know, consistently ranks as the most trusted medium in America. And I think that's really because of the format itself. You know, you're close to the hosts. They're in your kitchen with you while you cook. They're in your car on your commute. But they're also just really good at talking off the cuff, at sort of taking a germ of truth and a germ of a critique that many people sort of across the political spectrum might have and really turning it to their perspective, offering the sole solution. You know, something that I talked with Phil Boyce about, the senior vice president of talk content at Salem, is, you know, he argued that they're just sharing their opinions. And something I mentioned was that when I listen to conservative talk radio, I don't hear these perspectives shared as opinions. I hear them shared as fact.

INSKEEP: Katie Thornton is the host of the new podcast "The Divided Dial." Thanks so much.

THORNTON: Steve, it was great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.