RIGHT-WING RADIO 


On Sept. 28, Bill Bennett – the sermonizing drug czar in George H.W. Bush's administration who turned out to be a habitual gambler – was taking calls on his conservative radio show, Bill Bennett's Morning in America. One caller wondered if Social Security's ills were due to legalized abortion reducing the number of tax-paying citizens. Bennett responded that economic arguments should never be used in a discussion of moral issues. Then he said, "You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

He clarified that the extermination of a whole race of babies would, of course, be morally reprehensible. Bennett got a lot of flak for the comment, but he never apologized. Bennett is just one of the conservative stars in the lineup at Salem Communications Corporation, the largest Christian broadcasting and publishing company in America, and the new owner of three radio stations in Orlando.

On Oct. 21, 2005, Salem, based in Camarillo, Calif., announced their intention to buy WTLN-AM 950, WHIM-AM 1520 and WORL-AM 660 for an estimated $10 million. Salem's entrance into the local radio market means Orlando now has four Christian radio stations.

For Salem it's just another expansion. Think of the company as the evangelical Clear Channel; they now own 105 stations, 62 of them in 22 of the top 25 markets. The company's clout, however, comes not only from their numbers, but also from their political views. The two founders of the company are deep-pocket contributors to Republican groups, and they're not shy about using their stations to push a conservative agenda.

Still, most in Orlando have no idea who or what Salem really is.

Edward Atsinger III and his brother-in-law, Stuart Epperson, both graduates of Bob Jones University, bought their first Christian station in 1974 in Oxnard, Calif., a time and state where liberal ideas were flourishing. Preachers paid for airtime to sermonize, and listeners could call in, allowing them to feel connected to the station. What time wasn't filled with preaching was filled with Christian music. Their station was a respite from the era's liberalism.

With this Salem, whose name comes from a biblical reference meaning "peaceful," was born. After that first station took off, the pair started buying small AM stations in big-city markets across the country. It wasn't until 1987, however, that they began to change the way talk radio operated.

Until then, the FCC's Fairness Doctrine ruled. While not requiring equal time for opposing views, the rule did prohibit broadcasters from airing the same political views day after day. Threats of fines or the pulling of radio licenses kept Salem's programs from stepping too far to the right. As Epperson recently wrote on the American Conservative Union Foundation website, "We are in the [radio] business primarily because we have a point of view."

When the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, Atsinger and Epperson were free to move as far to the right as they cared. On-air hosts no longer had to mute conservative leanings, and they could take caller after like-minded caller who spoke their minds. It was the beginning of conservative talk radio as we know it today.

Ken Mills, the former news director for Public Radio International, the leader in syndicated programming for National Public Radio, says Salem was a pioneer in using the public airwaves to promote a partisan agenda.

"Salem took that FCC ruling and ran with it," Mills says. "They really perfected the art of pushing a narrow political view."

When Congress eliminated media ownership restrictions in 1996, Salem grew even more. From Seattle to Miami, New York City to Los Angeles, the company has stations in all the major markets.

All Salem stations follow one of three formats: Christian teaching, conservative news talk or contemporary Christian music. In Orlando, WTLN and WHIM will follow the Christian-teaching format (essentially Bible study), while WORL is slated to be a news talk station.

Salem also uses a unique business model: Its stations rely on sales of syndicated programs and blocks of airtime to local church groups, rather than advertising. That means Orlandoans can tune into WTLN at 3 p.m. any weekday and hear Gib Allen, pastor at Calvary Chapel of Orlando, or listen at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays for Life Change from the East Orlando Baptist Church, or at 7 p.m. on Sundays to hear First Baptist Central Florida's live Haitian worship service.

In addition to local shows, the Salem Radio Network syndicates a number of shows to stations around the country. Radio personalities in the SRN include conservative talker Michael Medved; Janet Parshall, who used to work for Concerned Women for America; and Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Despite the lineup, Epperson isn't ready to concede that Salem is a mouthpiece for the Republicans. In an article in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Mother Jones, he said, "I personally am happy the president won. But we've been very careful as a company to be nonpartisan."

Off microphone, however, Atsinger and Epperson wield sizable power in conservative circles. In 1996 both were on the board of governors for the Council for National Policy, the secretive, ultra-right wing group that works behind the scenes to steer and shape conservative policy. In 2004, Atsinger co-founded Americans of Faith, a massive, church-based, get-out-the-vote campaign.

From 2000 to 2005, the duo gave more than $300,000 to Republican causes. They gave $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, and another $2,000 to Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Other recipients of Atsinger and Epperson's money include the legal fund and PAC set up by Tom DeLay. Salem even has their own PAC, which since 2000 has given $170,000 exclusively to Republican legislative candidates including Feeney and U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando.

Their radio stations aren't very good at shrouding their allegiance to conservative Republicans. In March 2004, Salem talk-show host Kevin McCullough solicited funds on his Salem-sponsored blog for John Thune, the Senate candidate who eventually ousted minority leader Tom Daschle. In Philadelphia, a Salem affiliate held numerous Operation: Vote events where people who registered to vote were eligible for cash prizes and a new car.

"Salem is great at mobilizing their core constituents," says Mills. "And they are conservative constituents."

During the Terri Schiavo standoff, Salem talk-show host James Dobson said on the air: "A woman's life hangs in the balance. We really have to defend this woman, because if she dies, the lives of thousands of people around the country can be killed, too." Dobson's co-host then listed the phone numbers of Florida legislators.

And despite the owner's self-described nonpartisanship, almost all Salem hosts indicated their favor for Bush in the 2004 election. On his election-day show, Bennett said flatly, "President Bush should be re-elected, and John Kerry defeated."

Nonetheless, Epperson says his stations don't take a political stand. "We provide content that listeners can't get anywhere else, but we're not pushing one side."

He also said Salem is excited about entering the Orlando market, and he thinks they can flourish here. Mills doesn't disagree.

"As a company they are very strong. They'll probably do very well [in Orlando]," he says. "But don't be fooled. Salem is the biggest cheerleader of the right wing."

jcarlson@orlandoweekly.com

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