By Michael Brendan Dougherty | March 28, 2011
The King Dude is shuffling papers, clearing his throat. The revolution he leads will not be televised, but it will be patched in by satellite during the morning drive. The King Dude is bouncing in his seat, his feet dangling about a foot above the floor. His voice is beamed into space from Sirius XM’s studio in Washington, D.C., then back to earth and through your dashboard where it explodes, pops, and fizzes in your skull like a fireworks show dangerously out of control. In approximately the next 45 seconds he will reference “The Matrix,” The Lord of the Rings, the “Virginia Debate on Ratification of the Constitution,” and “Idiocracy” before concluding that the Union should be busted up and the federal government drowned in the Potomac.
Mike Church is the King Dude behind the microphone. A 20-year veteran of radio-gabbing, he describes himself as a recovering “neocon” and red-team true believer. His daily show on Sirius XM radio was once a fresher, more entertaining echo of the form pioneered by Rush Limbaugh and taken up by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. But now if one had to describe the Mike Church Show, you might say it’s a bit like listening to George Mason, if the revolutionary Virginia patriot were a pop-culture savant given to stream-of-consciousness impersonations and jonesing hard for a second American revolution.
Church isn’t satisfied with repeating timid suggestions for a policy change here and a tax-rebate there. “We are all talking about the same things we’ve been talking about since Barry frickin’ Goldwater, or when Harry frickin’ Truman was sending boys to go die in Korea!” he shouts into the microphone. “This beast that is the federal government is unmanageable, it must be dismantled.” His dissatisfaction with conservatism-as-usual has made the King Dude the most radical man on radio.
Mike Church was born in 1962 to a “very Catholic” New Orleans family. “They will canonize my grandmother, St. Perl,” he says. But his immediate kin had little of the holy-card serenity. “My mother was a wild child, still is,” he says. She broke off her marriage early, changed her name, and moved Mike to Virginia, eventually remarrying and settling in Virginia Beach. “My mother didn’t bother to tell me that there is a guy in New Orleans who claims he is my dad,” he notes. As a teenager, Mike began to visit his father and fell in love with the Big Easy. “In Louisiana then you were an adult at 17. So the day after I turned 17, I left—didn’t tell my mother goodbye or nothing. Called her up, told her to stop crying, and I’ve been in New Orleans ever since,”he says.
In the early ’80s, Church joined his father’s family business in thoroughbred horse racing. But Church had a wandering soul. “I loved being around the horses, but there are no vacations in the horse-race game,” he recalls. “It is a 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year business.” He would go on to start a T-shirt screen-printing company, which he oversaw into the early ’90s. Then came his first awakening.
“One day, I heard this guy Rush Limbaugh, and thought ‘What the hell is this?’” he recalls. “I had no desire, no political experience, didn’t talk about it, didn’t read. I was your basic 30-year-old sports kid. I had no political knowledge, none. Other than that I voted for Reagan twice. And [Limbaugh] was saying things that made sense to me, a lot of sense.” Soon Church was subscribing to the Conservative Chronicle, a collection of syndicated columns from the right.
Church started hanging out at a 1000-watt station that broadcast to New Orleans, “if the weather was good and your antenna was just right.” He interned there and shortly after an ownership change was asked to submit a demo. “And on April 21, 1992, it happened. They stick you in front of that microphone, and there is nobody there. Just a guy named Jim Summers. He turned that microphone on and pointed at me, and I went”—Church makes a deer-in-headlights stare, imitating the moment of radio-silence that inaugurated his career—“Then it was just like a vomit, the words. Haven’t stopped since.”
As this was Louisiana in the early ’90s, political radio could be volatile. Church’s first station, WTIX, was so desperate for cash that they sold airtime to David Duke, the erstwhile Klan leader and sometime political candidate. “He was paying our bills, a thousand dollars a week.” Church says. His show came on right after Duke’s. “Try following that,” Church says, laughing, “Sitting in that room with him you come to realize he doesn’t know anything. He’s a one-trick pony.” Church saw that absent any kind of knowledgeable conservatism, some Southerners were inclined to scapegoat anyone they suspected of being on the dole, particularly minorities.
Radio life isn’t an easy game. Stations close or change hands. And when it is political talk, people get offended. Church did the usual tour and lost more than a few gigs. “First it was New Orleans—station closes. Then Raleigh—my big mouth, mayor didn’t like me, got me fired. Miami—Clear Channel buys station, I survive. Big mouth gets me fired. Huntsville—left voluntarily, to go to Charlotte,” he says. “I took that station from number 12 in the ratings to 2. Some old lady called, and I wouldn’t take her crap. I called her an ‘old douchebag.’ Three days later I was fired.” After Charlotte, exile.
Church went back to New Orleans and took a job removing pylons from Lake Pontchartrain, all the while making inquiries into satellite radio, then about to launch. Eventually he struck a deal with Sirius, knowing he could stay in a Louisiana studio as long as he had an ISDN line that could carry his voice to their satellites. Along his radio odyssey, Church had mastered the art of hosting: resets, loops, good caller skills. He beams when he says that he was always “in the top 3” during his time slot. “You have to be entertaining. If you can’t entertain them, you can’t lock them in.”
When Sirius took off, Church had the first talk show on it. He pioneered a motor-mouth style, dubbed political opponents “citizens of Libtardia,” and filled the air with political song parodies performed by actual musicians rather than hack producers with a karaoke track. The King Dude was cruising until 2007, when he had on author Kevin Gutzman to discuss The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution. “He was saying things I never heard before,” says Church. “You get a lot of books when you do talk radio. I never read them. I read that one.”
Shortly after this Church watched Ron Paul stand up to Rudolph Giuliani in a presidential debate, where Paul put 9/11 in the context of blowback. “I started thinking about what I had learned from Gutzman, and it started to make sense,” Church says, “and that’s the hardest conversion. That’s the one that the Hannitys, Becks, Limbaughs, and Levins will never come to. Either for financial reasons or for pride reasons, they will never come to that view of the minimalist foreign policy.”
Suddenly the show and the man had a new sense of purpose. Church began reading the debates and letters of the Founding Fathers, even memorizing large excerpts. He developed solidly Anti-Federalist leanings. “Patrick Henry and his guys were right, it all came to pass. Madison and his guys were wrong, none of that came to pass. There is only one intellectually honest way you can approach it.” And if Church couldn’t find guidance for some issue in the Founding Fathers, he looked to a succeeding generation. Between comments on Lady Gaga or Donald Trump, Church will sprinkle excerpts from floor speeches by George Frisbie Hoar, a Massachusetts senator who opposed U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. “Frisbie Hoar was saying then the same things Ron Paul is saying today,” Church avers.
Church has become what he calls a “paleoconservative,” believing in liberty underpinned by an enduring moral order. While he still teases liberals, he just as often tells his listeners to live virtuously if they want to live as free men and women. “I’m no longer in the business of demonizing people who disagree with me,” he said as an aside on a recent broadcast. “People are socialized or educated into their views,” he explained later, so he has opened up a side business as an educator, producing two animated films about the Founding Fathers, “The Road to Independence” and “The Spirit of 1776.”
His listeners have been catching on. “The most rewarding thing is when someone calls you and repeats it back to you,” he says, “Someone who says ‘Mason says, such and such.’ They embrace it and internalize it themselves.” Almost imperceptibly, Church is conducting a seminar on the Founders tucked within a laugh-out-loud conservative talk show. And it is a close fidelity to the Founders and their thought that leads him to his radical conclusions. He finished a recent segment with a flourish: “Is there any doubt in your mind that if we reanimated the Founding Fathers and they came here today they would look at what we’re doing and say, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to DISSOLVE the political bonds which have connected them with one another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them.’
“We had 213 really good years,” he concludes, “can’t we just settle this amicably? You get the kids, I’ll get a couple of the cars. This is sanity. That doesn’t mean Kentucky is not going to make partnerships with Tennessee, Oklahoma. … That means that this particular political experiment is over. It is a failure. The Constitution is dead; bury the goddamn thing and get over it.”
One might be tempted to compare Church to Glenn Beck. After all, Beck has also spun out of the mainstream of conservative talk in an attempt to re-educate his listeners. He recently tried to explain the Federal Reserve System and 20th-century monetary policy to Fox News viewers using cupcakes. But Beck’s syllabus is focused almost exclusively on tying modern American liberals to the last century’s progressive movement and then drawing sketchy lines between them and radical Islam or Chairman Mao. His goal is to find ways to exaggerate the differences between modern Republicans and Democrats—to jigger together an intellectual slide-rule that nudges John Boehner closer to Thomas Jefferson and Nancy Pelosi beside Vladimir Lenin. By contrast, Church focuses on the baleful similarities the modern parties share and how both depart from the Founders and their vision.
During his interview with TAC, Church brings up one a less remarked upon motivation of our Founding Fathers: the desire for fame. “Those guys wanted to be famous. They knew they were involved in some serious affairs,” he says. He recalls that Hamilton hid lists of which Federalist papers he wrote in a place where his law partner would find them. “Of course you don’t need the list,” Church says, “you can tell just by reading them. That’s dull boring-ass Madison, this is lively energetic Hamilton. It just jumps off the page.”
Church also desires greater fame and accolades. He doesn’t want to be lumped together with “dull boring-ass Hannity” as just another radio talker. But the fact that his animated docudramas are never discussed in other outlets chafes at him. He believes he has been locked out of Fox News. “We’ve had four Independence Days since my movie came out, you’d think Fox would invite me on, but instead they have Newt Gingrich,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me, but I just internalize it and use it as motivation. Someday this too shall pass.”
After noting that about ten figures dominate the right’s airwaves, Church is willing to speculate on the future of his competition. “We think the Beck bulb is going to get unscrewed and fade to nothing. He was right time, right place, right message. He is no longer right time, right place, right message. That gig will have to be filled with someone. Who knows? I might get a shot.” No one can say he hasn’t earned it after four years of unpaid radio, followed a long series of ratings wars and unexplainable pink slips, topped off with the most successful and longest-running political talk show on satellite radio.
But Church’s newfound faith in the Fathers and the steady gig at Sirius go a long way toward pleasing him. He lives with his second wife across the lake from New Orleans in Madisonville, a town of 1,800 politically and racially diverse citizens whom Church holds up as “proof that Americans can live together.” On weekdays before the sun rises, he troops a few miles to his custom-built studio in Mandeville and runs his big mouth in defense of small-town life. Each hour of the morning drive he broadcasts on Sirius XM’s “Patriot” channel, a fitting station from which to pitch big American ideas at a big American Leviathan.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor.