How to Lose Your Job in Talk Radio
“Imagine these startling headlines with the nation at war in the Pacific six months after Dec. 7, 1941: “No Signs of Japanese Involvement in Pearl Harbor Attack! Faulty Intelligence Cited; Wolfowitz: Mistakes Were Made.”
Or how about an equally disconcerting World War II headline from the European theater: “German Army Not Found in France, Poland, Admits President; Rumsfeld: ‘Oops!’, Powell Silent; ‘Bring ’Em On,’ Says Defiant FDR.”It seems to me that when there is reason to go to war, it should be self-evident. The Secretary of State should not need to convince a skeptical world with satellite photos of a couple of Toyota pickups and a dumpster. And faced with a legitimate casus belli, it should not be hard to muster an actual constitutional declaration of war. Now in the absence of a meaningful Iraqi role in the 9/11 attack and the mysterious disappearance of those fearsome Weapons of Mass Destruction, there might be some psychic satisfaction to be had in saying, “I told you so!” But it sure isn’t doing my career as a talk-show host any good.The criterion of self-evidence was only one of dozens of objections I raised before the elective war in Iraq on my afternoon drive-time talk show on KFYI in Phoenix. Many of the other arguments are familiar to readers of The American Conservative.
But the case for war was a shape-shifter, skillfully morphing into a new rationale as quickly as the old one failed to withstand scrutiny. For a year before the war, I scrambled to keep up with the latest incarnations of the neocon case. Most were pitifully transparent and readily exposed. (Besides the aluminum tubes and the trailers that had Bush saying, “Gotcha,” does anyone remember those death-dealing drones? Never have third-world, wind-up, rubber-band, balsa-wood airplanes instilled so much fear in so many people.) Still, my management didn’t like my being out of step with the president’s parade of national hysteria, and the war-fevered spectators didn’t care to be told they were suffering illusions. So after three years, I was replaced on my primetime talk show by the Frick and Frack of Bushophiles, two giggling guys who think everything our tongue-tied president does is “Most excellent, dude!” I have been relegated to the later 7–10 p.m. slot, when most people, even in a congested commuting market like Phoenix, are already home watching TV.
Why did this happen? Why only a couple of months after my company picked up the option on my contract for another year in the fifth-largest city in the United States, did it suddenly decide to relegate me to radio Outer Darkness? The answer lies hidden in the oil-and-water incompatibility of these two seemingly disconnected phrases: “Criticizing Bush” and “Clear Channel.”
Criticizing Bush? Well then, must I be some sort of rug-chewing liberal? Not even close. As a boy, I stood on the grass in a small Arizona town square when Barry Goldwater officially began his 1964 presidential run. And I was there for the last official event of the Goldwater campaign. My job was to recruit and manage my fellow junior-high and high-school conservatives in a phone bank operation, calling supporters to fill up as many buses as possible to help pack the stadium—a show of strength for the nation’s television viewers. Of course that’s an insignificant role to play in a presidential campaign, but it was pretty heady stuff for a 14-year-old kid from Flagstaff.
I broke with Goldwater in 1976 over his decision to back Gerald Ford instead of Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford was a perfectly decent, if ordinary, Republican (who could have taught the big-spending W. Bush a thing or two about the use of the veto!). But I took my conservatism seriously. Reagan was clearly the champion of the conservative cause.
Perhaps I’m just anti-military? No. I am proud of my honorable service and of the Army Commendation Medal I was awarded. I also spent a good deal of time in the 1980s as a member of the Speakers Bureau of High Frontier, promoting Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense policy unlike today’s in that it was actually designed to defend the American people.
I have been a Republican precinct committeeman; my county Republican Party elected me its “Man of the Year” in 1988; I have written speeches for conservative candidates and office holders; and I have been employed by statewide and national political organizations and campaigns, including the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Despite my disappointment in Goldwater for not supporting Reagan, I was there when a small band of the faithful—no more than four or five of us—gathered for a potluck dinner to support the creation of a brand-new public-policy think tank named after “Mr. Conservative.” The enterprise blossomed, and I was honored several months ago to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the Goldwater Institute’s 15th Anniversary Gala.
I can assure you then that my criticism of Bush has been on the basis of long-held conservative principles. It begins with respect for the wisdom of the Founders and the Constitution’s division of power and delegation of authority, and extends to an adherence to the principles of governmental restraint and fiscal prudence. It proved to be a message that was more than a little inconvenient for my employer.
Clear Channel Communications, the 800-pound gorilla of the radio business, owns an astonishing 1,200 stations in 50 states, including Newstalk 550 KFYI in Phoenix, where I do the afternoon program … or did until last summer. The principals of Clear Channel, a Texas-based company, have been substantial contributors to George W. Bush’s fortunes since before he became president. In fact, Texas billionaire Tom Hicks can be said to be the man who made Bush a millionaire when he purchased the future president’s baseball team, the Texas Rangers. Tom Hicks is now vice chairman of Clear Channel. Clear Channel stations were unusually visible during the war with what corporate flacks now call “pro-troop rallies.” In tone and substance, they were virtually indistinguishable from pro-Bush rallies. I’m sure the administration, which faced a host of regulatory issues affecting Clear Channel, was not displeased.
Criticism of Bush and his ever-shifting pretext for a first-strike war (what exactly was it we were pre-empting anyway?) has proved so serious a violation of Clear Channel’s cultural taboo that only a good contract has kept me from being fired outright. Roxanne Cordonier, a radio personality at Clear Channel’s WMYI 102.5 in Greenville, S.C., didn’t have it as good. Cordonier, who worked under the name Roxanne Walker, was the South Carolina Broadcasters Association’s 2002 Radio Personality of the Year. That apparently wasn’t enough for Clear Channel. Her lawsuit against the company alleges that she was belittled on the air and reprimanded by her station for opposing the invasion of Iraq. Then she was fired.
They couldn’t really fire me, at least without paying me a substantial sum of money, but I was certainly belittled on the air for opposing the war. The other KFYI talk-show hosts—so bloodthirsty that they made Bush apologists and superhawks Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity sound moderate—vilified me almost daily. As a former radio-station owner myself, it was a little hard to believe management would allow one of their key hosts to be trashed day in and day out on their own airwaves. After all, we sell radio time on the basis of its ability to influence people’s behavior. A wiser programming approach would have been to showcase me as an object of curiosity, with a challenge to listeners to see if they could discover where I had gone wrong or how I was missing the imminent threat Iraq posed to the American people. No doubt the constant vilification I received and my heterodoxy on the war cost me audience during the interlude. It was certainly enough to get pictures of me morphing into those of the French president posted on the Free Republic Web site during the “freedom fries” silliness. A banner there read, “Boycott Charles Chirac Goyette at KFYI radio Phoenix, AZ! Protest against the Charles Goyette Show from 4-7pm at KFYI for his leftist subervsive [sic] Bush-bashing rants. Turn off KFYI radio for the Charles Goyette Show! No liberal scum talk shows on KFYI!” Radio does provoke people, doesn’t it?
One Clear Channel executive had me take an unexpected day off for the sin of reporting the breaking news on March 27, 2003, that neocon hawk Richard Perle, of the Defense Policy Board, had relinquished his chairmanship under scrutiny of his business dealings and for blaspheming that Donald Rumsfeld was the worst Secretary of Defense since Robert McNamara. So great were these transgressions that the radio gods themselves must have been aghast at my impiety. I explained in conference-room confrontations that both positions were completely respectable points of view. The comparison with McNamara had been made repeatedly in subsequent days in the mainstream media. I specifically cited “The McLaughlin Group” the following Friday and the New York Times the following Monday, and in describing the Perle resignation, I relied upon details from both Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and from syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington. “Well, then,” they explained, the problem was “the emotionalism” of my remarks. Imagine that, emotionalism in talk radio? I reminded them that for years we had run promotions identifying KFYI as “the Place with More Passion,” where the Charles Goyette Show was positioned as “Fearless Talk Radio!”
Clear Channel made it clear—“With you, I feel like I’m managing the Dixie Chicks,” said my program director—that they would have liked to fire me anyway. While a well-drafted contract made that difficult, it did not prevent them from tucking me away outside prime time.
So I’m a talk-show war casualty. My contract expires in a few more months and—my iconoclasm being noted—it is not likely it will be renewed. Among the survivors at my station: one host who wanted to nuke Afghanistan (he bills himself as “your voice of reason and moderation”) and another who upon learning that 23-year-old Mideast peace activist Rachel Corrie had been run over by an Israeli bulldozer shouted, “Back up and run over her again!” As he doesn’t quite get some of the important distinctions in these debates, such as that Iranians should not be called Arabs, we would hope that he’s not taken too seriously. Likewise my replacements in the afternoon drive slot, brought in for glamorizing the war and billed as “The Comedy Channel meets Talk Radio.” If you remember the “Saturday Night Live” skit “Superfans” with Mike Myers and Chris Farley—“Who’s stronger, God or da Bulls?” “Da Bulls!”—then you get the idea. Only instead of “da Bulls,” it’s three hours every afternoon of “da Bush!” Expect to hear more insightful topics like “So Who’s Tougher: Michael Jordan or Donald Rumsfeld?”I’ve seen how war fever infects a people. And I was in a no-win situation, with an audience pre-screened by virtue of 11 hours a day of screaming war frenzy—unlistenable for the uninfected—that surrounded my time slot. So I knew there would be a personal price for opposing the war, and I was prepared to pay it. But as a lover of the rough and tumble of public debate and the contest of ideas, I am disappointed at what is happening in my industry. At least at Clear Channel, there’s only one word for the belief that talk radio is still a fair and fearless search for the truth: “Un-Bull-ieveable!” ____________________________________
Charles Goyette was named “Best Talk Show Host of 2003” by the Phoenix New Times.