In an era of closely divided elections and partisan polarization, a powerful, popular but insecure president resolved to silence hostile media voices by abusing IRS audits, pushing the Federal Communications Commission to launch a campaign of harassment, and even blocking broadcast licenses in a bid to ensure his iffy reelection.
These chilling developments bear no connection to the controversial term of Donald Trump; they all happened during the tenure of John F. Kennedy. Despite his reputation as a thoughtful, pragmatic liberal, JFK resorted to distinctly illiberal measures that, as it turned out, proved uniquely successful in censoring his most strident radio critics. That’s the conclusion of The Radio Right, an important new book by Paul Matzko, once a teacher of history at Penn State and now at the Cato Institute.
It is unfortunate that Matzko’s subtitle—“How a Band of Broadcasters Took On the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement”—makes his book sound more dramatic than it is, and the history he describes far more purposeful than it was. His “band of broadcasters” never even attempted to congeal into an organized movement and had all but disappeared from the media scene long before the 1980s and ’90s, when Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, and others constructed the crucial media component of the “modern conservative movement.” If anyone in the 21st century remembers, say, radio evangelist Billy James Hargis, it’s mostly in connection with tawdry sex scandals that marred the end of his long career—humiliations not even mentioned in Matzko’s mostly sympathetic and respectful narrative.
The other primary subject of The Radio Right is Carl McIntire, whose “Twentieth Century Reformation Hour” grew to a peak of 600 stations by 1964 and an estimated 20 million listeners before the FCC took it upon itself to engineer the show’s equally abrupt collapse. As with Hargis, McIntire had a sad quarter-century after his high-water mark before dying at 96 in 2002. With his radio presence vastly diminished if not entirely erased, McIntire failed at building a resort and conference center in Cape May, New Jersey (dubbed “The Christian Admiral Hotel”), before he acquired 300 acres near Cape Canaveral, where he planned a huge religious and educational center called “Gateway to the Stars,” including a “soaring replica” of Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem. These schemes crashed and burned on their launching pads despite millions purportedly raised from a dwindling corps of diehard listeners.
Given these hapless final acts, it’s hard to believe that McIntire, Hargis, and a handful of other religious right-wing broadcasters briefly name-checked by Matzko ever constituted a meaningful threat to the incoming Kennedy administration. But The Radio Right provides incontrovertible evidence of the overreaction inside Camelot.
Within weeks of taking office, the president joined his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to begin planning for a potentially difficult reelection campaign in 1964. The Kennedys worried specifically over “the extreme right wing” represented by the John Birch Society and radio stars such as McIntire, who appealed to the same blue-collar families that provided the Democratic Party with its most reliable base of support. To cope with the emerging threat, RFK reached out to Walter and Victor Reuther, progressive labor chieftains who led the powerful United Auto Workers. After several Washington meetings in 1961, RFK charged the Reuthers with preparing an analysis on how to counter the drift of working-class voters toward racist attitudes, sympathy for Southern segregationists, and resentment toward the allegedly pro-Communist leanings of East Coast elites—the same attitudes that would enable the rabble-rousing George Wallace’s presidential campaign to carry an appalling 13.5 percent of the popular vote just seven years later.
To counter such messages, the Reuthers prepared a 24-page evaluation entitled “The Radical Right in America Today,” known as the Reuther Memorandum. Warning of right-wing outlets springing up “like weeds” throughout the nation, the paper offered three basic strategies to reduce the influence of conservative broadcasters: gathering information about the content promulgated by the perceived “extremists,” using the IRS and persistent audits to undermine their financial support, and mobilizing the FCC to impose standards of “fairness” that would lead to supposedly greater balance on the airwaves. The administration managed to implement the Reuther Memorandum’s major recommendations and, Matzko claims, to slow “the advance of modern conservatism for the better part of a decade.” He insists that this underreported and deeply dubious initiative represented “the most successful episode of government censorship in America of the past half century.”
It’s a fascinating story, but Matzko oversells its importance by exaggerating both the influence of the radio stars he describes and the crushing impact of government policies in sealing their demise.
HE BEGINS with an impressive statistic: “By the early 1960s, a dozen right-wing broadcasters aired on a hundred or more radio stations nationwide.” As he later acknowledges, nearly all of these stations qualified as struggling mom-and-pop operations, particularly in the South, with scant possibility of reaching mass audiences. In fact, one of the factors enabling the emergence of the “Radio Right” was the shift in resources and emphasis by powerful broadcast corporations from radio to television after World War II, leaving local independent stations desperate for programming to fill up their daily schedules. Ambitious radio preachers would buy time on local stations, providing desperately needed infusions of cash, and then hope to make it back (and then some) with solicitations of contributions, often as modest as $5 at a time, to keep their ministries alive.
The record shows that nearly all of the conservative programs of the day ran less (and sometimes much less) than an hour a day. McIntire’s “Twentieth Century Reformation Hour” actually provided only half an hour of daily Reformation—a far cry from the three hours, live, provided every weekday by the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys (or Michael Medveds, for that matter) of our day, without the same ability to shape opinion. In fact, of the dozen broadcasters Matzko cites who broadcast on more than 100 stations, eight of them registered so little lasting impact that he never bothers to mention their names or describe the course of their careers.
That doesn’t mean that the most prominent of these worthies couldn’t claim their share of triumphs some 60 years ago: Matzko colorfully reconstructs the great “Polish Ham Boycott” of 1962 that represented the most conspicuous success of the Radio Right. The Kennedy administration had been attempting to develop increased trade with selected Iron Curtain countries (Poland and Yugoslavia in particular) in order to introduce elements of capitalism and to encourage less dependence on Moscow. This led to burning indignation by Carl McIntire and his contemporaries, who mobilized local activism through the power of poetry:
They fashioned a bullet from that iron ore
And to stop it, your son is called to the corps.
“Killed in action” reads the brief telegram.
Correction: “Killed in your kitchen by a Polish ham.”
Ultimately, retailers across the country seem to have buckled to the political pressure—though it’s also possible that even without radio rants and sidewalk demonstrations, the bulk of American consumers would have felt limited attraction to Yugoslav woven baskets or canned Polish hams.
Similarly flamboyant, but far less successful, “Operation Midnight Ride” featured Billy James Hargis touring 22 states with the demagogic former general Edwin Walker to alert the populace not only that “Commies are coming” but that they had already arrived. Forced out of the Army after imposing a “Pro-Blue” political indoctrination program on troops under his command, Walker openly promoted teachings of the John Birch Society, including claims that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower all functioned as Communist dupes if not outright agents of the Soviet Empire. Relieved of command, Walker resigned from the Army and eventually found his way to Mississippi, a state he praised as “a model of freedom from Oppression and Reconstruction—from the tyranny within our own white race.” After Walker played a prominent role in riots against the integration of the University of Mississippi, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had him arrested on charges of sedition and insurrection.
Hargis used his radio show to defend Walker and to promote him as an independent candidate for president to oppose the Kennedy brothers he despised. On their tour, Hargis and Walker spoke to a total of 30,000 enthusiasts, each of whom paid $1 or $1.25 for the privilege. When they arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, the notorious Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Conner personally presented them with keys to the city.
But their grand tour ended early when, during a break from the rollicking rallies, a would-be assassin took a shot at Walker while he worked at a desk in his home. Wounded by wood fragments from the window frame, the general quickly recovered, but the shooter, neither identified nor apprehended, went on to a more famous target seven months later. Lee Harvey Oswald would use the same rifle to take his world-shattering shots at Walker’s nemesis, John F. Kennedy.
After his recovery, the general remained a fixture on the radical right but never ran for president. Matzko maintains that if “Walker had been a better public speaker, he, rather than George Wallace, might have been the most infamous third-party candidate of the 1960s.” Doubtful; Walker’s dreary, droning delivery inspired so much more ennui than activism that it not only doomed Operation Midnight Ride, but made any long-term political or media career unthinkable. Moreover, the shelf life of the 1960s radio right had just about run out by the time George Wallace made his run against “pointy-headed intellectuals” in 1968.
Matzko focuses on the program of harassment and downright suppression that, following the blueprint of the Reuther Memorandum, continued to unfold through the years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Most surprising, the administration and the Democratic National Committee enlisted the assistance of the National Council of Churches in efforts to deny tax exemptions to the most radical broadcast ministries. The powerful NCC (and its 40 million members) reacted predictably to McIntire, Hargis, and others who questioned their status as authentic Christians while denouncing the liberal pieties that had replaced traditional doctrine for most mainline denominations.
Matzko also makes the fascinating claim that the term “mainline” to denote the more posh and cosmopolitan churches actually emerged in Philadelphia in association with McIntire who, for 60 years, pastored a breakaway “Bible Presbyterian Church” in nearby Collingswood, New Jersey. The “Mainline” referred to a commuter rail route that used to run past the exclusive neighborhoods where the radio revivalist’s well-heeled opponents persistently prevailed.
The implosion of McIntire’s media empire came at the hands of the FCC. The most engrossing pages of Matzko’s book involve the agency’s development and abuse of the “Fairness Doctrine,” named with Orwellian misdirection. The most debilitating aspect of that policy, imposed with highly selective vigor against voices on the radical right, involved the “personal attack” clause, requiring stations to provide prompt, detailed, formal notification to any public figure criticized or mocked on the air, along with the offer of free airtime for response and rebuttal. Since most of the conservative broadcasters of that era purchased their time, this meant not only opening their microphones to the opposition but opening their wallets to magnify hostile voices.
And yet, in the late 1960s, McIntire made concerted efforts to abide by these rules and even included programming on his flagship station in Philadelphia that invited regular guests from every available point of view. The FCC examiner who reviewed his application for license renewal found strongly in his favor, declaring that “it is almost inconceivable that any station could have broadcast more variegated opinions upon so many issues.” While making clear his personal distaste for McIntire’s own strident politics, the communications bureaucrat indicated a strong preference for his “rough and tumble and fervent rhetoric” over the “diluted parlor chat” on rival stations. Despite this endorsement by a career FCC attorney and committed “New Deal Democrat,” the federal agency overruled him 18 months later, apparently swayed by the impassioned intervention of the National Council of Churches.
By the early 1970s, Matzko reports, the Radio Right was broadcasting “on fewer stations and with more tenuous finances than at any time in the previous decade.” Though he insists that mid-century favorites such as Hargis and McIntire had deeply affected politics and “built the modern conservative movement,” the timing of their rise and fall undermines his argument. The peak of power for the radio reactionaries, in terms of audience and revenue, turns out to have been 1964, the same year that Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” swept 61 percent of the popular vote, crushing Barry Goldwater’s “a choice, not an echo” campaign with 486 electoral votes and winning control of more than two-thirds of both the House and Senate. The rapid decline and collapse of Hargis, McIntire, and colleagues came just eight years later in 1972, when Richard Nixon carried 49 states—and also turned down McIntire’s forlorn pleas for rescue from the overbearing FCC.
The same anomalies persist to the present day and also cast light on vast differences between the pioneering renegades of the 1950s and ’60s and those of us who continue to ply the radio trade in a very different media environment.
TALK RADIO played almost no role in Ronald Reagan’s two decisive elections in 1980 and 1984, but his administration played the essential role in clearing the way for a renewed medium of political news talk. By diluting the Fairness Doctrine and its easily manipulated attempts to mandate governmentally enforced “balance,” the Reaganauts made possible the emergence of Rush Limbaugh and his distinctive blend of uncompromising opinion and entertainment value. Limbaugh’s rise allowed “conservative talk” to service a robust and eager niche market among a dizzying plethora of media alternatives.
The predecessors depicted in Matzko’s book flourished in a setting with far more limited consumer selections; television, the only broadcast competition for radio, offered at best a half dozen choices in even the most significant markets. Today, the cable options alone are overwhelming, not to mention podcasts, social media, websites to every taste, video games, and more. In this context, commanding the fierce loyalty of even a tiny sliver of the overall market can provide the basis for a mighty media empire. And we are talking about slivers. The PR line is that Limbaugh still reaches 20 million listeners a week, but that number doesn’t mean 20 million people are listening to Limbaugh for 15 hours over five days; it is the tally of those who have heard at least 15 minutes at least once during the week. Still, that is more than enough; any show that attracts merely 5 percent of the listening audience on a regular basis in any given market will be considered highly successful and will be hugely profitable. That is why big-time talkers seldom try to assemble broad coalitions across the political spectrum but aim instead for that activist core of true believers. In this context, the slavish on-air devotion to the cult of Trump made sound business sense, even when polls showed consistent national majorities disapproving of his leadership. By reaffirming their loyalty to a perpetually embattled president, radio hosts hoped to replicate the unshakable devotion that Trump himself inspired from his most ardent followers.
As to the modest independent stations that made the radio right a flourishing force a half-century ago, to a surprising extent they’re still there, though with far less local programming. Running syndicated shows saves money by eliminating the cost of salaries to in-house talkers and producers. The national companies provide stations with programming for free, in return for a few minutes of commercial time each hour the syndicators can sell national sponsors.
Perhaps the chief reason that the “modern conservative movement” of Matzko’s subtitle looks so different from the radio right he describes is the shrinking of the religious component that dominated in the 1960s. Certainly, traditional believers remain overrepresented in the talk-radio audience, just as they are in the Republican Party in general, but no one could classify today’s most successful shows as “ministries.” Leading hosts don’t have to beg for donations to allow them to buy time; instead, they want you to buy high-tech pillows or nutritional supplements from sponsors who buy the time for them. Religious programming hasn’t disappeared, but Christian “preaching and teaching” stations now serve as a separate category and still often sell blocs of time to numerous ministries.
The Radio Right makes no attempt to cover these more recent developments, let alone to speculate on the way the radio landscape will rearrange itself for the new world that emerges after the earthquakes and volcanoes of the Trump era. But this book nonetheless provides an arresting account of quirky, determined outsiders building—and then largely losing—an eager, durable audience. In a moment of insufferable whining over alleged “censorship” by private companies that choose the sort of content they deliver, Matzko also offers a necessary reminder of the ugly brute force of real governmental censorship when delivered from the very peak of presidential power.
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