Listeners to talk radio station KVOR (740 AM) in Colorado Springs may no longer hear quite so much railing about a rigged election or calls for violent protest.
Cumulus Media, a talk radio company with a roster of popular right-wing personalities, including Dan Bongino, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro, has ordered its employees at 416 stations nationwide, including KVOR, to knock off the “stolen election” dog whistles.
As the world witnessed images of a pro-Trump mob breaching the halls of Congress on Jan. 6, Brian Philips, an executive vice president of Cumulus, issued a memo to staff: “We need to help induce national calm NOW,” it began.
“Cumulus and Westwood One (the company’s syndication arm) will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended,” the memo said. “The election has resolved, there are no alternate acceptable ‘paths.’ Please inform your staffs that we have ZERO TOLERANCE for any suggestion otherwise… There will be no dog-whistle talk about ‘stolen elections,’ ‘civil wars’ or any other language that infers violent public disobedience is warranted, ever.”
Was it a sudden attack of conscience or fear of blowback?
The memo was first reported by Inside Music Media, which headlined the Cumulus crackdown “The day talk radio died.” According to the publication, “some employees felt the sudden change in direction was so onerous that it in effect dictated what air talent could not broach on the air even after many years of tolerating if not encouraging controversial political talk for the purpose of increasing ratings. Some employees were wondering what took corporate so long to silence talkers who incited action, even if it was not physical rioting.”
Representatives at Cumulus’ corporate offices in Atlanta did not respond to requests for comment.
Other conservative talk radio outlets, including Salem Media’s KNUS 710 AM and iHeartMedia’s KOA 850 AM in Denver, have been less public and less pointed in tempering hosts’ language, in some cases merely suggesting they refrain from encouraging listeners to gather in rallies or protests.
Conservative talk radio has been a prime source of evidence-free speculation about election fraud. Levin, who also hosts a show on Fox News, has proclaimed the Constitution is being “destroyed” by Democrats and the media. He has backed President Donald Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election and, on the day before the riot, described the routine vote to certify the election of Joe Biden as president as an act of “tyranny.”
Rush Limbaugh, a prominent backer of Trump’s baseless claim that the election was “stolen,” has stirred anger on the right since the late 1980s. However, “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” heard on KVOR but syndicated by another company, Premiere Networks, is not subject to the Cumulus directive.
On Tuesday, the Limbaugh show continued the pro-Trump, anti-left drumbeat. Substitute host Ken Matthews told listeners the fences erected around the U.S. Capitol following the violent insurgence have a “very socialist, very Communistic look. AOC must be thrilled,” he said, referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal Democrat from New York.
Industry observers see the Cumulus crackdown on extremist rhetoric as an effort to mollify advertisers’ concerns about being associated with programs that could be inciting violence, or to ward off any legal challenges.
The motivation for the crackdown is “a combination of corporate pressure through fear of losing advertisers, and some sense of responsibility that this (insurrection) was a bridge too far,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“The question is how sustained the corporate response will be,” Culver said. Currently, companies including AT&T, JPMorgan and Coca-Cola have paused their political contributions to the 147 Republicans who objected to certifying the election results, for instance. “Is it performative in the moment or will it last? It feels unlike any moment I’ve seen before.”
Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America” and scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Cumulus move wasn’t so much a change of heart: “More to the point, they decided it’s a danger to the bottom line. It’s pre-emptive.”
The industry has long witnessed “no-buy lists,” when advertisers boycott certain controversial programs on the political left and right. But Rosenwald said Cumulus might fear a boycott of all of the company’s broadcasts and podcasts.
“What if the NFL or some other sports entity boycotted?” he said. “And as a station owner, Cumulus has to worry about the Federal Communications Commission at license-renewal time. There’s a concern: Could this hurt our company more broadly?”
The threat of firings may not be realized. “It wouldn’t shock me if there are multiple tiers of rules” applying differently to a local host in a smaller market than the company’s biggest stars, Rosenwald said. “If you start to bring blowback, there are problems. Levin (heard on KNUS 710 AM in Denver) is the guy to watch. His whole brand is being loud, angry, anti-establishment. But he makes the company a lot of money.”
Lynn Schofield Clark, professor and chair of the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver, takes a broader view, suggesting public opinion has changed when it comes to regulating media.
Clark was surprised to see “the rather quick about-face from Cumulus” as the company threatened dismissal of those who continued to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
“I think that this has to be viewed in the larger context of a welcome shift in public opinion regarding the role that largely unregulated media entities have played in allowing disinformation to circulate,” she said, noting the congressional hearings of Facebook and Twitter heads Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, respectively, and the FTC’s antitrust suit against Facebook and Amazon.
“This public opinion shift seems to be supporting a greater appetite for the regulation of media platforms than has been the case in the past,” she said.
Additionally, she noted, “in the past few days, we’ve also seen large sponsors – and notably Big Tech – pull away from Trump.”
Twitter banned Trump, Amazon kicked the far-right social network Parler off its web-hosting service, Facebook banned Trump indefinitely and scoured any “stop the steal” rhetoric.
Earlier this month a worker at Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems sued the Trump campaign and conservative media personalities and outlets for promoting baseless conspiracy theories involving the election systems.
“I do think the business model and policy environment for conservative radio is leading entities like Cumulus to find that it’s in their best interests to put up guardrails on speech, both to please advertisers and to engage in self-regulation to avoid further scrutiny and possibly outside regulation,” DU’s Clark said in an email.
“I think many more people are coming to realize that there is a difference between freedom of speech and the platforms that host that speech,” she wrote. “And what we’re seeing is a reminder that removing topics — or possibly even certain people — from the airwaves is the prerogative of private industries, who may suddenly see some big benefits to distancing themselves from that speech.”
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