Today at 9 a.m., radio host Michael Smerconish started talking from a studio of SiriusXM satellite radio. “The Michael Smerconish Program” is on SiriusXM’s “Politics of the United States” Channel 124, a “non-partisan” setup that Smerconish insists is unlike conventional terrestrial radio. “I can tell you who won’t be leading into me” on the SiriusXM schedule, he says: “Limbaugh, Beck or Hannity.”
Those fellows, says Smerconish, are “amazing entertainers,” masters of the radio medium — not to mention dividers of the United States of America. “The problem for the country, I think, is that too many [people] cannot differentiate between entertainment and substance. The country is paying a price for this brand of polarized media. … Too many politicians are taking their cues from people with microphones,” he says.
Strange words from a guy who makes a living speaking into a microphone. Smerconish burst into radio in Philadelphia in the early ’90s. On Friday, he did his last show on Philadelphia station WPHT 1210 AM, which was syndicated into 80 markets around the country. He says he’s moving to SiriusXM to provide a species of “nonideological” programming, as distinct from regular old radio’s penchant for “contributing to incivility and gridlock.”
The medium, he says, has become “too old, too white, too male and too angry, just like the Republican Party. Why should I continue to sell vegan burgers at McDonald’s?”
Marc Rayfield, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio and CBS Digital, Philadelphia, has three words for Smerconish’s politics: “left of center.” In 2010, Smerconish left the Republican Party after 30 years of “active membership.” A manifesto that Smerconish published on the Huffington Post noted, “The national GOP is a party of exclusion and litmus tests, dominated on social issues by the religious right, with zero discernible outreach by the national party to anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within its parameters. Instead, the GOP has extended itself to its fringe while throwing under the bus long-standing members like New York Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a McCain-Palin supporter in 2008 who told me she voted with her Republican leadership 90 percent of the time before running for Congress last fall.”
He tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “I’m conservative on fiscal issues and the war on terror. I’ve long been for legalizing pot and prostitution, and I could care less about same-sex couples.”
The radio host’s evolution toward the center or center-left, says Rayfield, is not what management had “hoped” to get from Smerconish. “There’s little passion in the middle of the road,” says Rayfield, alleging a limp radio audience for liberal stuff as well. Talkers magazine ranks Smerconish’s weekly audience in the same neighborhood as Don Imus and tech guru Kim Komando: around 1.75 million. Conservative personalities — including the trio mentioned by Smerconish — dominate the upper ranks of talk radio. SiriusXM has 24 million subscribers and claims to have double that number in total listeners, though it doesn’t break out the numbers channel by channel.
Exactly how Smerconish ended up at SiriusXM is a matter of some disagreement. Smerconish insists he made the call to separate from WPHT and to take his wares to a channel “with no ideological baggage,” he says.
When asked about the same topic, Rayfield notes that the host’s move leftward “didn’t serve our core values. We wanted to remain conservative. … We had been talking about the direction of the radio station for some time and we came to a mutual conclusion that we were not necessarily the best fit for each other,” he says. These days, says Rayfield, WPHT is abandoning the syndicated model and pushing for local talk with a conservative viewpoint, which is why the station demanded that new host Dick Morris, who’s replacing Smerconish, must stay a day or two each week in Philadelphia. It’s also why Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are no longer on WPHT’s lineup.
That version of events rings unfamiliar to Smerconish. “I will confront any assertion that there was mutuality in the decision-making,” says the radio personality, sounding a lot like a radio personality. “I decided I was moving on.”
When pinged on this bit of dissonance, Rayfield hits a note with which Smerconish would presumably not quarrel: “We disagreed on the direction of the station.”
A modern law of media exposure dictates that big-time pundits spread themselves as thinly as possible over multiple platforms. Smerconish complies, hosting his daily radio thing, guest-hosting MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” every so often, writing a weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, guest-talking on “virtually every television program where politics is discussed, including: “Today”, “The Colbert Report,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “The View” and “Real Time with Bill Maher,” according to SiriusXM, and authoring five books.
Perhaps owing to his political evolution away from Republicanism, Smerconish has scored seven interviews with President Obama. White House connections will boost his maiden show on SiriusXM, which will feature some chatting with press secretary Jay Carney, along with Mark Geragos and Pat Harris, authors of “Mistrial,” a critical look at the U.S. criminal justice system.
A staple of Smerconish’s fare will be a segment of 10 minutes or so with a rep from the Beltway’s most self-promoting publication. “I’ve always had a good relationship with Politico,” says Smerconish. “I believe they are non-ideological. If there’s a particular bias in Politico, I’m oblivious to it.” When told that the folks at Breitbart News — among other right-leaning critics — might not agree with that assessment, Smerconish replied, “I have two words for you: Shirley Sherrod.”