Amid a torrent of criticism, Appleton apologized, claiming that his comment was “clearly tongue in cheek” and taken out of context. His employer, Cumulus Media, wasn’t buying it, however.
“Cumulus operates from a clearly-defined set of programming principles and there is no question that Ray Appleton’s comment is a direct violation of those principles,” the company said in announcing that it had indefinitely suspended the host.
The swift action by Cumulus — which owns 416 radio stations nationwide — follows its efforts to cool, if not extinguish, the red-hot rhetoric hosts like Appleton have been serving up since the Nov. 3 election. Their parroting of Trump’s discredited claim that the election was “stolen” or “rigged” may have helped fuel the climate of mistrust that led Trump’s supporters to storm the Capitol.
In a memo to managers of its stations, the Atlanta-based company’s top programming executive, Brian Philips, said it “will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended. . . . There will be no dog whistles about ‘stolen elections,’ ‘civil wars,’ or any other language that infers violent public disobedience is warranted, ever.”
He added, “If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately.”
Cumulus’s memo was a sharp change in direction for a company that has allowed, and even encouraged, hosts to engage in polarizing and sometimes extreme political talk to increase ratings and ad revenue. Yet it remains unclear how — and indeed whether — its new policy will be enforced in a medium dominated by hosts who have reinforced and reshaped conservative opinion for a generation.
Cumulus hasn’t responded to numerous requests for comment, leaving questions about its new policy unanswered. It isn’t clear, for example, how many of its 3,000-plus employees received Philips’s memo, or whether the order applies to the big-name national voices it syndicates to stations across the country as well as its many local hosts. Three of its most prominent syndicated hosts — conservatives Mark Levin, Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro — said last week they did not receive Philips’ memo. (Appleton did not respond Tuesday to an email from The Post.)
“Nobody has threatened me,” Levin wrote in an email last week. “Nobody sent me a memo.”
Asked if he had nevertheless altered any of his commentary since the memo was issued, Levin, a longtime supporter of President Trump, called such questions “absurd,” “inflammatory,” “nonsensical” and “idiotic.”
He subsequently read a reporter’s request for comment on his program and said he stands by his main argument — that four states changed their voting systems unconstitutionally before the election. “Why would I change my approach?” he told his audience. “The Constitution hasn’t changed. The arguments I’ve made are still relevant. They’re relevant after this election.”
Rush Limbaugh, for years the king of conservative talk radio, appears not to have moderated his post-election rhetoric, either. Limbaugh isn’t subject to Cumulus’s policies; his daily program is syndicated by a company owned by iHeart Media Inc. (formerly Clear Channel), which owns more than 800 stations, the largest national chain.
On his program on Monday, for example, Limbaugh claimed that Democrats had ginned up the massive security arrangements for Joe Biden’s inauguration and hyped concerns of possible attacks by extreme Trump supporters to smear the outgoing president and his supporters. “They [Democrats] need to distract you and me and as many as they can from what worries them,” he said. “What worries them? Could it be they know the election was not up and up?”
Although conservative personalities dominate talk radio, the genre is by no means monolithic, and some otherwise pro-Trump hosts, such as Shapiro and Erick Erickson, have resisted Trump’s “election steal” fantasy from the beginning.
Erickson, whose program is heard on Atlanta station WSB and others in Georgia, spelled out his opposition last week on a podcast hosted by Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine. “For two months, people in talk radio and TV and the president and lot of his supporters have been telling people things that weren’t true, and a whole lot of people believed it and decided to take action,” he said. “And I’m appalled by that.”
Inside the talk-radio ecosystem, Cumulus’s new policy will weigh most heavily on local hosts, not national figures like Levin and Shapiro, said Brian Rosenwald, a University of Pennsylvania historian and the author of “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.” Popular personalities like Levin, whose program is carried on 150 stations and Sirius XM satellite radio, have long had leverage “to set their own terms,” he said. (Rosenwald edits The Washington Post’s Made by History section on a part-time basis.)
Rosenwald predicts that many hosts will simply change the subject from the Capitol violence, or attack Democrats and the news media by claiming they didn’t condemn the violence associated with protests surrounding the death of George Floyd last summer. “Talk radio’s go-to move when there is something indefensible on the right has always been to [point] out [liberals’] double standards,” he said.
Eventually, he said, the predominant topic will be the failings of the Biden White House. “A Democratic administration equals a new boogeymen to focus on,” said Rosenwald. “You might have offhand references or conversation about Biden being an illegitimate president, but the focus won’t be on the ‘stolen election’ unless and until there is fresh news on the topic.”
But Cumulus’s memo may have been less about finding a responsible footing than about the bottom line, said Jerry Del Colliano, who first reported the company’s edict for his blog, Inside Music Media.
He suspects that the company’s warning to employees could merely serve as a pretext for further cutbacks at Cumulus’s many stations. With its aging audience and diminishing advertising base, talk radio has become an increasingly unprofitable format for giants like Cumulus and iHeart, he noted. Thus, getting rid of local hosts and replacing them, at lower cost, with national personalities may be the company’s real goal.
“Radio stations have no other proven format to put on its aging AM stations,” said Del Colliano. “What else could they do for audiences over 65? Flea markets? ’40s and ’50s music in mono? . . . In the end, [this] will have little to do with politics and establishing calm and everything to do with using a public crisis to get more control of their business.”