RICHMOND — With breakfast from McDonald's in his left hand and his softsided briefcase rolling behind him, John Fredericks strolled into his radio studio, housed in a small, isolated building on the south side of this city.
Fredericks, who declared bankruptcy in 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis and lost his family’s home, vowed to make the radio job work. And he turned his hosting gig at a single station into a regionally syndicated radio network run out of Richmond.
Partly fueled by his bankruptcy and distaste for moneyed elites, Fredericks is a true believer in the Trump agenda and arrived at his studio on a recent morning to deliver the news, deliver himself from career disaster and deliver the country into the hands of four more years of Donald Trump.
Far from the White House and Capitol Hill, Fredericks is one of hundreds of regional radio hosts across the country who have found themselves in the improbable position of being showered with attention by Trump officials and surrogates. While granting access to local media has long been an important element of running a national political campaign, Trump officials have made it a central part of their strategy.
Fredericks says he has interviewed Trump 12 to 15 times and has hosted the president’s son Eric and Eric’s wife, Lara, on his radio show. “Through the campaign, every time he would do my show, he’d win a primary,” said Fredericks, sitting in his office. “So then he got superstitious and he’s like, ‘I gotta do John’s show. . . . Every time we do your show, something great happens. I got to keep doing it.’ ”
Fredericks has interviewed Vice President Pence; former Trump advisers Corey Lewandowski, Sean Spicer, David Bossie and Jason Miller; and White House officials Kellyanne Conway, Stephanie Grisham and Hogan Gidley, some of them multiple times. (It was on Fredericks’s show that Grisham, Trump’s press secretary, made her disputed claim that President Barack Obama’s staff left nasty notes for the incoming Trump team.)
Pouring attention on regional talk-radio hosts is a classic Trumpworld move: giving relatively unknown characters proximity to the White House has paid off with a disproportionate amount of attention and praise lavished on the president and his agenda.
On a recent January morning, Fredericks, 61, walked out of the dark morning into the fluorescent lights of the studio lobby, past a lonely banner featuring his airbrushed image and slogan, “Trucking the Truth.”
Fredericks loves his job. His only complaint is that his early wake-up, at 3:30 a.m. to prepare, grants him so little sleep that he has put on 30 pounds in recent years. But his girth has also granted him a self-assigned nickname, “the Godzilla of Truth,” which he points out daily to listeners of his morning drive-time radio show.
“For a show that goes on at 6 a.m., you can’t possibly prepare the night before,” he said. “It’s a disruptive presidency, and there’s so much happening. There are so many internal battles and everyone fighting with everyone else. It was different in the Obama presidency.”
Not that Fredericks misses those days. On his website, he displays a testimonial from Trump and has given airtime over to Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump White House adviser.
“They are so disrespected by the political apparatus in Washington that if you show them any outreach at all, they will move heaven and earth to give you accommodation, to give you time to really let you tell your story,” Bannon said in an interview in his Capitol Hill townhouse shortly after he finished taping his War Room podcast, which got its start on Fredericks’s radio network. “Not only will they have you on, they’ll play the clip all day long and they’ll talk about it for days. . . . The amazing thing is this platform’s out there. It gets massive listenership . . . and nobody pays attention to it.”
The strategy has been particularly powerful as Trump and his team have engaged in what Bannon calls “information warfare” over the impeachment fight and the 2020 election, focusing on individual Democratic congressional representatives across the country whose seats are in districts that Trump won in 2016. Regional hosts can hammer on an individual issue or politician far more regularly than national radio behemoths, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Fredericks takes his place in Trump’s strategy seriously, too. Even though the medium would allow for something more casual, Fredericks wears a suit every day to work. “It’s a mind-set,” he explains. He leans his head forward over his laptop, his hair thinned on the top of his head to the point of disappearance. He stares over his glasses into his laptop, grasps the edge of the table and starts the day.
Listening to talk-radio hosts across the country highlights just how much some of them sound like Trump — or how much Trump sounds like them. Fredericks regularly grants politicians and others Trumpian nicknames. He calls Richmond "Richvegas" to show his support for a bill that would bring more casinos to Virginia, and dubbed former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, for whom Fredericks says he voted in 2013, "Terry McGenius." Fredericks is a longtime Republican but said he supported McAuliffe because he brought jobs to Virginia and expanded Medicaid in the state.
Unlike Trump, Fredericks’s nicknames are typically positive. “These are people I have a relationship with,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, Fredericks hosted former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. After bemoaning Lewandowski’s decision not to run for a Senate seat in New Hampshire, Fredericks quickly turned to impeachment. Lewandowski dismissed the “sham” impeachment trial that had just kicked off in the Senate, and Fredericks chimed in that the Democrats “went around for three weeks saying they had overwhelming evidence, and then they get to the Senate [and] they say, ‘we need more witnesses.’ How does that work?” The two men talked about how much all of this was going to help reelect Donald Trump.
“I think he’s going to win New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada, I think he’ll win them all,” Fredericks concluded.
Brian Rosenwald, an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book “Talk Radio America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States” argues that talk-radio hosts paved the way for a Trump candidacy.
“This is the talk-radio presidency,” he said. It began as far back as 1988, when Rush Limbaugh’s show first became nationally syndicated. “What Limbaugh started was a call for a fighter, which was great for radio. And others mimicked that language and message,” Rosenwald said.
As much as Limbaugh created the model that hosts around the country emulate, local hosts can be more powerful in some cases, Rosenwald said. A local host can repeatedly bolster or attack a local politician, whereas a national host simply doesn’t have the time.
The power of those local radio hosts has been harnessed by big conservative donors who have helped fuel the rise of local radio networks such as Salem Radio Network, the BOTT Radio Network, and American Family Radio. Bannon’s impeachment podcast started when he asked Fredericks to grant him the last hour of Fredericks’s 6-to-10-a.m. show.
Once Bannon had a couple of dry runs with his co-hosts Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser, and Raheem Kassam, the former London editor of Breitbart and a former chief adviser to Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, Bannon took over Fredericks’s fourth hour and also expanded the show on Salem.
Fredericks is not part of a corporate radio network, but the rise of such groups has boosted many minor radio hosts. Salem started out as a small fundamentalist Christian operation run out of Southern California and has expanded aggressively in recent years, particularly in swing states. It supports nationally syndicated hosts such as Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, and Joe Walsh in addition to a host of regional personalities largely unknown outside their areas. According to Salem, it now serves more than 2,000 radio stations across the country.
Conservative groups such as the secretive Council for National Policy, backed by billionaire conservative families such as the Kochs, the Mercers, and the family of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, whose sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have fueled that expansion, according to a new book by Anne Nelson, “Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.”
“These conservative networks have expanded even as local newspapers around the country have dwindled,” Nelson said in an interview. They have “gobbled up independent and local stations, boosted their signals, and made them into an unseen powerhouse in the middle of the country.”
Fredericks is "unabashedly" a Trump supporter, chaired the president's campaign in Virginia and is on the Trump Advisory Committee for 2020. He has served as a Trump surrogate himself on cable news.
After Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and a collection of African nations as “shithole countries” in a closed-door meeting, Fredericks appeared on CNN host Don Lemon’s show to defend the president, saying the comments were not about race but rather the poor economies of the countries in question. Lemon noted that Trump’s “racist, xenophobic views are one of the most consistent opinions the president has.” Fredericks replied that “it’s not about race, as you like to make it because that’s easy and lazy, it’s about economics.” Lemon cut Fredericks’s mic and brought him back on the show only after he apologized.
“I’ve had multiple hit pieces on me,” Fredericks said later, “It’s a joke, because in my business, all they do is help me.”
But he does not predictably support Republicans, and reaches the “undecideds,” he said, who have been key to the Trump agenda.
“Working-class people, they’re not watching Fox News at 9 p.m. They’re putting their kids to bed. They’re getting ready for work. . . . These are the people that have dirt under their fingernails,” Fredericks said. “These are the people that work with their hands. This is the backbone of America. They’re not tweeting and they’re not on Fox and they don’t watch CNN. . . . So where do you reach them? You’ve got to go directly to them through regional talk radio.”
In addition to voting for McAuliffe and endorsing Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) for reelection in 2014, Fredericks stood by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Virginia Democrat, when he was accused last year of sexual assault by two women. Fredericks said Fairfax deserved due process, even as many other media figures and politicians were calling for his resignation.
On a recent morning in Richmond, Fredericks interviewed Fairfax and kicked off the conversation by reminding him that he was the only media figure who stood by him “when all that went down.” Fairfax agreed that Fredericks supported him but also noted that there were others.
Fairfax extolled the virtues of radio, which lives in the cars and ear buds of voters across the country, and which allows longer conversations than the typical television appearance. “John facilitates a meaningful conversation,” he said, but added that he doesn’t “condone some of the language” Fredericks employs on his show, such as referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.”
Fredericks is also a fan of Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) whom Fredericks says he “loves.” The two aligned over their rejection of the Patriot Act among other issues. Scott, facing less than average demand from constituents and friends, gave Fredericks tickets to attend Trump’s inauguration in Washington.
“We agree on some things and disagree on others,” Scott said. “He’s invited me on the show many times, and I’ve appeared. If you don’t talk to people who disagree with you, you’ll get nowhere.”
Fredericks’s approach to local Democrats in swing districts aligns with what Bannon has made a regular feature of his impeachment-focused podcast. “Make ’Em Famous,” is a segment spotlighting the freshman Democratic representatives who govern in districts that voted for Trump in 2016. Those figures can usually hide behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Bannon said, but he and others hope to call them out and bring a political cost to their support for impeaching Trump.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), one of the newly elected congressional representatives in a district that backed Trump, has appeared as a guest on Fredericks’s show several times, and he praised her as a “tough and strong lady.” But since her vote for impeachment, Fredericks said on his show that Spanberger has “a multitude of issues.” (Spanberger’s office declined a request for an interview.)
Fredericks has also targeted Rep. Elaine Luria, whose district includes Fredericks’s hometown, Chesapeake. Luria has never appeared on his show and Fredericks appears to have a low opinion of her. “I wouldn’t know her if she jumped in my lap and called me ‘Daddy,’ ” he said, using the kind of language that is characteristic of his show. (Her spokesperson didn’t respond to an interview request.)
Largely because of their votes to impeach Trump, Fredericks has a prediction for both women that he seems eager to fulfill. “I think they’ll both lose their next elections,” he said.