Two months ago, Dan Bongino sounded ready to give up one of the best slots in conservative talk radio over his objection to his employer’s coronavirus vaccine mandate.
A lot has happened since then, but not much has changed for Bongino and his bosses. He is still hosting the same show, even though Cumulus Media does not appear to have changed its mandate. That’s led some radio hosts and industry observers to question Bongino’s commitment to his ultimatum. Talk radio historian Brian Rosenwald said “there was a stunt element to it.”
Bongino — who has received a coronavirus vaccine himself — told his listeners in October that he was taking a stand on behalf of Cumulus Media employees who didn’t want the shot, as well as other on-air personalities who had been terminated for failing to get one. “I’m not going to let this go,” he said at the time. “Cumulus is going to have to make a decision with me if they want to continue this partnership, or they don’t. I want something to change, and I’m giving them an opportunity to do it. But if they don’t, this is going to be an entirely untenable situation going forward.”
But after taking a week and a half off the air, Bongino returned to his radio show in early November. He told listeners that Cumulus Media had made “some concessions” but did not go into details. “We’re at a stalemate here,” he said. “We basically got guns to each other’s heads.” He announced that he had started a fund to compensate terminated Cumulus Media employees and would put $250,000 of his own money toward it. Since then, he has posted updates on his Parler social media account telling his followers that he’s in an “ongoing battle over these immoral, unscientific vaccine mandates” and doesn’t “know what’s coming next.”
A different metaphor occurred to longtime talk radio chronicler Michael Harrison, the publisher of industry publication Talkers magazine. Bongino “painted himself into a corner and threatened to leave and then didn’t make good on that threat,” he said.
“With all due respect to Dan Bongino, who is extremely talented and appears to have a potentially bright future in talk radio ahead of him, I think he miscalculated the level of his clout as a talk-show host and employee of Cumulus Media,” Harrison added. “Platform usually wins in these spaces, and Cumulus Media is a very large and powerful platform.”
Bongino offered no further specifics about his situation in an email interview with The Washington Post. When asked why he hasn’t severed ties with Cumulus, he said he is still negotiating against the mandate and suggested he wants to protect the job security of his workers. “I have numerous employees who work on my show too. I have to protect them,” he said.
He said he was in “an ongoing fight” with Cumulus — “there are conversations happening, but I’m not optimistic.” Asked how long these conversations could take, and how long he would wait before parting ways with Cumulus, he said, “I can’t speak to their timeline.”
Bongino, who has battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has been vaccinated “on the advice from his doctor while he was battling cancer,” his team said in October. He told his radio show listeners on Monday that he was infected with the coronavirus a month and a half ago and was initially “afraid” but ended up recovering fairly quickly.
He told The Post he will not get a booster shot, even if Cumulus Media requires employees to do so.
Representatives for Cumulus Media have been publicly silent on the issue since Bongino called out the company in October. Cumulus representatives did not respond to multiple inquiries about the vaccine mandate, but an on-air employee told The Post that it remains in place. Many media companies have recently been tightening health-and-safety measures in response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. On Monday, Fox News parent Fox Corp. — which Bongino also hosts a show for — announced that vaccination will be mandatory for in-person employees based in New York City to comply with a city ordinance for private-sector employers.
Cumulus Media came close to acknowledging Bongino’s protest during a question-and-answer session on an earnings call last month, when an analyst asked about issues with unnamed “higher-profile personalities.”
Cumulus’s chief financial officer Frank Lopez-Balboa essentially dismissed the concern. “The business and the particular talent you’re talking about is a nice business and additive business for us and very successful,” he replied. “But having said that, when you look at the overall — of the size of the company, the implications are really not material.”
If Bongino did walk away from Cumulus, he would be giving up the prized noon-to-3 p.m. slot, which many radio stations devoted to the ultra-popular host Rush Limbaugh before his death in February. Cumulus Media, which owns 415 stations across 86 markets, has touted the reach of Bongino’s show as it competes with rivals in the same time slot, including conservative media personalities Dana Loesch, Clay Travis and Buck Sexton.
On his show last week, Bongino called his radio time slot “the honor of [his] life.” And he has accused other conservative radio hosts of trying to exploit his dispute with Cumulus Media to swipe the time slot for themselves. “They want my job,” he said in a video he posted to Facebook in November.
Rosenwald, who published a 2019 book about the history of political talk radio, suspects Bongino’s October ultimatum was never much of an ultimatum at all. He saw little reason for either the host or Cumulus to break up with each other.
“I think it was a cynical ploy, to some extent,” Rosenwald said. “There was an incentive for him to stay with them because of that platform, and they’ve invested a lot of money in launching this show and building it up.”