At small-town radio station, the right-wing misinformation effort goes local

A sound room at the Great Plains Media building, where Cities 92.9 broadcasts, in Normal, Ill.
A sound room at the Great Plains Media building, where Cities 92.9 broadcasts, in Normal, Ill. (Jamie Kelter Davis)

NORMAL, Ill. — When Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign bus came to town recently, the local conservative talk radio station covered the event, dutifully informing its audience on social media that “counter protesters were in attendance.”

The “counter protesters” were the radio station’s employees. They mugged for photos in front of the governor’s bus, held up signs that said, “Fire Pritzker” — then turned around and covered the Democrat’s event.

Since President Biden’s election, the talk radio station Cities 92.9 has upended the traditional media ecosystem in this part of Central Illinois with an unusual mix of hyperlocal news coverage — crime, weather and the like — and election misinformation. Replying on Facebook to a social media post about the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, the station turned its focus to the 2020 election results: “What about the insurrection on Nov. 3?”

Cities 92.9 organized a sold-out bus trip to the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, supported a man accused of making a Nazi salute at a school board meeting and co-hosted a fall “freedom” festival during which a former Marine and Jan. 6 attendee called for revolution, saying, “Violence is always the answer.”

The station’s managers said in an interview that they are simply providing coverage that serves as a necessary counter to the liberal bias they see in the established local media outlets, which include a newspaper and two other news radio stations.

“Conservative news serves a specific audience,” Catrina Petersen, the station’s program manager, who also hosts a morning show and reports stories, said in a recent tweet. “Don’t like it? Don’t listen.”

Petersen, who grew up listening to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh in the truck with her father on the way to school, said she is a QAnon adherent. The extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, and which is embraced by many Trump supporters, holds that the former president is battling Satan-worshiping, pedophile elites aligned with Democrats.

The station’s detractors say they are alarmed by Cities’ mix of news and misinformation and see it as a local version of what’s happening nationally, as a partisan army of pundits, influencers and politicians use the airwaves to spread Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud across the country. A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot in November have denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Cities 92.9’s deliberate blurring of the ethical line that separates traditional journalism and opinion is significant because polls show that while Americans are generally distrustful of national news, they tend to express more faith in local news, which they tend to see as less biased and more relevant to their lives, said Brendan Nyhan, an American political scientist and professor at Dartmouth College who has studied misinformation in local news.

“The fear is that local media becomes a pathway for misinformation,” Nyhan said. “There is a void in many communities where local news has shrunk or disappeared completely, and yet people still trust it. That combination may make ideologically motivated news sites more influential.”

Normal Town Council member Kathleen Lorenz, whose position is nonpartisan and who describes herself as a moderate-leaning Republican, called it “the national narrative seeping into Main Street America.” She no longer grants interviews to the station after becoming embroiled in a partisan shouting match with one of its reporters in August.

“This is why people are sometimes very, very scared,” Lorenz said. “If we can’t even rely on our news sources, what are we going to do?”

For years, Cities 92.9 was not a major presence in the prosperous twin cities area of Bloomington-Normal — home to two universities and the corporate office of State Farm insurance. It was known mostly as the vehicle for Limbaugh’s daily talk show and other nationally syndicated voices, rather than as a source for local news. The station is owned by Cookeville Tenn., businessman Jerry Zimmer, one of three he owns in the area, along with three more in Kansas and five in Tennessee.

Zimmer, who did not return calls or emails requesting comment, is a longtime Republican donor who has supported campaigns of Republican politicians including Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), Federal Election Commission records show.

Things changed dramatically in the weeks following Biden’s election, when the station organized the bus tour to Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. “ONCE IN A LIFETIME DO WE HAVE A CALLING LIKE THIS ONE!” the station wrote on Facebook in late December 2020. “President Trump is calling all patriots to DC on the 6th. Let’s show him and our country all of the support we can.” The post ended with the hashtag “#DoNotCertify.”

About 50 people ended up making the trip, according to David Paul Blumenshine, a former Republican candidate for state and local office who hosts a talk show on Cities on weekends. He said in an interview on Oct. 7 that he was part of the group in Washington that day, along with general manager Megan Zimmer.

The busload left to eat lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Northern Virginia without joining those who unlawfully entered the Capitol, Blumenshine said in the interview.

When the bus returned to Normal, Blumenshine told a local TV station that the group had marched peacefully, “reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King,” and that the people who breached the Capitol should be “swiftly brought to justice.”

But within hours, Cities had a different take on the trip online, sharing on Facebook a now-debunked video that it wrongly claimed showed the protest had been “co-opted by outside provocateurs.” The post has since been removed.

Blumenshine, too, soon had a different story, spinning tales of mysterious tour buses arriving and claiming he saw a weak security perimeter at the Capitol — assertions he has repeated to this day. In the interview, he dismissed the police officers who were assaulted by rioters during the attack — more than 140, some who suffered traumatic injuries such as brain damage and crushed spinal disks — as “political theater.”

“It’s a conservative talk radio station, so that’s what our audience expects,” Blumenshine said. “If they don’t like it, they can listen to something else. That’s what makes America great.”

That Jan. 6 bus trip was the turning point for Cities, according to operations manager Chris Murphy and Petersen, who sat down for a recent interview in the sound booth in the unassuming station headquarters next to a busy highway in Normal. Several boxes of signs for Darren Bailey, Pritzker’s Trump-endorsed Republican opponent, were stacked in the foyer. Blumenshine said he has been recruiting Republican poll workers as Bailey’s “election integrity coordinator” this season.

Murphy said the station’s listeners on the bus tour told them they wanted more local news and the station responded, stepping into a void created by cutbacks at other news organizations while injecting their own opinion — and activism — into the civic debates over tax referendums and subdivision expansions. At the same time, they doubled down on the national conservative message, including Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election.

Listeners wanted to talk about “potholes are busted on my street,” Murphy said. “We became a community focal point, which is really cool, right?”

A few months later, the station hired Petersen, 23, fresh out of the journalism program at Illinois State University in town, and added a news reporter, Kevin Woodard, this year. It added more local talk shows on the weekend, augmenting its weekday programming of nationally syndicated Trump-allied hosts such as Sean Hannity and Dan Bongino.

On June 9, 2021, the station managers called on Facebook for protesters to show up at a school board meeting to “join the national fight against indoctrination of our kids” and protest critical race theory — the academic framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society. That curriculum was not on the agenda — or even taught in local schools, school officials said. General manager Megan Zimmer spoke, as well as Cities host Ty Smith, who is Black. Video of Smith’s denunciation of CRT — which he called “teaching kids how to hate each other” — went viral and attracted notice from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who dubbed him a “hero Dad.”

Petersen wrote the subsequent website story about the event with the headline, “A heated District 87 School Board Meeting Sees High Turnout.”

“That was when we really started seeing Cities 92.9 inserting themselves into the process — advocating, organizing and then also arguably ‘covering’ it,” said Ben Matthews, a union field staffer for the Illinois Education Association whose region includes school districts in Bloomington-Normal.

The station does not subscribe to the Nielsen ratings system because it is cost prohibitive, station officials said. That’s often the case with many smaller stations, so it’s difficult to assess their market share, according to Steve Suess, the director of convergent radio broadcasting at Illinois State University, the faculty adviser to its student-run radio station and a Cities weekend host.

“They certainly have carved out somewhat of a niche in the market. They’re not winning the day, but they’re not going bankrupt, either,” Suess said. He has been one of the chief defenders of the station locally, saying that it broadcasts a wide range of views. He said that the station had not covered the Jan. 6 bus trip as a news event and that he was unaware it had organized protests, then covered them.

Petersen posted a photo of herself on her personal Facebook page last year posing before a banner that said, “Q Sent Me,” writing, “Yeah I’m 'Q' what of it.” Asked whether she was an adherent to the extremist ideology embraced by many on the far right, she responded, “As much as you are BlueAnon, I suppose.”

During one of Petersen’s recent “Morning Buzz” shows, she conducted a straightforward interview with the county clerk on midterm voting, then went on to lament the Jan. 6 “political prisoners” still awaiting trial and suggested Biden should be “cuffed, period, full stop,” or at the very least impeached for his handling of Afghanistan.

She also called a proposed city amphitheater project “just another stupid capital project we don’t need.”

“A lot of people say that we’re blending the news coverage with, you know, a bias. But what I really think is, it is just an alternative to the bias that’s already there,” Petersen said in the interview.

Petersen says she gives Cities’ listeners credit to be discerning enough to distinguish fact from opinion.

“I think we just kind of give it up to the consumers and let them decide on what misinformation is, what’s true or false and what they want to consume,” she said. “I mean, it’s like if they’re not reading it on the Cities 92.9 Facebook page, then they’re going to read it on some other page.”

She said her typical day includes anchoring her morning show, then working the phones and filing Freedom of Information Act requests for emails and other internal local documents, which she called “good old-fashioned journalism.” But, in the next breath, she said she was “definitely not a journalist. Just somebody who writes stories from time to time. And I do it accurately.”

Some local officials disagree.

Barry Reilly, the longtime schools superintendent who retired in May, said he stopped giving interviews to Petersen and encouraged others in the area to do the same.

Town council member Lorenz quit appearing on the station after she was accosted by reporter Woodard over a routine discussion about a proposed underpass after a council meeting in August, she said. When the town’s mayor, Chris Koos, and a fellow town council member tried to defuse the situation, Woodard lunged at them and asked, “Do you want to take this outside?” the three officials recounted in interviews.

Koos, a frequent Cities target, said he had to ask Woodard to leave the building.

“They’re not journalists, they’re propagandists,” he said.

Woodard declined to comment. But he told the local NPR affiliate WGLT after the fracas that it is “a struggle to maintain neutrality as a journalist when you’re reporting from a conservative viewpoint. It’s an interesting line to try and walk.”

On a recent crisp fall day, the Super Bowl of the state’s midterm election season came to Bloomington-Normal: Illinois State University was hosting a gubernatorial debate between Pritzker and Bailey.

Petersen’s day began with her show at 6 a.m., during which she urged people to show up for a pre-debate rally for Bailey in a traffic circle in downtown Normal.

At the rally, Petersen stood in the brilliant blue sun and interviewed Bailey supporters, providing updates that she sent in for Cities’ news breaks. She wore a T-shirt that advertised a Republican state Senate candidate and had a debate ticket — courtesy of the Bailey campaign — tucked in her jeans.

She taped an interview on her phone with Paul Durr, a regional coordinator for Bailey, who told her he wanted to hear in the debate more about Pritzker’s “assumed balanced budget,” which he and other Republicans say has been helped by an infusion of federal rescue funds.

“Haha, I love it!” Petersen said.

Afterward, though, Durr seemed perplexed about her role.

“It’s hard to say without stereotyping, but I thought she was a college-age journalist,” Durr said. “She’s apparently a conservative radio host.”

Alex Horton and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.