Charlie Sykes’ penultimate show on WTMJ-AM begins with a visit from Gov. Scott Walker and his wife, Tonette.
It’s a Friday in mid-December, and Walker, wearing a red sweater, brings some frosted pecans – his traditional Christmas gift – and a state proclamation recognizing the following Tuesday as Charlie Sykes Day.
This morning is for reminiscing. Sitting at the big studio table with four or five monitors in front of him and the Walkers at microphones to his left, Sykes remembers a Republican event in Wauwatosa in the early ’90s where he met Tonette Walker for the first time, before the governor was even a state representative. Scott Walker remembers being together at his victory party for Milwaukee county executive in 2002. Tonette talks about calling in to Sykes’ show during Act 10 protests in 2011, when demonstrators showed up on the Walkers’ block in Wauwatosa. “You really were concerned about the boys and I,” she says, “and you always let us share the things that were going on. We had a voice at times … through the radio.”
It’s already a big day for Sykes. Yesterday The New York Times posted his Sunday op-ed under the headline, “Charlie Sykes on Where the Right Went Wrong,” recounting his growing distance from his radio audience in 2016 as he persisted his anti-Trump stand. “In this political universe,” he wrote, “voters accept that they must tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity and cruelty, because the other side is always worse.”
He’s clearly fi red up by the Times exposure. The response is at a different level than he’s seen before, he says, watching Twitter between times on the air after the Walkers leave. There are approving tweets from The Bell Curve author Charles Murray, a Sykes acquaintance, and Thomas Friedman, the Times foreign affairs icon who’s won three Pulitzer Prizes. But there is also a Photoshopped tweet from a white nationalist group showing Sykes in a gas chamber and Trump pushing the “on” button.
The rest of the morning, and all morning the next Monday, his last show, is pretty much a victory lap for Sykes. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who appeared on Sykes’ show when he was Milwaukee archbishop, is a surprise caller, recruited by Sykes’ producer. On Monday it’s World War II veterans who have participated in the Honor Flights to Washington, and a memorable call from House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Before you came around, the left had arguably a monopoly on information through the media, and there was really no one challenging the premise of what everybody was being fed in Wisconsin,” Ryan tells him. “And you just smashed that model, you crushed it, and helped bring a disinfectant into our political system here in Wisconsin … getting our state from the Jim Doyle days of a huge Democrat majority to the days we have now, where our state is leading on cutting-edge conservative ideas.”
There is no denying that there has been a sea change in Wisconsin politics in the past 20 years. And there’s also no denying Milwaukee conservative talk radio – and we’re talking about more than Sykes – has been at the center of it. Once known as the birthplace of Progressivism, the state is now dominated by a Republican Party that controls all levers of state power, along with five of eight congressional seats. And many of the party’s most prominent state and national leaders – Ryan, Walker, state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus – come from Southeastern Wisconsin, talk radio’s home base.
Sykes has indeed been a key sponsor of these Republicans in the 23 years he served as the chief talker at WTMJ (or as some of us used to call it in the Journal Sentinel newsroom, WGOP). He’s given them a forum for their arguments. But Mark Belling and other local talkers at WISN Radio also can claim big roles in the reddening of Wisconsin, as can Sykes’ colleague Jeff Wagner at TMJ. In fact, Belling gets credit as the progenitor of conservative talk in Milwaukee. He started at WISN in 1989, and most of Milwaukee’s conservative talkers got their start with him. That includes Sykes, a former Milwaukee Magazine editor who began in radio as part of a Belling pundit panel and then filled in for him before getting his own show on WISN, and then WTMJ.
“For our market size,” Belling told me in November, “the talk show hosts in this market are stunningly good. I say that sort of patting myself on the back. When I go to other cities, it blows me away just how bad most of the people on the air are.” Later, he clarified: “Talented people, all of whom spring from the tree of me.”
In a lot of ways, Nov. 8, 2016, was the culmination of all that. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton – and the state that put him over the top that night in the Electoral College was little old Progressive Wisconsin. The same night, Sen. Ron Johnson scored an upset over Democrat Russ Feingold, and GOP majorities increased slightly in both houses of the Legislature. It was the first time since 1984 that a Republican presidential candidate had won the state, and the next day even Sykes, who had opposed Trump and spent hours of airtime criticizing him, could not stifle his amazement at the results: Wisconsin, he said on the air, “has gone from blue to purple to ruby red.” Belling was more gleeful. “Finally, we took the country back,” he shouted into the microphone as his show opened. “I don’t even like Trump, and I’m elated by this. But Trump has grown on me, I admit … How can you not like a winner?”
Months before the election, none of the six major Wisconsin talkers had been a huge fan of Trump. The national press had credited them as a group with a defeat in the state GOP primary by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. After the primary, Sykes and Wagner at TMJ, and Jerry Bader at Green Bay’s WTAQ, stuck to their never-Trump guns and lost a lot of Republican listeners. WISN hosts Belling, Vicki McKenna and Jay Weber accepted Trump as their candidate after he became the party’s nominee. Not that they didn’t get some abuse, too; Belling said on the air the week before the election that he’d been called “Trump’s little butt boy,” among other things. But despite this, Trump didn’t do as well in the general election in Southeastern Wisconsin, the home of their audience, as Mitt Romney had done in 2012 – Trump won by flipping rural areas in the west and north that had voted for Barack Obama four years before.
As for Sykes, he kept criticizing Trump after the election, including as a conservative television pundit on the liberal MSNBC network, where he’d been commentating since a confrontational interview with Trump in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary – and where he now has a multiyear contract. Then in January, he signed a deal with WNYC, a National Public Radio affiliate in New York, to do a national call-in show for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. The show, “Indivisible” – Sykes does an hour on Wednesday nights while more liberal hosts handle other nights – doesn’t air in Wisconsin, because of a non-compete clause in Sykes’ severance deal with WTMJ.
In early February, Sykes finished a draft of his ninth book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, in which he’s said he’ll explore how conservative talk radio hosts like himself, in their constant attacks on the “mainstream media,” have created what he calls a “post-factual” media environment. Sykes did multiple interviews on this topic in the months before the election, and expanded his argument in another Times op-ed in early February.
The more I heard Sykes on this subject, the more he reminded me of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from the Goethe poem made popular in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse unleashes magic he can’t control. It’s the story of people who didn’t quite know what they were doing and end up appalled at the mess they made.
Since the departure of Sykes, Milwaukee talk radio has gone through a number of changes.
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the leading publication in that medium, sees most conservative radio hosts strongly behind Trump but a few criticizing him, and a greatly expanding left that’s a potential market for progressive talk radio, which has never been strong. “There’s a large, passionate bloc of people out there that could be targeted by talk radio,” he says, though he adds that liberal shows will be successful only if they’re entertaining, provocative and compelling, as conservatives have been to their audiences.
As for the conservative talkers, Darryl Parks, who programmed the format in Cincinnati for years at iHeartRadio, which owns WISN and is a longtime observer nationally, sees the demographic that supports it fading in coming years. “Conservative talk radio,” he says, “tends to ignore anybody that is not 55- or 60-plus and a white male.” Of course, many of these people voted for Trump, and he won. And though AM radio is in many ways an anachronism (Sykes told me that talk radio is a “mature medium”), it’s still here, and it still has influence.
Soon after Sykes announced his departure from Milwaukee radio, the Milwaukee Business Journal ran a story suggesting that it made way for “a more moderate WTMJ-AM.” Reporter Rich Kirchen pointed out that station manager Tom Langmyer had dropped syndicated national conservative talks shows, and was developing an afternoon show that focused more on news and less on politics. This while Wagner took over Sykes’ morning show – Wagner’s a conservative who continues to give Walker and others a forum, but who is not as unrelentingly political as Sykes was. In a February interview, Langmyer said, “We’re not being defined by a political position, but more broadly programming to look at both sides of issues.” Late in February, he announced the hiring of Oak Creek Mayor Stephen Scaffidi to co-host Wagner’s former afternoon show with news guy Erik Bilstad. Scaffidi describes himself as a conservative, but he has some more moderate views, especially on guns – he was mayor when a white supremacist killed six people at Oak Creek’s Sikh temple in 2012 – and he says he didn’t vote for Trump.
At WISN, meanwhile, program director Jerry Bott in December doubled down on conservative talk, adding Dan O’Donnell, a newsman and fill-in host, to its local conservative show hosts – and Bott said then he expected to pick up listeners from TMJ if Sykes wasn’t replaced by another conservative.
And as Talkers’ Harrison noted nationally, Milwaukee’s conservative talkers seemed to be solidifying their backing of Trump during his first month in office, while the “mainstream media” portrayed a dangerously chaotic White House. WISN’s McKenna was typical of them when she told me in February: “I am more enthusiastic now than I was in December. And of course I was more enthusiastic in December than I was in July. I like that he is a disruptive force to the status quo.” Belling responded in a similar vein, and even WTMJ’s Wagner, never- Trump until the election, was defending the president and attacking the press and intelligence agencies over leaks about Trump’s aides talking with Russians. He told me in February that he separated Trump’s personality from his policies.
It all was getting curiouser and curiouser.
On Feb. 1, a liberal news-talk station appeared on the scene, to the delight of progressives and activists – but facing a long uphill climb if it hopes to compete in this market. A Madison liberal talker named Michael Crute and two partners bought WRRD, a station with a transmitter in Waukesha. Crute and his broadcast sidekick, Dominic Salvia, had a show in Madison called Devil’s Advocate Radio, which went off the air last fall after a format change. But they continued in national syndication, and now do that and a Wisconsin-centered show on WRRD. They also recruited Earl Ingram, a talker on the central-city-orietned WMCS-AM before it changed format in 2013.
The deal for WRRD was put together with the help of a group of Milwaukee-area progressives calling themselves Radio-Active, who had organized in 2016 to monitor conservative radio in Milwaukee and hold stations “accountable” for what talkers said on air. The group raised enough money to pay an organizer, Terri Williams, who says as of February it had 12 volunteers monitoring conservative radio and another 25 helping WRRD sell advertising.
All of these changes made the talk scene in Milwaukee a little disorienting – though certainly not as disorienting as the changes in Washington that began with Trump’s inauguration. In fact, Trump’s unpredictable tweets, and his attacks on the “dishonest media,” almost seemed to usurp the role of conservative talk radio and take on the mantle of shock jock in chief. And the chaos after his order limiting immigration sparked demonstrations across the country that The New York Times likened to the tea party movement of 2009 and 2010. It all was getting curiouser and curiouser.
A flip across the Milwaukee radio dial (and through live-stream feeds) one Wednesday in early February reflected that, and provided a wider range of opinions than we’ve been used to for many years.
Belling was engaged in one of his patented rants – this one about a riot at the University of California, Berkeley, that had shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, then senior editor at Breitbart News. “The left has always been a pain in the butt, but we’ve never seen them this out of control,” he said. “Almost all the university professors in the United States are now lefties, and many are outright socialists or anarchists … [That] has also happened in the media. It’s certainly happening in Hollywood. It’s happening in the public schools. There are certain institutions in the United States that are overwhelmingly dominated by liberals, and in order to get their way they are trying to stop anybody who has a contrary point of view from being able to express themselves.”
Over on 1510, Crute and Salvia were indignant about something else entirely: U.S. Senate Republicans shutting off Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts when she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King that criticized attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama – but then not stopping a couple of male senators from reading the same letter. “It’s a woman thing,” said Salvia.
Later that night, I dialed up WNYC online and listened to Sykes’ “Indivisible” hour, which was the most curious of all. Sykes had gotten into the routine of flying to New York each Tuesday night, and doing the WNYC show and his MSNBC duties on Wednesday. On NPR, for the first three weeks, he’d interviewed never-Trump conservatives and taken calls from listeners far more liberal than his followers back home.
This night he interviewed David Frum, author of an Atlantic magazine cover story titled “How to Build an Autocracy,” about how Trump seemed headed toward an autocratic “kleptocracy.” Sykes opened the hour by recounting news from Washington: The president had tweeted an attack on Nordstrom department stores for being unfair to his daughter for not carrying her clothing line, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee had described the president’s attacks on judges as “demoralizing” and “disheartening;” and Warren had been silenced inexplicably because, Sykes said, “apparently there must be a contest in D.C. these days for the worst possible political optics.” And he said: “We live in absolutely remarkable times.”
He and Frum then discussed building a broad coalition against Trump but worried Trump could benefit from violent protests because he’d be able to paint his critics as out of control. A guy named George from New Jersey called in and suggested that demonstrators should throw out members of Congress who were doing nothing to stop Trump. “We’ve got to go in there and literally grab these people and literally throw them out,” said George. Here was a caller of a different type than Marge from Menomonee Falls ripping Sykes for abandoning Trump.
Which launched Sykes into recounting Wisconsin’s Act 10 protests of 2011 in which he said Walker was “under water” on his anti-union initiatives until demonstrators in Madison went too far. “Protesters became so overwrought and so addicted to their melodrama,” he said, “that they flipped the script. I’ve actually seen how you can take a winning issue and turn it into a losing issue if you don’t restrain the more extreme elements.”
During the discussion, Frum said something that summed up the brave new world people like he and Sykes now inhabit: “You and I find ourselves in similar situations,” he said. “We’re very conservative people. We’re now sort of in a new neighborhood surrounded by new associates. It’s not our first language, and a lot of things they do are very puzzling.”
I guess we’re all in a new neighborhood these days. And if you believe Charlie Sykes, the people in this story – and guys like them around the country – put us here. Or perhaps it was the Russians, but that’s another story. I guess we’ll all just have to stay tuned. ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” April 21 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.
Tom Tolan is a copy editor at the magazine. He worked with Sykes for short times in the 1970s and 1980s, including at The Milwaukee Journal.