panelists on stage at MilMag Live: Talk Radio

Talk Radio’s Dirty Secrets Aired at MilMag Live

There’s no “dump button” in real life. We brought the magazine pages and the airwaves to life at MilMag Live, in what turned out to be the most volatile panel discussion yet.

Halfway through the panel discussion at MilMag Live last night, panelist and Progressive Berniecrat” Mike Crute left the stage. His absence went largely unnoticed and uncommented on by the remaining panelists, who were themselves engrossed in a political debate onstage. Crute returned shortly, laden with three beers—one for himself, and one each for fellow panelists Vicki McKenna and Dan O’Donnell, both conservative talk show hosts. It was a moment of tangible camaraderie, a peek behind the curtain of talk radio life, radio’s “dirty secret,” as O’Donnell commented later on Twitter: “left or right, all radio people tend to love and respect one another.”

The bit of conviviality between left and right seemed at the time to be a great metaphor for the talk radio moment, or at least a representative snapshot in time. The panel had dedicated some mic time earlier to compliment each other—Crute gave a nod to McKenna’s work ethic, putting himself firmly in the camp of people who do not want her “dead under a bus,” as she claims many liberal listeners have wished, and O’Donnell called Earl Ingram Jr. “one of the best callers that WISN ever had,” referring to Ingram’s radio career’s provenance as an opinionated caller on others’ shows.

Zach Pietrini performs at MilMag Live: Talk Radio
Zach Pietrini. Photo by Moriah Bame

But the middle of the show proved to be little more than the eye of the storm on a night bookended by a spontaneous debate about voter ID laws and inflammatory comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. Mics had to be cut so frequently that one might have questioned the speaker system if The Back Room at Colectivo hadn’t already proven their A/V chops during Zach Pietrini‘s pre-show music set. What was meant to be a discussion of how talk radio as a medium had changed with Donald Trump’s ascendance (based on co-moderator Tom Tolan’s feature story in our April issue) repeatedly devolved into well-trod political debates, bringing the conversation down a level of meta-ness.

And the audience loved it. Or at least, they loved to hate it. Never in MilMag Live history has there been such audience heckling. Many of the audience questions skirted the line between question and diatribe — their mics were also not immune to being cut — and as the night wore on and Colectivo’s beer sales rose, shouts of “Our president is a liar!” and “You’re wrong!” from what McKenna deemed “the peanut gallery” drowned out the dregs of the panel discussion. One audience member even lifted his folding chair, pro wrestling-style, though we want to believe it was in jest.

Also in jest, though unwittingly prescient, was this Instagram photo we posted at the start of the discussion, poking fun at the inevitable fisticuffs that were about to be raised:

Besides the detour into voter ID laws, the night started innocently enough. The panel shared the best and worst parts of their jobs, which ranged from the serious (“Being judged without really being known,” said Jerry Bader) to the facetious (O’Donnell’s visceral fear at facing down a twenty-minute block with a full bladder). 

“I come in every day and I speak for people who don’t have a voice,” said Ingram, referring to the best part of his job.

Earl Ingram Jr., Vicki McKenna, and Dan O'Donnell debate at MilMag Live: Talk Radio
From left: Dan O’Donnell, Vicki McKenna and Earl Ingram Jr. Photo by Moriah Bame

Ingram did not allow himself to be caught up in the frivolity of the night, sticking to his original assertion that he does not consider himself an entertainer, and that he does not present a persona on air. (“You’re doing it wrong!” Crute taunted.) But to Ingram, the only black member of the panel, voter ID laws, the alleged vilification of Barack Obama by conservative radio hosts and the “monster” that is Sheriff David Clarke (his word), are not just fodder for a lively, beer-fueled debate, but real issues with real consequences.

Perhaps Ingram’s straight man was a necessary complement to the other panelists, who seemed to approach their ideological differences with a glee usually reserved for the sports stadium.

O’Donnell, especially, seemed energized by the night’s undertones of antagonism, swinging his legs in anticipation while he waited for an audience member to finish calling him a “cog in the big right-wing misinformation machine.” He seemed almost to care more for political disagreement than for his actual counter-arguments, citing the United States’ “unique” political system as a testament to how well ideological clashes can work. 

“If you wanna talk about the history of America, it was built on political conflict,” O’Donnell said. “This system in America is designed so that only the ideas that two warring factions [can] come together on are ever able to become law.”

The sentiment pivoted nicely with a comment from Bader, the “point-five” in McKenna’s earlier assessment that there were “two-point-five” conservatives on the panel: “Coming together doesn’t mean agreeing on everything,” Bader said. He noted, with a nod to Crute’s beer, that he would make a great cross-ideology drinking buddy, too, if it weren’t Lent.

“The media has become so factionalized,” McKenna added, acknowledging that the clashing of ideas in a single forum is increasingly rare. “Normally liberals and conservatives don’t sit down with each other on the same stage.”

“Maybe this is the start of something,” co-moderator Bonnie North concluded, gesturing at the panelists before her.

panelists pose for a photo before MilMag Live: Talk Radio
From left: Ingram, Mike Crute, O’Donnell, Jerry Bader and McKenna. Photo by Moriah Bame

It was at this moment that the proverbial ashes appeared as though they might settle. But a question from the audience, imploring the panelists to audit their history of covering Donald Trump’s truthfulness or lack thereof, incited pandemonium. The panel discussion ended abruptly with a comment from McKenna to Ingram that included the phrase “Black lies matter.” 

At that, mics were cut, house lights were raised and the piped-in music returned. McKenna and Ingram could be seen continuing their spat on stage as members of the audience filed out.

Join us May 1 for the next installment of MilMag Live: Gay in Milwaukee.



Karisa Langlo is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.