How Radio Powers Ron Johnson, a Many-Time Caller to His Longtime Listeners

Oct 28, 2022 · 69 comments
Jim Osborne (Los Angeles)
All politics is local. If you are a politician, forget that maxim at your peril. It’s easy to relate to a politician on our local radio or TV station than trolling for dollars on his phone in Washington DC. Another important quality that Senator Johnson understands (that most liberals ignore) is the distrust of the close collaboration between big government and big Pharma. Most folks believe the core relationship when it comes to their health is between their physician and themselves - not between the FDA (or CDC) and the patient.
FerCry'nTears (EVERYWHERE)
@Jim Osborne That's funny. It was the Democrats who voted to reduce prescription prices as the Republicans want to keep prices high. Especially for insulin. It is also a core belief of the Demoratic Party that a person's health care is between them and their doctor. This is especially true when it comes to women's healthcare and abortion
Robert (Out West)
It’s laughable to argue that, “most liberals,” overlook the links between Pharma and government—but is that why Ron Johnson wants to throw out the caps on drug costs, especially insultin?
Rick Sacks (Toronto)
Behind the scenes are carefully sculpted strategies to hold people's attention. Claiming "superior" moral fibre, instilling fear into the "regular" family and peppering these falsehoods with solicitations to (supposedly) support campaign finance makes Game of Thrones look like episodes of Seinfeld.
Jack (St. Louis, MO)
I am saddened by the prospect of a divided country. East and West coasts left wing, The rest of us right wing. Thank god for the electoral college.
baldski (Reno, NV)
I will never read The Bulwark again. Thanks a lot Charlie Sykes for giving my Wisconsin relatives this pitiful excuse for a Senator.
Bob (Wisconsin)
Having been born and raised in Wisconsin, I left the state for almost 30 years after high school. Returning home and living here for the past 20 years, I'm saddened by how willfully cruel people have become. Much of that is the direct result of changes in the local radio industry. Talk radio is now the lowest cost/most profitable format for radio stations in small to medium-size markets. And playing to their listener's base emotions and fears is the most profitable form of talk radio. Ron Johnson has become an expert at using talk radio to spread his lies and disinformation, and then going unchallenged by the local news media. Combine that with three months of wall-to-wall, unanswered attack ads funded by Wisconsin's leading billionaires (i.e., Liz and Dick Uihlein, and Diane Hendricks), and any zoological primate could win the U.S. Senate seat for the GOP in Wisconsin.
Judi (North Carolina)
It has gone from odd to bizarre that Democrats believe messaging draws more interest than getting in front of voters - seeing them face-to-face. Recall how Hillary skipped Wisconsin and turned down more media interview requests than she took? Democrats have had weak messaging this fall, except for abortion, which peaked several weeks ago. Biden’s job as president keeps him tied up, and strong surrogates such as Obama are getting a late start. Buttigieg is also a favorite, but how much has he actually been out there?
The Sanity Cruzer (Santa Cruz, CA)
Ron Johnson is troubling enough for this country. More troubling is the number of people who would vote for him. To me, that is unfathomable.
BC (New York City)
I suppose it's a good thing that Johnson doesn't work too hard at his senate gig. That wouldn't leave enough time in front of the radio mic.
Greg (Hartland, WI)
Charlie Sykes was the local Rush Limbaugh for years. He nurtured the conservative base and made a fortune off conservative misinformation. He has now changed his stripes to a "never Trumper" so he can make a living on outlets such as MSNBC. All companies that advertise on these shows should be boycotted. follow the money!
BAB (Madison)
The famously inept Senator Johnson very rarely appears in front of voters who are not all in on his POV and his crazy comments that have no basis in fact or reality. He is the only WI senator in the last 50 years who doesn’t conduct “listening sessions” statewide in front of live audiences in non-conservative settings. As shown in this article, he is so bereft of factual knowledge, the senator prefers to talk to a lone microphone in a studio, instead of fielding questions from a diverse statewide electorate in a town hall setting.
Independent Voter (Colorado)
When does he have time to do his actual job? He’s not serving his constituency by campaigning and obstructing, he clearly has his own agenda. As a voter who has passed middle age I have no problem saying we need term limits and age caps on elected and appointed positions.
Peter (Hudson, WI)
My wife and I drove across Wisconsin this week, NW to SE into Madison. WPR FM public radio broadcast “The Ideas Network” a long format single-subject discussion for an hour. It was boring. Change stations. Commercial rock ‘n roll stations were on the dial. Same ol’ same ol. Brief pause on the dial for the fundamentals from Jesus and the Bible. This station was not in my prayers — maybe it should be. Moved on to AM band. Oh, there — the radio imitation of Fox’s Hannity and Carlson and one of Ron Johnson’s conservative talk radio forums. I wondered how many farmers were listening to this in their tractors as they harvest corn and beans. I turned off the radio. The only broadcast was the whine of our tires on the concrete.
Ellen (Northbrook, IL)
This explains Charlie Sykes reluctance when he's on MSNBC Deadline White House and Morning Joe criticize Ron Johnson. His true loyalties run deep.
weiowans (ia)
Well, finally, the NYT is putting on the front page exactly how the mid-west turned into a GOP base. Instead of popping into a diner here and there every two or four years to get the "average joes " thoughts -our coastal news medias should have brought there bikes and rode around a few towns and listen to what all the construction workers, laborers and shop keepers and farmers are listening to. You hear right- wing radio blasted from every radio station except NPR. All most all radio is Right or Christian (which is the same thing). All rock music stations have their top of the hour news blast from the right. These folks think this is the news, this is the landscape, that they are informed. The democrats and the left ceded this entire region in favor of messaging on new technologies. Nobody out here bothered with twitter until Trump told them to follow him. They may get there news on facebook now, but every bit of garbage they they get from facebook is reinforced on their radio stations which they play all day long everywhere, because all you got to do is turn on the radio and you have company. We have been writing this story to you for years.
Papa Wheelie (Leawood, KS)
@weiowans Talk radio is the same as religious radio - people telling made-up stories to reinforce fears that already exist in the minds of the audience, and create new ones to exploit. The left has no need to do this - they'd rather talk about REAL problems and real solutions. There's no breaking in to that genre, as reason, logic, solutions, and tamping down fear is not the goal.
John (Colorado)
You can't find liberal, progressive or Democratic shows on talk radio. Why is that?
Socrates (Downtown Verona, NJ)
Because the boring truth and good boring public policy and nuance and complexity aren't profitable, John. Lies and half-truths and empty slogans and manufactured spite and miracle supplements sell like hot cakes. Welcome to the dark side of humanity that doesn't really enjoy lifting its head too high.
@John... Because the radical right wing trolling, fear and hate mongering is something their audience finds a bizarre entertainment value in. It's why Fox propaganda viewers so often stay glued to the channel all day. They aren't entertained by dry policy discussions and getting actual facts only angers them.
BC (New York City)
@John It's because liberal thinkers don't have any reason to shout out meaningless talking points of propaganda 24 hours per day. And that is due to the fact that they exist in the reality-based world.
GLO (SoCal)
Ron Johnson is lacking in both intellect and morality. Voting for him because of your political leanings is a huge mistake.
Bill Brasky (USA)
What amazes me about local talk radio is how these low knowledge hosts peddle this garbage daily to their low information listeners. While I can't imagine they get paid much money, you couldn't pay be enough to sell my soul and tell untruths and half-truths for a living. On a national level, every one of them is a Rush wannabe and every one is a miserable failure of taking Rush's torch; especially Bongino.
Left Of Center (Wisconsin)
Talk radio in Wisconsin is absolutely toxic. The rural folk that inhabit the northern part of the state and most blue collar workers listen to talk radio non-stop. It’s been that way for years, enabling liars and cheats like Johnson. The thing is Ron Johnson could care less about working class and rural voters. There are no facts being discussed or any real news on Wisconsin talk radio it’s all hyperbole spoon fed to people that will believe anything that aligns with their personal, mostly racist biases.
Howard Herman (Skokie, Illinois)
Ron Johnson will be remembered as one of the worst senators in the history of the Senate. He is a complete embarrassment. To hear him speak or try to explain something is to scratch one’s head and say did I just actually hear that? I remember his comments about the January 6 Capitol attack. He should have been drummed out of office just for those words. He is simply a mindless shill for Donald Trump, incapable of independent thought. He has done nothing of significance in office, If he tried to use his own mind Mr. Trump would excoriate him and tell his supporters he is garbage. It is truly incredible that he is still in the race, the Wisconsin voters supporting him have chosen Mr. Trump’s world over reality. Oh has the bar for political candidates in the Republican Party fallen even further and continues to drop by the day.
Sandy (BC, Canada)
@Howard Herman And yet, the voters are going to re-elect him.
Romanzo Bunn (Couderay, Wisconsin)
Charlie Sykes is completely responsible for forcing Ron Johnson on Wisconsin. There was a conventional Republican running — Dick Leinenkugel (of the brewery family). Leinenkugel, a civic-minded individual, had committed an unforgivable sin in Sykes’ eyes — he had served as Commerce Secretary for Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who Sykes treated as the devil incarnate. (Some devil. Doyle, a Harvard law school grad who could have cashed in at a mega law firm, served in both VISTA and the Peace Corps and was a long time District Attorney.) Sykes, of course, a the death-bed conversion when Trump won the nomination and now attempts to do penance on MSNBC. No forgiveness for you, Chuckles, until RoJo is retired.
Cathykent (Oregon)
“Helps him in the ratings” make me laugh when you hear the same diatribe station after station you begin to wonder am I in The Republic of China.
Iman Onymous (Here, Right Outside Your Galaxy)
Yes, yes, yes, but... you forgot to mention that Ron Johnson and donald are joined at the hip -- ethically, morally, politically, behaviorally, intellectually, criminally, troglodytically, and in every other way. I once saw Ron Johnson on a Meet the Press show during the disastrous so-called "presidency" (I could provide a few other descriptive nouns but this is a family newspaper) of donald. Ol' Ron-boy (that's our fond expression we have for him here in Santa Fe) looked and acted like a lower primate in his hysterically in-heat support of our 45th "president". It was so nauseating a spectacle that I felt like retching. This guy, long with his cognitive clone donald and donald's two great inspirations rocket-boy kim jong un and little vlad is probably the greatest danger to our democracy and the freedom we have had, as Americans, for the past 240 years. I wish the NY Times was more in tune with our current political debacle and its perpetrators.
Vince (NJ)
Radio sure is the future.
Judi (North Carolina)
@Vince I like radio, especially BBC and NPR. Never listen to talk radio. The evening of the first Biden-Trump debate, I couldn’t bear looking at Trump and followed on NPR. Almost immediately I knew Trump was off, more than usual. I could hear it in his voice and words as he repeatedly interrupted Biden and Chris Wallace. Of course, he was ill with Covid. TV is often distracting and showy, but the human voice is much more reliable than facial expressions that have been researched.
EE (East Coast)
Confused why this matters because no one listening to am talk radio in wisconsin is voting for the democratic nominee for the senate. Go out and sell your candidate to the moderates and get out the vote. And if you had a candidate that didn’t March next to a sign saying define the police, that also would be helpful in winning elections.
Colin Scott (Berkeley)
Ok, like you said. I cannot define the police. But there's a much bigger problem due to repub guns flooding Merica, police overwhelmed.
Escape To Nowhere (Rocky Mountains)
I have a number of a relatives who have been listening to talk radio for a very long time, and it has become impossible to discuss anything of any substance with them without having to hear something demonstrably false. They even use the opportunity of casual conversation of the simple joys in life to go political. And if I do anything more than bite my tongue (and sometimes even that’s not enough) I get an angry response with accusations of my being brainwashed. It’s as if truth has become strictly what feels right or good — to them — and facts, evidence, logic, critical thinking are what’s evil. What really breaks my heart is that none of them are truly happy people.
John H (Texas)
“Talk radio is crucial to the conservative movement, because we don’t have the mainstream media on our side,” Perhaps because the legitimate media's job is to tell the truth, not amplify absurd conspiracy theories, lies and disinformation.
panam (Middletown, Pennsylvania)
Aaron Rogers disappointed as a role model when he refused to be vaccinated.
Craig piersma (Madison, WI)
Despite 12 years of dimwittery and little to nothing accomplished including a promise not to run for third term, it appears he will be returned to the Senate. He has saturated the air waves here with outrageous lies and racist innuendo about his opponent who offers little in the way of response.
Logic Science and Truth (Seattle)
Do Republicans even work? They have so much time to listen to talk radio, subvert democracy, and attempt to overturn the government...
pb (calif)
How could people in Wisconsin be so bored that they would dial into and listen to someone like Ron Johnson? There must be a rote, phoney setup. These are phoney people.
Papa Wheelie (Leawood, KS)
Remember, everybody - there are two parties in America right now thanks in large part to talk radio, social media, and a fully compliant (read:not leading but following) Republican party: 1. Democrats - like 'em or hate 'em, they work for freedom for ALL citizens, punishing bad Cops and praising GOOD Cops, fair taxation, etc. 2. Confederates - selective law enforcement on their enemies, expecting full freedom for their own crimes even with thousands of hours of video or audio evidence; taking over government buildings and threatening death to elected officials (and their spouses, now) when they lose elections, and rigging the game in their favor when they are not winning by the rules. They kicked out all the Republicans, but are still cashing their checks, knowing the Confederate party will continue to make the wealthy Republicans wealthier. This is how American democracy ends
Ron Johnson (Hermosa Beach)
Is it any surprise that educated people in Blue States and cities disdain the deliberate ignorance and reality denial of people such as Alex Jones, Ron Johnson, Trump, Rush Limbaugh and their legions of utterly mindless followers? So many of them luxuriate in self-proclaimed victimhood and anger, and devise ever more complex conspiracy fantasies to explain the failure of their own bad life choices, and to dismiss objective facts that inconveniently contradict their ideology.
Socrates (Downtown Verona, NJ)
Senator Ron Johnson said “standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus” The rural, religious, Republican right has always enjoyed the folksy misinformation, disinformation, fear, loathing and paranoia that is sold on talk radio, although it's more descriptive to call it Hate Radio, since what is does is slowly, steadily whip its listeners into a paranoid fugue of ill will toward, Democrats, immigrants, cities, minorities, the government, taxation and any form of progress. Rush Limbaugh mastered this methodology into fame and fortune, as have many others who followed in his grifting footsteps. Much of this country is a shameless intellectual and moral embarrassment.
chambolle (Bainbridge Island)
So now ‘conservatism’ means the rantings and ravings of the misfits and losers who call in to ‘talk radio shows’ all hours of the day and night to vent their personal brand of anger and crazy. And that’s how America selects its representatives in Congress. What could go wrong with that?
Margo Channing (Nw York)
If only these republicans would actually practice what they preach.
FerCry'nTears (EVERYWHERE)
@Margo Channing I'm afraid they are set to do just that
John H (Cape Coral, FL)
To get on talk radio in Milwaukee all you have to say is that you are a conservative. Makes no difference if you are one or not. The host will buy into it immediately. Sykes bougt into it as did others at the time and now Sykes is backtracking. Other hosts feel that they are too "principled" to admit the error their ways. Now it is too late. Good chance Wisconsinites are going to be stuck with this election denier, vaccine diner, Trump stooge. In Milwaukee to get on a conservative talk show, just say you are a conjservative, no credibility needed.
free press (boston)
The conservative - some extreme - viewpoints also tend to reign in sports talk radio, whose ‘personalities’ have not shied from political statements, even as they criticize athletes for doing the same. So you wonder how many sports fans, who may have started out with middle of the road or no political opinions become increasingly extreme
FerCry'nTears (EVERYWHERE)
@free press As a woman I had to stop listening to sports talk. Many times the hosts would interject sexist comments or treat female callers as though they don't understand how sports work or the rules of the game. And then there was the dismisal of violence against women by athletes and the racist talk
Peter (Minneapolis)
It's truly remarkable how good the propaganda wing of the GOP - talk radio and right wing cable news stations - is at keeping it's base in line. Conservatives in this country are so woefully uninformed, it's mind boggling they don't realize it. I think we just need to wait out a shift in demographics though, because young people aren't going to be switching to AM radio, and hopefully will not be so easily pulled in by misinformation. Hopefully, that is - is it naive to think young people will use the power of the internet to get correct information and not be stuck listening to AM radio? Or is that a pipe dream?
Timothy Jackson (Atlanta)
I used to listen occasionally to AM radio talk shows but found the content to be a bit shrill. As for finding accurate information on the internet, good luck with that. I’ve started referring to it as the outrage machine and unplugged. My outlook on my life, my neighbors, community and country to be far brighter,
Pete (California)
@Peter The hate radio operatives have long ago started switching to online disinformation.
Timothy Jackson (Atlanta)
Correction, *found my outlook on my neighbors, community and country to be far brighter.
Louis Gattozzi (Rochester, NY)
Time to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. In fact, the time is well overdue.
Pete (California)
Here's the deal. Yes, talk radio, AKA hate radio because of the unchecked stream of spite, anger and invective directed at liberals and minorities, reaches a fair number of people in the US. Those people are for the most part too brainwashed and steeped in vitriol to be redeemed. If Democrats, who are by and large the adults in the room, do not show up to vote, that group of misfits will be empowered, and empowered beyond their numbers because most of them live in small states that have an unfair advantage over other voters. So, what are we going to have? Creeping Fascism because too many people are no-shows, or a functioning democracy.?
K Knorp (Michigan)
The rule changes which allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to own a ridiculously high proportion of an area’s media outlets, radio and newspapers was a giveaway to wealthy extremists. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the complete lack of regulation regarding outright lies posing as news and opinion didn’t help either. Add to all this extremist rich guys like Musk and Zuckerberg controlling “social” media and I am amazed we haven’t had a civil war yet. But they are working on it.
Bill (St. Paul MN)
People ignore the power of talk radio, particularly in rural areas, as well as ignoring "Christian Broadcasting Network". You might want to read the book "Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right" by investigative journalist prof Anne Nelson, discussing conservative talk radio and the religious right media.
Peg (CA)
The issue is not the MSM for the GOP The MSM simply reports what is really actually happening The problem for the GOP is that they do not have reality on their side so they have to go to conservative sites who will not expose their spin by asking certain questions, and who will help them to promote an alterative to reality where their nonsense will seem plausible. Remember Palin and her saying the MSM have those "gotcha" questions? They only "get you" when you can't answer them So now, to them, all math is fuzzy, facts do not matter, and experts know nothing I mean, you can go and read about American politics in the foreign press and it will still not support GOP claims and nonsense (well maybe in Russia). So, obviously the issue is not the MSM These alternative reality conservative sites are largely propaganda sites, no more, no less, and yet millions of Americans are happy to be lied to daily, because they prefer to live in a fantasy world.
JD (Wisconsin)
Ron Johnson has absolutely done nothing for Wisconsin or its citizens. His only accomplishment in 12 years was a tax break for the types of corporations and businesses he owned in the state. After passing those tax breaks he sold quickly and walked away with millions. And we, the average Joe's were left holding the bag. Everything meant to help the rest of us, he voted no on. He is a waste of air and space.
crystal (Wisconsin)
@JD Someone should confront Ron Jon with a few questions about the Foxconn con he, Walker and try pulled off.
Greg (Boston)
I'm always amazed that candidates supposedly confident in their views cherry pick interviews. It's sad. If you are representing a people, speak to them all. Be prepared for questions. Be responsible. Oh wait. I just woke up.
Aaron (Orange County, CA)
Johnson pledged to serve only two terms.. now running for a third... Go figure!
Robert (Out West)
He’s a changed man.
I have listened to talk radio from time to time. On one show the hosts ( with millions of listeners )asked repeatedly for Dr Fauci to call in so they could ask questions about the things on which they held differing opinions. He repeatedly declined the invitation. Yet Dr. Fauci was a regular on extremely low rated television shows on CNN and MSNBC. I do not understand the reluctance to engage with " the other side". These guys did not spew misinformation. They support vaccines for older and vulnerable people and anyone else who wanted one, but did had differing views on some things. What are people afraid of? Surely people should be willing to explain their positions if they truly believe them. That was one thing I respected about Bernie Sanders's campaign. He was willing to go on Fox. He said why would I pass up the chance to engage with such a large audience. Elizabeth Warren refused. Don't be afraid to stand up for your beliefs. Continuously preaching to the choir serves no purpose.
lovepnw (washington)
@JE I wonder which show repeatedly asked Fauci to appear? I would guess it all boils down to the HONEST intent of the radio host. I've heard a few right wing talk shows as well, and they tend to be fairly combative toward anyone not in their camp. He's been called a lot of things and dismissed by a lot of folks who clearly aren't interested in other perspectives, just in screaming their own. What you're advocating would make sense if we, as a country, were in a better place and not as divided as we are. But, we're not in a good place and we're more divided than ever.
@lovepnw And how did we get that way? Because each side only wants to preach to the choir. So keep doing it and nothing changes.
Talk radio and Christian radio reach a tremendous number of households. I hadn’t realized the power of radio when I lived in the north. Driving through parts of the south that have few stations, I was shocked by the views I heard. There were no options beyond highly conservative radio, no public radio or university stations. These are lost opportunities to reach into rural corners of our country and provide a different vantage point.
Dan (NJ)
@DB Yep, and a lot of the stuff they talk about on those (usually AM) channels ranges from absurd to horrifying. I don't know why people tune in to that. My political headspace is often exasperated or frustrated, but it's not hateful or violent, or even usually angry.
Keith (Tucked up against The Cascades)
@DB I dunno'.... I've always kinda' thought that talk radio is really nothing more'n preaching to the masses, y'know? I'm not thinking too many folk have had their personal/political philosophies altered by these shows. Mostly I think people like to listen to other people who validate their own outlook. Democrats/Liberals/Progressives had a shot at the AM radio with that Air America thingy but it didn't go too well 'cuz the coin didn't show up. It was argued that Democrats don't need radio to validate their own positions. Mostly I think it's 'cuz I can't think of anybody I'd want to listen to just yak yak yak.... My 3 cents. Inflation and all....
Andrew (Trcka)
In the North there is about two generations of brainwashed folks reared on conservative radio. Folks like Limbaugh turned entertainment into politics and we’re stuck living with the consequences
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