On a recent broadcast over the very right-leaning radio station WJR in Detroit, Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell spoke with the morning host Paul W. Smith about several things, including the 100th anniversary of “The Great Voice of the Great Lakes.”
In his gently patronizing tone, Smith introduced the Downriver Democrat: “We try to let her speak freely. We don’t always agree with her. But that doesn’t matter.”
Smith then praised her late husband, John Dingell, who represented the district before her in the U.S. House.
“He was an unusual Democrat who fought for our right to bear arms,” Smith said, as if bestowing absolution.
But even the smug Smith was impressed when Dingell put her family and Smith’s workplace into the perspective of Motor City history of the Roaring Twenties.
“It was my grandfather who built the building you are in,” Dingell told Smith. “He was the Fisher brother that built the Fisher Building. Howard Fisher. He was the youngest of the brothers.”
The building opened in 1928 with WJR among the first tenants. Dingell finished the interview with the politesse that lets her be one of the few liberal or moderate voices heard these days on this station.
“I’m really glad I was here today because it made me think of my grandfather,” Dingell said. “Happy birthday, WJR!”
Although no longer rated consistently in the top ten stations for total audience in the Detroit market, WJR remains a prestigious, “legacy” brand in a churning industry because it draws a dedicated audience that some advertisers strive to reach.
On the 50,000-watt, clear-channel signal at 760-AM, most hosts, guests and callers tend to be older, white men, some of them angry.
'The Democrat Party Hates This Country!'
Although 13 of its 24 hours on weekdays are filled with vituperative, nationally syndicated programming, WJR offers a bifurcated identity because local hosts like Smith, Kevin Dietz, Tom Jordan, Guy Gordon and Mitch Albom help soften the harsh tone without contradicting the party line.
WJR no longer carries any broadcaster as vile as the anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin – who helped make the station famous in its early years – but some of its current syndicated voices rival Coughlin’s bilious spew.
For instance, here’s Mark Levin, who airs on WJR from 8-11 p.m. weekdays, discussing various issues over the last few days:
“The Democrat Party hates this country!” Levin screeches, his voice theatrically rising and falling as he spits out the words. “It hates the Constitution. . . .
"He (President Joe Biden) is delusional, he’s self-delusional, he’s in the early if not mid-stage of dementia! . . . He’s always been delusional! He’s always been a liar! . . . He’s a damn fool and he’s always been a damn fool! . . . He lied and he lied and he lied.”
In a way, the current sound of WJR is an echo of its past, when the station was part of the Big Bang of a new electronic, information technology of the 1920s, a paradigm-shifting step up from the telephone and telegraph. Voices over the air, even from a church pulpit!
Syndicated by WJR across the country in that decade and up to 1940 as the “Radio Priest” from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Father Coughlin is retroactively labeled “The Father of Hate Radio.”
Marxism and FDR
If WJR’s broadcast signal carries to the afterlife, what might Father Coughlin think of Levin or of Dan Bongino, who fills the noon-3 p.m. slot formerly held by the late Rush Limbaugh?
Bongino on Biden:
“He (Biden) has got to be intentionally trying to destroy the country. Things are going to get a lot worse very fast. . . . The clown show on the left continues to cover for this guy. . . . This is a monster suckfest of suck. . . . The suckfest we have now is the suckiest suckfest we’ve had in forever! Maybe the worst president in U.S. history. . . . How could someone cause so much destruction in so little time?“
And perhaps – in that WJR’s signal reaches greater distances at night – Father Coughlin would have enjoyed one of the evening outbursts from Levin, who is Jewish, against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (seriously!) Back in Depression days, FDR was a frequent Coughlin target as World War II loomed.
Another Levin rant – always in heavy rotation – also echoes Coughlin. It is against Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Soviet Marxism. Some Detroiters might know that anti-Communism was one reason Father Coughlin sympathized with Nazi Germany.
Levin also raged last week against a woman’s right to choose.
“Let’s run a video of a partial-birth abortion,” he urged other media. But, eventually, Levin – as did Father Coughlin – always returned to “that man in the White House.”
“The abuse of power by this administration knows no bounds!” Levin said. “The iron fist of the Democrat Party! . . . Open borders! Murder! Mayhem! Fentanyl! Through the roof!”
On weekdays from noon until midnight, these two voices – Bongino and Levin – fill six of WJR’s 12 hours. More subdued are hosts like Smith and Albom, who host the morning and afternoon drive times, from 6-9 a.m. (Smith) and 5-7 p.m. (Albom).
Trump and Fauci Parodies
While Smith trades on his access to Detroit’s power elite and a boosterish agenda, the Albom show is by far WJR's liveliest local production.
Last week’s episodes included a mimic imitating the voices of Dr. Anthony Fauci and former President Donald Trump. He did “Fauci” singing a parody of “The Victors” after speaking at the University of Michigan commencement. Also, to the tune of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” he sang “I’ve Got Covid.”
The hilarious “Trump” character – who seemed to embody the ex-president's personality as well as his voice – said things like “I am the biggest Twitter star ever” and “I get high just looking at my own reflection.”
With co-host Ken Brown and others in the studio, the Albom show sometimes sounds like a boy’s club yukking it up in the old radio format called “the morning zoo.” Musical features mix with serious interviews, like one with former mayor and Detroit Pistons player Dave Bing on the death of Bob Lanier.
Both Smith and Albom have held their bookend positions at the station for a quarter-century, one-fourth of WJR’s existence. They represent continuity at a station whose “news / talk” format is gradually evolving.
In a website promotion for its centennial, program director Mike Wheeler alludes to the changes at the station over the last year following the death of Limbaugh and the retirement (and death) of Frank Beckmann, who worked the 9 a.m. to noon shift.
“In a transitory business, WJR has been a symbol of permanence in Michigan,” Wheeler wrote. “But the last year has brought unprecedented amount of change and we have used this opportunity to reevaluate and rethink how we do talk radio.”
No News Is No News
Note that he used “talk radio” for a format still officially called “news/talk.” But WJR hardly does local news anymore and local reporting was one of its strengths in an era that coincided with its stature as Michigan’s dominant sports station from 1964 through 2000.
Now, remaining WJR journalists like Marie Osborne, Lloyd Jackson and Chris Renwick have been promoted to “senior news analysts.”
They serve as guests on WJR’s local shows and try to provide in-depth analysis of news and issues in a conversational format with one or two hosts. At times, this approach clicks; at other times, it feels forced and awkward.
Another new element at WJR is “All Talk,” a show which replaced Beckmann for three hours in the late morning. (It isn’t called “All News”). Dietz and Jordan work kind of a “good cop / bad cop” routine, with Dietz playing the quasi-liberal in the mushy middle and Jordan the knee-jerk conservative on the right.
Although they try to present both sides of some issues, the “All Talk” guest list tends to favor institutions like the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College and the Republican Party. Conservative callers often talk at length; liberals get cut short. Dietz originally did the show solo.
As for real news on WJR, stay tuned at both the top and bottom of every hour for brief “Fox News” reports that drip 48 times a day like an I.V. transfusion into the station’s thought stream.
Some of the voices are those heard on Fox News Channel on TV. They often stress anxiety-inducing issues like illegal immigration, inflation and crime that stoke a message of resentment, fear and anger.
Whether soft-pedaled from the local hosts or given the hard-sell by nationally syndicated hosts or implied in its Fox news briefs, the message from WJR during the vast majority of the day is clear and simple: Be afraid of your enemies, they are out to hurt you, and we hate them as much as you do.
Father Coughlin considered Jews as his enemies and used loaded code words like “international bankers,” “international financiers” and “money changers.”
Sometimes he was more blunt: “We believe in Christ’s principle of love your neighbor as yourself. And, with that principle, I challenge every Jew in this nation to tell me that he does not believe it.”
Of course, he didn’t mean every Jew was bad. Just some.
“The average Jew, the kind we admire and respect, has been placed in jeopardy by his guilty leaders,” Coughlin said. “He pays for their Godlessness, their persecution of Christians, their attempts to poison the whole world with Communism.”
And that’s the back-to-the-future part of this. WJR hosts may not be anti-Semitic in 2022, but most of them use the formula invented by the Father of Hate Radio: Fear and resentment, repeated often in dramatic voice at loud volume.
In this, its centennial with all the flashbacks to its past, will WJR even acknowledge Coughlin’s appeal and his impact in the building of the station?
Indications are not promising. The anniversary section on WJR’s web site displays booklets it published in various eras. The 1933 issue includes a photo of Babe Ruth with Father Coughlin and this blurb about The Radio Priest.
“Through the medium of the air, he has reached all walks of life with sermons that are nonsectarian, and of the broadest tolerance,” WJR wrote then of Coughlin. “Tolerance indeed is the key-note of Father Coughlin’s preaching.”
Now that such “tolerance” is back in style in the 21st Century, it can be heard again on the modern WJR, which has morphed over recent decades into the Hate Voice of the Great Lakes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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