It can all seem a bit quixotic, this rambling on-air babble about whether it’s okay to love both televangelist Joel Osteen and profanity-laden shows on HBO, or the history of the free throw, or Percy Fawcett’s trek into the Amazon jungle in 1925. (Michael Nutter recently was on to discuss, not the city budget, but the love he and the host share for HBO’s The Wire.) It’s also not the same modus operandi that has, over the past six years, turned Smerconish into the most influential radio personality in Philadelphia.
Yet Michael Smerconish believes — has, in fact, bet his entire future on the notion — that whimsical, Seinfeldian chatter, mixed with a dollop of political gravitas, will elevate him into a national powerhouse in talk radio. Despite being first up in the batter’s box every day in a John Birchist WPHT lineup that includes Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, he feels America is ready for, is yearning for, someone riffing on the absurdities of life while meandering about the political middle like it’s a shopping mall. “Maybe I’m in a cocoon,” he says. “But I don’t think so.”
He better hope he’s right: Audiences for much of both cable and radio talk are down sharply, part of the hangover from last year’s epic election. Crafting a show that marries the political center with absurdist trivialities seems borderline insane in an arena whose currency is measured in invective. “Look, if I were looking for a bang in the ratings, I would simply follow the model,” Smerconish says. “And I would follow Rush and Sean and Glenn and Michael Savage. Because that is the easy career path to success in what I’m doing. But I’m not comfortable — I never have been — saying things I don’t believe.”
Smerconish holds some decidedly lefty social views; in the shot heard ’round the dial, he endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 general election. But he’s also the guy who ran for office as a GOP candidate at 24, worked in the administration of Bush 41, and touts the value of ethnic profiling in airports and the torture of terror suspects. What may appear a tangle of conflicted thinking is, he insists, actually a reflection of most of the beliefs held in America’s suburbs. And he’s banking that the people who live in those suburbs will hear themselves in his voice.
An interesting and risky strategy, stitching Libertarian-scented politics with fizzy pop-culture curiosities and what he calls “just shits and giggles.” Talk radio has long been the bully pulpit of the reactionary right, as WPHT’s rotation proves. It was after the plenteous fodder provided by the election evaporated into the political ether that his show took a decidedly further turn into infotainment, Face the Nation as moderated by Mary Hart. As Smerconish adds new affiliates weekly, launches his new midday version and unveils a new memoir, it just might work. Or it might turn the radio career it took him two decades to build into another repository of hot air: the Hindenburg.
It’s no exaggeration that the stakes for him have never been higher, that when he says, “I don’t think I am alone in how I look at this world,” he is, deep down, terrified that he may be alone in how he looks at this world — that, in fact, his approach may leave him without an audience. Because if that happens — if the public abandons his tap-dancing down the stripe of the talk-radio highway for the cozy comfort of their ideological bunkers on the right and the left — where does that leave Michael Smerconish?