And Starring Michael Smerconish, as Himself

Can a man succeed in the rabidly partisan world of talk radio by reaching out to moderates and channeling his inner Larry David? With a new national audience (and a new book), Philly’s most powerful radio personality is putting his ass on the line to find out

Post-speech, Smerconish helped himself to a gulp of the Palin Kool-Aid, pulling out his cell phone and dialing his dad back home. “Maybe I got it wrong,” he joked in the call. “Perhaps they should reverse the order of the ticket, because she is really, really dynamic.”

But the campaign’s sheltered rollout of Palin, coupled with a party platform Smerconish felt was unconscionably rigid (for example, no abortion exceptions, even for rape or incest), quickly took the bloom off his GOP rose. “The middle,” he says, “was lost.”

Still, when he came out and publicly endorsed Obama on Hardball and in his Inquirer column, the elephant dung hit the fan. Callers and e-mailers excoriated him for treason; the furor grew so large that ABC News’s Jake Tapper did a story about it. Even his own mother was livid. “Shortly after, we went away with her for her birthday,” recalls Lavinia. “She walked in, she pinned McCain/Palin buttons onto our three boys as we were headed toward the airport, and that was essentially the end of it. No one said another word about the endorsement for the entirety of the trip.”

Which is, in a way, emblematic of what happened to Smerconish’s radio show as well. The show’s growling introduction notwithstanding (“Broadcasting from the Cradle of Liberty, this … is The … Michael … Smerconish Program”), post-election and post-syndication, Smerconish has begun to subtly steer the show away from unyielding analysis of the day’s headlines into a more watercooler kind of affair. (It’s no coincidence that his idol is Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld; his BlackBerry ringer, which goes off about every three minutes, is the theme to Curb Your Enthusiasm.) This wasn’t tactical, something strategized or planned, but more organic, fueled by his belief that “If I’m into it, I think I can get you into it.” While he still tackles charged, provocative topics — he recently mused about whether it was okay for white people to use the N-word — the spread of his show nationally has coincided with what amounts to more or less a divorce from the culture wars. “It’s a challenge, here in Philadelphia, to be surrounded by a lot of ideology,” he says of sharing the airwaves with the likes of Hannity and Rush. “But I’d rather do it this way.”

 

LABELING MICHAEL SMERCONISH politically has become a rather tough proposition, even for him. His political idols remain Arlen Specter, Rudy Giuliani (the local-guy version, not the pandering-to-the-base presidential-candidate version) and Mitt Romney (ditto). Like Matthews, who earlier this year aborted a possible U.S. Senate run against Specter, Smerconish is sometimes floated in idle chatter as a potential candidate down the road, a prospect he summarily dismisses. “I don’t know that I would be able to rein in my thinking,” he says. “Let’s see, here’s my platform: Torture the bad guys. Get out of Iraq. Go into Pakistan and hunt bin Laden. Close the borders. Legalize prostitution, decriminalize marijuana, be pro-choice, and give gays civil unions.” He laughs, a big, throaty laugh. “Who’s for that?” Other than Ayn Rand, probably no one.

“What makes Michael interesting is that he’s passionate about his moderation,” says Rick Santorum, who was a frequent guest on Smerconish’s show during his tenure in the U.S. Senate. “Most moderates aren’t passionate; they’re the mushy middle, if you will. You can say a lot of things about Michael, but ‘mushy’ is not one of them. He takes on the positions he takes with a zeal that makes it entertaining.”

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