“I just don’t think he’s as relevant in today’s political discussions,” sniffs Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters, a self-proclaimed progressive media-watchdog group that monitors conservative talk radio. “You don’t hear about him as much as you may have at one time.”
Perhaps that’s because as Smerconish has taken his show one way, his peers have run in the other direction to be even more inflammatory. To be famous. Minneapolis’s Chris Baker called Obama a “little bitch”; San Francisco’s Lee Rodgers labeled leaders of the feminist movement “a bunch of hags” who “couldn’t get laid in a men’s prison.” Denver’s John Caldara described former presidential candidate John Edwards as “the very definition of faggy.” The blue ribbon for vulgar punditry may go to Langdon Perry, who on Baker’s show said, “I’m convinced that Magic [Johnson] faked AIDS.”
“It’s the same thing, every day from every host,” Smerconish says wearily. “I’ve received a tremendous blowback from the hard-core, traditional talk-radio listener. The question is: Is that person typical of the broader market I’m trying to reach? I don’t think that they are.”
"COME ON, WALK in here,” Michael Smerconish says, waving me into a low-ceilinged, sharply gabled anteroom off the den where he broadcasts his afternoon show. His house is big, with a swinging black-metal gate and lots of stonework, which you would expect, but also feels lived-in and homey, like an upscale Poconos lodge, which you wouldn’t.
He’s dressed today in a slouchy oxford, a chocolate blazer, expensive chinos and matching cowboy boots, and in the small space, he prowls like a panther, pointing here, pointing there, wanting me to see this, to look at that. The walls are cluttered with concert ticket stubs, random posters, photos and other nostalgic bric-a-brac, a shrine to his passion for classic rock. “Yeah, here’s Jethro Tull,” he says, plucking a ticket stub off the wall. “I’ve got a ton of Yes, Van Halen. I’ve been hugely into Pink Floyd for, like, forever.” He points to a photo of him near the stage at a Roger Waters concert at Madison Square Garden he went to with Paul Lauricella — “Liberal Paul,” a lawyer at the Beasley firm and one of his frequent on-air callers. The photo shows him heckling Waters. “He was going into this tirade about the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo,” Smerconish says. “So I shouted him down.”
The rock gods of his youth frequently find themselves guests on his show. “I am totally self-indulgent,” he says, his eyes almost shining. “When these ’70s rockers come through town, I am probably the only person who puts them on. I’m a sucker for it.” I ask him what listeners think of this randomness, a discussion of whether it’s okay for a white person to use the “N” word one minute, a sit-down with the guitarist from Yes the next.
“Did you have to say ‘randomness’?” he retorts. For the first time in all the hours I’ve spent with him, he seems almost … wounded. I offer the adjective “eclectic” instead. His face brightens instantly. “I like eclectic,” he says, the word clicking off his tongue. “Eclectic is like ‘eccentric’ instead of ‘crazy.’ To the extent that there is a guiding principle to the program, it’s that there’s a little something for everybody. And if you’re not into it, you can leave me for 10 minutes or a half-hour and know that if you come back, I will have changed it up and we’ll be into something totally different.”