MICHAEL SMERCONISH IS on the toilet.
It should be noted here that Michael Smerconish is not actually on the toilet, as in sitting on the john, but rather is on the topic of the toilet. More specifically, the one he recently bought, for $500, from one of the sponsors of his Philly-based syndicated radio program. He’s talked about the toilet on his show — he does that sort of thing — and it’s now installed in all its porcelain glory inside the stately Villanova Tudor he shares with his wife, the glamorous real estate maven Lavinia, and their four kids. But he has yet to use it properly. Meaning, he hasn’t utilized what makes the toilet worth talking about on the radio, its “Washlet” function, which is sort of a fancier bidet that precisely aims the water shooting up your heinie. “I haven’t taken the time to read the manual and understand what I’m supposed to do with it,” he says with a bemused shrug. “It looks complicated. It’s like a computer keypad.”
T.C. Scornavacchi, who with her shiny raven hair and husky voice evokes the image of a more voluptuous Angie Harmon, is the official executive producer and unofficial mother hen of The Michael Smerconish Program. She comes in shuffling papers, has caught the tail end of all of this. “Oh, you must be talking about the toilet,” she says.
We’re sitting in a Bala Cynwyd studio at WPHT 1210 AM, “The Big Talker,” where every morning from 6 to 9 (the 5-to-6-a.m. hour features highlights from the previous day’s show), Michael Smerconish sits behind a microphone and holds forth on toilets and anything else he feels like to listeners in Philly — and now, thanks to a new syndication deal, a dozen other markets, ranging from Youngstown, Ohio, to Biloxi, Mississippi. Another 14 mainly “conservative” talk stations — in more cosmopolitan locales like New York, Boston and Portland — broadcast a new afternoon version of his show, which Smerconish does from a studio inside his home. “It also has a drying component,” he’s saying, still talking toilet. “Now when I finally use that and discuss it, people will be totally into it.”
The toilet has swirled into discussion, if you will, because Smerconish just finished a segment, replete with interview with an expert, on how ultra-soft toilet paper is decimating rainforests. This has led to a lively jousting match with the three staff people who also get up at an ungodly hour each day to make this show happen, basically polling who would sacrifice his or her rear to save a tree. And, as an aside, of which there are many on The Michael Smerconish Program, whether it’s prudent to install a urinal in your bathroom.
“When people tune into these stations that are carrying me, they’re anticipating that they’re going to hear somebody kick the shit out of Obama,” Smerconish will tell me later. Instead, they’re getting … toilets, among other ephemera. “I would have never discussed any of that — the Washlet, the urinal, or a lot of the things that come up here — when I was practicing law and I was juggling both careers,” he says, peeling back a banana. “I think I would have been embarrassed that I was going to have to go in front of a jury or judge or clients afterward.” The first night of his solo talk-radio show on WWDB, back in 1992, when his day job was still attorney, his topic was the latest papal encyclical. “I can’t even listen to that now,” he says. “Not even for laughs.”
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?
"DON’T LOOK SO shocked,” he says as he whips through the door of the West Conshohocken Wawa and spies me standing by a freezer, sipping hot chocolate and, I suspect, appearing catatonic. “It’s not even 4 a.m. yet.”
His eyes are, as they always are, open a tad too wide when he looks at you, which sometimes gives his face a certain Wild Man of Borneo quality. As I watch him zestfully grab a bushel of bananas, a carton of yogurt and the morning’s papers, I’m thinking it should be illegal to be this alert, this cognizant, this caffeinated, at 3:50 in the morning, before the Wawa overnight crew has even finished bathing the floor in its fetid daily coat of ammonia, before he’s even taken a sip from his 16-ounce paper cup of piping black coffee. He’s in a blue cotton oxford and well-worn jeans and work boots, a mustardy houndstooth blazer and a knit wool cap, a look accented by the square-framed glasses that are now his trademark. It all telegraphs a certain age-appropriate hipness, Ashton Kutcher at 47. We push outside into the chilly air, the sky an inky black that won’t brighten for another two hours.
This is el dia daily for Michael Smerconish, a day that begins at 3 a.m. and won’t end until 18 hours later. As we rumble down the Expressway toward the station in his mud-splashed black F-150, I ask him how long it took to get used to this horrific schedule. “Two years,” he says. “When I started this, someone said, ‘Everyone will give you strategies about how to do this. None of them work.’ He was right. The human body is not meant to get up in the middle of the night.”
We walk into the small conference room where The Michael Smerconish Program (note the implied intellectual heft: it’s a “program,” not a “show”) comes together each morning. Scornavacchi, 35, Smerconish’s executive producer since 2004 (they met when she was teaching his kids at the Gladwyne Montessori school), busily clacks away on a computer as the boss sits holding a tiny pair of blue plastic grade-school scissors, cutting out newspaper items for possible discussion topics. The show’s researcher, stocky, sedulous John McDonald, 25, suggests others: A fake baseball memoir. Someone punched McGruff the Crime Dog. Meghan McCain is posting online about her dating life. “I already knew that,” Smerconish says dismissively without looking up, in a curt style that suggests The Devil Wears Lands’ End. He pushes his people hard, of which he is aware. He tosses out requests like machine-gun ammo: for statistics, on-air guests, background, sound bites, bits of music. Balancing Scornavacchi and McDonald is Greg Stocker, Smerconish’s 29-year-old tech producer and regular on-air foil, who with his blond highlights and ubiquitous man-jewelry looks at first blush like some stoner surfer who’s mistakenly wandered in from Oahu. “Michael can be a tremendous, tremendous pain in the ass,” Scornavacchi tells me later. “There is no question about that, and he would not be surprised at me saying that. But he is also very, very fair. And he doesn’t ask any of us to work any harder than he is willing to work.”
If there’s one thing no one — right, left or center — can question about Michael Smerconish, it’s his work ethic. Each day he does two shows of three hours each; the time before, between and after is spent researching, taping interviews for future shows, making thrice-weekly appearances as a talking head on MSNBC, writing columns for the Inquirer and Daily News, and being a suburban dad. Somewhere in there, he managed to pen his fourth book, the just-published Morning Drive: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking, a combo 10-point political “Suburban Manifesto” and chatty stroll through his radio career. “I don’t know how he keeps up his schedule,” admits his wife, Lavinia. “It’s awful.”
Of course, a sizeable ego helps. In his defense, this is somewhat of a prerequisite to do what Michael Smerconish does: How do you spend hours on the radio every day spouting your opinions if you don’t think your opinions matter? Still, it can sometimes overwhelm his show. He’ll indulgently play entire songs from the oeuvre of some obscure ’70s rock band he worships; more recently, he’s been relentlessly shilling for Morning Drive. (Touting a one-night appearance in a Collingswood auditorium to hawk the book, he had the set designer on to break down every piece of decor. Twice. In the same show.) “Absolutely he has a big ego,” says Sil Scaglione, who as general manager at WPHT worked with Smerconish. “You want him to have a big ego. That’s what makes him appealing. People want to hear his big personality. If you don’t have a big ego — and I mean this in a healthy way — there’s no place for you in talk radio.”
But does that mean there’s automatically a place for Michael Smerconish? He is seizing what might be termed the Obama Moment, as the nation copes with messy times while still clinging to the hope and change the election promised. Smerconish doesn’t want just to be a part of the Moment; he wants, it seems, to lead it. “I think 90 percent of television is passion and spontaneity,” says Chris Matthews, who sees Smerconish as embodying both. Smerconish is a frequent contributor to the cacophonous parrying that is Matthews’s Hardball. “Finding a point of view isn’t hard, but finding a developed point of view is — someone who has put thought into it, enriched it. And that’s what he does: He enriches his ideas, he thinks about them. That’s what separates the talker from the thinker-talker.” Matthews sees Smerconish as part of an emerging coalition of reason within the Republican Party, along with Susan Eisenhower and Christopher Buckley, two high-profile party loyalists with royal GOP bloodlines who also defected to back Obama.
Smerconish’s bloodline, while not quite as Tiffany, boasts parents with sparkling Bucks County GOP bona fides, and he lived an apple-pie, bike-rides-after-school childhood in Doylestown. Even at an early age he showed the force of will that now defines him. In his mid-teens, Smerconish begged a pal whose dad ran a pool business to let him tag along to deliver chlorine to Larry Kane, at that time Philly’s most popular TV news anchor; at the house, Smerconish snowed the maid into believing Kane had to sign for the delivery himself. As a sleepy Kane staggered to the door, Smerconish introduced himself and took a commemorative photo. Kane later helped Smerconish break into radio.
Politics proved a natural outlet for all this relentless drive. “When I first met him, he was hard-core right-wing. He was Reagan, Rizzo, Right,” says public relations executive Larry Ceisler, one of his closest friends. “And he probably wasn’t the most socially tolerant person. He basically saw the world in black and white.” Smerconish ran for state rep at 24 and lost; later, post-law-school, he found himself in the Office of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of George H.W. Bush, his pin-striped suits and often glowering countenance conjuring an image of a younger, handsomer Karl Rove. After leaving government to join the storied Beasley law firm, he used his political connections to remake himself as a part-time political pundit, laying the foundation for his radio career, first at WWDB and then at ’PHT, where a very public snit with Scaglione in 2001 led to his contract not being renewed. Scaglione tattled to the Daily News’s Stu Bykofsky that Smerconish’s ratings were “mediocre” and that “the radio show is a hobby and not his career,” and Smerconish returned fire with vitriolic verve, leaking an e-mail sent six months earlier in which Scaglione had expressed his wish “to build the station around you.”
Scaglione later begged — and got — Smerconish to return, and in 2003 Smerconish gave up law and committed to a career in media, doing the ’PHT show, penning newspaper columns, and foraying into guest stints as a “conservative” talking head in the company of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. His show became must listening for the power crowd that ran Philadelphia. “He was networked in, which goes back to his political years,” says Ceisler. “He knew a lot of people.”
Smerconish’s journey to a new political philosophy, if not a new political identity, has been just as public. He joined a cadre of other high-profile GOPers (most notably The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan) who spent the better part of the last decade hand-wringing over the slow death of the Reagan era’s ideals of a strong defense and small government, watching helplessly as the far-right faction of the party veered the Bush administration into two unwinnable wars and profligate spending. Smerconish often mused on the air about his deep concerns with the party’s direction. The nadir came last year in the Denver airport, when he looked up from his USA Today to see a television monitor announcing that Sarah Palin had been selected as John McCain’s running mate. Disappointed — he believed Tom Ridge was the best choice — Smerconish headed to Minnesota for the GOP convention, where on his way to hear Palin’s acceptance speech he bumped into none other than Comcast exec David L. Cohen.
“You’re about to be wowed,” Cohen told him.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Smerconish replied, still skeptical. “By Sarah Palin?”
“No, I’m telling you. I met her, and she’s really more impressive than people are giving her credit for.”
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.”
For several years, Smerconish has answered the siren song of television. Breezy appearances on everything from The View to The Today Show proved him a natural: striking, self-assured, articulate, knowledgeable. But each time it looked like his own TV gig was coming — on CNN, on MSNBC, on HLN — the cheerleader waving the pompoms for him got cut from the squad. “The worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a television producer is to look kindly on me,” Smerconish says with a rueful laugh. “’Cause chances are, you’re leaving.”
“People don’t know all of the rejections and dejections he’s had across his business life,” says Pat Croce, who lives next door to him in Villanova and has become both a mentor and a friend. The two often take long, head-clearing walks together during which Smerconish brain-dumps, seeking advice. “There have been times when he’s wanted to kill something,” says Croce. “Everything happened on CNN, then the head guy leaves. He fills in when [Don] Imus is gone, and something else politically happens. It wasn’t fair, but then, business isn’t fair. So I said, ‘Stay at it, stay at it. You’re in the hunt. You’re always in the hunt.’”
And so the hunting ground became national radio, as Smerconish focused his efforts on syndicating his show. In Philadelphia, only the first six minutes at the top of each hour of The Michael Smerconish Program are now local, which is why you hear him chatting up Sid Mark or the Phillies ball girls in that slot. The rest of the morning version beams out to a dozen other affiliates (most notably Washington, D.C.) as Michael Smerconish attempts, one station at a time, to burnish an identity as The Other in talk radio.
He’s currently ranked 35th in Talkers magazine’s annual list of the “Heavy Hundred,” the most influential talk-radio hosts in the nation (predictably, Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage are the top three); he was recently named best news/talk/sports local personality in the nation by the trade publication Radio & Records. But it will still be several months before the awards committee that counts — in the form of the national Arbitron ratings — decides whether Smerconish and his hard-to-pin-down anti-ideology are winners or not. Six months ago, at the height of election fever, Smerconish was averaging some 238,000 weekly listeners in Philly; by February, that number was 136,800, a tumble of 43 percent. How much of that is attributable to talk-radio fatigue, how much is people temporarily tuning out a torrent of daily, awful economic news, and how much is an actual judgment on Smerconish himself is as yet unknown. But when I told my brother, a staunch but hardly intolerant suburban Republican, that I was doing a story on Smerconish, his response was swift. “Oh yeah, he was good, I used to listen to him all the time,” he said. “But then he got all … liberal.”
“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.”
But what if they don’t come back? What if the new listeners turning the dials in the cars and kitchens of Huntsville, Alabama, and Columbia, Missouri, and Orlando and Oklahoma City, pursing their lips and thinking Let’s see what this Smerconish guy is all about, turn on by? Friends say Smerconish is privately on tenterhooks about the national rollout, worried about what it will mean for his career — for who he is — if his brand of freewheeling radio fails to catch on.
He sinks back into the brown leather sofa, sighing. He’s thinking. He does not want to be Them, become Them, the hard-liners now thrashing in the La Brea Tar Pits of the right-wing insurgency, calling for Obama to be led to the Bastille, inciting the troops to oppose, shout, scream, fight.
A silence settles between us for a moment, something a tad disquieting in the company of a guy who talks for a living. The empty air seems to be waiting for a decision, which Michael Smerconish is: waiting to see if talk-radio-listening America will renounce polemic for his folksy, kitchen-table, “Hey hon, did you see this in the paper today?” style of discourse. He’s waited for verdicts before. He’ll wait for this one, too.