Before another show, Morris finds an unoccupied corner in the WPHT offices. He is going on about the benefits of nuclear power when a young, lanky ad rep interrupts to say, “Hey, thanks for that spec. The Uncle Dave’s Ice Cream spec. He’s dying to have you up there.”
What a comedown, right? From omnipresence on the biggest cable news network to recording ads for an ice-creamery in Yardley. “If you look at things in a linear sense, and you’re obsessed with your own dignity, all right,” Morris acknowledges. “But I’m not. It’s not a comedown. It’s fun.”
Perhaps in private, Morris really is in anguish. But I saw no sign of discontent in our conversations, nor do you hear any self-pity in his shows. His enthusiasm for Philadelphia seems entirely genuine. He goes on and on about the restaurants (Barclay Prime called to confirm a reservation mid-interview), and he and his wife are hunting for an apartment in Rittenhouse. Even more surprising, given his long work on the national stage, is Morris’s interest in the local stories.
This is where it’s clear Morris is a very quick study. I’ve heard him go deep into the weeds with officials and analysts on municipal tax policy—a subject I know better than I would like—and his questions are not only on point, but are often more incisive than those asked by the beat reporters. Morris has gotten the better of pitched interviews with State Senator Stewart Greenleaf (over mandatory minimum sentences for Philadelphia gun arrests, which Morris favors) and deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel (on the city’s homicide rate), to name a few.
When the show is clicking, Morris will hear out an opinion, counter with his own research, and then zoom back out for a bit of solid analysis. One caller, from Ambler, dialed in to complain about the injustice of Philadelphia’s tax abatement program—about as local as a topic gets. Morris knew the program inside and out, repeated the talking points of the pro-abatement crowd, and then put the issue in context. “The big problem that’s facing cities throughout the northeastern United States is that they’re becoming vacant lots,” he said. “These cities are going to become ghost towns. … And the main thing you want to do is bring people into the city who are rich, who are upper-income, who can anchor the city and stop it from becoming a ghost town.”
That’s good local talk radio. Strong, controversial opinion? Check. Credible analysis? Check. Relevant and timely? Check.
The problem is that these moments are rare. Like, a comet approaching the Earth rare. Most of the time—whether the subject is local or national—Morris will drone on and on, so enraptured with his own expertise and anecdotes that the audience seems forgotten.
Morris also completely lacks the showmanship and rage—real or pretend—that animates the shows of the better-known conservative radio hosts. He seems to be positioning himself as a consummate insider, peeling back the artifice of modern politics for his listeners. To that, he adds a healthy pinch of historical references, à la Glenn Beck. And then he layers those cerebral stylings on top of boilerplate conservative fare, i.e., Obama is a socialist with strong anti-American instincts.
It’s faux political intellectualism for conservative rubes. And while the formula has made Morris a lot of money over the years, it’s not at all clear it will work on a four-hour radio program in a Northeastern urban market.
“We just needed something big,” says WPHT operations manager Andy Bloom, when asked why Dick Morris. “Michael had been the biggest name on the radio station, so we needed something bigger.”
When I ask Morris “Why Philadelphia?” he replies, “Well, they asked,” and then chuckles for a bit.
It was mutual desperation, then, that brought WPHT and Morris together, and it’s likely to keep them together for some time. Morris knows his show needs work. “I’m a musical comedy honing its act in Philadelphia, and making all the mistakes with a very patient management,” he says. And so far, WPHT management remains enthralled by Morris, despite his program’s problems. “His show has gotten better faster than any show I’ve ever heard,” says Bloom.
Perhaps so. Yes, Morris has the intellect and the background to evolve into an important local voice. But this is a man with no shame, one entirely unconcerned with his own credibility. Morris will say whatever sells. He always has. Is Philadelphia really the market for this Dick?