Dom Giordano’s Liberal Take On Conservative Talk Radio

How the 1210 WPHT host has been capturing the political hearts of Philadelphians for years—whether they agree with him or not.

It’s hard to locate the rally, what with all the red, white and blue banners and streamers fluttering at auto dealerships along Lancaster Avenue. On my car radio, Dom’s talking to Phil Heron, editor of the Delaware County Daily Times. “His paper just endorsed Barack Obama!” Dom shouts above a backdrop of honking. “Phil, has the paper lost its mind?”

Finally I spot a clutch of people holding American flags on a corner. A tall, thin guy is directing traffic, waving cars to the curb where acolytes guard stacks of lawn signs. Traffic Guy beckons to an SUV: “Pull up! Pull up!” Nannies with strollers stop to see what’s going on; drivers crane from car windows. A gray-haired woman in a BMW rolls up, cheering: “Romney! Romney! Romney!” A guy screams “Fuck Romney!” from his Ford.

Dom is standing apart from the hubbub on the sidewalk outside Ardmore’s Republican Committee headquarters, wearing a headset, perusing his notes. He’s much ­better-looking than in photos. He has carefully tended brown hair, and stands tall and sleek in his crisp dress shirt and slacks. He’s a pocket of solitude amid the busyness.

One of the flag-bearers is Connie Waterman, a Republican committeewoman from Narberth. “When I heard Dom was coming, I got really excited,” she tells me. “I was at the Ann Coulter event at the Constitution Center last night, with Dom and Chris ­Stigall”—another WPHT host. Waterman’s thrilled with the turnout of maybe 30 cars so far: “My neighbors have never seen so many Republicans!”

An Action News cameraman and reporter are on the scene. It’s hard to tell, on the Main Line, who’s wearing pancake and who just got made up to go to Starbucks. Linda Aversa-Caldwell is waiting for a sign. I ask her about Dom’s appeal. She thinks for a moment. “You watch the different TV shows,” she finally says, “and they’re hostile. He’s not hostile. That’s what’s paralyzing the country—­people hide behind email and Facebook to spew mean things. He’s not that way.”

There are a couple dozen people now, with and without flags, milling on the sidewalk. Marybeth Hurley from Berwyn has stopped by. “I listen to Dom all the time,” she says, “but I never saw him before.”

“Is he what you expected?,” I ask.

“He’s exactly what I pictured in my head. He’s just a regular guy. Listening to him is like talking to one of my friends.”

I confess that I listen even though I don’t agree with Dom much. “It’s the way he talks,” Marybeth says, nodding. “He doesn’t put you off by acting intellectual. It’s wisdom with him.” She looks to where he’s standing with his mic. “I’d like to go over there and give him a hug.”

“Why don’t you?”

To my surprise, she does. When she grabs Dom, he leans away from her, startled. Marybeth darts away.

This is Dom in person, distant and inaccessible. It’s because he’s working, I think—putting on a radio show from the sidewalk of Ardmore. And yet there’s something more in play. Dom doesn’t engage with Connie or Linda or Marybeth; he sticks with Congressmen Jim Gerlach and Pat Meehan, who’ve stopped by—men in suits, men of import and rank. The host who on the air is so down-to-earth and scrappy projects aloofness in person with every fiber of his dress shirt and slacks.

As the event winds down, I head back to my car. “Turnout here is massive!” Dom shouts from the radio as I drive past the ragtag sidewalk crew. “I have with me the Pawlucys, Chris and Richard and their daughter Sam, the girl who wore the t-shirt heard round the world! I understand you’re being home-schooled now, Sam—hey! Hey! That guy just gave me the finger! Hey, this is the Main Line! You can’t do that here!”

 

This is what I find out when I sit down with Dom Giordano for an actual interview:

He’s 63 years old. He’s a true Philadelphian; he grew up near 29th and McKean, the oldest of seven. His dad was a Rizzo cop; his mom was a bookkeeper, until the third or fourth kid came along. They weren’t liberal, or even moderate. At Bishop Neumann High, he was “a combination of nerd and athlete.” (He played basketball.) After that, he went to La Salle. He became a teacher, and found a way to engage kids in learning with rewards like gum. That got him written about in the Inquirer, which landed him a guest spot on radio. The first time he did talk radio, he realized: This was invented for me.

In 1978, he lined up advertisers and bought his way onto a station in Jenkintown part-time—“Once a week for an hour, after this guy who talked about the end of the world.” In 1987, he worked up to WDVT, where the legendary Frank Ford mentored him. Then he moved to WWBD, where he did weekend overnights, then weekday overnights. He finally made the morning drive during the Clinton impeachment—“an overnight success,” he says drily. He’s done various time slots since moving to ’PHT in 2000. “This is a good one,” he says of his current weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon, “but you have to get up at four in the morning to prepare.” Luckily, he only needs five hours’ sleep.

He met Roe when they were both grad students at Antioch, of all places—the liberal bastion known for its 1993 “Sexual Offense Prevention Policy” flap. “She was a Democrat,” Dom says. “She still is, in the JFK and FDR vein—strong on national defense and for the little guy.” Just before this past election, Dom heard her self-identify as an Independent. The earth moved for him.

The Giordanos live in Germantown, in what was Roe’s parents’ house. Besides D.J., who’s 29 and wants to be in radio, they have another son, Luke, 23, an actuary. When Dom isn’t working, which isn’t often, he’s hanging with the fam, going running, playing hoops or tennis or golf. He’s abnormally competitive, he says.

His major driving force is to uphold the family name. Yet like his fellow WPHT hosts, he shills on his show—for Geno’s Steaks, his cruises, those solar energy panels. He insists he believes in every product he plugs: “I do take Omega 3—two in the morning, two at night. I do love Geno’s steaks.” Or did—he’s been a vegetarian for 30 years, ever since his brother became a vegan. Did I mention he’s abnormally competitive?

His political evolution has been drastic. He supported McGovern, was once a fan of the Kennedys, was moved by Julian Bond. But today, the former teacher despises Philly’s unions, welfare, Obamacare, Nancy Pelosi. He harbors a special animus toward onetime John Street campaign consultant David Axelrod, for “playing the race card” after Street’s Bug-gate, thus causing the 2003 mayoral defeat of Sam Katz—“a really admirable guy.” For a local show, he does get great guests—Karl Rove, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, David Petraeus (eight times!). And yet, he points out, “The biggest liberal voices in the country have been on with me.” He credits his willingness to see both sides: “I call out RINO Republicans. I give Obama credit for Bin Laden, the drone attacks, Palestine. I’ve been for civil unions—not gay marriage—for 20 years.”

What makes Dom’s show work, I gradually realize, is the same mix of contradictions that made me doubt his sincerity. The most stalwart Tea Partier may find himself challenged by Dom’s signature “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” A timid, flustered left-wing housewife can find herself embraced—at least, figuratively. He’s confrontational, but he always listens—a rarity in the lives of his shoulder-chipped habitués. Dom differs from better-known conservative hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity, who hew to the party line. Oh, there are plenty of occasions when Dom sounds like he’s reading Karl Rove’s playbook. But there are also times when he’s causing Rove apoplexy.

Still, it’s not so much that he sees both sides as that he stands apart from both. On those cruises, rife with potential for boundary-crossing—24/7 on a ship with rabid admirers!—he maintains a buffer of reserve. “Most people are respectful,” he says. “We have a cocktail party. It’s not like we’re hanging out together. We see each other a few times.”

It’s why radio works for him: He needs a certain distance to feel close.

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