It’s 9:15 and I’m on the Schuylkill Expressway, just like every weekday morning. My radio is tuned to WPHT, 1210 AM. Normally I’m an NPR girl, but WHYY has the BBC Newshour on from nine to 10, and frankly, I can’t work up much interest in Bhutan. Nor do sports-radio windbags appeal; do any ladies listen to Angelo Cataldi who aren’t paid to? But Talk Radio 1210 has Dom Giordano. And even though he and I disagree on just about every topic under the sun, I keep finding myself tuning into him.
It’s the week before the election, three days after Hurricane Sandy, and here’s what Dom is hammering: Why is Governor Christie cozying up to Obama? What about those four dead Americans in Benghazi? Why is the President suddenly so concerned with rich people whose Shore houses have washed away?
Callers materialize out of his pool of thousands of daily listeners, to agree and disagree with him. Sam from Ventnor: “I’ve been working since I was 13. I’m sick and tired of bailing people out.” Linda from Clayton: “I’m tired of the liberal intolerance!” And Rosetta from Northeast Philly: “You should be fund-raising for hurricane victims,” she tells Dom, “instead of stirring up strife and being so hateful.”
“Just because there’s a hurricane,” Dom counters, “I’m supposed to stop talking politics?”
“God is in charge,” Rosetta says serenely. “He will reveal all.”
“Well, do you think He’ll reveal it before the election?” Dom demands, and I laugh out loud.
But when I reach the Center City garage where I park, I switch the station back to NPR. I don’t want the nice African immigrants who work there to know I listen to a guy who once described Obama as “a petty-thug Chicago politician,” and U.N. election overseers as “characters from the bar scene in Star Wars.” Whatever Dom Giordano appeals to in me, I don’t think it’s my better self.
This is what I know about Dom from listening to his show: He has a wife named Roe—for Rosemary—and a son named D.J. He used to be a teacher. He writes a column for the Daily News. Once a month he broadcasts from Harrisburg, with Governor Tom Corbett. Mitt Romney wasn’t his first choice for the Republican presidential nomination. He misses Joey Vento. He’s disappointed in Mayor Nutter and despises Joe Biden. He adores Samantha Pawlucy, a.k.a. Romney T-Shirt Girl, and Archbishop Chaput. He has solar panels on his home, thanks to one of his advertisers, that have cut his monthly PECO bill to nothing.
Here’s the thing, though: Just when you think you have Dom pinned down—red-meat Republican, hard-line Catholic—he’ll surprise you. He’s pro-contraception. He thinks some abortions should be legal. He admires James Carville and Ed Rendell. In fact, his belief system is so scattershot that after listening to him for months, I’ve come to think he’s putting it on—picking and choosing his stands to deliberately provoke. How else do you explain a guy who decries political correctness and yet raises holy hell when Pawlucy’s teacher teases her about a damned t-shirt?
But if he’s phony, he has to be crazy to think he can get away with it. Because Dom isn’t just a voice on the radio. He goes on vacation with his listeners—on cruises to Hawaii and Alaska. He throws parties for them, like his “Feast of the Seven Fishes” bash at Christmas, and shows up at events like the big Romney rally in Bucks County just before Election Day. If he’s putting his audience on—if he doesn’t believe what he says—his house of cards is bound to crash. Each day as I listen, I wait for the flub, the slip-up, the blunder—I, and all the liberals who call in and try to catch him out.
They never do.
I ask my friend Buzz Bissinger about Dom. Buzz hosts a show for WPHT, too—the weekday-afternoon slot from three to seven. “I like Dom,” Buzz tells me. “I’ve never seen anyone who works harder than he does. He’s always at the station. And he gets very good guests.”
I ask if he thinks Dom’s sincere. “My sense is that he’s very sincere,” Buzz says. “You can tell by his voice.” That’s the trouble, though: Dom’s voice is all I’ve got, and it isn’t enough. I need to see him. So when I hear about a rally he’s hosting in Ardmore—“We’ll be giving away a thousand Romney-Ryan lawn signs!”—I decide to stop by.
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.
This is how you get to be a caller on Dom’s show: Disagree with him. Be female. Be a first-time caller. That’s per Eric Strain, the young Rutgers grad who’s been Dom’s producer for the past year. “We get some people—I call them the ‘comments section,’” says Eric. “They just say awful things and hang up. Dom likes to engage.”
Part of Eric’s job is answering the phone—“Hi, 1210, what’s your first name? Where’re you calling from? What’s your comment?”—and summarizing callers on a queue board in the studio, so Dom can choose among them:
PAUL/LANSDOWNE/CHRISTIE IS DOING THE RIGHT THING
LINDA/WESTFORD/LET’S NOT TALK POLITICS FOR 48 HOURS
MARSHA/PLYMOUTH MEETING/WHEN I NEED HELP I’M GOING TO THE GOVERNMENT
Today is Election Day—well, election night—and Dom has invited me to ’PHT’s City Avenue studio. He worked his usual 9 a.m.-to-noon this morning and now is back for 9 p.m. to midnight with Stigall. Tomorrow, when Stigall calls in sick, Dom will cover his 6-to-9 a.m. shift and his own 9-to-noon. “Dom does it alone,” Buzz Bissinger told me. “I do four hours a day with a partner and I’m beat. It takes a lot out of you.”
Not Dom. “I’m like what Philadelphia is,” he tells me on a break. “Look at Aaron Rowand. He ran into a wall and still held onto the ball. We admire effort here.”
Tonight isn’t looking too good for Team Dom. Fox News just called the Senate race for Bob Casey. “I’m absolutely shocked!” Dom cries. Michigan falls to Obama. Massachusetts does, too. “If Romney wins this election,” Stigall snipes, “we’re not going to see murals with his portrait in schools. He’s not a god we worship.”
“Mitt Romney,” Dom says, “is a Jeep we’ll ride to economic prosperity!”
At 9:20, though, Pennsylvania is called for Obama. “I’m waiting to see the numbers,” Dom says stubbornly. But Eric, going for a coffee refill, laughs: “We just had a one-hour election special!”
“What are you seeing in the collar counties?” Dom demands of pollster James Lee. “What about the women? What Chris and I saw out in Bucks County at the Romney rally, the women, the young women … ” Those are his constituents. He listens to them when no one else will. How could they turn against him now?
I damn near feel sorry for him.
But the party’s over. On the studio TVs, CBS is showing Democratic victory celebrations. Dom takes a call from Paul in South Philly: “Do people not know Democrats are for gay marriage?” Paul wails.
Eric cues up the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Fox projects Ohio for Obama. “People are saying—Dom, Chris, you were idiots,” Stigall says, “standing in that field in Bucks County, thinking Pennsylvania could go for Romney.”
“It was a great moment!” Dom counters. “It was the most exciting moment I’ve ever had in radio, standing in the freezing cold with snot running out my nose. … ”
Other cities might not be so tolerant—so embracing—of Dom’s “I contain multitudes” contradictions. But here in Philly, we’re comfy with public figures’ dual natures: Ben Franklin’s gossamer diplomacy and plain talk, Grace Kelly’s ice and fire, John Street’s austerity and iPhone lust. We’re used to inconsistency—look at our sports teams. Hell, Arlen Specter held elected office here for more than 40 years.
Stigall heads home early. I do, too. Not Dom; he’ll finish his shift. The studio elevator spills me out into a vast, empty lobby. Dom may not appeal to my better nature, but I’m a true Philadelphian, just like him. I’m ashamed and I’m not as I hurry toward my car. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.