John Ziegler on Talk Radio: “Admirable People” Need Not Apply

John Ziegler

John Ziegler is a conservative (and sometimes controversial) radio talk-show host on KFI-AM in Los Angeles, who was profiled in the April issue of The Atlantic. He joined KFI full-time in January 2004, after being fired from his talk show on WHAS-AM in Louisville. KFI, which is owned by Clear Channel Communications, broadcasts syndicated commentators Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger as well as its own lineup of personalities. The radio station has the second highest market share in Los Angeles. Ziegler, a 1989 graduate of Georgetown University, is a sometime contributor to MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country.” He has been a regular critic of the media.

Susan Q. Stranahan: What makes talk radio, especially conservative talk radio, so popular?

John Ziegler: It depends on the host and format. There are many types of talk radio. In general, I believe that talk radio’s role is to provide a different take (usually far less liberal and politically correct) than what people are getting in the rest of the media. Since the rest of the media usually does such a horrible job getting to the real truth of a matter, this often gives us plenty of mess to clean up and lots of room to succeed.

SQS: What audience are you reaching?

JZ: Intelligent news consumers who are dissatisfied with the information/take they are getting elsewhere or who are stuck in their cars and who don’t like listening to music.

SQS: The Atlantic profile of you made this observation: “[I]t is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today’s AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.” Do you agree with that assessment?

JZ: In general, yes. Of course it is a business, just like every other news-oriented medium. However, the only reason the audience stays long-term is that it is a credible source of information and entertainment. Conservative talk works best because it is different from what people are getting elsewhere in the liberal and politically correct mainstream media.

SQS: You say that the “mainstream media” may be providing the facts but it’s not providing the truth. Explain what you mean, using the Terri Schiavo story as an example.

JZ: My station essentially sounded like a liberal station for the past two weeks. We ripped Republicans very hard over this. Ironically, we found ourselves constantly correcting the errors and misrepresentations of Fox News. I think the truth we provided was much closer to reality than what Sean Hannity, for instance, offered. Hannity took a position that was clearly not supported by the facts and then proceeded to try to manipulate those facts by giving credibility to witnesses that should not have been believed. … According to him, Terri Schiavo would have been capable of training for the 2009 Olympics if just given the chance.

SQS: Do you have a role model?

JZ: In talk radio? No one, really. I try to take a little from everyone I think is good. There is no one in this business that I really admire. This is not a business where admirable people are likely to succeed or even ever be heard of.

SQS: From a KFI listener standpoint, which would draw more response — the Michael Jackson trial or the upcoming Los Angeles mayoral election? Why?

JZ: Actually, I think there is a lot of apathy about both stories. (Of course, people here are apathetic about almost everything.) But there is no doubt that people are more interested in Michael Jackson than the mayoral election. Heck, people here care more about almost anything than the mayor’s race.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.