Indebted

Dave Ramsey, corporate media, and how we talk about financial distress

Danielle in Tampa called in to the show on July 7. Her voice sounded tight and strained, the breath coming slightly too fast. “What’s up?” Dave Ramsey asked, as he always does, broadcasting casual authority.

“I’m in a position where I’m thinking about selling my house,” Danielle said. “My son’s father and I live together, and it’s not the best situation. Um. I’ve connected with one of your ELPs”—Endorsed Local Providers, a term from the Ramsey universe—“and I’m just really torn, because I love my home and I love my neighborhood, but I just want to be able to pay my debt off and provide better for my son.”

There came a long pause. No question, exactly, was being asked. “Okay,” Ramsey said. “So you own the home with your boyfriend?”

“No,” Danielle replied. Another pause. There was a feeling through the airwaves that something was very wrong.

“When is he leaving?” Ramsey asked. Then he answered his own question: “Tonight.” He could hear it in her voice, he told Danielle. “You sound really afraid to me.”

Danielle’s boyfriend was standing next to her, it turned out, listening to her call in to the second most popular talk radio program in the country: The Ramsey Show. Thirty-two years old and caring for her eight-month-old baby, Danielle made twenty-one dollars an hour and had about sixteen thousand dollars in debt. She readily listed these numbers, as Ramsey’s callers know to do, sharing with him a chalk outline of their financial life in the hope he’ll begin to fill it in, resuscitate it, and send it off into a lucrative—or at least debt-free—future. But as Ramsey told her, and us, “This is not a debt problem. You understand me?” His people, he said, were going to call the police. “No,” Danielle said. “Sir, please.”

“You are worth being okay,” Ramsey said. That was true, of course. He put the message in terms of money, a tendency about which David Graeber wrote in his 2011 book Debt. Graeber explored the connection between debt and violence: “The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics,” he observed, “is the ultimate source of the moral confusion that seems to float around everything surrounding the topic of debt.”

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The feeling of threat is an interesting thing to consider in the context of The Ramsey Show. A caller is facing what seems like a tidal wave, often alone. Her debts have mounted. She’s not sure what to do. She’s not sure what Dave would do, in the same situation: Fix a broken tooth now, or wait and put that money toward a credit card bill? Stop contributing to an employer-matched retirement account in order to pay off student loans? What is the right decision? What does one person do in the face of a system that Ramsey happily disparages: predatory banks and bottom-feeding debt collectors, addictive credit cards and looming bankruptcy? As a listener told me, “They don’t teach that shit in school.” But then there is Ramsey: sixty-one, white-bearded, and tan, he oscillates between warm and blisteringly cutting. He’s funny, off-kilter, really likable. An evangelical Christian who holds worship services at his headquarters, in Franklin, Tennessee, Ramsey made headlines in 2019 for allegedly pulling out a gun to teach employees a lesson about gossip, about which he has a strict policy (don’t). Also at headquarters, people who have completed the Ramsey journey and vanquished their debt can record themselves doing what’s called the Debt-Free Scream, which The Ramsey Show sometimes broadcasts. The show itself, of course, is not violent. But it is not exactly relaxing.

On July 7, to Danielle, no real financial advice was dispensed, though Ramsey said that he would connect her with one of his advisers, free of charge. The Ramsey Show called this segment “My Abusive Boyfriend Won’t Let Me Leave My House.” The episode was an outlier—except maybe it wasn’t: the personal and the financial tangle constantly on The Ramsey Show, as they do for most people in the course of daily life. Though The Ramsey Show is ostensibly about money—or, more pointedly, debt, of which the average American holds around ninety thousand dollars—it is also about faith, hope, morality, and shame. And like much of talk radio, The Ramsey Show sits in a murky zone between journalism and entertainment. It is not quite a news program, religious service, reality show, infomercial, or financial advice; it is somehow all five. Between thirteen and twenty-three million people tune in weekly; the audience size ranks just below Sean Hannity’s.

The Ramsey Show is broadcast on AM and FM, as well as in the digital sphere; within forty minutes of a taping, it has been turned into three podcast segments available via any number of platforms. But live-ness, the unfolding immediacy of calls like Danielle’s, is crucial. “Radio does live the best,” Hank Fuerst, the senior director of distribution for the Ramsey Network, told me. The show also has spin-offs—including Ramsey’s daughter Rachel Cruze’s program, featuring practical money-saving tips; close to twenty books published by Ramsey and his cohosts; a Financial Peace University program sold on the website and available through churches across the country; a curriculum for high schoolers; and a budgeting app called EveryDollar. In all those media, the Ramsey Network insists that financial freedom from debt is possible. And not only is it possible—it is up to the individual. “You are the hero in your story,” Ramsey says.

Crucially, The Ramsey Show is self-syndicated, a rarity among programs of its size and reach. Many listeners hear it on stations owned by iHeartMedia—which in 2014 changed its name from Clear Channel, eliminating an original emphasis on radio. (The phrase “clear channel” refers to a frequency that was used by a single station, operating at a high power, so that it could be heard across a great section of the country. Only the biggest, wealthiest broadcasters were assigned such frequencies, of which there were few.) iHeartMedia also hosts a 24/7 stream of The Ramsey Show and a podcast available on demand. But by no means is iHeartMedia the only company important to the Ramsey Network. “We get to work with stations all over the country,” Fuerst said. I asked for examples; he replied, “It’s like trying to name your favorite children.” When pressed, he mentioned WOOD Radio, in Grand Rapids, owned by iHeartMedia; KCMO, in Kansas City, owned by Cumulus Media; KTSA, in San Antonio, owned by Alpha Media; and KTAR, in Phoenix, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is worth noting that, in the past five years, all of those owners but the LDS church have filed for bankruptcy.

In this economic moment, and for much of Ramsey’s career, being relatable to a wide audience means invoking financial pain, and vice versa. Individual debt saturates the country, and has for decades—over the same amount of time that media consolidation has been in full swing, with companies leveraging vast amounts of debt to become larger and larger, The Ramsey Show has created an archive of individual financial distress akin to Studs Terkel’s in Hard Times. The personal and corporate versions of debt are both connected to Graeber’s point about violence, yet how they work, and are spoken of, remains vastly different. “It’s probably unrealistic to expect huge companies or their investors to be guided by notions of personal responsibility—that’s what regulation is for,” Kevin Erickson, the director of the Future of Music Coalition, told me. On an individual level, however, according to Ramsey, “Debt is NOT a tool. It makes banks wealthy, not you.” This way of thinking about personal responsibility may be as essential to mainstream America as anything, repeated and amplified on the airwaves of nearly invisible companies that are in a great deal of debt themselves.

 

Radio was once considered a public resource, like water. Through successive reforms instituted starting around the New Deal, broadcasters were obliged to fulfill certain responsibilities. One was that any company in possession of a station had to hold on to it for three years. Another stipulation was the Fairness Doctrine: listeners had to be presented a variety of viewpoints about controversial subjects. There was also a rule, established in the seventies, about “community ascertainment”—a licensee had to create a “detailed demographic outline” of an area, determine “significant community groups,” perform interviews with leaders of those groups, survey the general public about their needs, and propose programming to serve the community. Not that this was a perfect system. A 1976 article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal described how the primer provided by the Federal Communications Commission on community ascertainment was “vague” in a certain respect; the document laid out the basics on conversations between broadcasters and ethnic minorities but completely ignored the needs of the poor. Nor were historically oppressed groups always “ascertained” in a manner that was equitable.

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor of communication policy in the School of Communication at American University, traces the country’s shift toward media consolidation to the Ronald Reagan administration. The FCC started eliminating regulations; radio stations suddenly became much more valuable. A peculiar kind of house-flipping got underway: broadcast companies experimented with controversial shows and shock jocks to boost ratings, then sold their properties. “It turned radio stations into commodities,” Aufderheide said. From 1987 to 1993, the number of stations with a talk format more than doubled. They also slid hard to the right; Rush Limbaugh swept in with a nationally syndicated show during this period, taking the position (among many others, of course) that rich people have worked hard for, and entirely earned, all they have.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 dealt a decisive blow to radio’s public status. Suddenly, a company could own up to eight stations in the largest markets and an unlimited number nationwide. Clear Channel, Cumulus Media, Viacom/Infinity, and the Citadel Broadcasting Corporation did just that. “The goal in all this government-sanctioned consolidation is simple,” read a Chicago Tribune article from 2000. “Streamline station operations, capture the prized audience demographics that advertisers want and reap profit margins of 30 to 50 percent.” As Erickson told me, the Telecommunications Act “unleashed waves of acquisitions” that “required taking on massive amounts of debt.” It is difficult to tie Ramsey’s rise to any single company other than his, which is likely how the Ramsey Network wants it—bootstraps, etc.—but Clear Channel, as Jeff Sharlet wrote for Harper’s, became “a sort of Frankenstein’s monster” that emerged as the dominant player, “built from the parts of once-dying industries and jolted into life.”

Eric Klinenberg, in his authoritative book Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, describes how “the art of mass customized digital programming” was perfected at Capstar, a company that in 1998 owned the largest number of radio stations in the country, and was eventually, through a series of labyrinthine mergers and acquisitions, swallowed up by Clear Channel. Innovations in voice-tracking software allowed programming to be created anywhere at any time, digitally fusing on-air personalities, advertisements, music, talk, and weather reports into standardized blends dashed with markers of local specificity. Occasionally, djs described experiences in towns they’d never visited. Klinenberg calls this “fake local broadcasting.” Christopher Terry, now an assistant professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, watched a version of it unfold while he was a radio producer at WISN, in Milwaukee: Clear Channel bought the station, built a hub in Cleveland, and recorded material for WISN there; soon, Cleveland-based hosts were incorrectly sounding out local place-names like New Berlin (a Wisconsinite places the emphasis on Ber, not Lin). “It was an interesting idea,” Terry said. “It just didn’t work.”

There were ethical problems with this setup, which fell somewhere on the spectrum between understanding one’s audience and flagrant misrepresentation in order to reach them. And layoffs of local hosts abounded. “It’s impossible to know exactly how many radio jobs Clear Channel eliminated,” Klinenberg writes, though estimates suggest that as many as ten thousand radio-related positions vanished from 2000 to 2002 alone, as a result of consolidation. The trend continued as competitors in online streaming—including XM, Sirius, and, later, Spotify—emerged. In 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, with advertising down, Clear Channel was taken over in a leveraged buyout by Bain Capital Partners and Thomas H. Lee Partners. The deal hinged on borrowed money totaling around eleven times Clear Channel’s pretax cash flow. While technically profitable, Clear Channel couldn’t keep up with its interest payments. “The debt would kneecap the company for the next decade, forcing it to pay more toward interest payments some years than it earned in revenue,” the Washington Post reported. The name change, to iHeart, was more than a gesture.

“The private equity leveraged buyout model is about extraction,” Erickson told me. “It typically displaces the risk of unsustainable debt loads away from investors onto workers and communities. When this happens in broadcasting, the harms compound.” There are consequences for local news, music, viewpoint diversity. Small, independent stations face “immense pressure,” he continued, “because they’re up against massive companies with centralized operations and ad sales.” To make matters worse, in 2017, the FCC eliminated the Main Studio Rule, which for nearly eighty years required broadcasters to have a primary studio inside or near the community they served.

By 2018, iHeartMedia owed twenty billion dollars to its creditors and declared bankruptcy. In 2020, the company announced a “restructuring” that cut hundreds of employees nationwide. That year, according to the Department of Labor, the United States had some twenty-seven thousand “broadcast announcers and radio disc jockey” workers—an expansive category that includes television and obscures how few purely radio-related jobs still exist. “The people at the top don’t know who we are at the bottom,” D’Edwin “Big Kosh” Walton—who was let go from his twelve-dollar-an-hour job as an on-air personality for 106.7 The Beat, in Columbus—told the Washington Post. “They don’t understand the relationships and the connections we had with the communities. And that’s the worst part: They don’t care.”

Jim Hyatt worked at Clear Channel before it was iHeart and at iHeart until he was eliminated in the mass layoffs. He told me about a phenomenon that seems a natural extension of nineties-era fake local programming: iHeart’s “custom jocks,” Hyatt said, work across the country, often tied to one station while laying down punchy, quasi-local vocal inserts for between forty and eighty markets. Hyatt’s “night guy” in Lima, Ohio, was also the night guy in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and cities all over. The uniformity provided a degree of predictability; as an ad salesman, Hyatt said, he could offer clients access to any demographic. “I’ve got a station for everybody,” he recalled. For a funeral home or assisted-living facility, “you’d hear those ads on a station with an adult-contemporary kind of crowd. Or a lite-rock.” This is not a system kind to independent voices.

And yet for Dave Ramsey—a glinting anomaly, a self-syndicated host who decries basic tenets of contemporary capitalism while strategically embedding in mainstream media, building symbiotic relationships with companies predicated on a keen understanding of how, at multiple levels, to manipulate debt—things have worked out. “As deregulation entered the picture and Clear Channel grew in size, they had the larger stations where we wanted our program,” Brian Mayfield, the Ramsey Network’s director of strategic partnerships, told me. “We have built various relationships with this company both locally and corporately that have helped us to syndicate with them.” In other words, even as Ramsey railed against banks and credit cards and claimed, as Mayfield said, that he was “never beholden to corporate America,” his show hooked itself to the trajectory of corporate radio, an industry rife with debt on a far greater scale than any of his callers’. Doing so has enabled Ramsey to establish a wide reach while limiting explicit ties to the excesses of American capitalism that he tells his fans to reject.

 

Before Ramsey got into radio, he was flipping houses of his own—and taking on debt, too. Live Like No One Else—Dave Ramsey’s Story, an eighteen-minute movie available on The Ramsey Show’s YouTube channel, relates his highs and lows, as do the many filmed speeches and presentations Ramsey has given. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.) After mowing lawns in his neighborhood, Dave, the son of real estate developers, took the real estate exam as early as he could, when he was eighteen. He worked forty to sixty hours a week while in college, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He was broke, he recalls, but not deeply in financial trouble, “because I’d been working”—and also, presumably, because he was not entangled in the same student loans that so many of his contemporary callers are. In 1982, he married a woman named Sharon, who came from a Baptist upbringing. Ramsey dallied for three months in a Christian-tinged multilevel-marketing scheme (“one of those deals where you make your friends all mad”) and tried to make sense of the King James Bible (“it’s like Shakespeare and Jesus”). House-flipping started with the help of “a little bit of family connection with some bankers who knew me and trusted me.” He began moving large amounts of money: “I ended up with about four million dollars’ worth of real estate, about three million dollars’ worth of debt.” By the time Ramsey was twenty-five, his income was about $250,000 a year. “I was rich,” he says. He bought a Jaguar.

And then everything began to dissolve. In 1988, his main bank, from which he was borrowing ninety-day promissory notes, was sold to another bank that pulled its loan. Ramsey couldn’t come up with the money he owed. A second bank demanded that Ramsey pay his debt. “We had less than six months to come up with two million dollars,” he says. It was all snarled up in those houses. Ramsey and Sharon signed bankruptcy papers. “We were just beat up and beat down.”

He turned to God. He also started studying “biblical finance,” a field influenced by Ron Blue, Larry Burkett, and Howard Dayton, whose work seems to have created a blueprint for Ramsey. The number of Bible passages relevant to budget-setting varies depending on who you talk to, but Ramsey counts more than two thousand verses with which he might advise fellow Christians to act as stewards “of the resources God has placed in our hands.” It’s all there in the book, he says: Ramsey cites Luke 14:28 on sitting down to write a money plan (“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost”); Proverbs 21:20 mentions saving and investing (“In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil”). Ramsey helped a man at his church set up a family budget; he began counseling couples in finance. His Sunday school classes ballooned to five hundred people a session, he says. He started selling self-published materials about “financial peace” out of the trunk of his car in the parking lot of a video store.

Megan McConnell, a PR representative for Ramsey Solutions, told me that, to climb out of bankruptcy, Ramsey “started applying God and Grandma’s ways of handling money! He got a job, didn’t take on more debt, and started living on less than he made.” Bookstores began carrying his biblical-finance guides; over time, he says, publishers called. In 1992, Ramsey started cohosting The Money Game, on WWTN, a radio station in Nashville now owned by Cumulus Media, the third-largest operator of AM and FM. At the time, WWTN was facing financial difficulties (it eventually filed for bankruptcy); Ramsey saw an opportunity. “I went down to WWTN and offered them a deal,” Ramsey writes. “I’d take a time slot for a month at no pay and do a show about money and finances.… I thought it would help to get my Financial Peace message out and, as one of my friends said, maybe I’d ‘sell a few copies of that dumb ole book of mine.’ ”

Ramsey’s fortunes rose with WWTN’s—the station was bought by Gaylord Entertainment, itself recently mired in debt, which owned the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland, the Ryman Auditorium, and a controlling interest in Country Music Television. Gaylord’s priority, with regard to WWTN, was to emphasize conservative, often Christian talk radio programs. After all, said Bob Meyer, the station’s general manager at the time, they sat “in the Bible Belt of the US, and Gaylord Entertainment is the buckle.”

An article from a 1996 edition of Tuned In: Radio World’s Management Magazine gives a glimpse into this chapter of Ramsey’s career. The story reported that advertisers loved his program because they attributed “as much as forty percent of their business to Ramsey’s on-air endorsements.” Since Ramsey eschewed things like credit cards and new cars, the WWTN sales department had to think creatively about what products they might spotlight. Once, to test the stickiness of his listenership, they had Ramsey do a used-car giveaway in which the only place you could enter was at the dealership. More than ten thousand listeners signed up. The Money Game became The Dave Ramsey Show later that year. Mayfield told me the show’s employees got working to syndicate it “one station at a time,” building relationships with companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus.

Today, the Christian influence remains, though the Ramsey Network blurs boundaries. Certain realms—the Financial Peace products, namely—are overtly Christian. Tithing is mentioned frequently, and in Pricele$$, a 2002 collection of quotes about “financial wisdom,” Genesis is excerpted on the same spread as Ramsey and P.T. Barnum. The Ramsey Show has a lighter touch. On an episode, “I Want a Godly View of Money,” a man raised by “nonpracticing Muslims” calls in expressing interest in Christianity, which he’d learned about from Ramsey’s show; Ramsey advises him to simply write out a few questions: “That doesn’t mean you necessarily start wearing around a shirt that says ‘I’m a Baptist’ or something.”

Ultimately, the Lampo Group, which serves as the umbrella organization for the Ramsey Network and other subsidiaries, is, as companies generally are, concerned with profit. Amy Fritz, the wife of a former Ramsey employee, told me that she and her husband had been excited, originally, by the Christian mission to help people with their finances. “Sometimes Dave would talk about sharing the hope of Jesus,” she said. “How can you argue with that?” But when the company began to build new offices, for which it got a sizable tax break, Fritz and her husband started to feel an uneasy tension between Ramsey’s Christian identity and profit motives. It felt “more and more like they were doing whatever they could to make as much money as possible,” she told me. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to make money. But you’re also trying to help people who are financially destitute.” The target audience, she observed, “was people who had money already and who could buy their products and just weren’t handling it very well.” She began to feel uncomfortable with that, as well as with some of Ramsey’s offerings. Today, Ramsey’s method has moved far beyond its beginnings in radio. A recent press release described a successful Financial Peace University course held in a Seattle prison, where a group of incarcerated people shouted, “Show me the money!”

 

The Ramsey Show is recorded at Ramsey headquarters, a seventy-million-dollar campus that the company paid for with cash. In the lobby, freshly baked cookies are served. (Speaking about the cookies, Ramsey notes in one of his books that businesses often “pump different scents” throughout their stores to put people at ease.) The Lampo Group employs more than a thousand people and sits in the wealthiest county in Tennessee, which recently made news for a contentious school board meeting about a mask mandate; opponents chanted “we will not comply” and yelled at mask-wearing attendees that they would “find them.” Ramsey is embroiled in disputes about his handling of covid: headquarters have mandated in-person operations despite cases among staff; last year, there was a mask-free holiday party. Ramsey endorsed the Medical Non-Discrimination Business and Consumer Act, a bill in the Tennessee legislature that would ban mask mandates. Bob Smietana, a Religion News Service reporter who has covered Ramsey extensively, wrote about an internal newsletter that framed in-office work during the pandemic as appealingly “weird”—part of the Ramsey Network’s “countercultural approach to business.”1For his reporting on the Ramsey Network, Smietana received an emphatically sarcastic email from the company, on which Ramsey employees, as well as a few local pastors and business leaders, were bcc’d: “If you are on this email we would ask a favor for Ramsey…would you help us? Bob’s phone number and email are here, and we would ask that you contact him TODAY and tell him all the evil horrible stories you know about us. Also, he lives in Spring Hill so if you see him out and about, be sure to congratulate him on his virtue. He needs to sell this story to pay his rent and the dirtier your story on us the more we can help him. When you call please do not be mean, Bob already has a lot of anxiety and we don’t want to add to that. If his phone is overwhelmed or he doesn’t want to hear your story, you should contact Religion News Service and tell them of Bob’s amazing grasp on virtue and truth. You can also tell them of all the people that have been helped by his pursuit of truth throughout the years as we all have followed his ‘career.’ It is time the world knows about Bob and the blessing he has been to so many.”

Being “weird,” according to the Ramsey credo, is a corrective to the normalcy of distress that subsumes his programming; part of his message is to “choose” to be weird, bucking the shackles of debt through your determination and persistence. (A recent report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that no person in any county in the US who is working full-time at the federal minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent, and 93 percent of those people cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom.) “I’m weird,” Ramsey says often, or “my wife says I’m weird.” Weirdness means selling your belongings on the internet for extra cash, getting second or third jobs. According to Ramsey, “Wealth is weird, so weird behaviors create wealth.”

For Ramsey fans, acting “weird” requires guidance. Ellen Slater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first heard Ramsey’s voice in 2018, when she was in her sixties, searching online for something that could help her with financial planning. The job she’d held for twenty-five years had “evaporated” in 2009, she told me; she eventually found employment, but she and her husband were stretched thin, weathering their kids’ student loan debt and a mortgage. Ramsey, whom she calls Dave, proved himself immediately to be of service; Slater and her husband filled out his budgeting worksheets. Still, Slater had a few concerns: she was more “Dave-ish,” as the Ramsey community calls it, than “gazelle intense” (a phrase for which, like “Endorsed Local Providers,” “Retire Inspired,” “Debt Snowball,” and “Act Your Wage,”2For “Act Your Wage,” the Ramsey Network created a board game (“First player out of debt WINS!”). Lampo has filed a trademark application). In other words, Slater wasn’t going strictly by the book, or books. She felt precarious, and worried about taking some of the guidance too literally. Per Ramsey’s advice, Slater stopped contributing to her retirement fund (which her company partially matched) for about a year so as to direct that money toward her debt, but she didn’t want to do that for too long.

Slater was loosely following what are known as the Baby Steps. These range from Step One (saving a thousand dollars for an emergency fund) to Step Seven (“build wealth and give”). In between are steps that Ramsey Reddit subforums discuss in extreme detail. What becomes clear is that, though these steps are rigidly circumscribed—directing people to “snowball” all possible income toward their debt (hitting the smallest balance, regardless of interest rate, first)—people’s lives are anything but. Their lives are fluid, unpredictable, and often painful, marked by emergency after emergency. It is simple, for instance, to decide to stop using credit cards. But it is not, for many people, easy. Tom Sexton, of a podcast called the Trillbillies, once remarked on Street Fight Radio: “You will never go to a Goodwill where you will not see Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover on the shelf”—presumably because something happens to throw people off the Ramsey journey, not because they complete the Baby Steps and become solid, stable millionaires, though some certainly have. As Helaine Olen wrote in her book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, Ramsey’s followers “didn’t necessarily want to get rich, they just wanted to get by, something that became harder and harder to do in the United States of the 2000s.”

Olen was writing post–2008 crash and pre-pandemic. But The Ramsey Show’s guidance has remained stone steady since the early nineties, regardless of dips and bubbles, crashes and booms. It is not only possible to be debt-free in this country, Ramsey says, it’s possible to become what he calls an Everyday Millionaire via the Ramsey method. You just have to be diligent. Trim all the fat you can. Start young. To callers mired in student debt—Ramsey has a hatred of college loans—he often advises refinancing along with extra jobs and stick-to-itiveness.

In early 2018, Ramsey Solutions completed a study of ten thousand American millionaires, which has since been cited frequently by company materials.3Some statistics from the National Study of Millionaires: “Millionaires are fifteen times more likely to say becoming a millionaire is about discipline over luck,” “76% percent of all millionaires believe anyone in America can become a millionaire with discipline and hard work,” “88% of millionaires graduated with a bachelor’s degree,” “68% of millionaires with a college degree never took out a penny in student loans,” “the top three occupations for millionaires are engineer, accountant, and teacher,” “82% of millionaires describe themselves as optimists,” “73% of millionaires have never carried a credit card balance in their lives,” “70% of millionaires are considered early risers,” “91% of millionaires say their marriage is either good or great.” “The grass feels different when it’s yours,” Ramsey told a recent “future millionaire.” “Sallie Mae done got her eviction notice! Mastercard is no longer in charge,” he said. “All because he decided he wasn’t gonna live normal anymore.” Then Ramsey turned his voice away from the caller to address the rest of us, his listeners: “Normal sucks in this country.” Better to be weird.

 

Being a media company in financial distress is, unfortunately, entirely normal. So are stories like this: Bob Pittman—who cofounded MTV and went on to helm Six Flags Theme Parks, AOL Networks, and Century 21 Real Estate, among other companies—was brought in as Clear Channel’s CEO in 2011. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the twelve months before the company filed for bankruptcy, as iHeartMedia, Pittman collected more in bonus pay than he’d received in total compensation since his start date. All in all, Pittman was paid fourteen million dollars over the course of that year, nine million of which came in the form of bonuses. Meanwhile, iHeart reduced its debt through various reorganizing and redistributive measures. Pittman took a different approach in 2020; he forwent his salary while leading iHeartMedia through its national staff culling. (He declined to speak for this article; iHeart did not respond to requests for comment.) Elsewhere in the corporate radio marketplace, in 2017, Cumulus filed for bankruptcy, and Sirius XM and Audacy, two major competitors, have recently negotiated vast amounts of debt.

As Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers (“The Bible of Talk Radio and the New Talk Media”), told me, corporate radio’s “strategy has changed, like everybody else’s—their primary concern has to do with dealing with debt, with finances,” and with making a “transition from being a twentieth-century analog business to a twenty-first-century digital business.” That means, Harrison explained, “integrating into a number of platforms that one doesn’t think of as radio.” He listed them—“video, digital, online, streaming, podcasting, live performance, even publishing”—and added: “We are entering the era of the media station, not the radio station or the television station.”

The result is a mainstream media characterized less by any particularly robust editorial sensibility than by silent capitalist creep. Today, iHeartMedia owns a gigantic stretch of cultural-informational space. Sitting in this acreage is Premiere Networks, a stable of wildly popular talk radio personalities, many of whom have been right-wing (Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh); others include members of the Breakfast Club (DJ Envy, Angela Yee, Charlamagne Tha God). Also among iHeartMedia’s holdings is the relatively new Black Information Network—a “24/7 Black news source,” according to a company press release. Stuff Media, a podcast network spun out from a show called Stuff You Should Know, one of the first podcasts to reach a billion downloads, is an iHeart property, as is the Total Traffic & Weather Network, the largest broadcast traffic navigation network in North America. Searching for ideological continuity among these many offerings may result only in frustration, until you realize that what they have in common is a likelihood of eventually arriving at you.

iHeartMedia’s promotional materials state repeatedly that the company reaches nine out of ten Americans each month. By comparison, according to the Pew Research Center, seven out of ten American adults use Facebook, and just one in five use Twitter; an iHeart survey reported that respondents found radio twice as trustworthy as social media. “It’s true that people are increasingly getting their news and information from Facebook and other digital platforms,” Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the Annenberg School for Communication, told me. “But what a lot of this criticism overlooks is that much of the news and information that people are gleaning from social media still derives from old media firms.” Or, as the writer Osita Nwanevu has put it: “The bulk of information distribution in this country is still controlled by a handful of very old and boring conglomerates that are far more important than social media and that social media companies depend upon to begin with.”

As Harrison pointed out to me, “the digital era has brought us fractionalization”—yet individualized engagement with audio has not, for the most part, come from independent sources; rather, it’s mainstream media presenting programming that is increasingly targeted and fluid. Philosophically speaking, listening is an intimate experience, and iHeartMedia identifies itself as being in the “companionship sector.” According to the company’s recent financial disclosures, “people regard their radio and podcasting personalities as trusted friends and companions on whom they rely to provide news on everything from entertainment and local content to points of view, storytelling, information about new music and artists, weather, traffic and more.” (The disclosures also note that the coronavirus pandemic—an extended public health emergency distinguished by isolation—has provided iHeartMedia “significant opportunities”; a Living Room Concert for America reached billions of people.) Politically agnostic, a media company at the scale of iHeart seeks connection that is broad and deep. “People talk about Clear Channel being an evil empire,” Christopher Terry told me. “Certainly, they were using their market power in many ways when they had it. But I worked for Clear Channel for thirteen years. They wanted to make money.”

“The entire media system is driven by a commercial logic,” Pickard said. “It treats its audience as consumers, not citizens of a democratic polity. For big media conglomerates, these commercial pressures are often even further intensified because they are so concerned about quarterly returns while also often paying off debts from mergers and acquisitions.” Indeed, on their August earnings call, Pittman and two other iHeartMedia executives spoke with representatives from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, among others. Major podcasting deals with, for instance, the NFL were discussed as sources of revenue that could be converted, Pittman said, to profit: “It’s the best way to assure that we create shareholder value,” he said. “In success, there’s plenty of money for everybody.”

Of course, that is an ideology—it’s just one that happens to be less divisive in this country than a particular politics or religion. And it’s a message that lines up neatly with individualized targeting of listeners through branded and “smart” (algorithmically delivered) audio, a vast spread of content through which advertising can move like contrast dye, reaching every possible person, while localism and “community ascertainment” bob in the distance. This is, notably, Ramsey’s approach: though he is known as a conservative and an evangelical Christian, his appeal transcends those identities; Slater and other fans I spoke with do not consider themselves to be either of those things. Wide in his appeal, Ramsey, like the conglomerates that deliver his message, has the ostensible power, held by all mainstream media, to unite.

 

Crossroads Church is a regional evangelical congregation in the Pittsburgh area. On a recent Sunday, the service, about Ezekiel, was exactly an hour and took place in a spacious half-filled room. The tech on hand might startle a newcomer: drone-captured videos of salt flats and canyons blazed in interstitial moments on three screens behind the pulpit. The band played a rousing rendition of Elevation Worship’s “RATTLE!,” written at the beginning of the pandemic and inspired by Ezekiel’s story of breathing God’s message into dormant things (“Open the grave / I’m coming out / I’m gonna live, gonna live again / This is the sound of dry bones rattling”). The church was turning thirty this year, we were told. We could download its app.

Afterward, in a quiet and dark back room, Financial Peace University met. This particular class comprised two families and three instructors. Financial Peace University, the Ramsey Network’s program for churchgoers, is sold to and through congregations across the country—at Crossroads, each family paid a hundred and twenty-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents to the Ramsey Network and received a year’s worth of access to video materials and to the EveryDollar budgeting app (via a single device). Alternatively, a church can buy a package for its parishioners, who then get these materials for free.

There was talk of selling an old lawnmower on NextDoor, and of a woman riding it down the street, into the sunset. Of ridding the house of so many items for extra cash that it sat nearly empty. Of scams: a man described how his fourth-grade teacher stole his Roberto Clemente baseball card under the guise of a fair trade. Someone dispensed job advice to a teenager in the room, about how he would be more hirable if he thought like a company manager did—if he were to see another employee steal a piece of gum, for instance, he should advocate for that employee to be fired. We agreed that, as Dave says, you “feel it” more when you pay with cash, or debit, rather than with credit.

Guidance was projected on a video screen: Ramsey tells a story about “an incredible man, a godly man,” who had reached Baby Step Seven and bought a fleet of bicycles for children. Rachel Cruze, Ramsey’s daughter, promises that “retirement is going to happen a hundred percent of the time.” She is shown asking a crowd: “How many of you worked when you were in school?” They emit steady, blurry laughter, and raise hands. “Gasp!” Cruze exclaims. “And you’re alive!” Afterward, a woman in our group said she thought that Cruze seemed a little mean.

A slide about compound interest reminded us that we should have started investing for retirement when we were in our twenties. Jack, an invented man, began when he was twenty-one, investing twenty-four hundred dollars each year, for nine years, in “good growth stock mutual funds.” Blake, another fictional character, got going at age thirty in the same funds, contributing the same twenty-four hundred over a much longer period. By sixty-seven, the slide told us, “Jack’s investment has grown to $2,547,150.” Of Blake, a doodle on the slide announced, “He never caught up!” The room wasn’t exactly shocked—the students had already studied these materials—but a seriousness hung in the air. “We just never knew,” someone said, about IRAs.

Ramsey describes, in his autobiographical movie, being able to feel what he calls “that broken spirit.” “There’s almost nothing that can overcome it,” he says. “I can smell that on people; I can feel it on a call that’s coming in; when I’m sitting in a book line, I can look up and see it in somebody’s eyes. And I’ll just stop a second and talk with ’em and pray with ’em and give ’em a couple little pointers or hook ’em up with one of our counselors. Because they came in there, they weren’t looking for a book. They were looking to believe again.”

A recent Gallup poll reported that 29 percent of Americans have “not very much” trust in mass media; 34 percent have “none at all.” But Ramsey, clearly, is a media figure in whom millions of people maintain faith. Perhaps this is because, as Mayfield said, the Ramsey company isn’t “beholden to corporate America.” Or because, as Hank Fuerst told me, “We prefer to control our own destiny.” (That was a phrase I had seen in the Everyday Millionaires book: 97 percent of millionaires believe they “control their own destinies.”) On an individual level, we may believe ourselves to be the heroes of our stories—stories with little linkage to one another, little emphasis on shared experience, let alone shared power. David Graeber was interested in imaginative possibilities—in asking “what it would mean to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times.” For now, however, these individual stories sit within a larger reality in which debt is a tool for those few who have been permitted to use it.

Recently, Ramsey Solutions invited us to “outrun normal” and sign up for a new online banking “experience,” Gazelle, for which there was, and continues to be, a waitlist. Gazelle’s language comes, by the way, from the Book of Proverbs: “Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler.” To save yourself is, it seems, an ancient idea—as ancient as salvation. Still, as I drove away from Crossroads, how much of our destinies we truly control I couldn’t seem to figure out.

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Lucy Schiller is a writer based in Pittsburgh. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about the senior living industry and oldness. You can read more of her work here.

TOP IMAGE: Darrel Frost