The Sin Spinners

The Salem Media empire preaches morality and Donald Trump

Even for Washington, so accustomed to political sex scandals, the story of Katie Hill was a bombshell. Last October, RedState, a combative conservative website, exposed a long-term sexual relationship involving Hill, thirty-two, a star freshman Democrat in Congress; her husband, Kenny Heslep, from whom she was now estranged; and a twentysomething female campaign staffer.

The throuple had not ended well, and the details revealed by RedState were unusually personal in nature. The text of the article was interwoven with screenshots of fifteen text messages between Hill, one of the first openly bisexual members of Congress, and the heartbroken unnamed staffer discussing their breakup. (“I still care about you,” read one. “It hurts too much to think about you at this point in time,” read another.) RedState also included a text exchange between Heslep and a friend in which he discussed the couple’s pending divorce and claimed that Hill was now sleeping with her finance director. Heslep’s allegation, which Hill denied, prompted the House to open an ethics investigation.

But it was RedState’s decision to publish a series of explicit personal photographs, believed to have originated from Heslep’s personal computer (he said he had been hacked), that would eventually catalyze a discussion in the national media about the appropriate limits of journalistic “gotcha” stories and whether the site was promoting revenge porn. In addition to a photograph of Hill and the young staffer (whose face was blurred out) locking lips, the article included a link labeled “Warning: explicit.” A click delivered readers to a photograph of Hill seated in a chair stark naked, an exposed breast blacked out, behind her ex-girlfriend, brushing her hair.

Within days, Hill resigned from office. In a fiery farewell speech on the House floor, she excoriated RedState and accused Washington of a double standard unfair to women. “I am leaving because I didn’t want to be peddled by papers and blogs and websites, used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics that I’ve ever seen and the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience by distributing intimate photos of me taken without my knowledge, let alone my consent, for the sexual entertainment of millions,” she said. “I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching.”

The willingness of RedState and the author of the Hill piece, Jennifer Van Laar, to push the limits of journalistic propriety may hardly seem surprising. Donald Trump has tested the appetite and tolerance of the American public for news items infused with a level of explicit sexual detail—and vitriol—that would, just a short time ago, have seemed unthinkable. Van Laar, it soon emerged, was also no ordinary journalist: she hailed from Simi Valley, in Hill’s home district in California, and had worked on the political campaigns of two of Hill’s Republican congressional opponents.

More surprising, perhaps, was the support RedState received from its parent company, a little-known publicly traded firm called Salem Media Group. Founded nearly fifty years ago by Ed Atsinger III and Stuart Epperson, two evangelical in-laws, Salem has built an empire out of a stable of Christian talk-and-teach radio stations concentrated largely in the nation’s top twenty-five media markets and focused on spreading the Gospel of the Lord for a predominantly evangelical audience.

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That mission has continued to animate the company, even as it has expanded in recent years into the secular, sharp-elbowed realm of contemporary politics. “The footings of the foundation of our company are its Christian roots,” David Santrella, Salem’s president of broadcast media, told me. Company executives say their decision to move into the news-gathering business was inspired in the late nineties by the need to protect their radio audience—many of whom listened to the news with kids in the car—from the more graphic and disturbing details of the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Look, we can report just as well on those same stories without sensationalizing and going into ground-level details on some of those aspects of it,” Santrella recalled of the thought process. Which makes for an awkward juxtaposition when discussed in the context of the Hill case.

But such contradictions seem to be unavoidable in the age of Trump, especially for Salem, which over the past two decades has become so influential in the right-wing media sphere that it’s now a force in national politics. Salem’s digital arm, Townhall Media, of which RedState is just one part, attracts more than fifteen million unique visitors a month. Through the company’s publishing imprint, Regnery Books, acquired in 2014 in the deal that gave it RedState, Salem provides a platform to right-wing commentators such as Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Newt Gingrich, and Sebastian Gorka. Salem’s radio footprint, meanwhile, has continued to grow, featuring conservative talk shows hosted by media personalities including Gorka, Mike Gallagher, and Hugh Hewitt. (Not all the voices on Salem’s network are Christian; Dennis Prager, one of the most popular hosts, is Jewish, and bridges Zionist and evangelical interests.) Salem has a hundred and fifteen stations, which account for roughly 75 percent of the company’s revenue.

Collectively, Salem’s programming serves as “kind of an idea factory for folks,” a megaphone that gets the word out to believers and helps them interpret the political debates of the day, Craig Parshall, of the National Religious Broadcasters, told me. “Most people are busy about their jobs,” he said. “They try to follow the headlines. But with the explosion of information on the internet and on social media platforms, twenty-four-seven, it’s very difficult to pin all these issues down. So talk radio helps them do that.”

But Salem is far more than an “idea factory.” It’s a sophisticated media conglomerate that reaches millions of Americans every day. A multimedia town square populated by velvet-tongued preachers, politicians, and pundits, it exists as much to build a network of conservatives as it does to mobilize them. This is not a group of folksy Ned Flanders types; the savvy of the men—they are almost all men—running Salem is impressive to behold. Which helps explain how it is possible to run a programming network that champions Jesus Christ, eternal salvation, and Donald Trump, all at once.

 

Every Saturday when Stuart Epperson was a boy, musicians converged at the family farmhouse in Ararat, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They brought guitars, banjos, and fiddles and played “hillbillery” music for the small radio station that his older brother, Ralph, had built in an upstairs bedroom. Sundays, local preachers took the microphone to spread the Gospel of Christ. Epperson sometimes read from the Bible on air. Eventually, the Epperson family built a larger radio station just across the border in Mount Airy, North Carolina, called WPAQ. It was there that Ralph taught Epperson the business. “He was a perfectionist,” Epperson would write. “I still rely on his principles of business life… Christian principles.”

Epperson earned a degree in broadcasting from Bob Jones University, a nondenominational evangelical liberal arts college in Greenville, South Carolina. After graduating, in 1961, he started his own radio station. Around that time, he married Nancy Atsinger, whose brother, Ed, had also graduated from Bob Jones. The men became a team. The Atsingers were from Southern California, and when they pooled their resources to buy their first station together, it was a small, secular one, in Bakersfield. The year was 1972, just months before Roe v. Wade would become a landmark decision for party politics and Christian activism. In 1974, Epperson and Atsinger acquired a Christian station in Oxnard, California, called KDAR. There, they began to develop the formula for faith-based programming that they would later replicate so successfully.

From the start, abortion was of central importance. And there were other concerns facing evangelicals: the 1969 Stonewall riots had just catalyzed a burgeoning gay rights movement; prayer in public school was now banned. The moral fabric of society seemed to be fraying. Preachers paid for time to sermonize on KDAR, and listeners could call in to make comments or seek advice. Some slots were reserved for contemporary Christian music. KDAR, Epperson would recall, was a refuge from the hedonism and cynicism of mainstream stations, and he and Atsinger came to realize how much people craved it. “We felt we had a message, and we felt the message deserved—demanded—the best facilities,” Epperson told me about fifteen years ago, when I first wrote about Salem, for Mother Jones. “We felt our mission was to build a platform for the best communicators to communicate biblical truth.”

In 1977, Epperson and Atsinger mortgaged their homes and sold all their secular stations. Over the next eight years, leveraged to the hilt, they tried to make inroads in the places where secularism bred the fastest—American cities. They got licenses in San Francisco, San Antonio, Seattle, Boston, even a weak signal with a small transmitter on Staten Island. Their big break came in 1985, with the acquisition of KKLA, a blue-chip Los Angeles–area station with a transmitter a thousand times more powerful than that of KDAR-Oxnard. KKLA, whose previous owner had been accused by the Federal Communications Commission of stealing from his tax-exempt ministry, came with an established audience known to donate money in support of Christian causes. Perhaps just as important, KKLA provided a valuable piece of collateral, allowing Atsinger and Epperson to supersize their loans and expand their empire. Between 1986 and 1990, Salem acquired its first station in Chicago; bought two in Portland, Oregon; scored a foothold in San Diego; and then landed a powerful signal with license to broadcast across New York City with the acquisition of WMCA, a former rock and roll station that had once simulcast the Beatles live from Shea Stadium.

Then came a stroke of luck: in August 1987, the Ronald Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Introduced by the FCC in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine had required broadcasters to devote airtime to controversial matters of public interest and to reflect contrasting views. With that burden gone, Salem could become a megaphone for the evangelical movement and run headfirst into the culture wars.

The company was eager to take a more direct role in politics. In the eighties, Epperson ran twice, unsuccessfully, for Congress as a Republican. In 2000, Atsinger would play a key role in campaigns in California aimed at fighting gay marriage. When I first covered them, Atsinger was a top donor to the George W. Bush campaign. (Epperson was more eager to talk about the Bible; he’s particularly fond of Romans, in which Paul describes the plight of those who have turned away from God.) Both were longtime members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive networking group of conservative political operatives and campaign donors that meets three times a year to map out the long-term strategy of the political right.

In the nineties, around the time the company began contemplating an initial public offering, Atsinger and Epperson launched the Salem Radio Network (SRN), syndicating their programs. SRN went on to become one of the leading full-service networks in the United States, delivering talk, news, and music to some two thousand Christian and general-market radio stations across the country. SRN distributes daily and weekly programming for more than seventy ministries and organizations.

In 1999, when Salem went public, it began its major expansion into news and punditry. With the aim of growing its radio presence in the twenty-five top markets, Salem hired Arbitron, a consumer research company, to determine where Salem’s listeners were most likely to turn their radio dials when they were done listening to sermons. Two answers dominated: Christian rock music and secular conservative talk radio. The idea of acquiring those destination stations—or attempting to compete with them—appealed to Salem, Santrella explained, because it would allow the company to leverage existing footholds as marketing platforms to promote new station acquisitions. “It was like, ‘Well, rather than invest in a talk-and-teach station in market ninety-two, how about instead we start to expand into other formats that would be appealing to our listeners?’ ” he recalled.

The same year, Salem added its first Christian websites. And once the news-talk formula proved successful, the company’s first opinion site followed, in 2006, according to David Evans, a longtime Salem executive who currently serves as the company’s president of new media.

Today, in addition to RedState, Salem owns Townhall, HotAir, and BearingArms, among other conservative sites. While the teach-and-talk stations cater to listeners’ spiritual dimensions, the rest of Salem is there to help readers process the news in terms that align with the principles of Christian faith. Salem has fully equipped broadcast facilities at the US House, Senate, and White House, staffed by full-time correspondents, and runs its own “state of the art International News Center” ten minutes from Capitol Hill. The coverage is slickly produced and overseen by media veterans, some of whom came up through mainstream radio stations. When stories break, Salem is consistently ready to provide a Christian angle. “That’s still the most important part of what we do every day,” Santrella said.

 

In the fall, Salem invited me to attend a community outreach event at the Highpoint Church in Naperville, Illinois. Since the company’s earliest days, Epperson and Atsinger have aimed to connect religious conservatives in order to build and defend an alternative to the secular mainstream world. Bringing faith leaders together has long been part of that mandate. “It’s at the very base of what we do,” Santrella said. “This is how it started. This is why Salem began.” Several times a year, each of Salem’s Christian teach-and-talk stations is encouraged to host events that promote the personal and professional development of church leaders in the area, and bring listeners together with hosts. The events are typically free, paid for by sponsors. At the gathering I attended, there was a daytime program, a ministry event for pastors in the Chicago area, with an agenda that promised “praying, worshiping, fellowshipping, and learning from others about how we can heal our broken leadership and lead better through times of crisis.” Then there was an evening session, open to the public at no cost and put on by Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs–based Christian mega-ministry, which produces a thirty-minute radio program that has long been a Salem staple.

I arrived just before 9am, as pastors of all races, ages, and genders filtered into a capacious chapel. Huge video screens above the altar displayed a trio of digital clocks that ticked off the minutes and seconds to go before the event began. As the clocks neared zero, a band of twentysomethings—the “Highpoint Collective,” who looked exactly like any scruffy, tweed-sweater-and-black-boot-wearing musicians—took spots in the front. Then the lights dimmed. A piano recording began to play a mournful melody. A video started on the screens.

“Leadership can feel like a race,” a voice intoned as recorded strings joined in, creating angsty tension. A man jogged alone through empty streets. Then a second isolated jogger, a woman, appeared. “Always trying to stay ahead, always moving forward,” the narrator continued. “You can feel the fatigue in your legs, the burn of the cold air in your lungs. You may feel all alone, weak and helpless, unsure of your next step. Unable to find your place you may stumble. You may stagger forward. And it’s in that moment when you cry out to God.” The voice went on as the music crescendoed, and then came the message: “Welcome to LIFT 2019.”

With that, the joggers disappeared. Purple light bathed the altar and the band launched into an upbeat melody. It was time to worship. Pastors around the room stood, many raising their hands in the air, and gently swayed to the music, singing the glory of Jesus.

After worship, panels began, covering such topics as the importance of humility and a strong church board. There were presentations from the day’s sponsors—a church alarm company, a Bible software program to help pastors write sermons, and a Christian psychotherapy chain. The morning’s keynote speaker was Nancy Beach, one of a group of women who had come forward in 2018 with sexual harassment allegations against Bill Hybels, the founder of the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. (Hybels was ultimately forced to resign.) But the day’s most prominent speaker was Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family and the cohost of its radio program on Salem’s network.

Taking the stage after lunch, Daly declared that he was in the midst of a “whistle-stop” tour, announcing plans to simulcast live from five cities with ultrasounds of fetuses. A previous event in Times Square, he claimed, had drawn twenty thousand people. Then he told the story of his upbringing. His father was an alcoholic, his mother died when he was young, and he spent time in a foster home before accepting Christ at the age of fifteen. Today, other children, in similar circumstances, are out there waiting to be saved, as are any number of misguided sinners, he advised the crowd. “We’re in a POW mission because we’re all made in the image of God,” he said. “He’s sending us out to capture those that have been captured by the enemy, right? We’re trying to go get them.”

To illustrate his point, Daly recounted a meeting he’d had at a Starbucks with an LGBTQ activist who wept when Daly told him, “God loves you as much as he loves me.” Then he told the story of an anti-abortion-rights activist to whom he’d provided counseling. “So often in these cultural battles, when you use love, some of the people within our community will say, ‘Yeah, but what about his righteousness?’ That’s true, too. We’ve got to be firm in the middle but soft on the edges.”

It was a message that Daly repeated throughout the event (and one, as I would learn, to which he returns frequently on his radio show). As the day wore on, and non-clergy attendees arrived, I observed how this idea could be harnessed to build a movement. The crowd wasn’t there to engage in hard-line morality politics so much as to drink in the comfort and wisdom that comes from listening to a familiar church elder dispense guidance on how to live a moral, spiritual life. Daly’s “love the sinner” approach embraced all comers—and then steered them toward a conservative agenda.

Daly’s ideas resonated powerfully with Sue Stevens, a fifty-five-year-old former healthcare technician from nearby Aurora. Stevens, who had her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and was bundled up in a puffy red jacket, grew up an agnostic and didn’t find God until twenty-five years ago, when she began recovering from cocaine and alcohol addictions. Inspired to look for a higher power through a twelve-step program, she was first exposed to evangelical Christianity through the pastors on Salem’s local teach-and-talk radio station, WYLL–1160 AM. Today she relies on Focus on the Family for spiritual and emotional guidance. Everyone around her, she told me, was struggling with the challenges of everyday life, economic insecurities, and fears about the future. She’d had to stop working and was now on disability insurance; she had recently moved to be near her elderly mother, who is sick; many of her friends struggle with their kids. Stevens enjoys listening to Salem’s segments with psychologists and spiritual leaders advising listeners on how to find strength through Jesus.

“I really was hoping to see some pastors and talk with them,” she said when I asked her about her impressions of the event. “But I was really happy to see how many people did show up. And just the fellowship of everybody being there, being of like mind.” Daly, in particular, was a highlight, especially his words of optimism and acceptance. “With so many negative things going on, it’s bringing people together for something more positive and hopeful,” Stevens said.

 

The idea of acceptance, as a principle of Christian faith, applied to Trump. Although some of Trump’s antics, such as the Access Hollywood tape, “make us all cringe,” Daly told me, evangelicals, won over by the president’s steadfast support of their agenda, are willing to forgive. A politician, they figure, does not need to pass the purity test of a clergyman. “There’s a growing sophistication within evangelicals that we realized we’re not electing our priest or pastor,” Daly said. “And that’s what the media is missing right now. We’re differentiating after all these years, so we don’t have to elect just a simple good guy who has high moral standards. We want people who can actually think about effective policy when it comes to the area of abortion, all that. Why wouldn’t we support people that are pro-life? We are pro-life. Why wouldn’t we support people that are pro–traditional marriage? We are pro–traditional marriage. Do we support the personality types and the behavioral types? No. But this president, with all of his other difficulties, is probably the most pro-life administration we’ve seen.”

For some evangelicals, like Stevens, Trump’s imperfections—and his willingness to own up to them—are part of his appeal. “I’m not saying Trump’s perfect,” she said. “But nobody is. And at least he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he is a sinner like everyone else does in Washington. I believe he is a sinner. We are all sinners.” Who can judge? “God,” she added, “will use both sinners and saints to do his will.”

Within Salem, there are also business imperatives at play. Speaking at a June 2018 talk radio industry conference in Manhattan, Phil Boyce—a senior vice president and Salem’s chief news-talk programmer, credited for having first put Sean Hannity on the air—displayed a picture of Trump and urged his fellow attendees to “take advantage of the biggest move in talk radio to come along since Monica Lewinsky wore a blue dress.” Boyce then described internal market research, which suggested that a combined 62 percent of the talk radio audience wants on-air hosts to back Trump uncritically. “This guy right here is a game changer for our format,” Boyce told the crowd. “We call him the gift that keeps on giving.” He went on: “This guy does have the support of our audience, despite the daily attacks of the mainstream media. Our listeners despise the mainstream media. You can capitalize on that despisement.”

Boyce then reportedly took a barely veiled shot—without naming him—at Salem’s Chicago-based WIND–560 AM talk radio evening host, an outspoken former Tea Party congressman named Joe Walsh. Most Salem commentators had jumped on the Trump bandwagon, but Walsh had qualms. “I’ve got a host right now—I’m coaching him out of bad habits,” Boyce said. “He understood that Trump is good for our audience, but some days he just can’t bring himself to say good stuff.” Later, Boyce clarified that it’s okay to be critical of Trump, but he said, “That doesn’t mean trash him.” He added, “We are the antidote to the mainstream media. If you align yourself with them, you’ll eventually lose. So there’s a reason you get a paycheck. It’s your ability to attract the biggest audience possible so you can make money with it.”

In the months that followed, that message prompted complaints from disgruntled former employees who alleged that Salem was stifling dissent within its ranks. Last summer, Walsh launched a long-shot primary challenge to the president and Salem canceled his distribution deal. In November, Craig Silverman, a conservative talk show host at Salem’s Denver-based 710 KNUS, claimed the station cut off his microphone during a segment on which he was scrutinizing Roy Cohn, a former Trump lawyer. A higher-up then came into the booth and told him, “You’re done.” Radio executives have since denied that Silverman’s firing was the result of his position on Trump. The catalyst, they said, was his decision to make appearances on a competing radio station over management’s objections. Nevertheless, the incident called attention to internal disagreement over Trump, prompting a spate of national news stories. Amid the controversy, Walsh sent out a tweet calling Silverman a “great, honest voice on the radio.” Salem Media and “almost all of conservative talk radio don’t want honesty,” he wrote. “They want Trump worship.”

When I asked Santrella about what it means for Salem to side with Trump, he invoked the company’s sense of duty to its audience. “We’re in a day and age right now where, on the other side of the political spectrum, on the left side of the political spectrum, the perspective seems to be, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you’re welcome to do one of two things: change your mind or shut up!’ ” he said. “If you choose instead to say, ‘I don’t agree with your opinion on this,’ you’re immediately a bigot, a hater, a racist, a Nazi. All of the horrible labels that none of us would ever want on us get thrown out. So Salem, I think, in many respects, stands out in front of that and says, ‘We’ll take that side, and we’ll take the bullets that come with it.’ ”

In that context, it’s not hard to see how Salem executives might view the Katie Hill scandal as a juicy story ripe for their secular platforms, regardless of whether it might offend the sensibilities of their Christian base. After all, Hill had managed to flip a long-held Republican district—one that encompassed the Ronald Reagan library and that also happened to be directly adjacent to the Camarillo, California, home of Salem Media’s corporate headquarters. The graphic nature of the photographs was a concern, Evans, the president of new media, told me: “There were a number of photos we decided not to show and a number of photos where we did significant blanking out of various points.” But it was too newsworthy not to cover. “We thought it important to tell this story that no one else in the US seemed to be covering,” Evans said. “We tried to do it as judiciously as we could yet still, obviously, communicate the story. Certainly, we put appropriate thought into it.”

I asked pastors at the event in Chicago what they thought about the Hill story. Most claimed not to know of it and turned the conversation back to their emphasis on spiritual, rather than political, leadership. Daly, who was aware of the news, made a distinction between the mission of the church and the mission of Salem. “Salem’s a communication company,” he said. “They’re AM/FM sticks, they’re websites, they’re aggregators of content.” What he does is different, he went on. “We’re very Christian-oriented. So I’m just saying that we’re content creators. We’ve got to work with content delivery systems.”

When pressed, Daly declined to condemn the story. Invoking a media double standard, he spoke about the failure of the media to question the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center about Barack Obama’s “left-leaning policies.” Later, he said that some of his conservative allies have likened the culture wars to “being in an alley in a switchblade fight.” Though the beliefs of Focus on the Family preclude him from using switchblades, he said, some of his allies have had no compunction about arming up.

He might have been talking about Boyce. In an interview, Boyce said how happy he’d been when Trump won, in part because, if Hillary Clinton were president, he believed, she probably would have tried to reinstate the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. He relishes the freedom to communicate in Salem’s signature way—and to exert its influence. “Remember, this is now a culture war,” he said. “The other side is going to try to take you out by any means necessary.”

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Adam Piore is a freelance magazine journalist and the author of The Accidental Terrorist and The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human.