“Talk radio is running America,” snapped Senator Trent Lott, a Republican of Mississippi, during the debate over immigration reform a few months ago. “We have to deal with that problem.” For James Roberts of Radio America and the donors who support him, however, talk radio is anything but a problem: It’s a remarkable opportunity to enrich the public’s understanding of everything from the hottest political topics to the importance of military veterans.
“We try to bring balance to the national media’s coverage of the great issues that affect the American people,” says Roberts, who is Radio America’s founder and president.
Radio America certainly does that: it’s the network for several of the most popular talk-radio hosts in the United States, including Michael Reagan, G. Gordon Liddy, Doug Stephan and Greg Knapp. In addition to these daily shows, it provides hours and hours of niche programming on the weekends.
Roberts was born in Chicago and served as a junior officer on a destroyer during the Vietnam War. He came to Washington in 1974, worked at the American Conservative Union, and wrote a book, The Conservative Decade. Ronald Reagan wrote the foreword, and the book was published just as Reagan was elected president. Roberts served as the executive director of the Commission on White House Fellowships during Reagan’s first term.
When he left the public sector, Roberts thought about reviving a small think tank he had started in the 1970s, the American Studies Center. “But I realized that conservatives didn’t need another think tank—they had the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and so on,” he says. “For all of the great work these organizations were doing, what they really needed was somebody to take their findings and bring them to the public.” So Roberts became a sort of new-media pioneer, and Radio America was born as a not-for-profit enterprise.
At first, Radio America didn’t do any broadcasting. Instead, it produced cassettes full of short commentaries by the likes of Jack Kemp, Lewis Lehrman, and Jay Parker. “We mailed these tapes to radio stations around the country and hoped for the best,” says Roberts.
One of Radio America’s first supporters was the now-defunct John M. Olin Foundation. “We saw Radio America as an outlet for the various conservative writers and thinkers whom we supported or would support,” says James Piereson, the former executive director of Olin and current president of the William E. Simon Foundation. “We felt it had a lot of promise, and Jim Roberts did an outstanding job with it.”
Other early backers included the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, headquartered in Milwaukee. “We’ve always supported alternative delivery systems for getting good ideas into the media conversation, and Radio America falls nicely into that slot,” says vice president Dan Schmidt. “In print, we did journals such as Public Interest and National Interest. On the airwaves, we did Radio America.”
The timing of Roberts and Radio America hardly could have been better. Although the popularity of talk radio was growing in the 1980s, it was restrained by the so-called Fairness Doctrine—a regulation of the Federal Communications Commission that required broadcast licensees to offer balanced coverage of public issues. When the FCC repealed its directive in 1987, talk radio began its period of explosive growth, as right-of-center figures such as Rush Limbaugh came to dominate the airwaves. Technological improvements also paved the way. Radio America was perfectly positioned to provide content to an old form of media that was about to experience a rebirth.
Radio America began buying satellite time from ABC and syndicated its first program, featuring future presidential candidate Alan Keyes. Within several years, Radio America wasn’t merely buying hours of satellite time—it owned a full-time channel and needed to fill it with 24 hours of programming each day.
Adding the Oliver North show represented a big step. “We had a marquee name,” says Roberts. Although North is out of radio today, other hosts followed in his wake.
Today, talk radio is one of the most popular formats on the airwaves, according to the ratings-research company Arbitron. More than 1,500 stations adhere to the “news/talk/information” format, and they account for more than 10 percent of America’s radio audience. Only country music stations are more prevalent.
Radio America thrives in this environment. It’s not only a full-service network that features Liddy and Reagan—two of the best-known hosts in the talk-radio business—but also a provider of specialized programs such as Garden Rebel (on gardening), Startup Nation (on entrepreneurship), and Truck Test Digest (on SUVs and pickups). One of its cornerstone programs is Dateline: Washington, a syndicated news magazine anchored by Greg Corombos. In the future, Roberts hopes that Radio America will run a national news bureau. The organization is certainly growing: it recently moved to new offices in Arlington, Virginia, where it has more space and a state-of-the-art studio.
Just about every major city in the United States has a station that broadcasts Radio America programs, which are heard by as many as nine million listeners each week. The shows are also available on the XM and Sirius satellite networks. They are streamed over the Internet as well; the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation recently provided a grant for podcasting.
In the early 1990s, Radio America embarked upon what would become one of Roberts’ biggest ventures when it co-produced a series with the National Archives on the Second World War, using old CBS clips. Between 1991 and 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war, Radio America aired the segments to give modern listeners a sense of what it was like to keep up with the combat half a century earlier. “The features aired on about 500 stations, making it very successful,” says Roberts. “We decided to institutionalize the series. That’s how we got into the veterans business.”
The “veterans business” is now Radio America’s sister organization, the American Veterans Center (AVC). Technically, both operate under the umbrella of Roberts’ original nonprofit group, the American Studies Center. Their current combined budget is almost $5 million.
The AVC held a small conference in Philadelphia in 1996 to honor World War II veterans. This was the first in what has since become an annual series, held in November in the Washington, D.C. area—and one that honors veterans from all wars, as well as active-duty personnel.
Last year’s three-day event featured everyone from the Second World War’s Doolittle Raiders to soldiers who fought at Fallujah in Iraq. C-SPAN recorded the conference and showed it several times. Anyone can attend the actual event, but the AVC makes a special effort to bring in students from local schools. “The soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq really energized the room,” says Roberts. “The highschool students were really able to connect with them because they were just a few years older. It’s almost like they were looking at themselves.”
The AVC receives support from some 70,000 individual contributors, many of them veterans or the children of veterans. But it also relies upon large gifts from foundations. “One of our chief goals is to promote organizations that teach new generations about veterans and our country’s heritage,” says Ed Tracy, executive director of the Chicago-based Tawani Foundation, which has supported oral history projects at the U.S. Naval Institute and bike paths that connect Civil War battlefields. “The American Veterans Center is a tremendous example of what private groups can do to support veterans and help them tell their stories.”
The AVC’s other major project is a Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. “A few years ago, we were amazed to realize that nobody had sponsored a parade in the nation’s capital since 1939,” says Tim Holbert, the AVC’s program director. In 2004, the AVC partnered with several other groups to hold a parade in conjunction with the dedication of the national World War II Memorial. Since then, the AVC has become the sole sponsor. In 2006, actor Gary Sinise served as grand marshal. This year, wounded soldiers from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center had the honor. The parade-goers included Frank Buckles, a 106-year-old veteran of the First World War, and several of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.
“The parade is a wonderful, patriotic cause,” says Larry Gill of the Dodge Jones Foundation in Abilene, Texas, which started donating to Radio America two decades ago and now contributes to the AVC.
One of the American Studies Center’s latest initiatives combines the strengths of both groups: the AVC helps veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq tell their stories, and Radio America helps broadcast them. “We’re in the middle of a war, and nobody seems to know the individual stories of our soldiers,” says Holbert. The weekly show Veterans Chronicles, which in the past has concentrated on the veterans of the Second World War, is beginning to profile the veterans of today.
“When you get these guys before the public, the public loves them,” says Roberts. “But the mainstream media don’t want to focus on the heroes of today. We’re trying to fill this void.” It’s a gaping hole. “Do Americans even know the names of the two men who won the Medal of Honor in Iraq?” asks Angela French, a Defense Department employee. She works with the AVC and Radio America to make sure that stories such as those of Jason Dunham and Paul Ray Smith—the two latest Medal of Honor recipients—reach the public.
“Helping the war effort is the most important thing we can do,” says Roberts. “We want to do our part to help win it.”
Contributing editor John J. Miller writes for the National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.