10 Questions with ... James T. Harris
January 18, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Professional speaker, writer, weekend host at WTMJ/Milwaukee, added weekends at KQTH (104.1 The Truth)/Tucson, frequent guest on CNN and Fox News Channel
1. What led you into talk radio? Why radio?
It was never my plan to be a radio talk show host. I was a public school teacher and a professional public speaker. But from the very first day I heard Rush Limbaugh on the air, I became a fan. That was in 1991. Over the years I became a caller to the local talk shows in Milwaukee and, in time, I became known as "James from Sherman Park" or "James on the West Side."
There were people who suggested that I host my own show, but I can honestly tell you that I never even entertained the thought until I was asked by a PD at 620 WTMJ to sit in with him and co-host a talk show at the station. As a frequent caller over the years, I had made an impression on the station management, and they thought I had potential. That's how I got into the business.
I will just add that, at the end of the day, I'm a person who loves ideas. Talk radio is a business, but it's also a vehicle for me to satisfy my insatiable curiosity for knowledge and interact with fascinating people who all have their own story to tell.
2. You're a professional speaker as well as a talk show host. What are the similarities and differences between speaking to a live audience from a podium or stage and speaking to an audience over the radio?
There is nothing quite like capturing the imagination of a live audience in the flesh. To see the spark in their eyes, hear the gasps and encounter the laughter up close is intoxicating. Some people call it "working a crowd," but to me it's actually an art form. It's not something everyone can do. You have to not only have good ideas, but you have to be able to assess how the audience is responding to those ideas - and adjust to those split-second reactions - on the fly.
For whatever reason, I have always had a knack for doing well in front of a live audience, so I thought live radio would be a smooth transition...
Both radio talkers and public speakers create "theatre of the mind," but radio talkers don't get the immediate feedback. There is no applause or other obvious reaction. In fact there is very little immediate interplay with the audience. In the studio, I am somewhat blind to my audience, especially if listeners don't call in right away. That is what I initially found most difficult. Eventually, I learned to not only find my radio voice, but also trust my voice. Today, I have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't, but there's always still an underlying curiosity in terms of who will call in. That first caller is like opening a present - Ooooo! What's inside?
3. The obvious thing -- the advance billing for your show -- is that you are a black conservative talk show host; how did your political views evolve, and have you, over the years, found conservative views gaining any foothold at all in the black community? How does religion play into that?
I was born in a working-class black family that was basically a Democrat household. The church my sister and I grew up in was 99 percent black and 100 percent Democrat. Both my father and mother were union members, so my transformation into a staunch conservative was inevitable, right? (Upon first introduction, my girlfriend's father asked my father, "How in the hell did you raise a Republican?" The answer from my dad to my future father-in-law was, "I don't know...ask his mother!"
The change came in college. My roommates were both Christian and Republican. On most subjects, I could not dispute their arguments nor justify my own. A more clear understanding of Christ came first, in the autumn of 1982. By the Presidential election of 1984, my heart was still Democrat but my head was conservative.
From a social conservative standpoint, I found that I could no longer emotionally or intellectually support the "right" to an abortion. That issue was the catalyst. As time went on, I began to question other liberal arguments in other arenas until a saw a pattern - an entire liberal paradigm - that often demeaned and devalued individuals. The first time I voted for a Republican, I felt a rush of freedom, realizing that I was using my own mind to make my own decisions. No, I didn't tell my parents right away but I did run out and read Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk and The National Review. Two decades later, I named my father's granddaughter after a United States President who also helped to shape my thinking. My father refused to utter the name for the first two years of her life, but then he couldn't stop saying it!
Two decades from now, I believe it will mostly be African Americans who will utter the name Barack Obama with reverence. I hope that I am wrong, but Americans of African descent (my preferred way of referring to my racial identity) exist in a strange ideological no-man's land where conservative values are embraced, but political souls belong to the D...emocrat. I call it Democrat Stockholm Syndrome.
Having a liberal ideology actually prevents Americans of African descent from experiencing a life rich in self worth and self fulfillment. The vast majority of my ethnic brothers and sisters CHOOSE to enslave themselves by walking lock-step with a party that does not reflect their true value and keeps them dependant on Democrats and government.
Having said all that, I also believe it to be true that since Reconstruction we have never seen so many Americans of African descent running for office as Republicans! Conservative views are gaining a foothold in the black community as a new generation of parents are doing for themselves, but the real battle has yet to take place.
As a Christian, it is my personal philosophy that the war is not against flesh and blood, but rather against a destructive collective mindset that resides in so much of black culture. One of my catch-phrases is, "It's the culture, stupid." What we need as a people is to hold ourselves to high standards and expect the very best of ourselves and our children. But there is a widespread and destructive belief that black people cannot succeed on their own. Hence, we have social programs, race-based preference programs and an ever-lowering bar for people of color. The subtle message -- that Americans of African descent are somehow inferior -- is rooted in liberal ideology. Personally, I find the message none too subtle and extremely offensive. I might say that conservatism is a way out of this liberal labyrinth, but Jesus is humanity's ultimate answer. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but both will set a person free, just on different levels.
4. Your comments in support of John McCain (telling the candidate to "take it to" Obama) during the 2008 election garnered national attention, although not necessarily the kind you'd have preferred. In retrospect, would you do the same thing again if you had the chance? Has the incident had, ultimately, a positive, negative, or benign effect on your life and career?
Ah, yes, my "McCain Moment." If I had it to do all over again, I might have listed a few more of Obama's radical friends! It was a spontaneous moment. A moment in time. You are correct that I did not prefer, nor was I prepared for the national "Black-lash" that was unleashed! The raw rage from the left and even death threats did rattle me a bit. A few days after the event, I was flying to North Carolina and was told by a black flight attendant, "I don't like you." Standing behind her were the pilot and co-pilot who thanked me for saying to McCain what they wanted to say.
Life is always interesting, but that period of time was also a little intense. However, I do believe that I learned a lot from that experience, and that it has broadened and enhanced my perspective.
One benefit of the entire experience was that it introduced me (through trial by fire) to the world of cable television! First CNN, then a series of FOX News shows, including "FOX & Friends" and "The O'Reilly Factor." This was good for my career, but it also helped me to better understand national ideological trends and to understand how opinions travel throughout the nation and are so tied to geography.
Perhaps most importantly, the McCain Moment did alter my approach to radio. As I stated above, when you are speaking at an event, you are connected to the people for that moment. When you do a radio show, each show builds a bridge to a more solid connection with the audience - laying the groundwork for a stronger relationship. The emotional bond between me and my listening audience deepened during that period. The outpouring of support both surprised and humbled me. It was the feedback that speakers see but radio talkers rarely receive. It was the perfect handoff. The McCain Moment, in some ways, was the beginning of a stronger, more meaningful commitment to radio.
5. How, if at all, did your experience teaching in high school inform or affect what you ended up doing, speaking and talk radio? Did dealing with and instructing kids, or dealing with school bureaucracy and structure, give you experience that you use today?
Forcing kids to sit in a history class at :10 after 8:00 in the morning is unnatural. It's close to cruel and unusual punishment. I don't care how much you love history, no one wants to take it in the early a.m. That's why some classes are what we lovingly call "mandatory."
Teaching high school history taught me that you have 45 seconds to capture your audience's imagination. If you don't, you will be climbing up hill for the rest of the period. I would use anything, current events and stories from my travels to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Far East. This is the little secret that helped me become and excellent speaker as well. While teaching, I mastered the art of spicing up seemingly stale subject matter in compellingly true stories.
The issues became real... More than merely words on a page.
Near the end of my decade or so of teaching, I eventually became allergic to bureaucracy and pedantic structure. I even skipped faculty meetings and avoided the teachers' lounge. I shunned all things union. I'm surprised I lasted a decade in education, to tell you the truth. If my PD sees this, I might not see 10 years in radio!
6. Of what are you most proud?
My eldest child and I took a father-son trip to Israel last summer. While standing in the dungeon where Jesus spent his last night on earth, my son, in a low somber voice, recited Isaiah: 53 in its entirety, from memory. I am most proud of (and humbled by) the gifts and talents that I see in my children.
7. Who do you consider your mentors and inspirations in radio and in life?
I still remember what I was doing and where I was going the first time I heard Rush Limbaugh's show. On the very same day, I heard Milwaukee's Mark Belling for the first time, and a few weeks later, I heard our other local heavy hitter Charlie Sykes, filling in for Belling. Almost two decades later, I find that I am still inspired by these talkers' talents and insights.
My biggest mentor and best friend recently passed away, and he was not in radio. Ed Wenzler (Uncle Ed) was an architect who knew Jesus and lived the life. He advised me in every aspect of my comings and goings.
8. Look forward ten years - ideally, what would you like to be doing then? What's your ideal future?
I don't have an "ideal future," because I believe Forrest Gump's momma was right: "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get." I just pray to be faithful, to grow and to stay relevant to the world around me.
Ten years from now, I plan to be sitting on somebody's beach -- maybe my own! -- talking about real life and a man from Nazareth. In order to make that happen, I will need to be a bigger player in radio and find my way to the stage and screen.
9. Fill in the blank: I can't make it through the day without _______________.
...thinking about my smoking-hot wife! (Really.)
10. What's the best advice you've ever gotten? The worst?
The best advice I ever got was from author Shelby Steele. We were dining together after an event, and he asked me what my plans were for the future. I don't remember what I told him, but I do remember him politely cutting me off and saying, "Young man, if I were you, the first thing I would do is marry that young woman sitting next to you."
The worst advice I ever received was from my best friend and mentor, believe it or not. Two days after the 2008 elections, he told me not to finish a book I was writing. He told me that I had made it this far without the book and so maybe I didn't need to write one. I told him I'd think about it. Two days later, he died. His death was sudden and unexpected. In my grief I honored his final words. I think I'm going to go against his advice now, actually, and I think he'll understand.