10 Questions with ... Michael A. Smerconish
March 1, 2011
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Talk show host, lawyer, columnist and author of five books, two of them New York Times best sellers. Currently in national syndication through Dial Global. Born, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Lehigh University (1984) Phi Beta Kappa. University of Pennsylvania Law School (1987). Appointed at age 29 by President George H.W. Bush to a sub-cabinet level position in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Radio and Records local personality of the year (2009). Consistently one of Talkers Magazine's Heavy Hundred (No. 27 in 2011). Married with four children.
1. Since we last talked (about 10 years ago), you've drawn a lot of attention for pointing out the media's role in the polarization of politics and for your endorsing President Obama and leaving the Republican Party. First, is there anything you would have done differently had you known what kind of reaction there would be, and do you see progress towards political discourse moving away from the extreme left-right polarization of recent years? Is there more room for nuance or is the media still, even after Tucson, hard right or hard left and nothing in between?
I continue to argue that the polarization you refer to is stoked by the faux debate that is prevalent in the media. To watch or to listen is to become conditioned to believing that there is only two diametrically opposed philosophical approaches to each of the issues. The spotlight always shines on the extremes. And yet, working daily in both mediums, I often think that the only people who see the world entirely through liberal or conservative lenses are the hosts with whom I rub shoulders. Buying gas or groceries or attending back-to-school nights, I speak to people for whom the issues are a mixed bag; they are liberal on some, conservative on others, middle of the road on the rest.
But politicians don't take their cues from their non-media constituents. Politicians emulate the world of punditry. And therein lies a danger. The country suffers when elected officials treat colleagues like they are on a split-screen. The National Journal just documented that congressional vote records show the 2010 Congress was the most polarized in 30 years. Every Senate Democrat was more liberal than every Senate Republican and every Senate Republican was more conservative than every Senate Democrat. The middle is under-represented even though most of the country is in the middle. Is it a coincidence that in those 30 years our media has similarly grown polarized? I don't believe in coincidence.
Is this changing? I hope and think so. It sure would be beneficial to the nation and to our industry. Tucson was an awakening. Not because the shooting was the result of angry speech -- it wasn't -- but because it nevertheless became an introspective moment. Many looked at our discourse and did not like what they saw. Both for the sake of the nation, and the longevity of a medium that I love, I hope things are changing and that entertaining, substantive nuance is welcomed. Talk radio's future would be far brighter is we could reach a broader spectrum of Americans and when we increase our market share, I suspect it will have an impact on Washington.
2. What do you think was the greatest misunderstanding among the media about your personal declaration of independence? What kind of reaction have you gotten from your audience -- do listeners get it more than the pundits do?
I'm not aware of any misunderstanding. Maybe that's because I not only have access to a microphone, but also because I write two newspaper columns per week. While broadcasts are often subject to a whisper down the lane dilution or misinterpretation by those who didn't hear what was actually said, written columns are hard to misunderstand because of their infinite Internet shelf- life. On major positions, like my leaving the GOP after three decades, my written words, which mirror what I say on air, are there and I think stand the test of time. For example, when I joined Independent voters, I wrote: "The national GOP is a party of exclusion and litmus tests, dominated on social issues by the religious right, with zero discernible outreach by the national party to anyone who doesn't fit neatly within its parameters." No close observer of politics could dispute or ignore that. It doesn't mean I have joined the ranks of the Democratic Party which has similar problems at the other end of the spectrum. I made a personal decision that remains the right choice for me -- I never told listeners what they should think or do. I'd add that in my own declaration of independence, I joined the fastest growing voting block -- Independents -- who will continue to carry great weight and determine future presidents.
3. What's your assessment of the Obama administration at this stage? How's he doing, and are you disappointed, pleased, or surprised by what you've seen?
I don't think there have been many surprises. President Obama is governing for the most part the way he said he would. I'm hard pressed to identify an issue or area of policy where he had deviated from a campaign pledge. What's unfortunate is the way that so many are predisposed toward liking or disliking what he does based solely on their perception of him personally, instead of deciding based upon the merit of whatever the issue might be. That's unfortunate. If he's for "it," a large segment stands ready to support it. If he's against "it," another segment is dug in against it. That's too bad. The stakes are too high for such a superficial analysis at a time when we remain at war on two fronts with the economy suffering.
4. You use Twitter and your show has a Facebook fan page -- how into social media are you and your show these days? Are Twitter and Facebook becoming more important as a way to connect to your audience, or are they still in the "amusing novelty" stage?
For an Internet addict, I am a bit of a social media knucklehead. I have a terrific web site (www.smerconish.com). I do tweet, and I have a Facebook page but I have not yet mastered my ability to use either of those as a means of interacting with my audience, although I think I am getting better.
5. You've done a lot of work raising funds and awareness for the Flight 93 Memorial. 10 years after 9/11, do you think the memory of the day has receded -- does it still have the same impact on the public? Or do you think the public is still as passionate about it and still remembers what happened? How strong do you find the public's feelings about 9/11 and Flight 93?
I have. Close to home, in the Philadelphia suburbs, I have been a major benefactor of a memorial called the Garden of Reflection created in the county where I was born and raised, which lost many residents on 9/11. In the western part of Pennsylvania, I have similarly been a major donor to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville. Every year on the anniversary, I dedicate my entire program toward remembering the events of 9/11, and often I have taken busloads of listeners with me to visit the Flight 93 crash site. Beyond the births and deaths of my family members and friends, that date is the most important day in my life thus far. It distresses me that not yet ten years removed from the actual 9/11, we have lost sight and do not pay sufficient attention to remembering what occurred. Think about this: apart from an actual 9/11 anniversary, when was the last time you saw footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers?
6. Are you optimistic about America right now? Why or why not?
I am worried about all sorts of things -- jobs, terror, the environment. Still, I tell our sons that like their mother and me, they are fortunate to be growing up in the greatest country on earth at her most advanced stage. I do believe that. Hopefully someday they will be able to repeat those words to their children and have similar confidence in what they are saying.
7. If you couldn't be a talk host or a lawyer or writer -- if you had to choose another, entirely new career -- what would you like to do?
In college I drove a truck for a pool supply and patio furniture business. Every once in a while, on a sunny day, I look outside my studio window and picture myself driving that truck, hauling chlorine, getting a tan on my left arm, guzzling ice tea and eating a hoagie. (Then the commercial break ends and I am back on the air)
8. Have you found audiences in your syndicated markets different in any way from the Philadelphia listeners who have been with you for all these years? Do you feel like you need to play things differently in your syndicated hours as opposed to your Philly local hour?
I think the Philadelphia audience knows me better after many years of listening, and recognizes that I have a very broad range of interests and that I am prepared to address issues that appear in all sections of the newspaper, not just the front page. They're willing, too. In markets where I am lesser known, the audiences tend to be most responsive to the latter. The longer I am heard in particular markets, the more responsive the audiences tend to be to the full compliment of what I like to do.
9. Who's the most memorable guest you've interviewed? Was it the President or someone else? Why?
Presidents Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama have all been on my program. None of them were my most interesting guest. If I were to name a particular guest that was my most memorable, I assure you it is no one you have ever heard of. What I most enjoy, and what I find most engaging, are often not the universally covered news items but rather, the everyman issues that strike a chord with all listeners because they relate to all of our lives. The Seinfeld sorta stuff. The segments that are seemingly about nothing, but are really about everything and everyone. Maybe it was the exterminator who addressed the stinkbug infestation in my home, or the camp counselor who commented on our daughter's fear of summer camps, or the representative from the motor vehicle department that read aloud the requested plates that were turned down due to a presumed profanity (My favorite: QQQQU). These are the sort of things I enjoy delivering (after, of course, I have had my say about jobs, terror and same sex marriage).
10. You have to recommend one book, one movie, one album as your favorites. Which will they be and why?
Book: I will give you what I most enjoyed reading in 2010. "A Secret Gift" by Ted Gup. A time capsule regarding the Depression, and unfortunately, a lesson for our times. The greatest book you've probably never heard of.
Movie: "Slap Shot," staring Paul Newman. In a category with the other film screen classics, like Caddyshack, Wall Street and The Godfather: Part II. What can I say? I'm a guy looking for movies with some laughs, gratuitous sex, profanity and violence.
Album: Wow. No way. I have more than 1,000 CDs. In my collection you'll find everything ever recorded by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and YES, all things Sinatra, and a bunch of hokey "best songs of the 70's" albums I bought after a few cocktails while watching late night TV. I like it all, and I am always listening.