Todd Starnes was an embedded reporter in the final six weeks of Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. He’s respected, vociferous, and holds his beliefs close to his heart. But don’t offer him any raw fish.
“The Obama campaign was notorious for being a very health-conscious group,” Starnes said. “On the plane, they served us sushi. When I wasn’t eating it, the flight attendant noticed and came up to me to ask what was wrong. I told her they forgot to cook the fish.”
He was joshing, but he certainly would have preferred a traditional southern Memphis dish like fried catfish and hushpuppies.
Starnes said Jen Psaki traveled with him on the Obama campaign. “We had a lot of fun talking a few times. Valerie Jarrett was there too,” Starnes explained. “We had a rigorous discussion about the difference between gumbo and jambalaya. We found the main difference was the use of rice.”
Starnes is an American conservative commentator, author, and radio host. He has appeared on Fox and Friends and Hannity. In June 2017, Starnes began hosting a syndicated talk radio show on Fox News Radio.
Starnes joined Fox News Channel in 2005 as a radio news anchor. He said the world today is operating beneath an umbrella of chaos. “Under our form of government, whether you’re Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or atheist, you have a right to live your life,” Starnes said that can’t be said for other countries.
He said separation of church and state is not in the Constitution of the United States. “We are endowed by our creator, not mankind’s laws. We have God-given rights. That’s why religion is ingrained in every one of our founding documents. That’s where they were coming from. Look at what’s happening in the world without that order. We were meant to be a Christian nation,” Starnes said. “Under Judeo Christian philosophy, God doesn’t force your decisions.”
He says it’s all a version of the truth. “What happens when your truth conflicts with my truth? What takes precedence?”
On the lighter side, his entry into radio started with a gift. “My grandpa gave me a transistor radio when I was young,” Starnes said. “I remember listening to WWLin Lousianna. Stations in Cincinnati. I was fascinated by radio.”
Starnes said he always had his radio with him as a ten-year-old kid. Cassette tapes were all the rage. “I ran my own talk show,” he said. “I was the host, the guest, and the crew. It was really out there. It was a lot of fun.”
Unfortunately, low ratings doomed the ambitious ten-year-old’s show, and he had to go back to fourth grade.
“On my imaginary show, I talked about your traditional southern life, great experiences,” he said. “We lived close to the Mississippi River.” The ghosts of Mark Twain and Huck Finn undoubtedly played a role in his literary development.
Starnes was in college during the Limbaugh years and said he learned a lot from listening. “We didn’t know what was going to happen next. I’m on during the lunch hour from 12-3, and we talk about the crazy issues of the day. That doesn’t mean we always know where it’s going.”
He loved radio so much he bought a radio station during a pandemic. This is something Starnes admitted was a little crazy.
“If there’s ever a question on Jeopardy about who was stupid enough to buy a radio station during a pandemic, the answer would be, ‘Who is Todd Starnes.’”
Why did he buy a radio station? Starnes said corporate radio did a number on local radio.
“We had these rich heritage stations in Memphis,” Starnes said. “I was driving on the road when severe weather broke out. The streets were flooded, power towers were down. It was second nature to tune in to the ‘local’ station when severe weather hit. They were in Fox programming. No mention of the dangerous weather.”
After the clouds dissipated, Starnes told himself if he ever had a chance to purchase a radio station, he would.
A month later, he got a phone call from Legacy Media. The owner said if Starnes was ever interested in buying a station, they should talk. That conversation convinced Starnes to purchase the Memphis talk station 990 AM KWAM for $685,000. It’s now the flagship station for Starnes’ radio show.
Prior to purchasing the station, Starnes sought counsel from friends. He put the deal together quickly, and business has been phenomenal.
“I was told the first thing I should do is steal the competition’s garden show. We did.”
The garden folks weren’t happy where they were, and Starnes made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“I told them they’d be treated like royalty, and I’d double what the other station was paying them.”
When I reminded Starnes that might not be the ‘Christian’ thing to do, he reminded me we should ‘Do Unto Others.” He was joking…I think
Starnes has written numerous books, including The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again and God Less America.
“I love the product after the writing,” Starnes jokes. “Editors may not feel the same way. I’ll outline everything and often start with a phrase I’ve heard, some sort of clever anecdote.”
Starnes said he was influenced by the writings of southern humorist Lewis Grizzard and sardonic Irma Bombeck, who achieved success with her newspaper syndication. He said he had to be discreet when he indulged her columns.
“If someone in junior high had caught me reading Irma Bombeck, it wouldn’t have been pretty.”
Molly Ivins, a liberal columnist from Texas, was also on his list of influences.
“She once called George W. Bush a shrub,” Starnes explained. “Then there was Art Buchwald, a fine-tuned satirist.” Buchwald appeared to some as a curmudgeonly writer. “Buchwald was a friendly, affable person,” Starnes said. “I’m kind of a curmudgeon.”
Starnes admitted the differences between liberals and conservatives aren’t always that big of a chasm, then again.
“We’re living in such an odd time,” he said. “Something nefarious is happening. I know a lot of liberals are true patriots; they love their country. They are dead-wrong on issues.”
Some of these incendiary sentiments are echoed in Starnes’ book, Cultural Jihad: How to Stop the Left from Killing a Nation. In the book, Starnes accuses progressives of bulldozing through American history. He goes on to say ‘We the People’ are the only ones who can stop them. He says America is on the verge of another Civil War; socialism is on the rise. Free Speech is under assault. People of Faith are facing persecution. Gun owners are in the crosshairs.
“Progressives are turning our history into a pile of rubble,” Starnes said. “That kind of thing concerns me as a free speech purist. It’s all a cancel culture mob. They dug up the body of a confederate general and tore down his stature. Are they going to tear Harvard down because one of the founders owned a slave a hundred years ago?”
On an even lighter side, you wouldn’t think a man like Starnes would be into radical comedy.
“I love Dave Chappele,” Starnes said. “I love his sense of humor, his presentation. He takes on culture issues of the day. And he’s spot-on.”
Starnes said we need more humor on the whole. “I infuse my national show with a lot of humor. We try to take a look at the quirky side of life, bring both sides together.”
And he believes that’s possible. “There is hope for us as America,” Starnes said. “I’ve had the chance to travel all over the nation and speak to thousands of people every year. What I talk about is not based on a political party. It comes from a higher source.”
Starnes is a frequent speaker at churches, Christian conferences, and Christian universities. He has delivered messages at the Ronald Reagan Ranch, the Billy Graham Training Center. Visiting Starnes’ early days, he said he was a follower of William F. Buckley. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan. “They framed the conservative movement,” he said. “It is a religious battle. On my show, we talk about matters of faith, morality. If we don’t have a shared value, morality, you have the chaos we see today.” He said Buckley, Reagan, and Goldwater would be very happy with the way things have swayed. “Let’s Make America Great Again was a Reagan campaign slogan. Trump borrowed from that.” Is he saying we need to make new red hats that read LMAGA?
Starnes said there’s no need to worry; talk radio will be around for a very long time.
“You get to call in with your opinion. Share your opinion, have a conversation. You never know where it’s going to go, what they’re going to say. You don’t get that on television. You can’t really capture that on a podcast.”
Starnes also issues a word of caution. “Talk radio isn’t supposed to be three hours of screaming,” he said. “That’s not what this is about. As far as the hosts, he says being authentic is critical. “Don’t be something you’re not. If you do, you’ll fall flat on your face.”
Hopefully, into a big plate of catfish and hushpuppies.
The Cost of “Thoughts”
Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.
The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.
Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”
Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”
Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.
The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.
Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.
I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.
On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”
Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.
The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.
Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.
Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.
Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.
Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening.
After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.
I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory.
However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza.
“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”
What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.
Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.
After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2007.
For Pags, the media dream started early on.
“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.”
Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.
Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.
“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”
Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.
“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”
Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.
He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.
No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.
As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart.
“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.”
Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.
“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.
His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.”
San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.
“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”
The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”
Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from?
“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”
Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way.
“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”
Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.
Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”
When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said.
“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”
Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”
Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.”
I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.
“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”
He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.
“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”
Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.
“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”
Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things.
“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”
Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.
“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.
“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”
Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge.
“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”
I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat.
The Rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
According to BNM’s Pete Mundo, Ron DeSantis sounds an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
For at least the last six years, the long-standing belief is that talk radio has been the home for Donald Trump sycophants. While I’ve always viewed this as an overly-simplistic analysis of tens of millions of weekly talk radio listeners in this country, it’s fair to say that certainly, from 2015 through 2020; the news talk audience was supportive of the 45th President.
And now, as time goes on, there are signs that the dam is breaking. There’s anecdotal data I can share and then more scientific data to touch on.
This past Monday, I spent one segment of my show saying I would burn through as many calls as I could over 8-9 minutes on Trump or Ron DeSantis to be the 2024 Republican Presidential nominee. I brought this up in the wake of DeSantis’ criticism of Joe Biden’s energy policy from late last week. He sounded an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.
Over those 8-9 minutes, I fit in 14 phone calls. Going into it, I told my producers privately that my guess was that the calls would split fairly evenly but probably lean towards Trump.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, we ended up with nine of the 14 callers in favor of DeSantis, with five going for Trump.
Then there was some interesting polling this week. One poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire found DeSantis edging out Trump 39 percent to 37 percent. The most telling fact about the New Hampshire poll is that while DeSantis leads Trump by just two points overall, he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and among conservative radio listeners by 16 points.
As is always the case, one poll should not be viewed as an absolute, but there are clear signs that Donald Trump’s stranglehold over Republican voters is waning. And from my perspective, it’s waning faster than I expected.
Politics move fast. One day you’re hot; the next day, not so much. And to see DeSantis rise this quickly when all the focus is on Joe Biden and the 2022 midterms, not the Republican primary in 2024, makes this poll even more surprising.
And while I have no interest in getting ahead of myself, talk radio is likely to be the battleground for this issue if and when it does ultimately come to fruition. Talk radio is obviously far more interactive than cable news. Callers, texters, and Facebook/Twitter users can all be participants and have their perspectives shared with thousands of listeners at any given time.
And if those most in tune with the news cycle of the moment find themselves shifting to someone like Ron DeSantis, then the run-of-the-mill Republican voter is likely to follow suit when the time comes.
But, if we do end up getting a Trump vs. DeSantis primary, then 2024 could end up making 2016 look like child’s play. But I’ll stop here because, once again, I’m not looking to get ahead of myself.