Despite the popularity of the Internet, far-right radio is booming.
Ever since the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, the radical American right has used radio as a powerful tool in its propaganda arsenal. But it has only been in the 1990s, with the mushrooming of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, that extreme-right activists have come to fully utilize radio as a crucial medium.
In recent years, their programming — on AM, FM, shortwave and low-power "micro-radio" stations — has burgeoned. Since the mid-1990s, shows by both the Patriot movement and a wide array of hate groups have aired on at least 366 AM stations, 40 FM stations and seven shortwave stations. Almost anywhere in America, the message can be heard.
The hours of on-air, radical-right harangues are growing. On shortwave alone — programming that can be heard worldwide — monitors have seen an explosion, from five hours per week in 1990 to 238.5 hours per week this May.
Even the advent of the Internet, a venue of choice for many extremists, has not slowed this dramatic growth. In fact, many radio shows can be downloaded from the Net and played back at listeners' convenience.
"In this age of television and the Internet, we tend to forget that radio, the older medium, continues to be the lifeline of the far right in disseminating, persuading and recruiting," says Robert Hilliard, co-author with Michael Keith of the forthcoming book, Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right.
"It continues to reach the largest number of people wherever they happen to be. ... It's big, it's important and it's cheap."
The programming ranges from paranoid conspiracy theorizing to the downright threatening. In June, for instance, Mark Koernke, the then-fugitive host of "The Intelligence Report" (see In Any Color, It Was Still Koernke and The Voices of Radical Radio), allegedly told as many as 2.7 million listeners to "shoot the buggers because these are tyrants, they're criminals," referring to federal prosecutor Lloyd Meyer.
Meyer is prosecuting alleged terrorist Bradford Metcalf, a Koernke friend who appeared on Koernke's show in May via telephone from a federal prison. A domestic terrorism investigation of Koernke's remarks was opened in late July.
A recent e-mail to the Southern Poverty Law Center signed by Koernke's co-host, John Stadtmiller, said that once the country was retaken from "commies, socialist[s] and the pushers of multiculturism [sic]," Center co-founder Morris Dees should stand trial.
"YOU SEE MORRIS," the message said, "YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE MAKING LIST[S]!!!" Stadtmiller couldn't be reached to confirm his authorship or explain his comments.
There are several reasons that radio remains a key medium.
"The more paranoid section of the far right won't trust the Internet," explains James Latham, host of "Far Right Radio Review," a shortwave program that critically examines and monitors extremist programming. "While they may have used it, they are concerned about government tracing them and the Web sites they have visited. Others whose views are far right may not have access to the Net or know how to use it."
There is no need to own expensive computer equipment to receive the radio message. For just a few dollars, those interested can buy regular or shortwave radio equipment.
In addition, the call-in format of many extremist shows encourages audience participation and loyalty. Along with the Net, a few cable television shows and an array of publications, radio has helped the radical right create an impressive and powerful "alternative" media.
Because there are so many government agents, "too many for us to assassinate, the only feasible strategy for us is to develop our own media of mass communication and then use these media to make everyone painfully aware of the true meaning of the New World Order ... [and to] fan that response into a revolutionary conflagration," he wrote.
Radio also serves to help unify far-right factions — a goal that has clearly advanced significantly in recent years. Increasingly, racist ideology has been taken up by Patriot groups, even as hate groups have adopted Patriot "one-world" conspiracy theories.
As a result, the momentum of the movement has built.
"Their radio programs don't have a shortage of callers," Latham says, "and I don't think you'll come across a militia member or a member of the Klan that doesn't know about these broadcasts. The result is that ideas and concepts start circulating in far right circles much faster than they had. ... [And that] motivates people to do something."
While far-right programming is available in many formats, its backbone is on shortwave stations. The leading purveyors, Latham says, are New Orleans-based WRNO, which features neo-Nazi programming; WINB, "World In Need of the Bible," based in Red Lion, Penn., and broadcasting Christian Identity preacher Pete Peters (see In Any Color, It Was Still Koernke); and Nashville-based WWCR, "World Wide Christian Radio," which carries shows from the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby and Koernke, who is now in jail in Michigan.
These stations have global reach and importance. In the case of neo-Nazi programming, they are a special delight to latter-day fascists in Europe and other countries where it has been illegal to broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda since World War II.
On a subtler level, hosts can simultaneously target different audiences.
"In many cases, the worldview of the listener determines who gets scapegoated," says Chip Berlet, who studies right-wing extremist groups for Political Research Associates, based in Cambridge, Mass.
"People hearing the same radio program might decide the bad guys are generic New World Order secret elites manipulating the government. Others will be convinced it is the demonic forces of the Antichrist signaling the apocalyptic end times. And some will blame it all on the Jews. A skillful hatemonger can speak to all three audiences at the same time by using coded rhetoric."
To many, it's surprising how often far-right programming is heard on relatively mainstream radio stations. For weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, as the city mourned the mass murder of 168 men, women and children, Florida-based Patriot broadcaster Chuck Harder could be heard discussing his worldview on KTOK-AM, the city's major news radio station. Harder's show occupied several prime-time hours every weekday.
While that may have shocked some, insiders say the reason many radio stations carry extremist programming is simple. As one program director put it, "It's finances."
Around the country, smaller radio stations are struggling to survive, and many of them are operating in the red. This offers an opening for ideologically driven producers.
Many simply pay for air time, at rates that typically range from $150 to $200 an hour. Others are able to sell ad time to support their shows, either to local businesses or to out-of-town firms that cater to the right — arms dealers, sellers of survivalist equipment, firms marketing silver and gold bullion and the like. Finally, some hosts simply prepare tapes of shows and send them to radio stations at no charge.
Even without payment or the support of advertisers, stations can successfully use this free programming to build a loyal following and boost their ratings. For instance, Harder, one of the country's most popular Patriot hosts, urges his listeners to contact stations suggesting they use his tapes.
These tactics have enjoyed remarkable success.
"The mainstream media are not reporting the extent to which these media are being used by the far right," Hilliard says. "You can find these stations literally across the country, and there are tremendous numbers of listeners.
"Today, the Internet and the radio are the two most important areas for far-right and extremist viewpoints."
Carla Brooks Johnston is the president of Boston-based New Century Policies, a public policy consulting firm. She has written six books on public policy, the media and social change, of which Global News Access: The Impact of the New Technologies (Praeger, 1998) is the most recent. A former deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Johnston has taught and worked in the public policy field for two decades.