Inside the Far-right Podcast Ecosystem, Part 4: Far-Right Podcasting, Past and Present
Far-right extremists’ efforts to cultivate a wide network of content creators reveal how long-standing trends in the movement’s embrace of audio propaganda are bound up with the current reliance on a growing number of multimedia platforms.
Since the advent of home radio, far-right extremists have used audio broadcasts to communicate with supporters and inspire on-the-ground organizers to carry out rallies or even attacks. While the technologies favored by far-right extremists have changed considerably through the years, these broadcasts continue to play a no less crucial role in the movement, particularly in connection to cultivating real-world activity. While scholars have paid some attention to far-right podcasts and internet-available audio recordings before them, the networks these mediums have inspired extremists to build are critical to an understanding of the movement’s past, present and future.
This is part four of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report examining 15 years of podcasting data across 18 different shows produced by far-right extremists. While the ideology and style of these shows varied considerably, SPLC’s analysis revealed that this network was crucial in terms of bolstering a cadre of prominent far-right activists, many of whom were critical to the explosion of on-the-ground activity the SPLC and others observed during the Trump era.
The far-right’s long history creating audio propaganda
The use of audio media to transmit hateful ideas is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the use of radio technology to spread hate has roots in extremist movements both in the United States and abroad.
In Nazi Germany, radio was not to be solely an instrument for conveying information, but a force for indoctrination. Joseph Goebbels, just after his 1933 appointment as the Reich Minister of Propaganda, called radio “the chief and major mediator between the Movement and the Nation, between Idea and Man.” He added, “What the press was to the nineteenth century, radio will be to the twentieth.” By 1936, Goebbels bragged that his ministry had “transformed the radio into the sharpest of propaganda weapons ... a tool for ideological education and top-class political force.”
Meanwhile, Charles Edward Coughlin, a Catholic priest known for his staunch antisemitic and anti-socialist views, dominated hate radio in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. His show, “Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower,” blended populist diatribes with overt antisemitic rhetoric. In 1938, Coughlin defended Kristallnacht, a series of Nazi-led pogroms against Germany’s Jewish population, claiming it was retaliation against Jews for their supposed persecution of Christians. In the biography “Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio,” author Donald Warren compares Coughlin’s level of fame to that of movie stars of the day. At the height of Coughlin’s popularity in the 1930s, between 40 and 60% of U.S. households owned a radio, with Coughlin at one point commanding nearly 90 million weekly listeners. Coughlin’s broadcasts inspired the formation of dozens of far-right groups. Among these were the New York City-based Christian Front, whose members participated in rallies organized by the pro-Nazi German American Bund; harassed and attacked New York City Jews; led protests of Jewish-owned businesses; and generally translated Coughlin’s message of hate into action. In January of 1940, police arrested over a dozen men, including some Front members, on allegations that they had conspired to overthrow the U.S. government.
Some scholars have drawn comparisons between Coughlin’s dramatic, bombastic, fear-mongering style and the on-air personalities of later right-wing talk radio celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh. Like Coughlin, Limbaugh inculcated his listeners with an ultra-conservative worldview through his use of specialized language (“dittoheads,” “feminazis,” “Gorbasm”) and even a redefinition of common ideas such as “racism” or “diversity” to better reflect right-wing grievances.
The 1980s and 1990s were also the heyday of “shock jock” and “hot talk” radio formats. These formats encouraged hosts to offend their audiences and push boundaries, though they were not necessarily always political. Popular “shock jocks” — including Howard Stern, Don Imus and the duo Opie and Anthony — took calls from fans, hosted in-studio guests, wrote and performed parody bits, engaged returning casts of characters, and staged contests, pranks, and outlandish stunts in order to retain their mostly male audiences.
Inspired by the success of conservative talk radio and hot talk formats, far-right, anti-government extremists, racists and antisemites were eager to try their hand at radio. However, the advertising and funding requirements of traditional radio stations largely blocked them from the commercial airwaves. Instead, these groups turned to alternative media for novel ways of communicating their message. In the early 1980s, Klansman and Aryan Nations affiliate Louis Beam set up an early computer bulletin board system (BBS) — a predecessor to modern online forums. Beam also broadcast his “Jubilee Radio” program on short-wave radio bands.
Extremists who once embraced short-wave radio and other forms of alternative broadcasting easily made the switch to internet technology in the 1990s. In 1997, David Duke, founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and its youngest ever Grand Wizard (later sanitized to “National Director”), began hosting downloadable recordings of “The David Duke International Internet Radio Show” on his website, The David Duke Report. Duke’s friend and longtime associate Don Black launched Stormfront, a website and discussion forum for white supremacists of all stripes in 1995. Black began posting an array of audio and video files on Stormfront. By mid-2004, the proprietors had begun a series of Stormfront-branded internet radio shows such as “Stormfront Town Hall with David Duke” and later “Stormfront Action Radio.”
Into the modern age
In the mid-2000s, with the introduction of the iPod personal music player and the RSS (“really simple syndication”) system, pre-recorded audio programs, known as “podcasts,” could be regularly downloaded and played by the user at their convenience. Today, 37% of Americans listen to at least one podcast per month, and the average age of listeners is 34, compared to 47 for broadcast radio and 57 for network television viewers.
Modern white supremacist podcasters appeal to this younger audience by modeling their shows after the popular “shock jock” programs of the 1990s while promoting the age-old hate spewed by Duke. The contemporary hate podcast landscape is quick to evolve and change as new formats, new platforms, and new financial incentives are introduced into the marketplace.
From audio to video
“Killstream” and “White Rabbit Radio” exemplify the current trend toward producing live-streamed audiovisual content rather than pre-recorded, audio-only podcasts. Even long-running audio-only shows such as “The Daily Shoah” began recording video content (albeit only available to paid subscribers) in late fall of 2017.
Video streams can be watched live like a traditional radio or television (if there is a video component) broadcast, or they can be replayed later at the user’s convenience, like a podcast. In addition to offering a visual component, many video streaming platforms such as YouTube, Twitch and DLive have also added a live chat feature in which audience members can interact with each other and the performer or performers. Some video streaming sites offer the option to attach a monetary “tip” to a chat comment which provides for an additional level of interaction between the show host and the audience members.
There have been a few studies of these far right-wing celebrity networks. In Rebecca Lewis’ study of far-right content creators on YouTube, she documents the connections between 65 YouTube streamers. Lewis posits that these creators established an "alternative influence" propaganda network that uses celebrity branding techniques to deliver political propaganda. In a 2020 paper, Manoel Horta Ribiero, et al. also looked at far right YouTube channels in their work on radicalization pathways, focusing on how the network of commenters interacts with the content and how they are impacted by recommendation algorithms.
Modern podcasts and video shows differ in their encouragement of and response to audience participation. Many shows maintain Twitter timelines, Facebook pages and groups for fans, and some also have Telegram channels for discussion. Others engage listeners more directly. The Right Stuff network engages listeners through its forum that is accessible only to paid subscribers, as well as through a comment section below each show on its website. Some hosts, such as those from “The Daily Shoah,” occasionally read listener comments or emails during the show. Others make a point of announcing when they receive a donation through email or during a livestream.
The hosts of “The Political Cesspool” take telephone calls and invite users who are in the chat to call and ask questions or even participate as a recurring “friend of the show.” For example, a regular caller known only as “Courtney from Alabama” has been featured on “The Political Cesspool” 12 times between 2013 and 2020.
Paywalls and subscriptions
In order to serve as effective propaganda, extremist podcasts aim to reach the widest possible audience. As a result, they are typically free on a variety of platforms. However, some far-right influencers have also been successful in using podcasts as a source of income. They may do so by generating third-party advertising revenue, by serving as vehicles for hosts to solicit paid donations, or by providing upgraded content to paid subscribers (a “paywall”). Many podcasters in this space – including “The Daily Shoah” – use a hybrid model where they distribute free and subscribers-only content.
Podcasts and video streams have proved to be fruitful for soliciting donations as well. As Hatewatch reported last year, antisemitic white nationalist Fuentes was one of the top earners on the DLive platform, cashing out over $10,000 per month in user donations in return for providing livestreams five nights a week.
Because of the offensive, racist content in these shows, general access podcast-syndication and streaming platforms occasionally remove an individual host or an entire show’s personal or branded account and all its content for violating their terms of service. When this happens, the banned individual or show may switch platforms or may attempt to re-brand themselves to stay on the same platform. Fans or affiliated accounts may also re-post individual show episodes back onto the original platform, sometimes altering the show metadata – data that gives information about a show’s creator or other details platforms can use to justify removing content – to avoid being banned themselves.
The frequent reposting and platform-switching means tracking podcasts and video streams over time becomes more challenging. For example, even if the metadata for a podcast is still available on the original syndication platform (e.g., Podbean, Spreaker, Zencast), the recording itself will most likely be missing. Data is more consistently available for some shows that self-host (e.g., “The Political Cesspool” and “The Daily Shoah”), but show owners can still choose to self-censor episodes, remove episodes entirely or place them behind a paywall at any time.
The ease through with extremists will be able to find platforms that incorporate these technologies may change over time, in large part due to these figures limited access to certain mainstream platforms. Just as they faced backlash in the 1980s, the extremist audio and video broadcasters of today are once again facing increasing scrutiny for their role in enabling violence and spreading hate. Hatewatch anticipates that the next wave of decentralized technologies – cryptocurrencies, the distributed web – will likewise be pressed into service just as shortwave radio and the Internet were in years past.