On Jan. 4, two days before a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, the conservative activist and radio host Charlie Kirk tweeted that he had helped send “80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president.” He deleted the tweet after the march on the Capitol turned violent, resulting in the deaths of five people.
The Charlie Kirk Show is carried on Salem Radio Network, which is part of Salem Media Group, a Camarillo-based conservative broadcaster and publisher. In addition to Kirk, the radio network airs Trump-friendly shows from Hugh Hewitt, Sebastian Gorka, Dennis Prager, Larry Elder and Eric Metaxas.
They aren’t as well-known as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, but two researchers at the University of Washington’s Election Integrity Project say those Salem radio hosts are “repeat offenders” when it comes to election-related misinformation.
The Jan. 6 riot underscores the dilemma that conservative networks like Salem face in a post-Trump world. They need to keep up their harsh attacks on liberals to connect with their audiences, but they also must be quick to delete inflammatory posts or comments or face political or advertiser backlashes. It is a difficult balancing act, especially for a publicly traded company whose radio licenses are federally regulated.
Executives from Salem Media Group did not reply to emails and a phone call requesting an interview for this article.
The misinformation that contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was the idea that the election was somehow stolen from Trump, said the University of Washington researchers, Melinda McClure Haughey and Ian Kennedy.
They have been tracking social media, not radio, so they haven’t studied the Salem hosts’ on-air statements, but they said the hosts, particularly Kirk and Gorka, have used Twitter to cast doubt on Biden’s victory.
Salem also owns the websites RedState and Townhall, as well as a number of Christian and secular conservative radio stations and a book publishing imprint, Regnery.
The attack on the Capitol was planned largely on social media, not on news and commentary sites like the ones Salem owns. And RedState and Townhall, while they have a clearly conservative point of view, are generally factual and don’t traffic in overt conspiracy theories, Haughey and Kennedy said.
Townhall shows up only once in the Election Integrity Project’s database on misinformation, he said, and RedState not at all.
But before Jan. 6, the two sites were still full of news that Haughey called “conspiracy adjacent” or “conspiracy lite.” They weren’t alleging some intricate conspiracy to hack voting machines, but they were often treating the results of the election as an open question.
“There are these conspiracy theories that will always exist in the fringe area of the internet, but the concern is where there’s this bridge between the conspiracy theories and the general public,” Haughey said.
While the Salem properties may have occasionally repeated misinformation, Kennedy said, “they haven’t repeated calls for insurrection or anything.”
In one instance, RedState fully retracted a column that claimed, in its headline, “There was no riot, insurrection, or ‘storming’!” It was written by contributor Mike Ford and published the morning of Jan. 11, then taken down shortly afterward, with a note that said “we regret its publication.”
A full retraction “takes a little bit of integrity,” Haughey said. “That’s more than a lot of people would do.”
It was the second such retraction. On Jan. 7, RedState retracted a column that claimed the “Capitol protest” is what happens “when institutions fail and people have had enough,” said Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. who studies conservative media and saw the story while it was still online.
Braddock, like the University of Washington researchers, considers Salem properties to be “adjacent” to conspiracy theorizing.
“It’s pretty clear that the impetus behind Jan. 6 was people’s beliefs that the election was fraudulent,” Braddock said. “If you go back before Jan. 6 on RedState, there’s commentary that supports the assertion that the election was fraudulent.”
Some media companies faced a reckoning in the days after Jan. 6. At Cumulus Media, a top executive told the company’s hosts that they would be fired if they continued to call the legitimacy of Biden’s victory into question, the Washington Post reported.
A similar move at Salem is unlikely, said Michael Kupinski, an analyst with Noble Capital Markets who covers Salem.
Cumulus is a larger company that owns music, sports and apolitical news stations in addition to conservative talk stations, so it has to worry about offending segments of its audience. Salem, on the other hand, has a portfolio made up entirely of Christian or politically conservative media.
“Salem is very smart about talking to their audience,” Kupinski said. “Cumulus is a different animal when you talk about its audience. … Democrats boycotting Salem stations would maybe have a positive effect.”
Kupinksi said he doesn’t think the events of Jan. 6 will have a lasting effect on Salem.
The Biden administration might tighten the rules on acquisitions of radio stations, but even that might not mean much. That’s because the thing that holds Salem back from more acquisitions is its debt, not regulations.
“Salem’s debt leverage is high relative to many of its broadcast peers, at over 7 times debt to estimated 2021 cash flow,” or $213 million in debt, Kupinski wrote in a report released in November.
Still, he is high on the company, with a price target of $2.25 for the stock. It closed at $1.42 on Jan. 12, up 36.5% since Jan. 1.
“Their top radio hosts, their stature among conservatives is pretty high. They have a large audience and I believe that audience will continue to grow,” Kupinksi said. “If there is an impact from this, it’s going to be temporary.”