Thom Hartmann is one of the most recognized voices of progressive talk in the country and probably one of the most intelligent. His weekly show is syndicated by Pacifica and is heard on SiriusXM and terrestrial radio, including KPFK in Los Angeles, the largest FM in the U.S.
His noon-3 p.m. eastern eponymous program features Hartmann’s look at the news of the day from a progressive perspective.
The show was quick to adapt to the pandemic in 2020, having a live set-up for remotes, but Hartmann brought it into his home and upgraded to commercial-grade Internet.
Hartmann returned to the studio after a year, but adds “we’re being very careful.”
Even though his talk show started in 2003, it’s safe to say Hartmann is a radio lifer. He’s been on the air dating back to the late 1960s.
The seed was planted as a child.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got really into electronics,” Hartmann told BNM.
It quickly became more than a hobby for the budding broadcaster, who got a 100-milliwatt transmitter kit. He hooked it up to a turntable in his parent’s living room.
“[I] created a radio station for the five houses nearby where three of my friends lived,” Hartmann said.
By the time he was 13, Hartmann had his ham radio license. Still a teenager, Hartmann’s first radio gig was as a weekend country music disc jockey at WITL in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan. He was just 16 years old, the same age he started college.
Hartmann also took to radio at Michigan State University.
There were a handful of stations in Lansing for Hartmann to “spin the hits.” Eventually, he returned to WITL, evolving to newscasting for the next seven years.
However, in 1978, he left the state and radio to concentrate on a co-owned small business.
“I’ve been a serial entrepreneur,” he said.
Other fields would follow, including founding an advertising firm and launching a travel agency.
Hartmann would find his legendary voice with an op-ed piece in 2003 indicating progressive talk radio was a viable business mode.
“That became the first business plan for Air America radio,” he said. “There were still a lot of skeptics out there and I wanted a proof of concept.”
Living in Vermont at the time, Hartmann got a radio station in Burlington to let him do a couple of hours on Saturdays to test his theory.
“America is 50-50, Democratic, Republican, and talk radio is not an intrinsically or inherently political medium,” he said. “It’s just a tool. It’s neutral.”
Within six months his show was picked up by a national network—now defunct I.E. America Radio—owned by the United Auto Workers in Detroit. More than two dozen stations formed the initial group of affiliates for Hartmann’s broadcast, and Sirius, where he remains to this day.
During his time away from radio, Hartmann started a community for abused children in New Hampshire. His wife Louise spearheaded the project that was “designed to blow up the big institutional model of how children were too badly damaged to foster care,” whose only options were “children’s jails or state mental hospitals,” he said.
That led to a 1978 school for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Hartmann wrote books about psychology, including best sellers on ADHD.
He got himself officially on the roster of psychotherapists in the state of Vermont.
“It was more like a professional credential than a way of making a living,” Hartmann recalled.
Although he supervised the clinical staff, Hartmann said he never practiced as a therapist.
The program lasted into the 21st century.
That love of electronics helped cut corners for Hartmann, who could assemble a studio in his living room for his show in Vermont.
When Air America began, the largest affiliate (KPOJ), located in Portland, Oregon, asked if he’d do the national show there and a local morning show specifically for them.
His youngest daughter had already moved to Oregon, so, Thom and Louise moved and were joined by all of their children. Hartmann still broadcasts from Portland.
While liberal radio is not the prevailing popular choice among the masses, some on the left side have broken through. Alan Berg was one Denver host, heard on KOA and across 29 stations. He was murdered in 1984 by a neo-Nazi, the basis for the film Talk Radio.
Michael Jackson, who died earlier this month, also found success with his liberal views.
“Progressive radio has deep roots,” Hartmann said. “It has been around a long time, but nobody had really done it nationally like [Rush] Limbaugh had.”
Time for TV
Although Hartmann would be part of the Air America lineup, “I never chose to be an employee. I always owned my own show.”
Hartmann hosted a daily, one-hour program, The Big Picture. He took it to Washington for the RT news network when Barack Obama went to the White House. The international broadcaster also hired Larry King and Ed Schultz to build a quality television network.
But when Donald Trump got elected, RT, formerly known as Russia Today, took an active role in supporting the new president.
“The summer of 2017 I exercised a 90-day early termination clause in my contract and went back home to Portland,” Hartmann said. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot about doing TV from it.”
His radio show does continue to simulcast on TV through Free Speech TV on Dish Network, DirectTV and numerous cable systems.
“Probably between one third and one half of my calls are coming from Free Speech TV and YouTube,” Hartmann said.
His show is not currently heard in New York City, although he was on WBAI in the past.
But with internal strife at WBAI, Hartmann said the station has “devolved into a disaster scenario.”
Despite being a leading progressive talker, the country’s airwaves are predominantly filled with right-wing narratives.
Hartmann pointed to President Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act in 1996, lifting the cap of stations by an owner.
Clear Channel and Cumulus grew exponentially following the government’s ruling.
“Ownership of these stations was pretty overtly conservative,” Hartmann said.
Beyond that, the longtime progressive host has seen it firsthand: “Radio, as a whole, is a very conservative industry.”
He said that does not refer to politics, but the cautious nature within the business.
“No program director ever got fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air,” Hartmann said. “When something’s a winner, everybody wants to jump on it. But nobody wants to take chances, and nobody wants to be the outlier.”
Radio faces a challenge from online platforms and podcasting becomes a more accessible option for listeners to find their content.
But Hartmann isn’t worried about the future of his beloved business.
“Most radio is consumed in people’s cars,” he said. “Radio is still alive, well and strong in rural parts of America, and in cities where you have long commutes.”
However, in the smaller towns where people aren’t staying in vehicles for long stretches, “radio’s dying,” he said.
Not only does Hartmann welcome listeners and guests from the other side of the aisle, he
encourages it, but admitted it is getting harder to find conservatives to engage in debate.
“It’s damn near impossible,” he said.
As for right-wing-slanted callers, Hartmann doesn’t shy away from them either.
“If a conservative caller calls into the show, someone wants to disagree with me about something, they go to the front of the line,” he said.
As a ratings ploy, Hartmann said those interactions are the drama listeners enjoy.
“But people aren’t really fully informed about an issue until they’ve heard a couple of different sides of it,” Hartmann said.
Prior to the pandemic, Hartmann would make it a point to listen to his conservative brethren.
“I loved to listen to Michael Savage and Mark Levin. I listened to Limbaugh for years,” he said. “I’m a big fan of talk radio. I also learn from it. Not just politics; a lot of my radio technique I learned from listening to Limbaugh and Michael Savage, in particular, who, in terms of politics, he’s nuts, but in terms of radio he’s a genius.”
Thom Hartmann Program
Hartmann has used their template for creating his host-driven show, building a relationship with the listeners by sharing his opinions each day.
He typically highlights the top handful of topics and a 10–15-minute rant with as much information and his views will follow. Hartmann will then take as many calls as necessary on the given topic, usually resetting at the top or bottom of the hour.
“We keep the whole thing fairly tightly focused,” Hartmann said. “My show’s only as good as the host.”
Hartmann said liberal hosts need to move away from just doing interview radio, because host-driven is “the most popular medium,” and doing it effectively means “willing to be absolutely honest with your audience and yourself.”
It was Hartmann’s first mentor, Chuck Mefford, former owner at WITL, who told his protégé, “In radio, when you open that microphone there’s only one person on the other side.”
But on the same side, listeners will find Randy Rhodes and Stephanie Miller are among the other progressive stars. Still, Hartmann knows his competition comes from conservative talkers.
“Frankly, I think most people, if they listen to good talk radio, can really get into it,” Hartmann said. “It’s just there’s not that much good talk radio out there anymore. Now a lot of it is just screaming and yelling.”
Hartmann’s midday slot is also home to Buck Sexton and Clay Travis for Premiere Networks, and Dan Bongino on Westwood One.
“I used to debate [Bongino] almost every week when I was in D.C. But not anymore,” Hartmann laughed. “He’s a big deal now.”
He doesn’t think the loss of Limbaugh will make a difference in his audience. Instead, he’s certain the Trump presidency had a better impact. Show hosts historically perform better when an opposing party is in office, acting as the de facto foe.
Hartmann, though, has no problem criticizing a Democrat, including the 46th president.
“I will criticize Joe Biden when I think he’s doing something wrong or stupid,” he said.
Like Biden, Hartmann is a septuagenarian, but has no plans of retiring.
“I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m not that old yet. My brain still works really well,” he said. “I think engaging in the scrum on a daily basis is one of the things that keeps it working.”
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.
Where Is the Good Stuff?
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies.
A couple of stories about bears actually brought me to this declamation of sorts.
What you’ll see (or read, actually) is nothing new and certainly not any type of original complaint or assessment, but as I spend my days digging, crafting, and stacking stories on double homicides, house fires, high gas prices, and low voter turnout, it’s becoming that much more difficult to balance out a newscast with the good stuff.
By the “good stuff, I’m not even referring necessarily to the happy or “feel good” tales of human kindness, child wonderment, or cute puppies. I’m really just talking about the low end of the meter things; an innocuous bill passing, a road-widening project, or maybe even an upgrade in consumer technology somewhere.
We all realize if a show rattles off an unending laundry list of death, destruction, corruption, and high pollen counts, the only winners are therapists, pharmacies, and liquor stores. But it’s no longer as easy as it once was; I mean, I may be overstating for dramatic effect, but at the end of the day, it really does seem like not only are there fewer accounts to raise the serotonin levels, but those we do find cannot sufficiently dilute those newscasts from their continual tales of woe.
To expand my point, I return to the bears.
Over the years, I have come to count on bears, and for a good reason. Most bear content consists of the giant creatures, often with their youngsters in tow, doing things we find cute, intriguing, thought-provoking, and/or hilarious.
If you have never seen a giant black bear rumbling around inside an SUV they’ve just illegally entered or busting into someone’s kitchen and raiding the pantry or the garbage shed, can you even say you have truly lived?
Well, the short answer is you probably can, but I’m the one on the keyboard at the moment, so roll with it for now.
True, those stories often come at the expense of some weary camper, homeowner, or utility worker, but for the audience, it’s generally rejuvenating, even medicinal. A simple Google or social media search will lead you to an overflow of the best of bears in news content. Therefore, as you will see…they trend.
But here’s what has happened of late to turn those stories in a downward direction. Here, in this part of New England, our news stories about bears recently have revolved around them being killed. They destroy some crops or a garden and move on towards somebody’s house, and they get shot. They break into a shed and don’t run off; they get shot. They are euthanized; their cubs get tranquilized for relocation and then don’t wake up. It’s certainly a shift.
Suddenly, we are back to where we started with our content. What was once a sure thing is now added to the dark category of story selection. Still, it is often viable content because it’s a pro and con topic; it has angles and follow-up potential.
Now know this; I am not proposing a referendum involving bears, but rather just offering a long-winded metaphor of sorts.
We do not know when the time-tested default stories are going to turn on us. I do think it will usually happen when our backs are turned. That probably means the digging we do has gone even more profound than before. We cannot always count for all those elements in a story to be out in the open.
Like most of us, I read or at least do a hard scan of a lot of reports, releases, summaries, and everyone else’s take on what’s happening. Fortunately, I can sometimes find fundamental components dropped down further than they ought to be or not allotted enough attention due to time or space constraints.
In police work, these obscure details would often lead to another suspect, another criminal charge, or even an exoneration or a new investigation.
I find little difference in this present position:
A hi-rise building fire is brought under control when the alarm’s sprinkler system douses much of the flames just as fire crews arrive. Now, that’s great, but there’s a bit more upon looking a little deeper.
The sprinklers knocked out the elevators, and firefighters carried a disabled burn victim down 14 flights of stairs.
Part of their job?
Sure, but worth peeling the layers off that onion.
Drivers going the wrong way is another big thing around here. On the interstates, the highways, the local roadways, it’s happening a lot and often, as you might guess, with tragic results. So a driver is taken into custody after going the opposite way on not one but two different thoroughfares within like fifteen minutes.
Good story, good arrest, good write-up.
How did they catch the wrong-way driver?
The trooper turned directly into the driver’s path and took the crash impact to stop him.
Where did we that aspect of the incident?
Paragraph four or three-quarters through the stand-up.
Now, of course, all coverage and treatment of stories is subjective, and the intent here is merely for me to find a way to say I’m not seeing enough or finding enough “good stuff” to balance out my newscast, so I am going to loot and gut everything I can when necessary.
And that’s just on the local side. Do not get me started on the national beat.
I hope it’s not that people are starting to slip on their quota of good deeds, but it has forced me to think and work just a little harder.
It’s disappointing when I cannot even count on the bears anymore.