“People need to recognize that with their entertainment choices come consequences,” Smerconish is saying. “And if you’re only going to get your news and information from one outlet or one grouping of outlets and make judgments based on it, that’s going to have consequences for the country, and they’re not going to be good.”
We’re sitting in an upscale restaurant near Smerconish’s Main Line studio, and we have a little game going on. I tell him he should take a break from talking so he can have a bite. He agrees, so I turn off my recorder. Then, after a bite or two, he starts talking again, so I hit the record button. And so on.
“One of the ironies is that we’re living in a time when we’ve never had so much choice,” he adds. “And yet people are gravitating only toward the likeminded. I don’t understand that. I want to hear all perspectives! And shame on me if I go on the air plugged into the Times editorial page only, without knowing what National Review—or The Wall Street Journal would be a better example—is saying.”
Being well read and informed, he says, is one key to being a good talk-show host. Another is being a good listener—and on the rare occasions that I’m doing the talking, I have the odd sensation that his penetrating blue eyes are pulling mine out of their sockets. The third is an ability to “conduct a conversation.”
Smerconish left the terrestrial realms of AM radio this past April, partly because there wasn’t as much of a real conversation as he would have liked, even though he was syndicated on 80 stations across the country and got plenty of phone calls. While 80 stations is not Limbaugh or Hannity territory, it’s nothing to sneeze at. But Smerconish was getting restless.
“Those 80 stations were very, very similar to one another, and they all had a decided ideological approach and bent that I didn’t share,” he says. “I would like to think that what I’m putting on most days is some independent thought. I’m not there to indoctrinate. I’m not even there to convince you that I’m necessarily right. I’m there to entertain you with headlines, definitely to offer you a perspective, but not to change your mind, necessarily.”
“I think he might have been too good for this world in terms of the mud-wrestling arena that the AM talk-radio caricature has become. It seems to be imploding,” says Holland Cooke, a Rhode Island-based radio consultant. “A couple of things doomed Michael from attaining A-tier status on AM and FM. The one that he has the least control over was that the Holy Trinity of Beck, Limbaugh, and Hannity had the biggest stations tied up. So he was doomed to [mostly] B-tier signals.
“What limited him is that he’s reasonable,” Cooke adds. “And reasonable doesn’t conform to the Holy Trinity songbook. He does see both sides of an issue. Those guys throw lit matches at a microphone for a living. Michael really wants to get to the heart of the matter.”
Smerconish says that while he was proud of the way he had grown his AM program, he was concerned about where he could take it. “And at that time SiriusXM came to me and said, ‘We think you’d be a really good fit for the way in which we want to rebrand the POTUS channel.’”
Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM’s president and chief content officer, basically confirms that account.
“Michael has a distinctive, powerful voice, and those are the kinds of people we want at SiriusXM,” Greenstein says. “He was a star in terrestrial radio, which was attractive, but more so, we saw that he was the kind of talent who could go even further on satellite radio, and we are going to take him there.”
Smerconish is more than just a gifted talk-show host, though that gift is hardly an insignificant one. He is a regular substitute host for Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball (having subbed for Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck before that), and writes a weekly syndicated column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has also written five books: Murdered by Mumia (co-written with Maureen Faulkner, the widow of murdered Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner); Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post-9/11; Muzzled: From T-Ball to Terrorism; the autobiographical Morning Drive: Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Talking; and Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the Twentieth Hijacker.
Trained as a lawyer and steeped in politics, Smerconish is very much at home in the rapid-response world of hardball politics. Though his energy is controlled, he brings an almost frightening amount of it to his work, along with a boundless curiosity about the world and ideas, a junkie’s attraction to politics, and a storyteller’s gift for finding fresh angles.
He’s also a smart-mouth who can be “a tremendous pain in the ass,” as Scornavacchi puts it. When she waxed indignant on the air over the Luntz incident, for example, Smerconish snarked: “I appreciate your faux outrage.” (Asked about that later, she exudes sisterly exasperation: “What is wrong with him?” A bit of bickering helps keep things lively.) He’s certainly not lacking in nerve; four years ago he posed buck-naked for a Philadelphia magazine profile—though the photo, shot from behind as he stood arms akimbo looking into foggy woods, made him look like a hairless alien contemplating his new surroundings.
Smerconish pushes his staff hard, though Scornavacchi says he never asks anyone to do more than he would. His intellectual energy and restlessness have probably kept him from settling into a comfortable rut. Politically, he’s very much a mixed bag, having veered from the fairly far Right to somewhere around the Center, even if his detractors would say that he’s gone over to the Obama Left. He’ll blast a Mumia supporter on one show, and vigorously defend Eric Holder on the NSA’s surveillance program the next. Until 2008 he had only supported Republican presidential candidates, and he’s still a gun owner who believes in the death penalty, supports ethnic profiling in airports, and thinks harsh interrogation should be available in the cases where it can save lives. But he’s also pro-choice, would like to see pot and prostitution legalized, and supports same-sex marriage and other gay rights. The one constant about Michael Smerconish is that you never know where he’s going to pop up next.