A change in the air

Charlie Sykes posted this on the Right Wisconsin website, “powered by Charlie Sykes”:

This morning, I announced that I am stepping down from my daily radio show on WTMJ at the end of this year:

“It has been both a pleasure and honor to work here,” said Sykes. “It has been an extraordinary privilege to be a part of the momentous changes that have taken place in Wisconsin over the last two decades. This is not a decision that I made either lightly or recently and it was not driven by this year’s political season. I made this decision more than a year ago for both professional and very personal reasons. My father died when he was 63, and I will turn 62 this year, so this year has always been circled on my calendar. Frankly, if I was ever going to make a move, it was now. While I am stepping back from my daily radio duties I intend to remain an active voice. I want to write more, travel more and pursue new opportunities.”

I know that lot of people will assume that my decision has something to do with this current campaign and the rise of Trumpism. But, the reality (as my friends and family know) is that I made this decision a long time ago. Twenty-three years is a long time to do a radio show and most hosts don’t get to go out on their own terms. So I’m lucky to have had that chance.

But it would also be fair to say that this campaign has made the decision easier. The conservative movement has been badly damaged; obviously the conservative media is broken as well. So this is a good time for step back, sit down for a while, and ask “What the hell just happened here?” …
I intend to continue to write and edit RightWisconsin.com and remain editor of Wisconsin Interest Magazine. And I plan to spend much of the next year working on a book about the crackup of the conservative movement. My working title is “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”

I’ll have more to say later about my other plans. But I keep thinking of what my one of my early mentors said when I asked what he planned to do after retirement.

“I plan to sit on a rocking chair on my front porch,” he said. “After a couple of weeks, I plan to start rocking. Slowly.”

That sounds like a plan.

What are Sykes’ “other plans”? The Wisconsin State Journal reports:

When Wisconsin conservative radio host Charlie Sykes made the surprise announcement this week that he would depart his radio show at year’s end, theories sprung up on why and what’s next for him.

Sykes batted away one of them Wednesday: that he’s mulling a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018.

This week Robert Kraig -— in a post to the website of the liberal group he directs, Citizen Action of Wisconsin — floated the prospect of a Sykes Senate run as “the hot rumor in Republican political circles.” Kraig is not the only person to share that suggestion with Wisconsin political reporters in recent weeks.

Baldwin’s first U.S. Senate term is up in two years, and there likely will be plenty of Republicans vying to challenge her.

But Sykes told the Wisconsin State Journal he won’t be one of them. He called the idea “ludicrous conspiracy mongering from the depths of the left wing fever swamps.”

“My interest in running for anything is subzero,” Sykes said. …

Kraig, in his post, suggested Sykes might be distancing himself from Trump — who polls show is not viewed favorably in Wisconsin and elsewhere — and his own past controversial statements to launch his own run for office.”

We can’t let Charlie Sykes run away from his right-wing radio past if he runs against Tammy in 2018,” Kraig wrote.

Readers know I’ve appeared on his “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” back when I was a Northeast Wisconsin pundit and we had the same employer:

For some reason I look 25 percent larger than everyone on set on this show. The smaller people are (from left) Jeff Fleming, Mikel Holt, Sykes and … I’m not sure.

And after one show, where I had to bring our sons along (mom and sister were on a girls-weekend-away thing) …

… they got their photo on the TMJ4 news set.

Sykes’ WTMJ show started in 1993, when conservatism wasn’t doing very well nationally, given the election of Bill Clinton and (re)election of a Democrat-controlled Congress. Wisconsin had Gov. Tommy Thompson and a Republican-controlled Senate, but Democrat-controlled Assembly. Sykes previously had substituted for WISN radio’s Mark Belling, who had come there in 1989 from the former WTDY radio in Madison. (Belling in turn sometimes subs for Rush Limbaugh, whose show precedes Belling’s on WISN.)

While Belling has been around longer, Sykes has had far more influence, to the point of being the object of the so-called “Sykes effect,” his influence over Republican legislators whose constituents listen to WTMJ. Sykes also has authored several books that have gotten him national attention in the commentariat, particularly about education. WISN’s owners didn’t create a website for Belling; WTMJ’s owners did, Right Wisconsin.

To say the least, a lot of water has gone under the political bridge since 1993, including Clinton, the 1994 Demodisaster, the Brewers’ stadium deal, Rep. Scott Walker’s election as Milwaukee County executive, the rise of Paul Ryan through the House of Representatives, Hillary Clinton, the month-long election of George W. Bush, 9/11, James Doyle, the caucus scandal, the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s election, the rise of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the election of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker as governor in the 2010 Demodisaster, the rise of Ron Johnson and fall of Russ Feingold the phony maverick, the Act 10 debate and Recallarama, the John Doe persecution, the Obama Recovery In Name Only, Walker’s brief run for president, and now this traveshamockery of a presidential election.

Sykes has presented a mostly consistent conservative/libertarian point of view all this time (in fact, in the 1990s Sykes identified himself as a small-L libertarian) while generating enough listeners to generate enough advertising revenue for his employers. His detractors claim his three marriages (the second to one of Trump’s supposed Supreme Court candidates, if you can trust Trump, who himself is on his third marriage) as not representing family values. Of course, libertarians value privacy, and divorcing your spouse is, I guess, more honest than, say, Bill Clinton and his chronic bimbo eruptions, aided and abetted by his “wife,” the current Democratic presidential candidate. He has also represented one of the poles of the Wisconsin GOP, suburban Milwaukee, which figures as a Milwaukee talk show host. (Green Bay’s Jerry Bader represents another pole, northeastern Wisconsin; of the talk radio Big Four, Vicki McKenna, in the bowels of the People’s Republic of Madison, would seem to have the hardest job.)

I wrote “mostly consistent.” The maxim of politics making for strange bedfellows applies to talk radio too. Sykes strayed from the small-government thing by supporting the five-county sales tax for Miller Park under the premise that Milwaukee would suffer if the Brewers left. Sykes supported then-U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett (D-Milwaukee) for Milwaukee mayor against Marvin Pratt, the city council president who became mayor after John Norquist resigned. (Norquist was right about school choice, and for a Democrat he had more appreciation for markets than any Milwaukee mayor before or since then.) Sykes also treated Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dick Leinenkugel a bit harshly because Leinenkugel had served as Doyle’s secretary of commerce.

Sykes’ job (as well as the jobs of Belling, Bader and McKenna, and for that matter Limbaugh) drives Wisconsin liberals nuts. They are under the impression that the broadcast media’s job is to present their point of view — I mean, present someone’s definition of “both” points of view — instead of making money for their owners. (Because media outlets are businesses first, believe it or don’t. The airwaves as a public trust stopped mattering when Internet access became widespread.) If Sykes didn’t make money for WTMJ’s owner, Sykes would have been fired long ago. Sykes brought in listeners who were not merely conservativish, but had desirable demographics, such as income and disposable income. There is basically one local (that is, non-nationally syndicated) liberal talk show host on commercial radio. That fact and the collapse of previous liberal talk radio attempts (including hosts who followed Sykes on WTMJ) prove that, until ratings and ad revenue say otherwise, conservative talk radio isn’t going anywhere.

Sykes also has drawn considerable heat from conservatives who should know better for Sykes’ opposition to Trump the non-Republican and non-conservative, which (along with the opposition of Belling, Bader and McKenna) had something to do with Trump’s loss to Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin GOP primary. Given the fact that not a day goes by without Trump’s saying something ridiculously embarrassing (for instance, Trump’s appearance on Sykes’ show), Sykes is right, and Trump’s conservative supporters are mistaken. (For one thing, as you know, the Trump conservatives support is not a real person.) Sykes appears more committed to Republican victory than some Republicans do, given the unlikelihood of Trump’s getting elected and the real possibility of Trump’s loss dragging down other Republicans with him.

Sykes’ radio show was probably self-selecting in audience, but his TV show has given non-conservatives a voice, most consistently Holt, who supports school choice because he has seen for decades how bad Milwaukee Public Schools is. He also gave me a chance to appear, and it always amazed me that people would tell me they watched me.

Sykes, and not Bill Gates, also authored this list in his Dumbing Down Our Kids:

Rule 1: Life is not fair, get used to it.
Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.
Rule 3: You will not make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice president with a car phone until you earn both.
Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn’t have tenure.
Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping; they called it opportunity.
Rule 6: If you screw up, it’s not your parents’ fault so don’t whine about your mistakes. Learn from them.Rule 7: Before you were born your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way paying bills, cleaning your room, and listening to you tell them how idealistic you are. So before you save the rain forest from the blood-sucking parasites of your parents’ generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.
Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades, they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This, of course, bears not the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.
Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off, and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself.  Do that on your own time.
Rule 10: Television is not real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.
Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one…

No one is irreplaceable in the media, except for Paul Harvey. Sykes said he won’t miss getting up at 4:15 a.m. before his 8:30 a.m. show. Sykes and I both worked for Journal Communications, which formerly owned the state’s biggest newspaper, single 50,000-watt radio station and oldest commercial TV station, but no more. (And I’ll always be grateful to Sykes for reaching out after Journal Communications terminated Marketplace.) Vin Scully announced Dodger baseball for 67 years, but no more.

Sykes may think that his job isn’t as fun as it used to be. (See the aforementioned 4:15 a.m. wake-up call.) He has done considerable writing over the years, and obviously plans on continuing that. Those of us in the media work in an environment that is continuously and unpredictably changing, which includes people who think they can do our jobs while lacking the training, experience, initiative and willingness to actually do the work. Politics is like sports in that it has winners and losers, but the political season never ends.

Sykes also has publicly pondered the role of conservative talk radio in promoting, mostly by accident, Trump. The Christian Science Monitor recently profiled Sykes:

For Sykes, the conservative media’s disdain for “liberal” truths – the “monster” – allowed Trump to crash the GOP party and claim its mantle. He says his own listeners, like “Steve from the north side,” refuse to read conservative columnists in The New York Times because they prefer online sources that traffic in lurid allegations about the other side, just as Trump imbibes conspiracies and rumors and fashions them into a 24/7 media spectacle that can seem immune to fact-checking.
“This is the shock of 2016. You look around and you see how much of the conservative media infrastructure buys into the post-factual, post-truth culture…. I understand that we are advocates and defenders, but when do you veer off into pure raw propaganda?” he asks.
One of Sykes’s biggest beefs with Trump is that his views on race and gender have confirmed all the stereotypes applied by liberals to conservative politicians and made it even harder for future GOP leaders to broaden the party’s appeal among minorities. His other complaints about Trump are familiar ones: unqualified and intemperate, inconsistent on issues like abortion and gun control, shaky on constitutional principles.
Sykes refuses to consider Trump as the lesser of two evils for the job as president, as so many fellow Republicans have done in recent months. “It’s painful for me to listen to conservative media folks who think it’s their job to rationalize and justify everything that he says,” he gripes.
Sykes’ departure from daily radio will certainly be the end of an era. Replacing Sykes — assuming WTMJ wants to keep going in that direction — won’t be easy for either WTMJ or for Sykes’ replacement, particularly in the wreckage of the post-2016 election.
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