Michael Smerconish is used to talking to people he can’t see.
That wasn’t the plan, though, when the Doylestown native and CNN host set out to mark 30 years in talk radio — he’s on SiriusXM these days — on a 12-city tour that was to kick off with two sold-out shows in May at Philadelphia’s Suzanne Roberts Theater. Then the pandemic hit.
His show, Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking, was ready to go, but the tour was off. “Something said to me, record it, get it in the can now because who knows what the hell is going to happen?” he said last week.
Smerconish called an old friend from Holicong Junior High School, Chris Strand, an independent television producer and director, and arranged to have him film Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking with a masked, socially distanced crew at the otherwise empty Bucks County Playhouse. (Because of the lockdown, the Suzanne Roberts was unavailable, Smerconish said.)
In the show, which ran nearly two hours, he talked about everything from pro wrestling and political polarization to the role that longtime Philadelphia news anchor Larry Kane, whom he first met while delivering chlorine for Kane’s pool, had played in his career. It dated his talk-radio career back to his first appearance on WWDB-FM on May 19, 1990, as “the guest of a guest host, Brian Tierney.”
Smerconish shared a sizzle reel with CNN, where his cable news show Smerconish runs at 9 a.m. Saturdays, and the network decided to run a slimmed-down version of the stage presentation as a one-hour special, premiering 10 p.m. Saturday.
In a phone interview, the author and former Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News columnist talked about the rise of Rush Limbaugh and what it meant for radio, his Instagram-famous tomato plants, and the presets on his car radio.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I get all my talking out of the way on the air. The last thing I want to do is come home and talk politics. I mean, the dinner table is usually a place where we talk about what’s going on in the world. But I’ve had plenty of opportunity to get things off my chest by the time that I’m back at home.
The destructive influence of a polarized media that I’ve had a front row to witness. The 30 years that I have been involved in the business tracks, almost exactly, with the rise of a polarized media. At that time [when he started out] I was surrounded in Philadelphia by people that you’ll remember the names of: Irv Homer and Susan Bray and Dominic Quinn and Bernie Herman. The only thing that mattered then was conversation and making the phones ring. Ideology was no part of the process.
Irv Homer was a libertarian. We didn’t know what that meant. Frank Ford was a doctrinaire liberal, married to [Judge and later District Attorney] Lynne Abraham. And the person that I used to guest host for regularly was Bernie Herman, from 10 to 1, and Bernie’s shtick, his brand, although we didn’t call it that then, is that he was the gentleman of broadcasting.
Every talk radio station in the country used to be a reflection of the local market. When I got started, there was no syndication to speak of. And the rise of Rush Limbaugh in the early ’90s changed the whole dynamic. The final 10 or so minutes of the special is me trying to explain the relationship between the media going in a polarized direction and Washington following lockstep, which I think explains the lack of moderation that exists in D.C. today.
Father Coughlin had a following, but wasn’t part of a national network of people reading from pretty much the same hymnal. I saw it happen in Philadelphia and nationally. Chuck Schwartz, who owned WWDB at that time, took Limbaugh because he feared that someone else would take him and set up a station across town. But I watched as the whole country flipped from local-oriented talk radio to national syndication, where there’s a sameness that didn’t exist before.
Me? I listen to a lot of Howard Stern. If you were to see the presets in my car, it’s all SiriusXM. It’s Howard Stern. It’s the Beatles channel. It’s the Grateful Dead channel. I do have the cable stations, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, all set so that I can find out what everybody is saying. But if it’s me time, mostly Howard.
I use them all, but I use them for different purposes. I use Instagram for personal things. And so what I’m best known for in social media, if anything, is my weekly gardening reports all summer long. And if you go to my Instagram account you can see me planting seeds in my family room, which are now 3-foot-high tomato plants in my backyard, and you can watch the whole genesis of it.
I ran when I was 23. And I lost. I have no regrets about running, and I have no regrets about losing. I knocked on a few thousand doors in Central Bucks in 1986. I was a law student at Penn at the time. And I think I probably learned more knocking on people’s doors running for office than I did in three years of classroom instruction.
There have been changes in the way that I have to deliver things. But I feel very, very fortunate because I’ve been able to keep working. I look at the jobless rate in the country and people who are struggling and my heart breaks for them. We have three sons under our roof who otherwise would be away at school. So that’s been a major change. My heart breaks for the Class of 2020, high school and college, because I’m intimately familiar with how difficult it is for them to get launched.