Wisconsin Employers Expand Reach of Local Talk Radio’s Free-Market Message

Published May 2, 2012

An ad hoc group of Wisconsin business leaders and free-market activists is hoping to prevent the recall of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and other pro-business legislators by spreading Milwaukee and Madison conservative talk radio programs to other parts of the state.

“If you look at southeast Wisconsin, where local conservative talk radio is heard, the area has turned very conservative,” said Orville Seymer of Citizens for Responsible Government, a Milwaukee-based political action group that is working on the effort. “Senator Ron Johnson publicly credits [local hosts] Charlie Sykes and Vicki McKenna with helping him to get elected. Scott Walker gives a lot of credit to Milwaukee and Madison conservative talk radio for his election both as Milwaukee county executive and as governor.”

Citizens for Responsible Government is one of the members of Businesses for Wisconsin Jobs, which has come together to get these talk radio shows heard across the state.

Walker took office last year and infuriated government workers with a labor reform bill that forced them to pay more for pensions and health insurance, limited collective bargaining, and ended automatic withdrawals of union dues from workers’ paychecks. Angry union workers collected enough signatures to force a recall election, scheduled for June 5.

Jerry Bott, director of programming and operations at WISN radio in Milwaukee, said it is no coincidence that in the 2010 gubernatorial election, Walker won by huge margins in southeast Wisconsin, and that, generally, the most conservative members of the state legislature come from the that part of the state

Effect on Opinion

“Hosts on conservative talk radio affect public opinion by making a convincing case that conservative principles are powerful, proper, and effective,” said Bott. “This has an effect on public opinion in areas where conservative talk radio can be heard which, in turn, provides a fertile environment for conservatives seeking public office to be elected.”

In addition to Walker and Johnson, southeast Wisconsin is home to other notable conservative politicians, including Congressmen Paul Ryan (R) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R) and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

“Talk radio has had a very specific impact on who represents the people of southeast Wisconsin,” said John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy President Brett Healy, a close observer of Wisconsin politics for more than 20 years. “If you can get some of these personalities on the local radio for the long term, this will be a great case study to see if it has a discernible effect on local elections and politics” in western and northern Wisconsin.

Recall Reaction

Local conservative talk radio has been a force in southeast Wisconsin for quite some time. So why do this now?

“Recalls,” declared Rob Kiekehefer, managing partner at the Kiekehefer Group, a retirement plan consulting firm and one of the founders of BWJ. He noted last summer’s successful recall of Senator Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse)—retribution for his support of Governor Walker’s Act 10 government labor union reforms.

Fellow BWJ founder Jim Leef, president of Industrial Towel & Uniform, cited the recent iron ore mining bill in northern Wisconsin as his reason for getting involved. The bill’s defeat cost thousands of potential jobs throughout the state.

Also helpful with the BWJ effort was the emergence of an independently produced documentary film called Liberty or Lies? which analyzes  the history and impact of Milwaukee conservative talk radio.

“The documentary is really helping a lot,” said Seymer. “We use it to make the case to stations we’re approaching that this is a very powerful medium.”

Filling a Media Vacuum    
“The absence of conservative talk radio in northern and western Wisconsin leaves a sizable portion of the population under-informed about extremely important issues,” said Leef. “For the overall health of the business community and local economies in Wisconsin, we need voices that are pro-jobs, pro-freedom and pro-lower taxes to be heard.”

“Conservative talk radio strongly supports economic liberty and restraining government from curtailing those liberties through stifling regulation or punitive levels of taxation,” added Bott. “Those principles tend to allow businesses to grow and be profitable. That’s why business likes conservative talk radio.”

“Any pro-business, and/or free market person should welcome the effect of conservative talk radio on the political climate,” said Marquette University Associate Professor of Political Science John McAdams. “While liberals and leftists assume there is a fixed economic pie they can divide up however they want, conservative talk radio insists that the size of the pie is not fixed, that it can be made larger with certain policies, and that when it’s made smaller by bad policies, all sorts of people are hurt, including those the left claims to be very concerned about.”

Likelihood of Success

After only a few weeks, the group has successfully placed WIBA/WISN’s Vicki McKenna Show on WMEQ radio in Eau Claire in west-central Wisconsin and is making inroads with stations in the far western section.

Healy said the inherent fiscal conservatism of Wisconsinites may prove this effort’s key to success.

“When people realize, through the medium of talk radio, all the specific examples of how government at every level is wasting their tax dollars, that’s the power of talk radio.  I think that’s where you see tangible results and changes in public perception in Wisconsin.”

Brien Farley ([email protected]) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.