NEWARK, N.J. — In an era of talk radio defined by the loudest, most outrageous voices, businessman-philanthropist Howard Jonas is betting on the notion that there is a space on the airwaves for a more thoughtful approach to conservative ideas.
Jonas, chairman and founder of IDT Corporation, unveiled his vision for a more polite brand of talk radio last month on WMET, 1160 AM in Washington. Owned by Jonas’s company, the station boasts a full roster of right-leaning pundits and is serving as a launching pad for his dream of building a national network of conservative radio stations.
The burgeoning broadcast mogul is putting the considerable resources of IDT, the telecommunications company that has made him millions — mostly with cheap calling cards and phone service — behind the venture. So far, IDT has made serious bids to buy radio stations in New York and San Francisco, among other cities.
“The problem,” Jonas said during an interview last week at IDT’s headquarters in downtown Newark, “is that I have no choice but to listen to [National Public Radio] even though it’s full of pro-Palestinian propaganda, anti-Americanism and is definitely socialist in its outlook.”
Jonas said he respects the success of “shock jocks” and conservative talk hosts who are broadcasting now, but, he said, “anybody who listens to Rush [Limbaugh] or Howard Stern is either unintelligent or needs to turn off their intelligence during the time they’re listening.”
In his work for Republican and Orthodox Jewish causes, Jonas has not been known for holding his tongue, and it has landed him in trouble before. On his radio stations, however, Jonas is looking for restrained, civil discourse. WMET has done a massive advertising campaign in television and newspapers, promising programming that is “engaging, not raging.”
The morning programming, for instance, is hosted by a highly partisan, but polite, former adviser to Ronald Reagan, Linda Chavez. One recent morning, Chavez had a cheerful discussion with a Democratic commentator in which she admitted that during the presidential debates, “I was rooting for my guy, but was quite impressed and respectful of the job John Kerry did.”
For Jonas, who served as vice chair of the recent Republican National Convention, the guy is unquestionably President Bush. But Jonas is perhaps best known for his philanthropic efforts in the Orthodox Jewish world — and his new radio station reflects that milieu.
The 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. spot on WMET is filled by Shmuley Boteach, the controversial Orthodox rabbi and relationship guru. Like Jonas, the programming manager of WMET, Jerrold Rapaport, is an Orthodox Jew. Mezuzahs grace every door at the nascent radio network’s headquarters at the IDT offices in Newark.
“We are not ashamed of values,” Jonas said. “They are going to come out.”
WMET comes into being at a particularly contentious and competitive moment in the radio world. The left-wing answer to conservative talk radio, Air America, featuring comedian Al Franken and other liberal hosts, was launched earlier this year, and is fighting an uphill battle to find listeners or available stations in an industry controlled by a few conglomerates. All broadcasters were jolted a few weeks ago when the most popular “shock jock,” Howard Stern, announced he will be jumping to a satellite radio station, a development that many observers believe will lead the move away from traditional broadcast radio on the FM and AM dial.
Radio insiders said Jonas has a tough job cut out for him. “There’s a lot of competition in talk, and there’s a lot of people who try it,” said Robert Unmacht, a partner with iN3 Partners, a media consulting firm. “History has shown us a lot of failed talk networks.”
Radio ratings only appear four times a year, so observers will have to wait until January to evaluate WMET’s first few months.
Even if the station does well in Washington, which has proved to be a poor market for talk radio, nationally Jonas faces several major hurdles, including the dearth of radio stations up for sale.
Still, Unmacht, who has been watching the developments at WMET, says the station’s more serious problem will be finding listeners with a format that is, by its own marketing campaign, not designed to be too stimulating.
“He’s going to have to come up with a more exciting lineup of characters,” Unmacht said. “Viewpoints come second. First you have to find someone people want to listen to.”
Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, a trade publication, acknowledged all these difficulties, but he said that Jonas and WMET have the strength of a coherent philosophy and “the bank roll” to make things happen. “They’re very clearly motivated to keep doing what they’re doing,” Taylor said. “It’s not just a money-making proposition.”
Jonas already has demonstrated patience in transforming WMET from a 1,000-Watt station into a 50,000-Watt station, allowing it to reach Baltimore. The process required IDT to take part in a lengthy two-year approval process with the Federal Communications Commission that cost more than $1 million.
Radio is only the latest media venture at IDT, which Jonas founded when he was 33 and grew into the $1.2 billion behemoth it is today. IDT still makes the bulk of its money from phone cards, but today the company also has divisions dedicated to animated features, television and radio.
Jonas is a good friend of evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson. The two entered into a joint venture earlier this year to provide value-laden television programming for children. The IDT chairman is also in the process of starting a new entertainment network with Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp.
Still, Jonas eschews television in his private life and has an evident antipathy for the medium. Radio is his medium of choice, and his ideas for WMET were fueled in large part by the listening he does during his 35-minute commute to work each day.
“I believe that radio works on the imagination, unlike television,” Jonas said with his distinctive, laconic intonation. “There’s an opportunity for intelligent conversation that is not limited by time.”
Because of the lower overhead involved in radio, Jonas said, it is also commercially an easier medium in which to develop an untested new product like WMET.
Jonas’s staff has been developing IDT’s programming philosophy and business plan for the last five years. In 2000, IDT purchased a broadcasting company, Talk America Radio Network, which had the syndication rights to a number of radio personalities, though no radio stations. But Talk America, which was later renamed Liberty Broadcasting, was a “dumbed-down network,” according to Jonas, and he said IDT is currently in the process of selling it.
They will keep some of the personalities from Liberty for WMET, but they are also working to develop a new stable of shows, and there are plans to syndicate the successful ones.
The editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine, William Kristol, currently supplies a news analysis each day called “The Daily Agenda,” and Rapaport, the head of IDT’s radio projects, is developing an hour-long Sunday show for Kristol that will debut in the next few months. Kristol’s show will be heard immediately after another new hour-long show currently in the works, featuring conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. Both Kristol and Krauthammer are regulars on the Fox News Channel, the conservative cable television news powerhouse.
With all their programming Rapaport told the Forward, IDT is aiming for “the huge sweet spot in the middle,” that Jonas and Rapaport believe lies between National Public Radio on one side, and the barking hosts on the right.
IDT, however, is not the only one trying to carve out this alternative: Salem Radio Network, a company run by Evangelical Christians, owns a number of radio stations providing more restrained conservative talk shows. Salem, though, does not have a talk-show station in Washington, so there will be no immediate competition with IDT.
Even without any direct competition from Salem, IDT is already pulling out the stops with its advertising, and Jonas shows an evident desire to stick with the radio venture. While in person, Jonas does not make many outward efforts to impress — he slouched in his chair, wearing jeans and a corduroy shirt during an interview last week — the telecommunications mogul clearly wants to be a force in the media world. He said he would give up his whole business empire if he could own The New York Times.
“Would I trade the whole thing in for a radio network? I don’t know,” Jonas said. “But if you threw in a TV network and a couple of satellite services and a couple of newspapers around the world, yeah, I’d do it.”