If you want to hear the sound of political crisis of conscience in action, tune your radio dial to WBEN 930 AM.
The WBEN airwaves are crackling with anxiety over the outcome of the primary, the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency and the state of a Republican Party on the brink of a generational realignment.
While registered Republicans continue to surprise pundits and professional politicians with their enthusiasm for front-runner Donald Trump, whose campaign will hold a rally in the First Niagara Center on the eve of the primary and who appeared on WBEN Wednesday, local and national conservative talk radio personalities are contending with the unexpected appetites of the insurgent political movement they helped to create.
And the conversation on WBEN, as among so many voters disenchanted with what they see as a creaky GOP apparatus, has become increasingly Trumpward-bound.
At play in the 24-7 talk radio conversation are 95 delegates to the Republican National Convention in July, selected by 2,554,996 New York State Republican voters, many of whom live in Western New York and count themselves as faithful fans of local conservative talk.
Given WBEN’s increasing popularity with male listeners between 25-54, its sway over the hearts and minds of the Republican party’s base is considerable. According to operations manager Tim Wenger, its two most popular talk programs reach between 75,000 and 80,000 listeners per week.
On WBEN, where talk against the Republican establishment and in favor of Tea Party ideals has been the norm for years, the tension between supporters of Trump and his Republican rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich has been most evident on the station’s popular drive-time programs, led by Sandy Beach in the morning and Tom Bauerle in the afternoon.
Neither Bauerle nor Beach responded to several requests to be interviewed for this story. Frequent WBEN contributor and Republican strategist Michael Caputo agreed to be interviewed for the story but referred a reporter to Wenger for approval, which was not given.
In an email to The News, Wenger said he believed the station could “possibly” influence Republican voters, though he downplayed the notion that talk radio holds any more truck with voters than other media. He also stressed that WBEN has decided to carry all of the Democratic and Republican candidates’ local appearances live and has invited each to appear on the air.
“The role of talk radio is really no different from that of the commentary side of the cable news outlets or op-ed pages of a newspaper,” he wrote. “In my opinion, I do think most talk radio listeners have made up their minds at this point and are consuming talk radio as a means of validating their choices.”
If they haven’t made up their minds yet, hearing Bauerle take on Trump – and vice versa – might have helped. WBEN announced Wednesday that Trump would call in to speak with Bauerle on the air, and he did around 4 p.m.
But the exchange between the two was more cordial than confrontational, nothing like what Trump experienced in the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary when Trump called Charlie Sykes, who hosts a conservative talk show on WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee. Sykes also is a member of the Never Trump movement and challenged the candidate in an interview that Politico characterized as a “buzzsaw.”
Bauerle, a supporter of Ted Cruz, had been largely dead-set against Trump until recent days, when he began floating the idea of a Trump/Cruz ticket as way for Republicans to keep their party from crumbling and to best Hillary Clinton in the general election.
“I don’t think one-on-one they can beat her,” Bauerle said Friday in a conversation with Caputo, at the moment a fervent Trump supporter. “But I happen to think if you want to get the voter turnout and you want to get a passionate response to people, that a Trump/Cruz ticket would be the Republicans’ best shot at keeping Hillary, if she is the nominee, and I expect her to be, out of the White House.”
Caputo suggested that Bauerle’s long-held support for Cruz, a candidate Caputo described as dishonest, was misguided.
Beach, for his part, has long been in support of a Trump candidacy, hoping aloud on Tuesday morning that the real estate developer and reality television star’s rally here on Monday will be “a triumph.” Beach’s criticisms of Trump have largely hinged on cosmetic issues and a desire for him to scale back on personal attacks.
“When you go to your doctor, you want your doctor to look like a doctor,” Beach said last week in a typically soft-pedaled critique of Trump. “You want a cop to look like a cop. And you want your president to look like a president.”
The increasingly pro-Trump dynamic on WBEN is in stark contrast to that of other conservative talk radio stations and hosts in Wisconsin and elsewhere, who have hewed closer to the Republican party establishment’s desire to prevent Trump from securing the nomination at all costs.
For Kevin Hardwick, a Republican Erie County legislator, Canisius College professor and regular WBEN contributor, the station’s trend toward Trump is as confusing and unsettling for party veterans as it is for the Republican electorate.
“Bauerle was a Cruz person, which, to me, always made a lot of sense. If you were a regular WBEN listener and you believed in the value set that you got from the talk show hosts, then it seemed natural to me that you would be a Cruz sort of person,” Hardwick said. “What has a lot of us scratching our heads is how these followers, the listeners to WBEN for all these years, latched onto Trump.”
Hardwick, a supporter of Kasich, also suggested that the listeners have been leading the hosts toward their Trump-friendly positions, not the other way around. That’s a notion shared by University at Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel, who said conservative talk show hosts are now hedging their bets in the same way many Republican politicians are doing, and that hosts “would do well to tread lightly on making pronouncements about candidate support if they care about their listener base.”
“Media is a business, and they have to have listeners. So the idea that conservative talk radio is really leading people really doesn’t have a lot of empirical support because they’re chasing a demographic,” Neiheisel said. “They’re looking for a demographic that’s already out there, just they’re trying to cater to it.”
Even so, warned SUNY Buffalo State professor Bruce Bryski, it’s best not to underestimate the power of conservative talk radio to fire up and motivate its fiercely committed audience.
“There’s no question in my mind that conservative radio incites people to think and behave in a certain way,” said Bryski, a WBEN morning contributor who called himself “the one person who even comes close to being a liberal” on the station. He added that hosts are keenly aware of their audience’s attitudes and track them with laser-like precision.
Whether the opinions on WBEN strike the listener as universally pro-Trump or not, one incontestable point of unity retains its hold over conservative talk hosts and audiences across the country: a fervent, unshakable opposition to the possibility of a Clinton presidency and a desire to erase the words “Barack Obama” from memory.
On Beach’s program last week, following the death of country singer Merle Haggard, the host played Haggard’s song “Are the Good Times Really Over?” in which the singer wonders whether the country is “rolling down the hill like a snowball headed for hell, with no kind of chance for the flag or the liberty bell.”
“That song,” Beach said, “could be used as a campaign narrative today,”