Why you should care
A new breed of conservative radio host may prove critical in the 2016 debate.
If you’re not a red-blooded Middle American male that makes up talk radio’s core audience, a guy like Steve Deace probably wouldn’t be on your radar, or hold much interest. And yet listen to him banter on — handicapping the 2016 prospects of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, or considering whether illegal immigrants deserve sympathy — and you might actually catch yourself thinking he’s actually pretty … interesting.
Welcome to the next generation of conservative talk radio — maybe not kinder and gentler, but certainly a little more approachable. Like every other part of the industry, radio is struggling in a fragmented digital news world. But Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of industry magazine Talkers, says if anyone’s going to make it, it’s the 41-year-old Michigan State dropout who openly says he was a “fat, drunk slob” not so long ago. Deace (pronounced Dace) is “someone that’s on many people’s radar screens,” Harrison confirms.
Two things, in particular, help explain that traction. First, for a talk radio fire-breather, Deace comes across, one-on-one, as pretty likable. Yes, he hammers those he disagrees with, is virulently opposed to gay rights and is not above a little name calling, from the “Marxist” Obama administration to the “corporatist shills” in his own party. But he’s got none of the cocksure self-righteousness so common among today’s big radio names. He’s almost — is it possible? — humble. “In past generations, you could lead with your fist” and everyone would fall in line, Deace explains. “In our generation, people don’t agree with that; you’re no longer leading with your fist, you’re leading with your chin, and you’re going to get clobbered.” In other words, you have to convince people — not just beat them over the head with your ideas.
Deace looks more like an unassuming English teacher than a political lightning rod. Then he opens his mouth.
And then there’s the fact he’s based in Des Moines, Iowa, which every four years becomes ground zero for presidential party politics. With his born-again Christian backstory and hard-line conservative stance on issues, Deace connects with the state’s most zealous conservative wing, giving him a “finger on the pulse” of that voting bloc, says D.C.-based consultant Barney Keller, who was until recently the communications director for the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Deace doesn’t like to call himself a gatekeeper to Iowa’s social conservatives, but let’s just say the smart GOP candidates will be making a beeline to his studio this year.
After seven years as a sports radio host, Deace landed a drive time politics show, “Steve Deace in the Afternoon,” in 2006. A year and a half later, the Des Moines native was widely credited with helping underdog Mike Huckabee, a staunch social conservative, win Iowa’s Republican caucuses. Since then, he’s used his platform, now the nationally syndicated “Steve Deace Show,” as well as appearances in a whole range of media, to bolster uber-right-wing candidates. That’s earned Deace his share of enemies within the GOP, as well as questions about the free airtime he gives to favored politicians. But it hasn’t hurt his ability to draw national candidates. Eight 2016 hopefuls have come on Deace’s show in recent months, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
With his wire rim glasses, collared shirts and neatly cropped hair, Deace looks more like an unassuming English teacher than a political lightning rod. Then he opens his mouth. His style is conversational, even-toned, not a lot of yelling. But he is lightning-quick on his feet, and a contrarian to the core. The latter, he says, has always been the case. As a kid, Deace grew up idolizing Alex P. Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character on the show Family Ties, the Reaganite black sheep of a liberal family. As a teenager, he took a similar tack with his stepfather, a pro-union Democrat, with whom he had a tense relationship. He’s much closer with his mother, who had Deace at the tender age of 15 — “we grew up together, basically,” he says.
When Deace talks about his family, his history, he’s disarmingly candid. It was bringing his firstborn home from the hospital and putting her to sleep next to his PlayStation and porn — “an ode to my perpetual adolescence,” he says — that prompted his religious conversion. He began to think, “Maybe this is the one thing Hillary Clinton was right about — it’s going to take a village to raise this kid.” But then you read some of Deace’s articles ranting against the LGBTQ community, and you understand why he’s controversial. Donna Red Wing, an Iowa-based gay rights leader whom Deace called a “thug” in a recent TownHall.com column, says she was stunned by the attack. Deace has a reputation in Iowa of being “really glib and kind of on the edge,” Red Wing tells OZY. But that particular column “came off as really malicious.”
Of course, in the game of talk radio, being notorious doesn’t necessarily hurt. Look at Glenn Beck. Or Rush Limbaugh. Those guys have built media empires off of successful — and to many on the left, loathsome — commentary. Deace is making moves in that direction. Listenership numbers are hard to come by — streaming online radio and a new audience tracking system have muddied the picture — but he was ranked 99 in Talkers magazine’s “Heavy Hundred” of 2014, its list of the most important talk radio hosts in America. And he just signed a new deal in December with USA Radio Network to air his show in 66 markets in 23 states across the country.
It is in Iowa, though, where he may prove to be a kingmaker. The way Deace sees it, “there are only a few people who can take advantage” of the 2016 political landscape there. Nos. 1 and 2 are Cruz and Walker, because they can draw both social and fiscal conservative votes. But he’s also got his eye on a potential dark horse: Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon and Fox News personality. It sounds ridiculous on its face, but then, Iowa’s always had a thing for long shots. Deace himself is proof of that.
Photography by Scott Morgan for OZY