The Author’s Corner with Paul Matzko

Paul Matzko is Editor for Tech and Innovation at the Cato Institute. This interview is based on his new book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Radio Right?

PM: The idea came to me while reading Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors for a graduate seminar. I realized that many of the Southern Californians in her book had unmentioned ties to a fundamentalist radio preacher in New Jersey named Carl McIntire. As it so happened, I lived in Philadelphia at the time and McIntire’s archives were housed just up the road at Princeton Theological Seminary. As I started digging in, I realized that McIntire was just one part of a very large, informal network of right-wing radio broadcasters who sprung up almost overnight on national airwaves by the early 1960s. The story of their sudden rise to political significance—as well as the surprising lengths to which their political and theological opponents were wiling to go to silence them—has never been fully told before.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Radio Right?

PM: Conservative, religious broadcasters in the 1960s played a vital but mostly overlooked role in the creation of the New Right. The best indicator of their influence is the sweeping censorship campaign organized against them by the John F. Kennedy administration, the Democratic National Committee, and the National Council of Churches.

JF: Why do we need to read The Radio Right?

PM: It challenges the over-intellectualized, male-focused, top-down, received narrative of the rise of the New Right. You’ll read about suburban housewives boycotting Polish ham imports, a protest ‘funeral’ for free speech conducted in Revolutionary Era garb on the green behind Independence Hall, a converted World War Two minesweeper blasting pirate radio off the coast of Cape May, and an Oval Office tape linking the sitting president to the most successful censorship campaign of the past half century. 

I would also argue that historians of the period tend to overweight personalities and underweight the importance of structure, the submerged political, economic, and cultural institutions which create the incentive structures that then drive human behavior. To borrow Marx’s terminology, I wanted to focus on the phenomenal rather than the epiphenomenal. Thus this book emphasizes shifts in the supply of conservative ideas rather than, as is more common, changes in the demand for conservative ideas.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: In college, I intended to become a Byzantinist specializing in imperial interactions with crusaders. (I blame an early teenage reading of Robert Payne’s lovely The Dream and the Tomb.) A glancing encounter with Greek and French instruction convinced me I didn’t have the requisite linguistic aptitude. 

But while at Temple University, a professor challenged me to not run away from my past when looking for research projects, that my odd background could be an asset to be mined rather than a problem to be avoided. “Write what you know,” he said, and what I knew was the history of American fundamentalism and conservative politics. That was the same semester as the grad seminar where I read McGirr and made the McIntire connection. 

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I would like to write a sequel to The Radio Right. One of the people named on the Oval Office tape I mentioned above—and thus implicated in the anti-Radio Right censorship campaign—was US Senator John Pastore. Pastore is perhaps best known for chairing the congressional committee hearings in 1969 where Fred Rogers testified in favor of government support for public media. There’s a connection, to put it bluntly, between the creation of National Public Radio / Public Broadcasting System and the censorship campaign I’ve already described. And while in this book I teased the importance of radio to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, there’s much more to be written about how the Carter and Reagan administrations’ demolition of the Fairness Doctrine led to the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1980s.

JF: Thanks, Paul!