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Talk-radio owner orders conservative hosts to temper election fraud rhetoric

FILE: Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland, speaks during an interview at the Associated Press in New York. He regularly does radio appearances for Cumulus stations.

After months of stoking anger about alleged election fraud, one of America's largest talk-radio companies has decided on an abrupt change of direction.

Cumulus Media, which employs some of the most popular right-leaning talk-radio hosts in the United States, has told its on-air personalities to stop suggesting that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump - or else face termination.

A Cumulus executive issued the directive on Wednesday, just as Congress met to certify Joe Biden's election victory and an angry mob of Trump supporters marched on the Capitol, overwhelmed police and briefly occupied the building, terrorizing lawmakers and leading to the deaths of five people. "We need to help induce national calm NOW," Brian Philips, executive vice president of content for Cumulus, wrote in an internal memo, which was first reported by Inside Music Media. Cumulus and its program syndication arm, Westwood One, "will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended. The election has been resolved and there are no alternate acceptable 'paths.' " The memo adds: "If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately." A Cumulus representative did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Sunday. The new policy is a stunning corporate clampdown on the kind of provocative and even inflammatory talk that has long driven the business model for Cumulus and other talk show broadcasters. And it came as Apple, Google and Amazon cut off essential business services to Parler, the pro-Trump social media network where users have promoted falsehoods about election fraud and praised the mob that assaulted the Capitol. Apple and Google removed the Parler app from the offerings for its smartphones, while Amazon suspended it from its Web-hosting services. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Since the election, Cumulus has remained silent while its most popular hosts - which include Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino - have amplified Trump's lies that the vote was "rigged" or in some way fraudulent. On his program on Tuesday, the day before the march on the Capitol, for example, Levin fulminated about Congress's certification of electoral votes for Biden, describing the normally routine vote as an act of "tyranny." "You think the framers of the Constitution . . . sat there and said, 'Congress has no choice [to accept the votes], even if there's fraud, even if there's some court order, even if some legislature has violated the Constitution?' " Levin said, his voice rising to a shout. Atlanta-based Cumulus owns 416 radio stations in 84 regions across the country. Many of its stations broadcast a talk format, a medium that has been dominated by a conservative point of view for decades. In addition to its national personalities, it employs local talk-radio hosts in many of its markets. Cumulus's biggest stations include WMAL in Washington, KABC in Los Angeles, WLS in Chicago and KGO in San Francisco, all of which air a news-talk format. (Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the biggest star of conservative talk, is syndicated by another company, Premiere Networks, though his program is heard on many Cumulus-owned stations. Limbaugh isn't subject to Cumulus's memo.) The memo appears to reflect the reality that voters, presidential electors, courts and now Congress have accepted or certified that Biden won the election and is the president-elect. It may also be an attempt to cool down emotions that led to Wednesday's invasion of the Capitol, and to mollify advertisers that are concerned about being associated with programs that could be inciting listeners to violence. But it also reveals some of the hidden corporate hand behind what is said and discussed on talk-radio programs. Rather than a medium of freethinking individuals expressing passionately held beliefs, the memo reminds that hosts are subject to corporate mandates and control. "It's naive not to recognize that a corporate imperative goes into all media," said Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio. "Corporations have always called the tune ultimately. Everyone pays attention to the guys at the top and always has." Talk-radio hosts, Harrison said, "never expected" their critiques of the election "to get out of hand" in the manner seen Wednesday. Cumulus and other broadcast companies "recognize they're in the hot seat right now because the national eye is on them," he said. Asked how hosts who have repeatedly promoted Trump's claims of fraud can now credibly flip to acceptance, Harrison said: "I would hope they put their personal feelings aside and come clean with their listeners. I encourage them to pursue the truth and to tell their audience something that Trump may not like." However, there's some question as to whether stars such as Levin will comply with the recent edict and whether Cumulus will discipline them if they don't. On his syndicated radio program on Thursday, a day after Cumulus sent its memo and Trump supporters breached the Capitol, Levin didn't seem to be backing off. "It appears nothing has changed in 24 hours," he said on the air. "Not a damn thing. The never-Trumpers, the RINOs, the media - same damn thing." He went on to add: "I'm not stirring up a damn thing. Everything I say is based on principle and mission. Everything is based on liberty, family, faith, the Constitution. . . . My enemies and my critics can't say the same."

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