It was the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern were really making it big on the American airwaves, and Pence was on his way too, finding his voice as a conservative Hoosier talk radio show host.
He was no shock jock and he didn’t have the best time slots. His listeners were largely on the AM dial, scattered in small towns all across Indiana.
But Pence wasn’t trying to be a Limbaugh clone. Instead, he learned, caller by caller, how to communicate his political ideas in pithy terms — talking about the global warming “myth” and the “monster” Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He also learned something else that would be invaluable in his return to the campaign trail — that conservative listeners weren’t cutting any slack for Republicans in Congress, they hated the whole Washington package.
So Pence the radio host partnered his screeds against Bill Clinton with pot shots at Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. The result was a political figure still stolid as a small-town banker, but with a surgeon’s feel for the anti-Washington feelings of the grass-roots Midwest — a Tea Party conservative before there was a Tea Party.
The rest of the story is becoming better known: How Pence used his radio show as a springboard to something much bigger, to a 12-year House career and a term as Indiana’s governor, ultimately landing a spot on the Republican ticket as Donald Trump’s running mate. But for its host, ‘The Mike Pence Show’ was a critical and formative experience, one where he learned everything he needed to know about politics.
Doing radio in the 90s, Pence wore crisp button down shirts with the sleeves rolled up. He’d read snippets off wrinkled newspapers, nervously shuffle around his notes and make wild hand gestures. He had no sidekick and there was no computer nearby for easy Googling. This was Pence unplugged, and it was here that he rebranded himself by offering a right-leaning spin on the world around him. He was also doing Trump’s shtick years ahead of Trump, questioning the political wisdom of GOP leaders like Gingrich and Lott back in Washington, and much closer to home, condemning the local mainstream media for its “hatchet job” reporting on the Indianapolis 500.
Indiana Democrats recognized Pence gave them an outlet too, and top statewide officials including Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon stopped by his set for the chance to speak to an older and more conservative talk radio audience integral for winning elections in the state. For the host, conservative commentating would provide a salve after his first two ill-fated attempts at running for Congress in 1988 and 1990. Surrounded by local broadcasting talent, Pence soaked up advice on how to be more authentic, relevant, innovative and fun. And he used his show to maintain connections, writing op-eds about the news of the day, hosting local salon conversations with prominent state business and political leaders, including the future Gov. Mitch Daniels. His biggest radio sponsors were also some of the same friends and local GOP businessmen who had donated to his first runs for the House, and when his show concluded at the end of the decade, they opened their checkbooks again so he could get back into politics, winning six straight campaigns for Congress.
“His political aspirations were never far behind that microphone,” said Steve Simpson, a former Pence colleague and news anchor at Indianapolis-based WIBC.
Pence’s show had a casually indignant air to it — he wasn’t channeling anyone’s rage. His banter was easygoing as he implored his listeners to dial 800-603-MIKE, ending the week with ‘Open Phone Friday.” He came out of commercial breaks to a “Mike Pence!” jingle and musical interludes from the likes of Hootie & the Blowfish and a bouncing keyboard version of ‘Great Balls of Fire.’
“We’ll be back in the saddle on Tuesday, rested, tanned and ready,” Pence declared as he headed into the Memorial Day weekend in a May 2007 episode, according to rare archival video footage of an episode obtained by POLITICO.
On this particular show from nearly two decades ago, Pence begins by talking about the first female B-52 pilot in the U.S. Air Force. The woman, Kelly Flinn, was in the middle of a media firestorm for having an affair with the husband of an enlisted subordinate. She’d just resigned from the military with a general discharge under honorable conditions and without facing criminal charges, and Pence was upset about how unserious he thought politicians like Lott and other leaders were taking the issue of adultery.
“I mean, is adultery no longer a big deal in Indiana and in America? I’d just love to know your thoughts because I for one believe that the Seventh Commandment contained in the Ten Commandments is still a big deal,” Pence said. “I maintain that other than promises that we make of fidelity in our faith, the promises that we make to our spouses and to our children, the promises that we make in churches and in synagogues and marriage ceremonies around this, it’s the most important promise you’ll ever make. And holding people accountable to those promises and holding people accountable to respecting the promises that other people make, I, to me, what could possibly be a bigger deal than that in this country?”
It was inevitable that a conservative talk show at this time would serve as a forum for Clinton bashing, and Pence’s callers obliged. They asked the host why military prosecutors weren’t applying the same scrutiny to their commander in chief, and one even wondered whether Hillary Clinton hadn’t put a giant kibosh on the government’s handling of the Flinn case so as to avoid embarrassing her husband.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pence replied. “We haven’t heard a whisper out of the White House on this case. I mean not a whisper. And the president comments on everything. Doesn’t he? I mean you could, you could have him announce corn prices are down, the president would have a press conference, it seems like.”
As was Pence’s custom, he dedicated a good chunk of his broadcast time to Indiana news. And on this episode, he made it known he wasn’t happy with how the Indianapolis Star was covering the celebrated auto race coming up that holiday weekend. Pence reminded his listeners that he was a regular at the track — “I haven’t missed a race out there in 15 years consecutively. I’ve been to 20 races,” he boasted — and then compared his visit to what he saw as a jam-packed speedway the day before, during preliminary events, with what was being reported in the newspaper.
“I opened up the state’s largest newspaper today. And above the fold on page one, above the fold on page one, I am treated to a story about how, ‘From Vendors to Ritzy Hotels, This Year the Track Means Fading Dollar Signs’,” he read.
Pence continued, “I am also treated on page two to a photograph of a vendor at a sausage and steak, peppers and onions extra, concession stand, standing virtually by himself with no one in sight, leaving me to ask: When exactly it was that they took this photograph? Because you had to stand in a line about 10 deep to get a sausage and steak sandwich yesterday. When they took this picture I have absolutely no idea.”
Pence then complained about a story in the sports section “adding insult to injury and adding further impetus to my view that it is turning into the press versus the track” that said the crowd for the final round of practicing maxed out at about 15,000.
“An estimated crowd of 15,000? There were 15,000 people there before breakfast,” Pence countered. “Who estimated that? This is absolutely astounding to me that the largest newspaper in the state of Indiana, the home of the greatest spectacle in racing, would, it is obvious to me, set itself against this great homespun sport of the Indianapolis 500. But am I being hypersensitive? Give me a shout. Open Phone Friday on the Mike Pence Show.”
It was populism at its best, an illustration of his common touch, and it just so happened that Pence worked for a radio station that also owned the Indianapolis Speedway.
“If you can please your ownership as you please your listenership, that’s a pretty good day,” said Kent Sterling, an assistant program director for Pence’s show at the time on WIBC.
Pence’s soapbox extended to his election coverage, too. On a show he hosted in February 1996, as a Dave Matthews Band song played in the background, Pence discussed the “startling” results from the Iowa Caucus the night before. “Bob Dole, not as well as expected,” the host reported. “Pat Buchanan, unbelievably better than expected. And where the heck did Steve Forbes go?”
In that episode, also obtained by POLITICO, Pence is especially critical of the mainstream media for its coverage of the presidential campaign, including its reporting of how religious conservatives had helped propel the Buchanan campaign. “Don’t you get frustrated with the way the media says the Christian right reared its ugly head and thrust Pat Buchanan? You ever get tired of being vilified for political activism if you have religious conviction?” Pence asked one of his guests.
His radio program also afforded him a chance to publish on some of the material he was discussing on air. One column from that era declared “global warming is a myth” and challenged the 1997 Kyoto Protocol climate treaty. The article concluded: “I know Monica Lewinsky seems like the most important issue in America but, call me crazy, I think the quiet expansion of the liberal environmentalist agenda by Al Gore and Clinton White House that will cost thousands of jobs could be more important.”
In an April 1997 article published on his radio show’s website — archived and available via the WayBack Machine – Pence weighed in on the suicide of a 27-year old Indianapolis woman with AIDS whose body was found in a Detroit motel with a note urging authorities to contact Kevorkian’s attorney. “The harsh truth is that Kevorkian is a monster and assisted suicide is immoral,” Pence argued.
That summer, Pence predicted in one of his columns that a recent unanimous Supreme Court decision allowing Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton to continue would “make the O.J. Simpson trial look like traffic court.” And in an August 1997 column posted to his radio show’s website, he suggested a recent House GOP rebellion to remove Gingrich as speaker should end with the Georgia congressman stepping down. “Whether Republicans want to admit it or not, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been knocked off his horse and been wounded badly, maybe mortally,” Pence wrote. “If the G.O.P. is to find its way back in time for the next election, it is time for new leadership, either a new Speaker or a revived Speaker. I’ll take either one.”
The “Mike Pence Show” made its host something of a local celebrity. In 1995, he debuted a half hour Indianapolis-based Saturday night TV show that came with a very David Letterman-like introduction: “The man who would have been the next James Bond…if his mom would have let him.” Pence had an opening monologue and talked policy with a variety of guests from across the political spectrum. Pence also emceed quarterly roundtable dinners with the likes of Bayh, future Gov. Mitch Daniels and Indiana First Lady Judy O’Bannon. According to a description of the events on Pence’s radio website, the dinners “get you inside the heads of some of the most powerful people in Indiana today.”
Pence drew an eclectic group of A-list Indiana guests onto his radio show, including the actor Karl Malden, a native of Gary, Indiana, Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian, former Notre Dame football Coach Ara Parseghian and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Democrats, especially, knew Pence’s audience — he was on live from 9 a.m. to noon in mid-range sized towns like Anderson, Elkhart, Evansville and Terre Haute — was worth the time. In 1996, for example, O’Bannon took advantage of Pence’s invitations to be a guest during his race for governor against Republican Steve Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor and a close friend of Pence’s. The show also benefited too. “I’m sitting there selling all the ads I could to both camps,” recalled Russ Dodge, a former sales manager for the Pence show. “For someone running for statewide office it was the best possible thing for a radio buy.”
Pence got his start in radio after his first unsuccessful run for Congress in 1988. Sharon Disinger, a Republican whose husband Louis ran a local FM radio station in Rushville, called Pence out of the blue to congratulate him on his efforts. She said in an interview that she urged him to “keep his name out there” and reminded him of Ronald Reagan’s early career in radio. Over dinner at the exclusive Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis, Louis Disinger convinced the aspiring politician that he could stay relevant by doing a once a week dinnertime radio talk show about the general workings of Washington. They called it “Washington Update.”
Pence and Sharon Disinger kept their banter light, but even then there was an anti-establishment edge aimed at Democrats running Congress back in the capital. “We’d say, ‘Good night Rush County and good night Washington. Are you listening?’,” she recalled.
But Pence’s first stint in radio didn’t last long. While Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission had nixed the Fairness Doctrine in 1985, effectively ending the requirement for stations to balance conservatives with liberals, Democrats demanded Pence get off the air as soon as he mounted a 1990 rematch against Rep. Phil Sharp. “There’s always somebody trying to put a bug in things,” Disinger said.
That fall, Pence would lose to Sharp in a campaign that was especially noteworthy for its nastiness. Pence at one point ran a widely condemned television ad depicting a man dressed in an Arab robe and sunglasses with a fake Mideast accent who thanked Sharp for not weening the U.S. off foreign oil. After the election, Pence apologized and published a mea culpa titled ‘Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,’ an essay that pledged to stay away from personal attacks in his political career. By 1992, Pence was back on the air with a new incarnation: “The Mike Pence Show.”
He slowly started picking up affiliates and over the next seven years he’d reach 18 stations across the state. Listeners in some parts of Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan could hear him too, but Pence also had challenges in expanding his audience. The Northwest Indiana suburbs outside Chicago never picked up his broadcasts. And on Indianapolis’s flagship radio network, WIBC, Dr. Laura Ingraham occupied the 9 a.m.-to-noon time slot – which after the local news fed into Limbaugh — when Pence was actually doing his show live.
By early 1999, Pence’s show was being heard in Indianapolis, the state capital and by far the most populous city in the state. But it aired in a dead zone, blasting out as a taped rebroadcast from midnight to 3 a.m. Even that was short-lived. Art Bell, the host of the paranormal themed ‘Coast to Coast’ syndicated show, got Pence’s Monday slot. And by April, Bell had taken over entirely.
Pence’s career took its next big turn in the late summer of 1999, as his talks picked up with local and national GOP leaders about making another run for Congress. His target this time was a different and more reliably Republican seat held by Rep. David McIntosh, who was stepping down to make his own run for governor against O’Bannon (McIntosh would lose).
In Congress, Pence got a boost in salary but didn’t stray far from his radio roots. He put a studio in his office closet with quality phone lines so he could call back into the local stations for both live and taped interviews about the news of the day and updates on his own legislative and political work. Fellow Republican congressmen turned to his trend-setting expertise for help setting up their own radio studios.
The skills Pence learned on the radio were routinely on display in Washington. He was a frequent guest on the major cable networks, and his fellow Republicans tapped him in 2009 to serve as conference chairman. He’s also been a big supporter of conservative talk radio. In 2007, he introduced legislation to codify the Fairness Doctrine. Two years later he came to Limbaugh’s defense after the commentator complained that the Obama presidency was making him “bend over, grab the angles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president.”
“I don’t believe Rush Limbaugh has a racist bone in his body,” Pence replied on MSNBC.
Plenty of politicians have gone from elected office into broadcasting: There’s Jerry Brown, the two-time California governor who had a call-in show on local FM radio, as well as Ed Koch, Buddy Cianci and Jerry Springer. Going from radio into politics is a bit harder. Reagan, of course, did it. So did Mike Huckabee and J.D. Hayworth. Since Pence, other commentators to land in Congress include Al Franken in the Senate and Georgia GOP Rep. Jody Hice.
On the stump, Pence isn’t exactly drawing attention to his talk radio roots. His bio makes only a passing reference to that stage of his life. Trump 30-minute running mate introduction speech on Saturday didn’t mention Pence’s background as a conservative commentator. Pence didn’t bring it up either. But the people who know Pence see the small mannerisms they helped him hone.
“When he sits down in front of the microphone he hasn’t forgotten anything he’s learned,” said David Elswick, a talk radio host based in Little Rock, Ark., who was on the air in Indiana at the same time as Pence in the 1990s.
In an interview Saturday, Quayle predicted an electoral pay-off from Pence’s radio background. “In politics, one, you need to be conversational, and he is conversational. Second you need to be able to connect with people and you can do it through his voice,” the former vice president said. “It’s very pleasing. It’s very Midwestern. People like to hear the voice and that will bode well for him on the campaign trail.