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Recall Frontrunner Larry Elder's Success Speaks To Conservative Media's Influence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Of all the candidates trying to unseat California Gov. Gavin Newsom in tomorrow's recall election, conservative talk show host Larry Elder has the best chance. Elder works for the right-wing broadcaster Salem Media Group, which also boasts hosts who peddle discredited claims, like about COVID, last year's elections and more. NPR's David Folkenflik tells us how the network became an influential player in conservative media.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: On Saturday night, Salem Media staged an event in Orange County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We call him the sage - sage, sage, sage - from South Central. Welcome candidate for governor - I like to call him Gov. Sage - Larry Elder is here.

FOLKENFLIK: Elder sat for a congenial interview tailor-made to stir last-minute supporters to vote. It was broadcast live by his home station in Southern California.

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LARRY ELDER: Your question was, what would I do when I become governor?

FOLKENFLIK: Was this a campaign event or a radio appearance? Bit hard to tell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELDER: Gov. Gavin Newsom is requiring all state workers who have not been vaccinated to be tested once a week and to wear a face mask at work. So one of the first things I will do, to the extent that those mandates are still in effect, I will repeal them.

FOLKENFLIK: The polls suggest the recall of the governor is likely to fail. If successful though, Elder would be the state's first African American governor. He offers brashly conservative takes that are well-received among Trump supporters. Though he received a COVID vaccine, Elder gives a lot of air time to arguments against it. And his takes on gender and race have provoked much outcry on the left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELDER: Don't be dismissive. I worked hard for that title.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter) Yes, you did.

ELDER: You know hard - how difficult it is to be the Black face of white supremacy?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: Elder worked for ABC Radio for years. Let go in 2015, Elder joined Salem Media. Anne Nelson is the author of "Shadow Network," a book on the political influence of conservative media, religious and business groups. She says Salem Media seeks to appeal to...

ANNE NELSON: A voter base of fundamentalist Christians who are urged to the polls based on their conservative and sometimes socially regressive beliefs - anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, et cetera.

FOLKENFLIK: Neither the Elder campaign nor Salem Media responded to NPR's requests for comment. The company owns more than 100 stations and says its broadcasts are heard on more than 3,000 stations nationally. Salem Media's founders were two men, brothers-in-law who established the outfit in 1986 as a religious broadcaster. Their mission has now expanded to incorporate conservative fundamentalist Christianity and a drive to promote victories by like-minded Republicans.

NELSON: And so Elder has kind of gravitated towards endorsing these positions and tapping into that voter base with this massive radio network support that's built under him.

FOLKENFLIK: Salem just hired former Trump campaign attorney Jenna Ellis, who joins other hosts in pushing former President Trump's lies about the 2020 race. Salem Media also owns conservative opinion websites, including RedState, PJ Media, HotAir and Twitchy. It claims more than 200 million unique users a month. That's tough to verify. Each of its sites traffic in their own sharply edged opinion. Listen to the podcast "Triggered" from Townhall, another Salem Media site.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TRIGGERED")

STORM PAGLIA: It really is true that Congress is a failure of an institution.

MATT VESPA: Yeah, it doesn't do anything.

PAGLIA: It's a disgrace.

VESPA: It doesn't do anything.

PAGLIA: It's a disgrace.

VESPA: Doesn't do anything.

PAGLIA: And then they wonder...

VESPA: Yeah.

PAGLIA: ...Why things like January 6 happen.

VESPA: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: These are hosts Matt Vespa and Storm Paglia from earlier this year. They call the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol justified then seconds later questioned whether it was even real.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TRIGGERED")

VESPA: So...

PAGLIA: You know what I've come around to?

VESPA: That it was the FBI doing it?

PAGLIA: That it was a setup.

VESPA: Yeah, agree.

FOLKENFLIK: In July, on his Salem talk show, Elder took a call from a voter urging him to run and suggesting that the vote might be sabotaged against him. Elder laughed at the prediction of electoral fraud and said he wouldn't be surprised.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.