Phil Valentine, a prominent Tennessee rightwing talk radio host, had released a song called Vaxman, an anti-Covid vaccination ditty based on the Beatles track Taxman.
Marc Bernier, a host in Daytona Beach, Florida, had declared himself “Mr Anti-Vax”. Dick Farrel, also from Florida, urged his listeners not to get vaccinated, and Jimmy DeYoung asked on air whether the vaccine could be a “form of government control of the people”.
All four men died in August of coronavirus. A fifth conservative radio host, Bob Enyart, died on 13 September, weeks after he told his listeners to boycott vaccines that were “immorally developed”.
The death of the men, just weeks apart, illustrated both the depth of anti-vaccine feeling among some conservatives, but also hinted at the problems rightwing talk radio, along with other conservative media, is causing as vaccination rates in the US have slowed.
Local talk radio is not often mentioned in discussions about conservative media and messaging in America.
Fox News and even more extreme rightwing television channels like Newsmax and One America News draw the headlines, and Facebook is often noted as a source for conspiracy theories, but behind the scenes thousands of small radio stations make up a patchwork of conservative media across the US that is enjoyed by millions.
In terms of the spread of misinformation, talk radio’s impact is unappreciated, Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog, said.
“It is clearly a driving force. A lot of people understandably focus on online, especially when it comes to anti-vax information. But the reality of it is, when the dust settles, I think what we’re going to find is that the real source of a lot of the most damaging anti-vax messaging was driven largely by traditional media: talk radio and traditional rightwing forces like Fox News,” he said.
“When we think about talk radio, the reason it has had such influence is the reach. It still is reaching the largest number of people. Fox [News] is going to reach a couple of million people a day. Talk radio is reaching 40 million, 60 million people depending on the day, maybe even more.
“The guys who are dying, you could treat them as [having] small radio shows, but they have really high concentration in their communities.”
These radio hosts can be even more outspoken than their equivalents on Fox News. Personalities on the rightwing TV network tend to be careful about how they address vaccine opposition, urging viewers to “speak to a doctor” and make their own decisions before getting vaccinated, rather than telling people outright to avoid the shots.