Smithsonian Magazine Exhumes Joe Pyne to Attack Today's Conservative Talkers
Few people today recognize the name Joe Pyne. In the 1960s, Pyne was the most popular talk show personality in America. He had been an early – possibly the first – pioneer of interactive call-in talk radio and by the mid-1960s he was an innovator in talk television, as well, with an audience of 10 million viewers “comparable to the  audience Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Megyn Kelly combined.” A 1967 review of Pyne’s TV show in Life put his audience at 50 million. Whatever the numbers, in his heyday Pyne’s competition was largely insignificant as he blazed a new trail that, after his death in 1970 from lung cancer, others would follow with great success.
In June 2017 a feature article in Smithsonian resurrected Pyne’s long forgotten memory. According to the article, Pyne may have invented the call-in talk radio show format in 1949 when he was hosting a program at WLIP in Kenosha, Wisc. One day during a live show, he reportedly placed a microphone up to a telephone receiver and put a caller on the air.
Pyne matured into an independent conservative with an in-your-face on-air persona. When he achieved fame starting in the 1960s, he supported the Vietnam War; decried the sixties’ cultural revolution, radicals, and hippies; but also was sympathetic to the civil rights movement. He became known for his confrontational acerbic style including employing trademark phrases like “Go gargle with razor blades” that he directed at guests he didn’t like or hostile callers to his radio show.
Hardly any recordings of Pyne’s nationally syndicated radio and TV programs are accessible, except for a limited number of short clips here and there. Thus, for several decades now he has been almost totally forgotten. Meanwhile, his many successors in the business, on the right and the left, have become household names.
Which is why a feature article about Pyne in, of all places, the June issue of Smithsonian – a glossy monthly that usually covers history and science – caught my eye. The article is titled “Joe Pyne Was America’s First Shock Jock” The subhead, “Newly discovered tapes resurrect the angry ghost of Joe Pyne, the original outrageous talk show host,” establishes the theme.
Smithsonian magazine, June 2017
The first half of the article introduces us to the life and media career of Joe Pyne and reports the intriguing news that a stash of decaying video tapes of his 1960s TV show have been discovered and are being painstakingly restored. It’s quite an undertaking, as the recordings – on 2 inch wide video tapes in an obsolete format on metal reels that weigh 28 lbs. per tape – have been damaged by mold, dust, and rust and are literally falling apart. Following a detailed discussion of the difficult task of restoring, digitizing, and copying the tapes, using ancient video tape machines that weigh half a ton, we are informed that the possibility exists that they might eventually be released as DVDs, sold to a classic TV channel, or streamed online so the public can finally have a look at entire episodes of The Joe Pyne Show.
The value of the programs lies not only in seeing Pyne and his colorful antics from a half century ago when television was barely into its second decade. The guests he welcomed, or lured, to his TV show comprised a who’s who of memorable cultural and political figures – some better known than others – who dotted the sixties landscape, including Jerry Rubin, David Susskind, Paul Krassner, F. Lee Bailey, Christine Jorgensen, a parade of radical Black activists, various intellectuals, and a potpourri of many others. There is not yet a complete list of who is on the tapes, as they were stored haphazardly without annotation or labels and are being recovered and cataloged one tape at a time – an agonizingly slow process.
The article quotes Alexander Kogan Jr., president of Films Around the World, whose firm restores and markets classic movies and TV programs. Kagan, who owns the batch of Pyne tapes that are being restored, reportedly has the documentation (guests’ signed releases and papers proving ownership) giving him the rights to market the programs. Kogan:
Pyne set the tone for so much of what we see on our “news” channels every day and night. The confrontation, the anger, the yelling. But who remembers his name?
So far, so good. But after this fairly straightforward history, the author of the article, Kevin Cook, a former editor at Sports Illustrated, in his first article for the Smithsonian, takes a sudden turn into the realm of speculation. Suddenly, Cook moves from past history into the present day, and appears to target some current right of center talk hosts and others who in reality have very little in common with Pyne.
One of Pyne’s protégés, the controversial radio shouter Bob Grant, followed his mentor Pyne as a talk show shouter in Los Angeles before moving to New York, where Grant paved the way for his successor at WABC, Sean Hannity. Hannity had first gained national attention subbing for Rush Limbaugh, another Bob Grant fan. When Grant died in 2013, Hannity hailed him as “one of the greatest pioneers of controversial, opinionated talk radio.”
In fact, Grant did begin his own stint on KABC AM 790 in Los Angeles in 1964 after Pyne left for a better deal at another LA radio station and to start his TV show. Prior to that, Pyne and Grant were colleagues at KABC.
However, one can’t help but ask, is this article about Pyne or Grant? Note the major degrees of separation that lead to a spurious conclusion: Joe Pyne to (maybe) Bob Grant to Sean Hannity in one paragraph. Initially, a connection between Pyne and Grant is established, sort of. And then Sean Hannity, who praised Grant after the latter’s death in 2013 (a half century after Joe Pyne’s reign), is somehow linked back to Pyne who died in 1970 when Hannity was only eight years old. Like the Washington Post’s specious attempt to link Hannity to Alex Jones last week, this kind of journalism smacks of McCarthyite guilt by association – even worse when, as in this case, the association is two or three degrees of separation, at best.
The remainder of the Smithsonian article really piles it on. A color graphic displaying a chart of Pyne’s “Spiritual Descendants” is highlighted. Pyne’s number one spiritual descendant according to author Cook is – Sean Hannity, followed by Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Alex Jones. Rounding out the list are Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ann Coulter. Apparently, one can be on this list without even being a bona fide talk show host as in the case of Yiannopoulos and Coulter.
Sean Hannity with the football that he tosses at the end of each show
The article next rates the “descendants” of Joe Pyne in terms of rudeness, entertainment, and extremism.
With five points being the highest rating, top descendant Hannity gets two for rudeness. It is nonsense to claim that Sean Hannity is rude to his guests. In fact, Hannity, with a reputation as one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people in broadcasting, has frequently praised and welcomed his friends on the left to his programs including Bob Beckel and just a week ago New York City liberal activist Michael Meyers.
Even more absurd: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is given zero points for rudeness and only two for extremism. The winners in the extremism category, with five points each, are Alex Jones and author/lecturer Ann Coulter. Close behind with four points each are Hannity, Limbaugh, and Levin.
If Cook had named Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Tom Leykis, or the late Morton Downey, Jr. as the natural heirs of Joe Pyne, he might have been on firmer ground or closer to it. Stern’s and Springer’s provocative shows are still airing. Leykis, whose signature was to play sounds of an explosion in response to an obnoxious caller, was prominent for years on terrestrial radio and now streams his show on the Internet. Downey’s TV show was syndicated for a year and a half in the late 1980s. The host was the subject of a 2012 documentary, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, and some parallels between Downey’s and Pyne’s shtick are immediately apparent. (Ironically, both Pyne and Downey were heavy smokers and both died of lung cancer.) But to associate Pyne with the eight descendants who Cook has selected is ridiculous.
The author (left) after doing a show with Tom Leykis (right) on KFI AM 640 Los Angeles, January 15, 1990
The Smithsonian article and the author’s skewed rankings appear to represent yet another case of someone who hasn’t really listened to or watched the individuals he’s analyzing. He’s likely relying on disinformation from some other unnamed, agenda-driven sources. Moreover, the magazine is presumably aimed at an elite audience, many of them with their leftist biases intact, possessing low or zero information about the subject at hand
It is unfortunate that the respected Smithsonian, published by the largely federally funded Smithsonian Institution, with a paid circulation in 2016 of 1.840 million readers, would descend to this level of sloppy and opinionated reporting.
Curious about his opinion, I asked Sean Hannity, #1 on the Smithsonian author’s list of Joe Pyne’s “spiritual descendants,” for his opinion of the Smithsonian article and for his take on Joe Pyne. Hannity commented in an email on June 25:
I reject that Joe Pyne was as extreme as described. Agree or disagree with his political views is meaningless to me when talking about Joe Pyne. “Hard hitting, intelligent, iconoclastic, curious, entertaining, ground breaking, and combative.” That's how I describe Joe Pyne.
A true hard driving original and pioneer of controversial opinion driven programs. We all, whether left/right that host opinion shows, owe him and his courage a debt of gratitude. The American left needs to accept that silencing conservative views will ultimately boomerang back on them. Let all views be heard and let the American people decide.
I want to thank those that worked so hard and found the value of preserving these long lost programs. I want to buy all 100 of them. I am certain I can learn a lot.
One last thing. I’m not Joe Pyne, or Bob Grant or Rush Limbaugh or Rachael Maddow. We are all individuals with our own personal views and styles. To compare us to Joe is ridiculous to me. There was only one Joe.
Thank you, Sean. In my opinion, no one could have said it – or honored the memory of Joe Pyne – any better.
UPDATE: In the first fifteen minutes of his nationally syndicated radio show on June 26, 2017, Sean Hannity discussed the Smithsonian article on Joe Pyne and his colleagues in the talk show field. The June 26 podcast can be streamed or downloaded from here.
Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran journalist who writes about national politics, media, popular culture, and health care. His bio with links to many of his writings can be accessed here.