Wisconsin-based radio host Charlie Sykes may want to be the next Glenn Beck.
But a new marketing project aimed at spreading his hard conservative talk brand beyond home station WTMJ of Milwaukee to web, video, social media and perhaps other media outlets owned by parent company Journal Communications is drawing concern in the state's media community. Sykes' burgeoning network of platforms resembles nothing other than a smaller-scale version of the former Fox News host's sprawling web-based empire.
“That is a fair comparison,” says Don Walker, a 34-year veteran of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is also owned by Journal Communications. “Glenn took this huge, I think risk, getting off Fox, or he was pushed, and he left Fox to form this very, very different venture. I think there is some comparison to that Charlie is making a move in a direction that he senses that he can make a move nationally, that he can make a move in a national direction.”
That potential move is causing distress in the ranks of the state's journalists, including among reporters at the Journal Sentinel who say the paper already suffers from its association with Sykes' hard-right views.
Several newspaper staffers point to Sykes' partisan approach as undermining the paper's image as the source for fair, unbiased news.
“I know that it frustrates some people,” Craig Gilbert, who works out of the Journal Sentinel Washington, D.C., bureau said about his newspaper's staffers. Gilbert called Sykes “a guy who takes sides in all these political battles” and said the radio host's show “certainly has an impact on the Republican party, all of the conservative talk, on Republican primaries. It's a venue where if you are a Republican politician, you can speak to your base in a sympathetic environment.”
“I think there's probably people out there who feel we're this large cabal and that we're force-feeding our particular views on all our products,” he said about Sykes' impact, later adding, “he does this show, I think it is highly, highly partisan, there is no mistaking where he is coming from. I think a lot of people, including journalists, feel that most of the time he is there just to repeat Republican Party talking points.”
In just the last year, Sykes, 57, has used his platform to become a major voice in the nationally-followed recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and more recently has enjoyed access to GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose congressional district is just south of Sykes' home base.
A former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal (which merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995) and one time editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Sykes launched his radio show nearly 20 years ago on WTMJ. He also hosts a Sunday morning political talk show on WTMJ-TV and this year produced his sixth book A Nation of Moochers (St. Martin's Press, 2012).
But it may be Sykes' newest effort, the ambitious Conservative Politics Digital Project, which will extend his reach even further. The project, using the website RightWisconsin.com, seeks to take his outspoken conservative approach and expand it to many platforms, including podcasts, web columns, videos, and on-location events.
Given his recent high-profile connections to some of the country's conservative leaders -- and the backing of a communications company that owns 48 television and radio stations in 12 states -- observers say Sykes has the platform to push his far-right views nationally.
“He is a smart, ambitious guy and I would not be surprised to see him go beyond WTMJ,” said Jim Romenesko, who runs an influential media news website and worked with Sykes at Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s. Asked if Sykes could reach that national level, Romenesko added, “I think so, he's smart, he's very quick and I think he has what it takes to really capture the audience's attention. He knows how to play that talk radio game.”
An online ad for a managing editor of the Conservative Politics Digital Project indicates it will be a very direct effort to push a conservative message, describing it as “a new suite of digital products related to Charlie Sykes and targeted at Conservatives in Wisconsin."
Sykes promoted the new project on his WTMJ Blog Monday, stating in part:
The playing field remains tilted against conservatives. The left still controls the mainstream media, universities, and have a head start on some of the new media.
That is where RightWisconsin comes in.
RightWisconsin will be a digital community, a rallying point, a one-stop source for conservatives on the front lines here.
RightWisconsin will be more than simply another conservative website; it will have a full-time staff and multiple platforms -- mobile, tablet, internet, social media applications.
He later boasts that having Journal Communications behind him will help spread his influence:
We can do all of this because we have the resources of a major media company behind us, including the state's biggest radio station and top-rated television station. In other words, we have built-in platforms for promotion as well as the infrastructure to make RightWisconsin multi-media.
We are hoping to partner with conservative groups throughout the state. RightWisconsin will not be in competition with those groups, it will provide another outlet for them. And it will drive the left and their allies nuts.
That connection has raised concerns among newspaper staffers and readers, according to those who follow the local media market.
“It's going to be really problematic,” said Erik Gunn, a media columnist for Milwaukee Magazine. “He gets very involved in supporting certain politicians.”
Gunn also noted, “One of the other things that is happening is the paper has been doing more together with the broadcast outlets, sometimes doing joint presentations on certain investigative stories, with a TV component and a print component, bringing the reporters for the newspaper on the TV station or the radio station to talk about the newspaper.”
Bruce Murphy, former editor of Milwaukee Magazine and a Journal Sentinel reporter from 2002 to 2005, echoed that concern:
"At the newspaper there was periodic frustration and friction because Charlie would be criticizing the newspaper," said Murphy, who now edits UrbanMilwaukee.com. “There has always been a tension in the paper.”
Scot Ross, Executive Director of One Wisconsin Now, a statewide progressive organization, agreed: “A news organization that's creating a position to explicitly promote conservative politics? Even Fox News has shown more restraint. The shame of this is that the fine work done by exceptional journalists at their stations in Wisconsin is now under a cloud because corporate management wants to promote its conservative agenda.”
Sykes could not be reached for comment Monday, while his WTMJ producer declined to speak and officials at Journal Communications and Journal Broadcasting Group did not respond to requests for comment.
The Journal Sentinel's Walker notes that Gov. Scott Walker (no relation) is glad to appear on Sykes' show regularly, while Paul Ryan was just on his television show this past weekend.
“It almost seems like the Republican governor here in this state has a standing invitation,” said Don Walker. “Whenever there is a talking point to get out to the media, the governor simply needs to pick up the phone and call Charlie and he'll get on.”
Journal Sentinel media critic Duane Dudek said Sykes could use that current position as a media ally to prominent Wisconsin politicians to build a wider following
“I don't put it past Sykes to be able to do this,” Dudek said. “If he had a national platform, he'd have a national audience. I am sure he is part of a movement. He's a pot-stirrer and Journal Broadcasting has a good record of creating these formula programs.”
Dudek also said a broader expansion through the Journal Communications' other outlets is possible. “I wouldn't be surprised if this is an effort to duplicate this in other markets,” Dudek stated.