Daily Dispatches
Todd Starnes
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Todd Starnes

Todd Starnes: Be alarmed, get educated, take action

Q&A

Fox News commentator Todd Starnes began his journalistic career in newspapers before moving into public relations at Baptist Press and the Baptist Union University in Jackson, Tenn. While in Jackson, he started work at the local talk-radio station. He ended up improving the ratings of that station so much he got a promotion to the Sacramento, Calif., market, where he came to the attention of Fox News. I recently spoke with Todd Starnes at the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta where he was promoting his new book, God Less America.

Can you recount what got you out of public relations at Union University and back into straight journalism? A lot of journalists in our line of work go to the promised land of PR where the paychecks are a little bit bigger. I think that was one of the factors. You have better hours, and you’re not always on the clock. You’re not beholden to the breaking news story. I didn’t realize until I got out of journalism how much I missed that. A tornado had actually hit our town and had knocked out power to the local newspaper. It hit Jackson, and it almost flattened Union University, too, which is of course a big story.

The newspaper was without power, and I remember being out there and surveying the damage. I had overheard the conversations, and I said, “Why don’t you guys just bring your whole news operation over to the university?” They did. They actually set up the entire newspaper in our university communication offices, and they were able to get that newspaper out without missing a deadline. That was, for me, the sign of, “You know what? Time to get back into journalism.” Fortunately, we had an outlet of Clear Channel Communications, one of the massive media conglomerates. They own the stations here in town. I went on the staff as their news director, and about a year later was hired at their affiliate in Sacramento.

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When you were at that station in Jackson, even though it was owned by a big conglomerate, it wasn’t doing that great in the ratings. But you did something that changed the landscape a little. Can you describe what happened? Let me preface this by saying Dave Ramsey would not approve of what I did. The Passion of the Christ movie had just come out, and we were looking at a way to market our station and to really connect with our listeners. We had no budget for PR at all. I cashed in my 401(k) plan, and I purchased all the opening night tickets to The Passion of the Christ in our community, in Jackson. We gave away those tickets on the air. … It was this idea of identifying your market, understanding who your listeners were. As a result of that movie coming to town, we were able to build a really strong audience there.

On the strength of your success there, you moved on to Sacramento. What happened there? I was having a blast at the KFBK, the great station there, and one day I got sick. I went to the doctor. I thought I had bronchitis. Long story short, my aortic heart valve was in the process of failing, and I had to have open-heart surgery at the age of 37 years old. My news editor said, “Hey, why don’t you think about keeping an audio journal of your experiences going through this?” I said, “Okay.” When the surgery time came, we actually had a reporter in the surgery suite tdocumenting what the doctors were doing. That series ended up winning the Edward R. Murrow Award and also won the Associated Press Mark Twain Award for Storytelling. And, just to gush, a few months after the heart surgery, I received a telephone call from Fox News. They said they were getting ready to launch a new radio news network and asked if I would be interested in coming to work at Fox News Radio.

What was your first job at Fox? I was the overnight anchor, which is banker’s hours in reverse, 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. It was not a glamorous gig. … From anchoring, they moved me to reporter. [I] had the honor of covering the 2008 presidential campaign. I was embedded with the Obama side of the campaign and met a lot of wonderful people. Then just about three years ago, we launched a Paul Harvey-style news and commentary, which is on nearly 400 stations.

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