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Can I really have been on the radio for 18 years?
Yep, to the day, actually. Through four presidents, lots of horror and strife, as well as much joy.
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It’s hard for me to imagine that I have been hosting a live radio program, speaking with people across the United States and around the world, for 18 years.
But indeed, April 14, 2003, was when I began my show on Sirius Satellite Radio — a few years before it merged with XM Radio to become SiriusXM — broadcasting several hours each weekday.
When I say it’s hard to imagine, I truly mean it’s not tangible, and feels completely out of reach, like a dream with details you forget over time. I’ve written five books and scores of articles, which I see in print on a shelf, or online with a click, and have communicated, and still communicate, with people through those media.
But the hours and hours of live radio monologues, interviews and conversations with Americans that happened in bursts of time and space and which did something in the moment — even if they sometimes just entertained people — feel more ephemeral. Sure, the audio recordings are somewhere. But you’ll never hear those rantings, musings and conversations live again, within the context of what was happening in the world, whether it was tumultuous and harrowing, or jubilant — or both. The unexpected call, the element of surprise in live talk radio, only happens once.
A book is written, painstakingly crafted, reworked, edited and edited, with the idea that people will read it later — not while you’re writing it — and, hopefully, many will read it for a long time to come. Live radio, however— at least the kind of radio I’ve done — is thinking out loud, with a lot of people going along for the ride, and some participating in helping to make it happen. The conversations, discoveries, sparks of profound thought or passionate emotion have only that moment. There’s nothing like it. It’s the opposite of a podcast, or a recorded, edited radio segment. There’s a different kind of intimacy and excitement because of what previously unknown action might develop, what thoughts might emerge or what new connection might be formed.
When I began on Sirius, satellite radio was in its infancy — many thought people would never pay for radio by subscription — and Sirius had just 30,000 subscribers across the U.S. and Canada. Today there are more than 34 million subscribers to SiriusXM. And many of the same listeners from way back then — in addition to many more — still call into my program, a connection we’ve had that has spanned almost two decades.
My show launched as part of OutQ, a channel created on Sirius that was the first 24/7 LGBT-focused talk radio network. It was pioneering radio, reaching an audience nationally that was underserved. We were able to connect with people deep in rural America, as the satellite transmission goes everywhere, from the heart of the mountains and valleys to the most remote deserts. Many people in small towns in the South or Midwest, where much media was (and still is) virulently homophobic and transphobic, could access us, communicate with us — and with people like themselves across America, or people who supported them— and be part of a community, knowing they weren’t alone.
We began the show just after the Iraq War commenced and bombs had been dropping on Iraqi cities, an invasion by George W. Bush based on lies that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives of American service members and Iraqi civilians. It was a very turbulent and stressful time, as Bush exploited the post-9/11 fears about terrorism. Though we were an LGBT channel, we obviously talked about all aspects of life that affected us. And my show was the afternoon political show, so we were deep in the resistance even back then, fighting a right-wing extremism that no one should forget laid the groundwork for Donald Trump.
Bush, losing the faith of the American people on the war, soon was pushing a federal marriage amendment, gearing up for his 2004 re-election campaign, which he knew would be close — and using bigotry against a misunderstood minority to galvanize the base exactly as the GOP is doing today to transgender people. They pummeled Democrat John Kerry, attacking the distinguished veteran’s patriotism with the Swift Boat lies, and they demonized gay men and lesbians, charging they would destroy the institution of marriage.
I’ll never forget the day after the election, the raw emotion I heard from listeners who were truly afraid. The lesbian woman who pulled off to the side of the road in Oklahoma, sobbing terribly, worried that she might lose her children if the right pushed through with this agenda — just one of many calls I took that day and in the days that followed.
But we fought, and slogged through, and we helped elect Barack Obama, making powerful history. The tears of joy from Black Americans and many others — for days and weeks — were emotional and electric in a way that numbed those past experiences, at least for a little while. The stories we heard from people, regarding how their lives had changed and what the future felt like, were enormous and inspiring.
But the hate didn’t end — in many ways it only was just beginning. We fought the Tea Party and the racist attacks on the president. And then we also had to fight against the religious right, still attacking marriage equality, while we also had to put pressure on Obama, who was dragging his feet early on regarding “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and marriage equality.
Of course, I had many guests on the program, including those heroes among activists, authors and politicians who were leading the fight against the hate. But I also spoke with the bigots — the right-wing politicians, the leaders of religious right groups, and racist hate group officials — and those conversations sparked discussions as well as some pretty major and hilarious meltdowns.
There was State Senator James Forrester of North Carolina, for example, a doctor who was pushing a ban on same-sex marriage — based on what he claimed was a low life-expectancy of gay men — who came on my show to speak with me in September of 2011. He had no idea what he was walking into, and, as he lost ground, his wife could be heard in the background whispering crazy talking points to him!
Needless to say, it was among the many epic takedowns, and he completely fell apart, and just had to get off the show. (Forrester died a month later, at the age of 74).
You can watch the interview here if you like.
In the end, after so many battles, gay and lesbian people prevailed in the fight for marriage equality. I said over and over, however, that we couldn’t succumb to “victory blindness,” and, later, in a book that I published in 2015, I warned that, It’s Not Over.
And then came the Trump years. I’d moved from OutQ to the brand new Progress channel in 2013, as part of the launch of SiriusXM’s progressive channel. It was exciting to take all of the experience I’d honed on OutQ and address the larger progressive community and the big issues affecting the country. By then LGBTQ rights had found its place within the progressive movement and we had to now work together in coalitions with all groups fighting against right-wing extremism.
Covering the 2016 election on the air was the frightening roller coaster it was for everyone else, even as few thought Trump could really win. In a meeting of SiriusXM hosts days before the election, as we mapped out election coverage, someone raised the remote possibility of Trump winning, and how we as hosts should respond. I drew back to that day after the Bush re-election, and people sobbing on the side of the road, and explained that you have to kind of be a therapist — even though of course we’re not trained as such — and be there for people who will be devastated.
And then it happened. Like all of you I’ll never forget that night or the days that followed. It was excruciating being on the air as the returns came in. And I knew the next day I’d need to be there for a lot of people. But honestly, it was very selfish. Having to hold it together and listen to other people helped me get through the madness. It was a way to put it aside, not deal with it — something I realized I’d done earlier in life, but we’ll save that for another time — because I had to focus on other people’s grief.
The listeners truly helped me get through it, the sense of community, and then, covering the Women’s March and hearing from women and many others all across the country calling for hours and hours, ready for the fight.
And we did it again, after the most horrific four years we’ve ever experienced under a president, beating back the authoritarian. I was glad to do what I could — bringing on activists and progressive politicians who would go on to win House races and Senate races, taking down the lies of the Trump regime, exposing the sinister plots. And of course, those knock-down, drag-out fights with Trump supporters who called the show. Often they couldn’t be reasoned with, but it was sheer therapy for me and for the listeners in just having their batshit crazy stuff pummeled.
I’m thankful to everyone who worked hard, and to all the listeners, some who’ve been with me from way back, and many newer ones. It’s amazing and thrilling to be looking at this 18th anniversary of my show with a new president, Joe Biden, making bolder moves than many of us thought he might. We have a lot of work ahead, no doubt. And this newsletter, The Signorile Report, is now another way to connect. So thanks to all of my listeners and all the readers here as well.