Salem Rises to Prominence in Conservative Media

By Kevin Casey
TALKERS magazine
VP/Executive Editor


IRVING, Tex. — The last few years have brought enormous change to the media landscape and one of the bright lights in the sea of change is what’s been happening at Salem Media Group. Officials at the company say its rise to prominence in the conservative media arena has been building for more than 10 years. In fact, in April 2019, The Hollywood Reporter published an article titled, “How Salem has Quietly Become a Giant in Conservative Media.” In the three-plus years since, the Irving, Texas-based company has continued that trajectory and in many eyes verifies the claims in that piece. When it comes to conservative media, it’s impossible not to see Salem’s giant footprint.  

Stations, Networks and Platforms

Salem not only owns 100 radio stations, it also owns the network that supplies much of the programming on those stations — Salem Radio Network. It now owns its own Salem Podcast Network, operates its OTT television network — Salem News Channel, created SalemNow.com — a transactional video on demand (TVOD) platform, owns some of the largest conservative websites in the country like Townhall.comHotAir.com, RedState and Twitchy, owns the leading publisher of bestselling conservative books — Regnery Publishing, owns its own digital content provider in Salem Web Networks, and is now able to support social media influencers with the Salem Influencer Network. Salem also owns its own digital ad agency, Salem Surround, providing a multitude of digital advertising options. Salem continues to be a leading provider of Christian and faith-based content on it’s 41 Christian Teach and Talk radio stations, and also provides news/talk programming on its 31 news/talk radio stations. Executives at Salem believe that it is the last major broadcasting company that still owns its own radio news division with over 3,000 affiliates. 

Salem jumped into the conservative news space in 2006 by acquiring Townhall.com from the Heritage Foundation and expanded with acquisitions HotAir, PJmedia, Twitchy, and then RedState, which came with the Regnery acquisition in 2014. At the time, BuzzFeed News said the recent digital acquisitions had quickly established Salem as a “conservative media empire.” Townhall Media now serves one of the largest audiences looking for conservative news, analysis and opinion — upwards of 20-30 million readers depending on how hot the news cycle is.

New Management Structure

Salem is traded on the NASDAQ and in January of this year, Salem re-shuffled the management structure inside the company, elevating founder Ed Atsinger to the newly created position of executive chairman of the board. David Santrella was promoted from co-president to CEO, while David Evans was promoted from co-president to COO. In part, those moves were designed to help Salem provide infrastructure for this burgeoning conservative media empire.  

Executives at Salem believe that because of the firepower it has built as part of this infrastructure, it is able to expand and grow into new areas of influence, and provide the necessary backing for those ventures without relying on outside parties. They believe that’s becoming increasingly important due to the cancel culture’s attempts to suppress anything conservative.

Successful Documentaries

In May, Salem premiered its first investigative documentary, 2000 Mules, which the company says provides evidence of “shenanigans” played in the November 2020 election. Salem was the lone investor and executive producer of the film that was produced by documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza in partnership with TrueTheVote, which provided the research. Salem invested $3 million in making and marketing the film, and to date it has realized nearly $14 million in top-line revenue.  Five of Salem’s hosts had cameo appearances in the film. Not every documentary can have that kind of instant success, but Salem says intends to create more documentaries in the future that help in fulfilling its worldview.  

Ed Atsinger says, “Salem’s leadership enthusiastically embraces the concept of American exceptionalism — that America is unique in human history as a place where no matter your social status, your ethnicity, your religion, or your country of origin the American dream is available for the taking. Today there are ideologies conspiring to tear us apart by promoting identity politics under such euphemisms as ‘critical race theory.’ Salem is committed to do all that we can to counteract the forces that would tear us apart, and we have created a company uniquely positioned to achieve that goal.  Fortunately, there are enough Americans committed to religious faith and conservative values to help us achieve that goal.” 

David Santrella adds, “There are times when we feel like we are surrounded by the enemy. But I always know there are two ways to look at that, and we choose to look at that as a huge opportunity for us to grow and expand, and stay true to the roots of our company’s original founding.” 

Salem was founded in 1974 by Atsinger and his brother-in-law Stu Epperson with one Christian radio station in Oxnard, California. Things have definitely taken off since then. 

Entry into Podcasting and Vodcasting

In January 2021, the company launched Salem Podcast Network, using well-known personalities Charlie Kirk and Dinesh D’Souza as the foundation. Over the next year it added 22 podcasts, and rose to #11 on Triton Digital’s national podcast network rankings, with 17 million downloads per month. Salem Senior VP of spoken word Phil Boyce states, “When it comes to podcasting, Salem was a bit late to the party. But we always knew it was a great opportunity to expand our brand and influence if we found the right partners, and we certainly did.” In its first year, Salem Podcast Network added $6.3 million in top-line revenue, and this year is pacing to add another $6.7 million.  

Earlier this year, the company launched Salem News Channel, a full service 24/7 TV network, using a mixture of SRN talk hosts, and video-exclusive talent that continues to grow. “We think there is a huge market for another conservative OTT television network,” says Boyce. “This is a great way for us to multi-purpose our great SRN hosts onto this new video platform, as well as develop new and relevant TV-only talent that will make a difference in this space.” SNC is now viewable on SalemNewsChannel.com,  it’s own app on both Android and Apple devices, Apple Firestick, Roku, KlowdTV, and more coming soon.  

In late 2019, Salem created SalemNow.com as a video on demand platform to provide expanded opportunities for the company’s hosts. COVID-19 had shut down movie theaters and Salem executives say the cancel culture began shutting down conservative voices. When the Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla documentary No Safe Spaces was shelved by Netflix, the film found home on SalemNow.com. And in a few months it brought in a million dollars in downloads. Boyce says the same issues forced talk host Larry Elder to bring his documentary Uncle Tom to the platform, and in just a few months it generated $3 million in downloads and DVD sales. Fast forward to this year and the success of 2000 Mules makes this another profitable venture for Salem in the conservative media world. Salem executives say their company now has a TVOD platform that skirts the attempts of the cancel culture to stifle conservative content.  

“When I joined Salem’s team in early 2012, I had no idea the company was positioned to explode onto the conservative landscape like it did,” says Boyce.  “My 14 years experience programming WABC in New York — the most-listened-to news/talk station in the nation — had prepared me well for the explosive times we were about to enter at Salem. We’ve been in a culture war for years in this country, and Salem is able to use its assets to further the cause, doing good, while informing and entertaining our audience,” adds Boyce. “And significantly,” he says, “we make money doing it.”  

COO David Evans says, “Salem’s growth in digital and publishing is another example of how opportunity knocked and Salem took advantage. Salem is in a unique position to create conservative digital platforms, and publish them at the same time, while using our assets to promote all of them.”  

As an example of that unmatched synergy, Regnery will release the book version of 2000 Mules in late August. Producer Dinesh D’Souza is one of several Salem broadcast personalities who have written bestselling books for Regnery.

Christian Radio Foundation

Salem’s bread-and-butter format, the Christian Teach and Talk format that has been so successful on it’s 41 CTT stations, will always be the main driver in the company, according to company executives. Years ago Salem learned that many of its Christian listeners sought out news/talk stations as a second choice, so Salem entered that space as well, and the synergy between the two is obvious. Salem also airs 12 Christian music stations around the country, and those stations are among the highest rated in each market.  David Santrella says, “The Christian Teach and Talk platform is more than just our bread and butter format, it is a core part of the mission for this company, and we’ll never move away from it. America needs these stations now more than ever, and we are committed to staying true to our core format.”   

Young Conservatives

Boyce says that Salem has added a new generation of talk talent that attracts loyal younger listeners. He says hosts like Charlie Kirk, Brandon Tatum, Dr. Sebastian Gorka and Erik Metaxas have rejuvenated the Salem Radio Network. He adds, “When you add Kirk’s podcast to the Salem Podcast Network along with Dinesh D’Souza, Trish Regan, and Todd Starnes, plus Andrew Wilkow to the Salem News Channel lineup, you clearly see the magnitude of the content and talent Salem now brings to the table.”

Boyce says SRN hosts like Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt and Mike Gallagher continue to be durable powerhouses. But recently, Salem Podcast Network has added young female podcasters like Jenna Ellis — a former Trump attorney, Julie Hartman — who recently graduated from Harvard, and Morgan Zegers — who started “Young Americans Against Socialism.” The latter two are in their early 20s, which Boyce says helps Salem find the next generation of compelling talk talent and deepens the diversity of their lineup. “I used to feel somewhat frustrated at the SRN lineup because all the beachfront property was filled. Both SNC and the podcast network open up a whole new world of opportunity and Salem is plunging right into the deep end of the pool,” says Boyce. “It’s crazy but I have never had more fun helping to build it.”

Boyce adds that the company is building a world-class management team to lead its exploding conservative empire. He recently hired broadcast executive Cary Pahigian as vice president and general manager of SNC, after his most recent eight-year stint as president and general manager of WBAL “NewsRadio 1090/101.5” and “98 Rock” in Baltimore for Hearst Television.

Santrella says that fulfilling the mission at Salem has never been more crucial or important than it is right now. “What is going on in America in this left vs. right culture war is a huge concern for us,” he says. “But we think we have the right team in place to weather the storm and see positive change in America, and in the process we have been able to turn this into a powerful business model.”

Kevin Casey is vice president and executive editor for TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at kevin@talkers.com.