Conservative Radio Host: How I Got Pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen image and circle inset  Austin Rhodes -H 2018
Charley Gallay/Getty Images; Inset: Courtesy of Subject

Austin Rhodes is a conservative radio host based in Augusta, Georgia. In early August 2017, Rhodes conducted an on-air interview with a long-haired man identified to him as Dr. Nira Cain, a professor of gender and women's studies at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. 

To his surprise, Rhodes later learned that he had actually interviewed the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Rhodes says now that the interview was "definitely" for Cohen's new Showtime show, Who Is America?, which debuts Sunday.

Rhodes, who shared his story with local media when it happened, was the first known political conservative to admit publicly to have been snookered for Cohen's new project. This week, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, congressman turned radio host Joe Walsh and former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore all said they were tricked by Cohen. Former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel also shared his story with The Hollywood Reporter.

Rhodes said the ruse began with a July 26 email from a producer named "Sarah Taylor" that he shared exclusively with THR. Taylor said she was working on a series called Bridging the Divide, which would air on either CBS or CBS-owned Showtime. "The show is centered around trying to find common ground in the midst of our deeply divided partisan times," she said.

Taylor's full email, which was also addressed to Rhodes' producer, is reproduced below:

Hi Bill and Austin,

Austin, I understand you are on vacation this week but I wanted to make sure this opportunity was not missed. Bill, hoping you'll be able to help me out?

I'm a former television news producer based out of Los Angeles and San Francisco. I'm currently working with Bright Harbor Media to produce a series tentatively called 'BRIDGING THE DIVIDE' for CBS Corp. The show is centered around trying to find common ground in the midst of our deeply divided partisan times. It's slated to air in the fall on either CBS or Showtime.

As part of this project, we're bringing a staunch liberal to conservative areas of Georgia, and having him or her actually converse with the hard working people that elected President Trump. We'll be filming his/her interactions and basically seeing what happens in this "fish out of water" experience. We hope there is middle ground to be found, but we are also realistic. The goal of the show is just to get the two sides to dialogue.

We'd love it if you would also talk with him live on air. As a conservative leader and talk radio icon in Georgia, we'd love for you to ask him/her if he/she has learned anything and allow our liberal to ask and answer questions. Like you, our liberal has strong views. It should be a very lively conversation, and our liberal is open to anything that comes his/her way. We truly believe you and your radio station would be perfect for our TV show.

We'll be filming 'BRIDGING THE DIVIDE' next week! Could you allot some radio air time to talk directly with our liberal, live on the air? 

I'm happy to explain more or answer any questions you may have. You can reach me at: [redacted]

Thank you!

Sarah Taylor

Rhodes also shared his version of events with THR:

Contrary to what many critics would say about talk radio, hosts worth their salt actively seek guests and callers that espouse dissenting opinions and viewpoints and stand out from the usual fare. That is certainly the approach I have taken in the 26 years I have hosted Augusta, Georgia's most popular radio talk show. Listeners are well-acquainted with my right-of-center viewpoint, and quite frankly, exchanging high fives and attaboys in an echo chamber makes for a pretty boring afternoon drive.

So, last year, when my producer was contacted by a publicist working with a documentary film crew chronicling the "great American political divide," highlighted by the election of President Trump, we were intrigued.

According to the project pitched by Sarah Taylor (as she called herself), her team was sending "liberal academics" out into the heart of Trump country to discuss their differences with conservatives with the goal of improving communication and striving for a more constructive coexistence. All of this would be recorded by a professional documentary film crew, so the conversations and exchange of viewpoints could be edited together for a Showtime series called Bridging the Divide. (This is actually an intriguing idea — too bad someone isn't really doing it!)

There was limited communication between the initial agreement to participate in the segment and the day the crew actually arrived with "Dr. Cain" in tow.

"Dr. Cain" arrived shortly after the 3 p.m. broadcast began, and his accompanying crew apologized profusely for running late. We now know that this was part of their ingenious plan to keep my team slightly off balance, and it worked like a charm. Broadcast release forms were hastily put in front of myself and my producer as we were navigating complicated light and sound equipment being set up all around us. This was all going on during a three-minute commercial and news break we actively and simultaneously produced and engineered ourselves.

I wasn't given the actual name of the interview subject until we were on the air, but I immediately Googled him, and came across what I now know was a sham website pushing a few oddly named books and several lecture series. The books did show up on Amazon, but the links to purchase them went nowhere.

And what a sight he was! When I first met this very tall, oddly dressed man, I said live on air: "Well, my goodness. You look like you are coming in straight from central casting. If I didn't know better I would say you could be Fred Armisen in disguise."

Well, he wasn't Armisen, but I wasn't too far off.

What followed was 90 minutes of my first and only trip into the radio version of The Twilight Zone, with a guest that was either the most amazingly bizarre left-wing extremist in the country or a complete lunatic. To be honest, I believed at the time he was both.

My hat is off to his crew, who kept my producer and I off-kilter the entire interview by constantly adjusting our hardwired microphones (for the documentary) and lights every moment we were off air. "Dr. Cain" dashed out at every commercial and news break to seek relief in the bathroom due to what he described as some sort of intestinal distress. (There, a professional crew adjusted his makeup.)

Some of "Dr. Cain's" best hits from the interview included calling the U.S. Army "an active terrorist organization," saying that "'The Dukes of Hazzard' is like the Southern version of Roots," and my favorite, claiming that "white supremacists are responsible for most of the gun deaths in America."

At some point it occurred to me that the silliness of his remarks meant we were likely being "put on," but it never occurred to me to what extent. 

The interview abruptly ended, without prior notice, when he failed to return from his latest sprint to the restroom. We made it through roughly 90 minutes, and his producer apologized for Dr. Cain's gastrointestinal meltdown and subsequent exit to seek relief.

Throughout his outrageous appearance, many of my listeners thought the absurdities they were hearing from "Dr. Cain" had to be made up. We probably received 40 to 50 emails during Cain's interview speculating that his appearance was "performance art" — either that or the greatest vindication of conservatism ever broadcast over the air.

Then we received an off-air call from one listener, who specifically asked that we not name him, that quickly solved the mystery. At some point, my producer had mentioned the name of the supervising producer of the "documentary" on the air: Todd Schulman. The listener told us that Schulman was the man who had secured his participation as a guest in the infamous "Southern dinner scene" in the hilarious Cohen movie Borat. A quick IMDB check revealed Schulman to be connected to virtually every project Cohen had starred in dating back to the Da Ali G Show, including Cohen's new show.

I was flummoxed.

I have been a fan of Cohen's work for years, and I have seen Borat probably 20 times from start to finish. How in the hell did I miss that this was Sacha Baron Cohen? When I replayed the show, literally the very next day, his voice was obvious, despite a clever attempt to disguise the voice we have heard in countless dialects and characters.

I have been asked if I am concerned how I will be portrayed in what we now know to be Cohen's new show, Who Is America? That all depends on the editing of the piece, if they even use it at all. Obviously, my conversation with the "Dr. Nira Cain" character was broadcast live as it happened, so whatever we hear or see, we still have the original program to clarify context or tone if needed.

I am not worried at all. My biggest regret is not being able to shake his hand as Sacha Baron Cohen or interview him (as himself). 

I hope we can set that up. I would say he owes me one.