How Salem Is Quietly Becoming a Conservative Media Giant

Radio istock - H - 2019

The California-based broadcaster's digital acquisitions have turned heads, but the company's revenues primarily come from 116 radio stations in 39 markets.

In 2019, with a soft advertising market and a big-tech duopoly that isn't letting up, the digital media landscape is largely bereft of hungry buyers.

But in late March, radio giant Salem Media Group quietly disclosed the purchase of a sixth digital media company, PJ Media, for just $100,000. Salem's conservative-leaning digital arm, Townhall Media, which includes right-leaning sites like HotAir and RedState, now reaches more than 15 million unique visitors a month, and is a "nicely profitable business," says Dave Evans, who leads new media and book publishing for Salem.

Salem, based in Camarillo, California, has grown in political influence by snapping up digital properties from partisans like Michelle Malkin (Twitchy, Hot Air) while adding pro-Trump radio voices like former Fox News contributor Sebastian Gorka, which may help the company compete with titans iHeartRadio (home to Rush Limbaugh) and Westwood One (featuring Mark Levin). 

"We are always on the hunt for strategic acquisitions that complement the audiences that we serve," says broadcast media president Dave Santrella.

Ideologically, Salem radio hosts are simpatico with Fox News' opinion hosts, and the company similarly views itself as a counterweight to mainstream media. In the past two months, the company extended the contract of conservative hosts Larry Elder and Mike Gallagher through 2022 and 2023, respectively. 

Consistently is key, says Phil Boyce, a Salem vice president. "Every weekday, from 6 a.m. ET to midnight, Salem broadcasts talk radio programming that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle," he says. "There is a linkage between all of the shows, and while not all stations take our entire lineup, all of them could and you would not get tired of it."

While the larger Sinclair Broadcast Group is seen as merely politically conservative, Salem offers both right-leaning talk and Christian-centric content. "The beauty of Salem is that we look at our company as serving some very distinct audiences and doing that better than anybody else," Santrella says. "Sinclair is a fantastic broadcaster, but they're still a general market broadcaster, as is iHeart or Cumulus."

Salem's digital acquisitions have turned heads, but the company's revenues primarily come from 116 radio stations in 39 markets (75 percent), with a publishing business — Regnery — also chipping in about 10 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2018, Salem brought in about $51.1 million in net broadcast revenue and $11.5 million in digital revenue. (Sinclair's total media revenue for the same period was $848.9 million.)

If Salem is hoping to match the influence of Fox or Sinclair, it has a ways to go — "it's small potatoes compared to those two," says a competing digital media executive, who nonetheless concedes that the company is "a bigger player in conservative media than many realize."

While Salem touts the "variety of perspectives" it offers on the radio and online, they all fall within the right side of the ideological spectrum. The company has been accused of pushing out longtime host Michael Medved last year for being anti-Trump, which is largely in line with the company's laser-like focus on its well-researched audience.

"They're expecting us to deliver that information through the lens of conservative politics," says Santrella. "And, our experience has always been that any time we deviate from that, we lose listeners and we lose advertisers."

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mike Gallagher is a current Fox News contributor. His contract at that network expired in August 2017. 

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.