Hamilton

New CBC podcast explores how a Hamilton-born priest became the 'Father of Hate Radio'

Father Charles Coughlin, a Canadian priest-turned-radio-star, was one of the precursors to modern right-wing radio, commanding an audience in the tens of millions during the 1930s.

'The Flamethrowers' traces the history and influence of right-wing radio

Father Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest at Royal Oak, Michigan's National Shrine of the Little Flower Church. He was one of the first religious leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, as more than 40 million tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s. (Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Long before talk radio took over the airwaves and began to put pressure on political parties, a Hamilton-born priest harnessed its power to influence the masses.

His name was Father Charles Coughlin and his evolution eventually earned him the nickname the Father of Hate Radio.

Coughlin's story features on "The Flamethrowers," a new podcast series hosted by journalist Justin Ling.

It traces the history of right-wing talk radio and how it grew from the fringes to the forefront of power, radically changing U.S. politics in the process.

The Canadian priest turned radio star was one of the precursors to the movement, commanding an audience in the tens of millions during the 1930s.

Coughlin was born on Oct. 25, 1891, in Hamilton. He graduated from the University of Toronto, then attended St. Basil's Seminary in Toronto, according to an encyclopedia entry compiled by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Flamethrowers picks up the priest's story in the early 1920s, when Coughlin was posted to Royal Oak, Mich. and began to experiment with a powerful tool that was still relatively new — commercial radio.

He had a deep, rich voice that seemed made for the platform and, at least initially, his addresses were mostly religious.

After the stock market crash in 1929 began to speak out more generally, with an anti-communist and anti-capitalist message. 

Message started to change in the 1930s

Throughout the 1930s the audience for his weekly broadcasts swelled into the tens of millions and donations poured into his church.

Then referred to as the radio priest, he became an ardent supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and was invited to the 1932 democratic convention.

But, by 1936, he and the president had fallen out and Coughlin started his own political party. The nature of his speeches also took a turn, blaming Jewish people in Germany for the persecution they were facing.

Two years later, with Coughlin's message becoming even more anti-Semitic, his broadcasts called out by a station for "misstatements of fact."  By 1939, broadcasting authorities and the U.S. government had set up restrictions on what could go out on the airwaves and the priest was dropped from national radio.

The original Rush Limbaugh

Each episode of The Flamethrowers is a slice of right-wing, talk-radio history, with Coughlin kicking things off. Podcast producer Peter Brown says he hadn't heard of Coughlin before the team started researching for the show. 

"He was the first national radio star in the U.S. Truly Limbaugh before there was a Limbaugh, except on a much bigger scale," Brown says.  "In the 1930s, in the earliest years of radio, he's reported to have had an audience of one in three Americans, compared to Limbaugh's one in 20." 

Brown said the history underscores the power of radio.  "His success — and the issues he raised — set the pattern for the 100-year journey of conservative radio. There's a straight line from Coughlin to Rush Limbaugh and the election of Donald Trump in 2016." 

One of the later podcast episodes focuses on the appeal — and business potential — of outrage, a lesson Brown says Coughlin's career also emphasized. "He started off doing a religious program, but when the Great Depression hit, he began expressing the anger of the common citizens who were suffering. That anger made him a star, and a hugely important figure. For a century now, populist anger has been at the heart of right wing radio's appeal."

Click the player below to learn more about Coughlin and the evolution of right-wing radio.

Our story begins with Canadian priest Charles Coughlin — a populist crusader who winds up espousing conspiracy and hate. Right-wing radio flexes its muscle with a boycott of Polish Ham. And the Kennedy government almost wipes right-wing talk off the map. 42:27

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