Flip on the radio dial in Utah and you'll be sure to find one of two things in the first five strong signals: stations playing music two decades old and conservative talk radio. It's almost unavoidable when flipping from station to station, especially in one of the most conservative states in the country. So imagine what a breath of fresh air it is for many who don't share that hyperbole to know that there's a podcast they can listen to for a more liberal take on everything local. The Left Show
has been going strong since it launched in early 2011, led by radio personality and political aficionado J.M. Bell and an evolving cast, the show looks at a degree of topics from our own backyard and around the county. Today we chat with Bell about his career, starting up the show, it's impact on listeners and politics and a few other topics. (All photos courtesy of The Left Show.
Gavin: Hey man! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Utah, and ran away at my first legal opportunity. Too much Kerouac in my teens took me to Denver, where I lived for most of the '90s. I played guitar in a band, did some radio, theater, politics and wrote silly, angsty autobiographical fiction novels. Got back to Utah in 2001, got married, had some kids, went in to politics full time, peaking as the Utah communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Gavin: What first got you interested in broadcasting and what were some early influences on you?
Honestly, it was KSL. My dad owned an advertising agency and bought a lot of ad time with KSL. Danny Kramer and Mark Van Wagoner were a couple of my earliest role models, along with Doctor Demento, Wolfman Jack, Paul Harvey, Red Beard and Casey Kasem.
Gavin: What was it like for you breaking into the business and getting started in Denver?
Have I actually broken into anything? I mean, really? Feels like banging my head on a door at this point. Denver was, in the '90s, a great place to call yourself a creative. I mean, just because you’re weird doesn’t mean you’re an artist, but in Denver, you could be anything, do anything, and as long as you were genuine, nobody gave you any shit about it. It was glorious for a junior narcissist like myself.
Gavin: What eventually brought you to Utah and what made you decide to stick around rather than go city to city like many talents do?
For better or worse – mostly worse, it often seems – Utah is home. It’s where my friends and family live. As a professional lefty, I always know there’s something to fight for, to fight against and to fight about. It’s a wonderful state, and I love it. I just wish it weren’t so full of shitheads and sheeple.
Gavin: How did you first get involved with politics and taking an active role in the process?
It was a debate between Clinton and Brown in the Democratic Primary in 1992. I was on a three week road trip and we’d stopped for the night in Taos. I watched the debate in a crappy motel room and was just blown away listening to a couple of lefties competing over who gave the biggest, most intelligent shit about the American people. It was magnificent.
Gavin: How did you eventually land your gig at KSL and hosting Left Of The Dial?
It’s Holly Braithwaite’s fault. We were chatty Internet pals at the time that The Nightside Project
started up – back when it was the only unique thing on Utah radio (it’s still great, I love Ethan and Alex, but it was a glorious spectacle at the beginning) and Holly was co-hosting with Michael Castner. I was with the DNC in Utah at the time, and was also pals with Ethan Millard when he was still the humble SLCSpin
guy. Holly introduced me to Castner and when, after a year, he finally took a vacation, he asked me to fill his chair for a few nights. I didn’t suck at it, and, a few months later, KSL asked me to do a show of my own.
Gavin: What was your time like there and dealing with the day-to-day running of a news show in that environment?
Not that. Left of the Dial
was one hour on Saturdays, right after Enid Green, but only when there wasn’t a BYU game or LDS conference. I wrote the tagline “there’s only 168 hours in a week, and this one is different” for a reason. It was insane. Hugely condescending nearly the whole time, I had business owners who would call to buy ad time during my hour and were told that no ad time was for sale for my show. It felt like a freak experiment, but I worked my ass off to do the best job possible in spite of the fact that I was totally unwanted, especially by Doug Wright. It was a massive opportunity, wrapped in misery and flavored with regret.
Gavin: There are so many stories from people in our industry about being fired from KSL over stupid things. What led to KSL firing you over the Kevin Garn story?
There are two stories and one theory to my being fired. The first was the Garn story. This was one month after I’d desk thumped about Kilpack’s hypocritical DUI, and I was told to find a bright side to the story. My bright side was sarcastic, to say the least. A man abused a child, paid to cover it up, and got a standing ovation from the Utah House GOP when he resigned. The Utah press had known about it for years before it was finally revealed. The only bright side I could find was split between identification of an admitted child molester and the recorded response of a Standing-O from Republicans when he admitted it in public. The quiet story I got years later was that I was fired for using the word “vagina” several times in a blog post about the GOP’s unrelenting attack on women’s health on my personal blog. I made protests that “vagina” was the doctor word for, you know, a vagina
, but KSL management thinks it’s a dirty word – which might explain a lot of things. Lastly, I got an Editor’s Choice Best of Utah from the City Weekly
, and it’s been postulated that the universe wouldn’t let me have both things at the same time.
Gavin: What was your reaction to leaving KSL, and did you think you'd find another show right away or were you done with terrestrial broadcasting at that moment?
I was relieved that the bullshit was over, but I was devastated that my childhood dream had turned into such a stinking turd. I will never stop trying to get on – and stay on – terrestrial radio; and while I’m relieved to be free of the silliness of KSL’s program management, I miss hanging out there. A lot of wonderful folks.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up The Left Show?
It started as a pitch to Sirius/XM – a political show with swearing and dick jokes. Obviously the pitch popped and fizzled, but, I liked the idea and kept moving forward until it we started the podcast. Now it’s a news of the week review with swearing and dick jokes.
Gavin: What was it like gathering podcast equipment and essentially setting up your own studio.
It was a breeze! Easiest thing ever, really - I made Forrest Shaw do it. Honestly, it was pretty hard. I was “self employed” at the time, and without a lot of help, it’d still just be me with a gamer headset babbling at myself.
Gavin: For those curious, what did you use to make your own studio?
Adobe Audition, Zoom R-16, Senheiser microphones, a couple of antique computers, hope, duct tape and stubbornness. The walls are floor to ceiling bookshelves, overflowing with books. Thousands of them. They make amazingly effective sound dampeners and they look way more intelligent than egg crates and foam.
Gavin: How did you go about finding the panel of people you work with on the show, and for those unfamiliar, what's the current lineup of hosts and what they bring to the table?
Jason Williams was the first one, but he lives in Logan and has his own show on KVNU, so, he drops editorials on us from time to time. Sgt. Jake and Forrest Shaw were friends from long ago when we all worked at Port O’ Call and Anchor’s Aweigh together. JC Carter and I were roommates in college in the late '80s. I’ve known him longer than just about anyone else in the world outside of family. We had Eric Ethington on for a year, and then traded him out for the award winning Melissa Merlot. Bob Easton came along through JC and Hold 322
, our comic book podcast, when Bob heard me slag on Superman and took umbrage. It’s a great group of folks, and I’m lucky as hell to have them involved. These are some of the smartest, funniest people in the world and I get them to hang out in my basement every weekend. The current roster includes myself, Forrest Shaw, JC Carter, Melissa Merlot, Robert Easton and sometimes Jason Williams.
Gavin: What's the process like for you when deciding topics for the show each week?
I consume news. I start my day with Robin Meade and Tommy Burr’s Cornflakes, easing my way into the 24 hour cable news bloodbath. Eventually it’s either one of the CSPAN channels, or total surrender and Pink Floyd. I burn through the news aggregates and my RSS lists, Tumblr, Facebook,and Twitter. Anything I see that I want to talk about, I drop in a folder on the desktop. Saturday night I start to sort the stories and I pick what I think will fit into the show. Sunday morning I send the link farm off to the group, and Sunday afternoon we record two of the three weekly shows.
Gavin: Do you find you best material comes from pre-planning things out or from having cathartic conversations?
Yes? The link farm sets a blueprint and then it’s best to just let the show go where it wants most of the time. It swings back and forth, but, most shows are, while recording, quite fluid in generating conversations and stories. Sometimes it gets away from me and veers into insane areas, and it’s almost always my fault.
Gavin: When did you decide to bring guests on, and how do you feel it's helped the show?
I will bring a guest on whenever I remember to find one or when I feel like cleaning the basement. I’ve got two kids and two dogs and the basement turns to chaos quite quickly. Out of respect for my wife, Brenda, who doesn’t deserve half of the shit I put her through, and is a very good sport about my abandonment of family on Sundays; I do try to clean up whenever someone new comes over. Guests help the show because the regular gang cannot really be shocked anymore, and it’s a joyous delight to see new faces recoil in amazed distress. We still have those “holy shit” moments, and sometimes our familiarity makes us open up about things we’d never discuss out in the world, having a guest usually amps up the show.
Gavin: What's the response been like, both from the community, as well as those on the hill and in broadcasting?
Mixed. Local GOPers don’t like us and are constantly demanding that they be let on the show to argue or defend their shitty positions and views. I don’t have Republicans on my show. They have enough of their own shitty shows, this one is mine. Local rank and file Democrats don’t like me because I refuse to jump on the “not losing worse than we did is winning” messaging platform. I’m harder on my own team than I am against the Right. I expect better, and, frankly, most politicians and operatives hate to be held to a higher standard. The Hill folk don’t like me because I refuse to molly coddle issues and politicians, the way Doug Wright does. When you play nice and gloss over the hard ugly truths of the real world, you’re just screwing everything up. “Go along to get along” is going to get us all killed. I’d love a shot with Sirius/XM again, but I don’t know who to call.
Gavin: Do you feel like the show has helped the community out or does it feel more like you're making a show to vent and get word out to whoever happens to be listening?
Both. I get a lot of email thanking us for breaking down important issues into mockable globs. There is a catharsis to hearing someone make fun of the fear messaging, and the laugh at the doom squads of the right wing. Once you can internalize the absurdity of modern media’s terror programming, it becomes a lot easier to muscle through your day to day life. That said, in its heart, this show is a weekly vent of epic proportions.
Gavin: You're coming up on 200 episodes, do you have anything special planned for the milestone?
We’ve talked to Megan over at Jam about doing our 200th episode there. I think that’s still a thing. You know, now that you mention it, I should probably make a couple of phone calls.
Gavin: Are there any plans to expand the show or change the format, or are you comfortable where things are?
It’s all about the lack of money. I would love
to do The Left Show
every day, but, we all have shit to do during the week. If I could put the money together, and could pay the gang, I could easily do three hours a day – or, you know, Chris Hardwick will finally notice me the day he decides that the Nerdist
needs a news and politics show. Hold 322
has a steadily growing and committed fan base and it’s fun to watch that show evolve. This year we kicked off Tell Me A Story
in fits and starts. It shows a lot of promise, if I can just get more people to answer the phone. We have a couple more projects in the works; we’re just trying to make it something we can afford to do. Fundraising sucks.
Gavin: What can we expect from both you and the show over the rest of the year?
More and better is the goal. We’re doing another round of The Left Show
’s Fat Camp after Salt Lake Comic Con, we have a secret DVD commentary track project in the works, and a couple of video projects. It’s all out there in the future; we just need to find a way to pay for it.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Check out on Patreon
, Dedend Media
and Hold 322