Talking the Talk with WDET’s Craig Fahle

Turning the microphone on WDET’s Craig Fahle
Photographs by Josh Scott

If you’re cruising along the FM radio dial and come across a rational, reasonable discussion about a hot topic in the news, chances are you’ve stumbled upon The Craig Fahle Show. If you stay for a while, you’ll be joining a growing number — some 56,000 listeners currently tune in at some point each week.

While those certainly aren’t Rush Limbaugh-size ratings, they’re pretty significant for a public radio station. Top newsmakers are taking notice, as well, knowing they’ll get more than a sound bite’s worth of time to discuss the latest issues.

Hour Detroit visited WDET’s Midtown studios to chat with Fahle. Here’s what he had to say.
(Note: The Craig Fahle Show runs on WDET-FM 101.9 from 10 a.m. to noon, Mon.-Thu., and Friday from 10-11:30 a.m. It’s rebroadcast 7-9 p.m. most evenings.

I tend to think of your show as “talk radio without the yelling.” If you wrote a 30-second radio commercial, how would you describe it?
I guess that’s a fair description. Although there are times when things get a little tense. I think it’s the place where you can go and hear some things you might not hear other places. We’re not afraid to hear different people’s viewpoints. … It’s pretty simple. Less than 30 seconds: “We’re always going to listen.” We may not always agree with you, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to challenge you. But you’re going to get an opportunity to say your piece. Within reason. Obviously, I’m not about to give a lot of airspace to neo-Nazis or other people like that (who) might want to pollute the airwaves with stuff that frankly doesn’t benefit the conversation. If you’re somewhat reasoned, have points you want to make, and a little bit to back them up, we’re more than happy to hear from you.

Public Radio tends to be labeled as left-leaning. How do you attract someone who might not want to tune in to a “lamestream media” talk show?
I’m not sure we’re getting that person anyway. You could put on nothing but Nolan Finley and Henry Payne (from The Detroit News) and Frank Beckmann (from WJR-AM), and you still wouldn’t get those people because we’re public radio. [But] if you’ve got a moderately open mind, and you’re willing to at least tolerate other people’s opinions, then there’s a space for you here. You may not agree with everything you hear, and nobody’s asking you to. … There’s nothing scary about that. If your views are so fragile that exposure to other people’s ideas threatens your worldview, then you’re the one who’s got the problem; not us. That make sense?

This morning I had Nolan Finley on the program. Pretty conservative guy. He’s somebody I’ve known for a long time, and I trust him. … Henry Payne, too. A very conservative guy, but he was important to the discussion we were having. Having your own viewpoint reinforced doesn’t really do us any good.

Journalists are supposed to remain impartial. Yet talk-show hosts are supposed to have a point of view. Is it a challenge to reconcile that?
Not really. I switched roles. I was a reporter first, then I was an anchor for a long time. … I have a point of view, but it’s not so front-and-center that it dominates what the show is going to be about …(and) agreeing with me is not part of the cost of entry. There are enough blowhards on the radio as it is.

Most talk shows are about the host — and his or her views (Rush, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, et al.)
The guests I bring on have spent a lifetime, in some instances, researching the subject they’re talking about. I learn a ton from these people every single day, [including] the callers. And I am not above admitting that I am wrong. … It’s when you start believing your opinion matters more than somebody else’s… Maybe I’m not cut out to do a Rush type of show. I can’t imagine taking myself that seriously … to the point where you get angry with people that disagree with you; that just seems counterproductive and limiting. We’re in such a hyper-partisan atmosphere that everybody sort of wants to follow this script that’s been successful: “I’ve got to have this firmly entrenched point of view … and get this loyal group of followers that will never go anywhere else.” Or name themselves Dittoheads or something. … That’s a problem that’s really screwed up the discourse. I like that people value what I have to say. That’s great. I don’t want people to tune me out and say, “This guy’s an idiot.” But it’s not that important to me that I have ‘followers.’ We need listeners, obviously. But there’s a difference between a listener and a follower.

Your show originally debuted as Detroit Today. What led to the name change?
That was a decision that was above my pay grade. … [And] you’re also somewhat limited in your scope of what you can talk about when you’re called Detroit Today. We always try to tie things back to this region. But not everything has to be about the city proper. … We can have a lot of Detroit-based people on the program and talk about international affairs. We have so much expertise in this town that we don’t have to look outside our own backyard to get some interesting perspectives.

At first, did you have a hard time booking guests?
It took a while. You can ask tough questions and get to the bottom of an issue without being a jerk about it. It takes a while to build the name; to build the trust necessary to secure the guests that we get on a regular basis now.

Most kids dream of being ballplayers or rap stars. Who grows up wanting to be a radio-show host?
I’m not sure it was conscious. J.P. McCarthy was on in our house every morning. He welcomed a lot of different people. My dad was a very news-oriented guy, (and) I grew up in a house that had newspapers. I went to grade school with M.L. Elrick (Pulitzer Prize–winning former Detroit Free Press reporter now on Fox 2). He and I actually started a newspaper when we were in elementary school. … The Nottingham News, named after Elrick’s street. … I was a history and political science major at Western. I was monitoring some classes at U-M Dearborn … and I got on the student radio the first day — that changed my path dramatically. I went to Specs Howard, [then] got an internship (at WDET, where staffers such as Kim Silarski, Don Gonyea, and Roger Adams) trained me and trusted me to go out on assignment. I was in my 20s covering Coleman Young, and covering city council … getting a crash course in Detroit politics. I loved it.

Are you really that smart? What topics take the most research?
Certain interviews I know there’s going to be pressure. I’ll read a ton of articles and do a lot of background work. … A lot of people who are used to doing interviews [are] so trained to give quick answers so the host can move on. [When] I say, “Expand on that,” and they say, “Wait. You actually want to hear what I have to say?” That makes a big difference.
Anything controversial. Guns. (Some) people that are opposed to any gun-control measures will shut off debate if they don’t think that you know the difference between a clip and a magazine, or if you don’t know how the firing mechanism in an AR 15 works. [They’ll say,] ‘Obviously, you’re not qualified to have this conversation.” … You’ve got to be prepared … and [not] give somebody a way out of having a tough conversation.

I was listening to your show after the Sandy Hook school shootings. How do you keep callers civil when it’s a hot issue?
We don’t always. My producers do a really good job of screening callers — they don’t keep anybody off the air, unless someone is screaming and swearing, which happens on occasion. If somebody’s rational and has a point to make, then they’re going to get on. … People just want to get a sense that somebody’s actually listening to them and hasn’t dismissed them before they even get on the air. That’s how you keep people calm; you actually listen to them.

Such as conversations about not allowing a mosque in Hamtramck?
Great that you brought that up. These are difficult conversations … [a caller] may be really passionate about something, but if they’re irrational in that passion or it’s fear-based and not reality-based, I think I do have a responsibly to try to talk that person down. … Not talk down to them. But talk them down from the ledge, so to speak. I mean, what’s the real threat of a mosque in your neighborhood? What’s your fear based on? [I try] to make people understand what it is their opposition is rooted in.

You invited NRA members and supporters to weigh in after Sandy Hook.
I actually had a really good conversation with NRA members who called in. Most were very appreciative that I was willing to listen. This is how you actually come to some common ground. There are a lot of big problems out there. One side is saying you can fix this with extreme measures. The other side’s saying nothing’s ever going to change. Neither of those are real, and certainly one of them is an unacceptable answer. … What is it we can come together on? Figure out what can you live with that you think might actually have an impact. That you’d be willing to give a little ground on.

Compromise generally happens in the middle. When did we get so polarized?
I think it started when term limits started taking effect across the country. You don’t have the relationships that form over time — right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats who knew each other, had a relationship, knew which buttons to push on the other guy to get them to sit down at the table and talk about something and come up with an idea that might work.

What other topics generate the most calls?
For some reason, transit is huge with this audience. They love talking about buses and trains and roads … until it comes time to pay for it. Detroit politics, too. I don’t care if you live in South Lyon, Port Huron, the middle of East English Village, or Brightmoor, people want to talk about Detroit politics. And not just scandals. [Listeners] are invested in this place doing better than it is. Occasionally, you’ll get the fatalist caller who says, ‘Detroit’s done, you may as well scrap it, start over,’ … [but] my audience genuinely seems to want to come up with ideas on how to make things better. … From that perspective, it gives me a sense of optimism.

Some topics we struggle with … Israel/Palestinian conflict. It is “Radio Kryptonite.” The middle ground gets completely squeezed out by the extremes. Locally, City Council … there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. Poor Council. Talk about a thankless job. They don’t have anywhere near as much power as people think they do.

That’s what Charles Pugh said when he came on to explain why he was leaving politics.
That was an illuminating discussion. I’ll tell you what. He was incredibly honest. [When it comes to Council discussions], people will either say, ‘They’re complete incompetent buffoons, all of them’ and not look at the individual members at all. … Or, [if I criticize Council], ‘You hate Detroit.’ That’s very polarizing. If I come out in favor of something that some members of Council are against, I’ll get angry e-mails that I’ve sold out. … I think really, really hard before I spout off an opinion about something. Very rarely will I editorialize to the extent where I need to write about it and read it on the air.

You also have Facebook and Twitter components and podcasts.
There are lots of people who can’t listen [during the day] while I’m taking calls. Facebook and Twitter are a good way to keep in touch … and keep the conversation going. It’s become an increasingly important part of my job. Not everybody feels confident enough to speak out on the radio. You and I are talking face to face. But you put a phone between us, and I just happen to have a microphone on my end, you might freak out and clam up, or be sweating at the other end and not able to get your point out in a coherent fashion. There are a lot of people who feel a lot more comfortable [in print]. And when I read their comment, it’s like, ‘Thank you.’

You land timely interviews. Right after Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon sort of stuck his foot in his mouth (saying that Palmer Park is not the real Detroit), he came on.
I was talking about what he said on my show. I got off the air [and] five minutes later [heard] from his press person. … I gave him a lot of time to talk about it. It was a tough statement to clarify, and who knows what the long-term implications of that are. … I love newspapers, always have, and I love magazines … but there’s something about actually hearing somebody. You can get a pretty good sense of where they’re coming from.

And they know you’ll treat them fairly?
It may not be pleasant all the time, but I’m never going to be rude, or at least I try not to be. I’m not the toughest interviewer, by any stretch. But it’s not always an easy time, either.

What are the best interviews?
[The] most fascinating are the ones [where] I expect the least. The big names … usually they’re on a book tour and so tightly scheduled [that you] get your 10 minutes [and] don’t ever get in the groove. The people that I like talking to the most are doing something interesting. I had a guy the other day, a man who was in prison for 19 years for second-degree murder. He got out and has been working to talk to kids. A fascinating, fascinating guy who really opened up to me and gave some heartfelt answers. That’s the kind of interview that I get the most out of. Big names draw people in, but I don’t [always] think [those are] the interviews that the audience gets the most out of.