Paul from Nampa is on the air. He’s giving Nate Shelman an earful.
“You’re arrogant, you’re full of it,” he tells Shelman. “You’re entertaining and, yeah you’re intelligent too. I don’t know about your looks. I’m not going there.”
“You listen because I’m a jerk?” asks Shelman.
“I listen because you can be a jerk. You don’t go there all the time.”
Paul from Nampa was one of a dozen or so listeners who answered the question Shelman posed for me in the second hour of his three-hour 670 KBOI talk show: Why do they listen?
Shelman is celebrating his 10th year, live and local, a decade in which he has become a prominent voice for conservative Idaho. I thought it would be fun to “interview” his listeners.
“Let’s go to Joe. Go for it, Joe.”
“I’m what you call a tree-huggin’, gun-totin’, fiscally conservative, social liberal. I listen to you guys because I want to be informed on all the different viewpoints out there. … I wish more of the people from the liberal perspective would listen so they could actually get the people’s perspective …”
Shelman books few guests, preferring to hear from listeners rather than predictable experts or newsmakers. A former colleague once mocked his style as “survey radio,” Shelman says. “At the time, that was a cardinal rule: Do NOT ask the audience questions. YOU tell the audience what to think.”
That’s not his show. As a result, he’s part of the conversation America is having right now over how to have conversations. “I have my thoughts,” he says, “but that does not mean you have to think like me. In fact, for the purposes of hosting a talk show, I hope to God you don’t.”
His favorite listeners, he says, are independent thinkers, not Nate-heads. He cites a regular, Penny from Mountain Home, with whom he doesn’t often agree. “She believes (with) her heart. You know, I disagree with you, but I respect the hell out of your opinion. As opposed to somebody who (recites) somebody else’s point.”
“Butch in Jerome. Butch, go for it.”
“You always give everybody an opportunity to say what they want, when they want, whether you agree with it or not.”
“I don’t want to do a three-hour monologue,” Shelman tells me during a commercial break. (It’s AM radio, so there’s lots of time to chat). It sounds cliché, he says, but it’s true: “It’s not my show. They are the show. The audience reaction IS the show.”
Shelman developed his approach while working a fill-in gig in San Antonio, after losing a host job in Birmingham, Alabama. He likens his show to a 50,000-watt neighborhood bar, where regulars unwind after work. (In his version of “Cheers,” however, he gets to be bartender Sam Malone AND know-it-all Cliff Clavin.)
“It’s afternoon-drive (radio), so most people have already worked or gone through a whole day at work,” says Shelman. “Their boss has ticked them off, they’re probably not looking forward to going home to their screaming kids, or their spouse or whatever.”
What role does talk radio play in today’s polarized world?
“I don’t believe in a lot of the messaging that’s out there, that we need to calm the rhetoric down. No. I’d rather people say and imagine the most obscene, inane things out there, and then listen to what they just said.”
“I want to talk about this stuff. If you disagree with me, we’re not going to come to blows over this, you’re not inherently evil. People disagree all the time. We didn’t just start disagreeing with the advent of talk radio. We didn’t start disagreeing because of the advent of social media. We can actually still — to borrow the phrase from the bumper sticker — coexist. Hey, I have liberal people call the show all the time.”
“Let’s go to Gail in Meridian.”
Gail says she listens to hear directly from him and his listeners, not get her information filtered. “It’s very informative to know what the Treasure Valley thinks and we get that on your program.”
“Well thanks, Gail. It wasn’t the sexy voice?”
“No. I’m beyond sexy voices,” says Gail.
“It would have been nice if that was PART of it.”
“I believe you’re getting married.”
Yes, he is getting married, in August, to Michelle Heart, host of “Michelle in the Morning” on 107.9 LITE-FM. That’s a Townsquare Media station, a competitor to Cumulus, which owns KBOI. Michelle and Nate both are from Ohio, both huge Cleveland fans. They met three years ago at a Browns Backers viewing party in Boise. Heart didn’t know anything about Shelman.
“I expected him to be a total jerk,” says Heart. “But he’s a sweetie.”
If you follow their romance on Facebook, you know the affection, the singing in the car, the engagement. Yes, they are two radio hosts who benefit from promoting their outsized personalities. But they also are just plain sweet.
On the air, Shelman often is not sweet. He’s a faux-chauvinist, asserting that women are emotional or neurotic, that their proper place is making his sandwiches or ironing his shirts.
He’s playing a character, says Heart. Shelman is the one who does the chores at home. The braggart on the radio isn’t the man she’s engaged to. “He’s a really caring, compassionate person,” she says. “He’d take a bullet for a friend.”
“Ron, Caldwell. You’re on 670 KBOI.”
“I listen for the rapport between you and the caller. … You can get me heated and you get heated a little bit and I kinda enjoy that, kinda motivates me. I’ve walked out of here a lot of times and called you some really nasty names.”
“Why? Have I ever called you nasty names?”
“No, but you’ve ticked me off to the point where I (wanted to) jump on you physically.”
How real is the bombastic Nate Shelman listeners hear?
“The whole thing is a show. My job is to entertain,” Shelman says that evening as we sit in the quiet lobby, the show over and the staff gone and the office empty and dark. Away from the mic, Nate is softer-spoken and reflective.
“The words and beliefs are 100 percent. That is all me. I do not fake the stance at all.”
Shelman has a reputation for not taking BS, from listeners or politicians. In the show’s first hour discussing state funding for preschool, he expressed plenty of skepticism. But he pushed back when listeners mocked parents or dismissed the value of early learning: “I have not given my opinion on state-funded preschool. You all know I’m cheap. But I don’t want dumb people in this world. You know what happens when you don’t finish school. You become a radio producer.”
Earlier, Shelman handed me the phone when Raúl Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist called in, waiting their (separate) turns on the air. Both candidates for governor said they respect Shelman’s independence and command of the issues. Labrador has been a frequent guest since he was an Idaho legislator. Said Ahlquist: “I come in ready because I know he’s going to ask the hard questions.” True to form, Shelman challenges both for yes or no answers when they try to be less than specific.
“Sue in Ontario. Go ahead.”
“How are you Nate? I listen because I like Travis.” Producer Travis Owens rings the bell, goading Shelman.
“You realize that Travis doesn’t really exist. He’s a sound effect.”
Travis Owens is the glue that holds the show together. He’s never been on air. As a political liberal, he says, it’s better that he remain behind the scenes. He picks songs (like “Reading Rainbow” during the preschool discussion) to annoy Shelman. Shelman calls him names and throws wads of paper. Their jostling and ribbing is “a bit” that listeners enjoy, says Owens.
Owens screens the calls and gets to know the regulars. When a caller mentions or praises Owens, Shelman protests. Owens rings a bell. Someone somewhere has made it a drinking game, Shelman says.
“I’m way more popular,” Owens says.
“You know, the name of the show is ‘Nate Shelman,’ ” Shelman blusters back.
They’ve been doing this for seven years. There’s a trust there. Shelman has a dependable safety net when he’s swinging on the live-radio high-wire.
“As much as I don’t (agree with) Nate, he’s one of the only conservative talk show hosts who challenges his conservative listeners,” says Owens.
“I don’t like your label there, sir,” says Shelman. “I’m just a talk show host. People call me a conservative host, but a lot of conservatives don’t like me.”
Why is that? I ask. “I’ll call out Trump on his BS. I never saw the severe issue with gay marriage.” Shelman opposes a ban on Muslim immigration, an unpopular stance for many of his listeners. As a beer drinker and a former smoker, he thinks it would be hypocritical to criminalize pot.
“I consider myself issue by issue,” says Shelman. “I don’t hate everything about Trump, I don’t love everything about Trump. He drives me nuts, just like the Idaho Legislature drives me nuts. I don’t care where the idea comes from. It’s got to be good on its merit.
“And it drives me nuts that people who gave Obama a pass, or held Obama to a certain standard two years ago, are giving Trump a pass on that same standard because, ‘Well, Obama got a pass!’ I call that a 4-year-old’s argument: ‘Well, Timmy did it!’ ”
“Let’s go to J.D. in Nampa.”
“I listen to you for your great looks, but I also listen because you’re local, it’s applicable to us. … I like the questions that you raise when people come in. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re tea party folks or liberal folks.”
“God knows I’ve been called everything in between,” says Shelman. “I’ve been called a Nazi. Somebody called the half-Jew a Nazi! I found that hilarious.”
“That’s what I mean. If you’re being called names from both sides, you must be doing something right.”
Shelman hands me the phone when Linda calls, off-air. She wants to tell me about the time Shelman shut down a caller who went from criticizing Hillary Clinton to suggesting violence against liberals.
I ask Shelman about the call. Sometimes people will agree with him (i.e., restricting illegal immigration, vetting refugees) for reasons — such as racism — that he can’t abide, he says.
“Vote him out, yes,” he says. “Campaign against him, yes. If you’re talking about ‘Take him out’ — sorry, we are not on the same team.”
A call from Frank: “I listen because it’s the only station I get.”
“Well,” says Shelman, “we’re good with that, too.”
Last fall, Shelman became the program director at KBOI, widening his responsibilities beyond drive-time to all the content on the station. The guy who spent a year wandering in the radio wilderness, applying for openings around the country 10 years ago, now guides the top-rated station in Idaho’s biggest market.
He’s been doing a demanding job for 10 years, and it just got more demanding. He recently turned 40. But much of the time he sounds like a kid who just got handed the car keys. Or set loose in the candy store.
“It’s a 50,000-watt stage,” Shelman says. “It’s pretty damn cool.”