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Sykes reflects on conservative talk radio in hyper-partisan digital age

For longtime radio talker Charlie Sykes, life behind the microphone started out with his conservative viewpoint serving as "water to a parched earth" and culminated in a storm of fiery emotion two years ago during Gov. Scott Walker's recall election.

Today, Sykes says political discourse -- and the media environment surrounding it -- have changed dramatically, both for better and for worse.

The 20-year veteran of the conservative talk scene expresses some longing for the cordiality of the past while reveling in being part of today's political warfare in a state that often makes national headlines.

Speaking at a WisPolitics.com luncheon in Milwaukee on Wednesday, WTMJ-AM's Sykes said Walker's recall election in 2012 -- and the controversies leading up to it after Walker took office in 2011 -- charged political emotions in the state like never before.

Listeners are far more interested in politics than they were years ago, and both listeners and politicians are more polarized. He admits the recalls sharpened him, too.

"I think it did, it got me focused on the importance of the things we were talking about here in Wisconsin. We all had to go back to the first principles and sharpen what we were doing."

But Sykes also lamented what he describes as a "coarsening" of political conversations today, filled with vicious attacks.

"Back in the 1990s, I used to have really cordial relationships with people of other political ideologies," he said. "I could say, 'OK, I can work with you on this; I can't work with you on that.' But it's become so personal and it's become so vicious, that a lot of those lines have been eliminated and a lot of those personal relationships are completely gone, and I'm not sure how you completely come back from that."

That said, Sykes figures the fever pitch of the Walker recall will inevitably settle down: "It may have to be after Scott Walker leaves the state or leaves office." He also said Walker's re-election this year is far from assured: "This is Wisconsin. Anything can happen."

"This is a state with no room for error," he said, predicting Walker will have a ceiling of 52 or 53 percent versus presumptive Dem guv nominee Mary Burke. As to Walker running for president, he warned that the guv shouldn't be looking too far down the road.

"I don't think he should run for president until he wins. Right now the one danger that he's got is that danger of looking past the next game. A lot of the things that have happened to him have been a direct result of that 2016 buzz," said Sykes, citing national media interest in recently released emails from the first John Doe probe.

"They wouldn't pay attention to that unless there was that 2016 buzz," he said. "That's one of those 'be careful what you wish for.' Politicians always want to be mentioned, but I think there's a little bit of a downside there for him."

Sykes said the evolution of conservative talk radio filled a need for expression of right-wing viewpoints, especially before the days of Internet blogs and online news media.

"It was like water to a parched earth," he said.

But he admits that at times, especially after the spate of recalls, listeners seemed to experience burnout. He adds he doesn't listen to many talk shows -- liberal or conservative -- any more. "I have my own burnout factor," he said.

Sykes hesitates when asked about the future of conservative talk radio, conceding the concept is no longer new and that things change in the media industry.

One constant challenge is the growing competition from other conservative voices on the Internet. His company's online service, RightWisconsin.com, probably should have been launched in 2011, instead of 2013, Sykes suggests. "We have been somewhat slow in establishing a Web presence. I think the left has done a much better job, nationally and locally. The Democrats are in 2020, and we're still puttering in the past."

Sykes told a WisPolitics reporter after the luncheon that he thinks conservatives "absolutely, no question about it" need to reach out more to minorities and women. He said he considers so-called "birthers" -- people who insist that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen -- to be "nut jobs" and said, "I have no patience with them."

Sykes defends the Tea Party as still relevant, when defined as a grassroots movement comprised of fiscal conservatives. But he adds he's unhappy that "big Washington interests" have taken over and are calling themselves the Tea Party.

Sykes told the audience he's a conservative first, rather than a Republican.

"People sometimes ask, what's the difference between a conservative and a Republican?" said Sykes, noting his show has "sometimes made life difficult" for GOP leaders, such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and longtime GOP Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and has even "given tough love" to Walker.

"The partisan labels are somewhat irrelevant to us, because we do it on an issue-by-issue basis."

Listen to the luncheon.

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