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How Dan Bongino is building a right-wing media empire on his own terms

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dan Bongino has worn many hats. In the '90s, he was a police officer, then a Secret Service agent. He ran for Congress three times, failed all three times, then pivoted to right-wing commentary. Now he hosts one of the most successful radio shows in the country on which he questions vaccine mandates, stokes fear towards the left and drums up support for a Trump campaign in 2024.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE DAN BONGINO SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: From the NYPD to the Secret Service to behind the microphone, taking the fight to the radical left and the putrid swap - you're listening to "The Dan Bongino Show."

KELLY: Dan Bongino and the huge right-wing platform he is building are the focus of a new piece in The New Yorker. Evan Osnos wrote it, and he's here now. Hey there.

EVAN OSNOS: Hi there.

KELLY: So Bongino, he's on air now every weekday, noon to 3. This is Rush Limbaugh's old slot. How does a typical "Dan Bongino Show" go?

OSNOS: Well, it generally starts in a state of high agitation. He's very angry in his presentation, and I think that is sort of the dominant aesthetic that one gets as they listen. And then he kind of walks through a range of topics that are - would be described as current affairs. So he'll talk about the pandemic and vaccines. He's fiercely opposed to vaccine mandates. He calls masks face diapers.

He goes also into questions of politics and also into elections. And he talks about the 2020 election as, to use his words, rigged. And he doesn't go so far as to say that he thinks it was stolen, but he reminds his listeners or encourages them to see ways in which the system is not to be trusted.

KELLY: There will be people listening who have never listened to Dan Bongino, who've maybe never heard of Dan Bongino, so I want to quote a line from your piece - "in recent months, according to Facebook data, Bongino's (ph) page has attracted more engagement than those of the New York (ph) Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal combined." It's incredible. How influential is he?

OSNOS: He has tremendous reach in his world, which is to say the people who listen to him are very devoted to him. And then people who don't know much about him know almost nothing about him, which is really a reflection of this period in our media culture when we do live in these very separate spaces, but even more so than it was, for instance, 25 years ago and the rise of Rush Limbaugh, who had a slightly larger footprint.

In Dan Bongino's case, I mean, he - it's partly what he does on the radio, it's partly what he does in his podcast and on a television show on Fox, and it's also what he does on social media. And he's very effective at figuring out what is going to get the social media algorithms, like Facebook, to promote his work. And so as a result, he has been able to reach a huge number of people that I think would surprise any of us who don't otherwise have reason to listen to his show.

KELLY: Yeah. It sounds like one of the questions you set out to answer in interviewing him and reporting this piece was whether he actually believes a lot of the stuff he says on air; you know, the comments that face masks are face diapers, that - he talked about the FBI and CIA and that they tried to rig the elections in 2016 and 2020. Where did you land on this? Is this stuff he actually believes? Is it in the service of ratings, of profits, what?

OSNOS: Well, what he has created is extremely profitable. He makes a lot of money by selling ads on his programs. I mean, if you listen on the course of an afternoon, he'll sell ads for shotguns, for steaks, for mattresses, for holsters. And in between all of this, he is promoting his political message.

KELLY: He's just swapping back and forth between the ads and the headlines and the analysis and all of it?

OSNOS: Literally going back and forth. Sometimes he'll pause in the middle of a polemic about the vaccine in order to read an ad for a particular product. He tacks back and forth between selling a gun and selling this canard about vaccines. And for some number of Americans, there comes a point at which the boundary between those two ideas is hard to discern. And that's dangerous as hell.

KELLY: I'll note the headline of your piece - "Dan Bongino And The Big Business Of Returning Trump To Power." What's the endgame?

OSNOS: In the medium term, the endgame is to promote Donald Trump's candidacy as a potential president again. And he's very clear about that on his show. He says, I hope Donald Trump runs in 2024. And he says that's partly because he thinks he will, as he put it, clean house in the intelligence community and elsewhere.

But the larger endgame is that he is seeking to undermine the credibility and the authority of existing media industries, you know, frankly, things like radio and television and magazines. And what he's creating is an alternative set of platforms. He wants to create his own kind of Twitter, his own YouTube because, as he says, as long as we're playing on the other ones, they can kick us off, and he doesn't want to be subject to that kind of pressure.

I should say, at this point, this is really sort of more of a pipe dream because these are small. But the idea is giving pause to a lot of folks who believe that his ideas are dangerous because of his commitment to create not just content but an infrastructure to carry it.

KELLY: Well, and what you're describing is a platform, a machine, that sounds like it would have legs no matter what Donald Trump decides to do or not do in 2024.

OSNOS: That's part of the business, is he's saying, look, I am tying myself into the customers for the Trump idea, but I also want to exist beyond that. And, you know, he is a person who recognizes Trump may not succeed. And he, you know, makes a point to flatter Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who might be a potential Republican candidate.

And at the same time, I think fundamentally, this is about what he once called on a video stream the product. And the product is a podcast, a radio show and a set of political ideas that are determined to challenge the consensus view on masks, vaccines and the integrity of American elections.

KELLY: What surprised you in reporting this piece, as someone who knows the media world very well, has worked within it for years?

OSNOS: I think I was surprised by how much the ideas that Donald Trump represented when he was president are being carried on and amplified and really are almost stronger today among his followers a year after the events of January 6 at the Capitol than they were then. I came away, frankly, very worried about the future of American politics and our political stability because the ideas that animated people at the Capitol on that day are alive and well in many ways on the airwaves. And that's not going away.

KELLY: Evan Osnos of the New Yorker. His new piece is titled "Dan Bongino And The Big Business Of Returning Trump To Power." Evan Osnos, thanks.

OSNOS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF HM SURF'S "HORSE BETTING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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