By Allan Smith
First it was Dick Farrel. Then Phil Valentine. Most recently, Marc Bernier. Just within the past month, those three conservative radio hosts — all unvaccinated critics of inoculation efforts — died after contracting Covid.
Will their deaths help sway any minds of unvaccinated listeners or the broader segment of conservatives resistant to the shots? Some fellow personalities think so — although the optimism is limited.
“There’s no question when somebody like Phil Valentine, when you read that he has it and then three weeks later he’s dead, it will get your attention,” said John Fredericks, a pro-Trump conservative radio personality who said he is vaccinated.
Nearly nine months into the inoculation campaign, the political divide over Covid vaccinations is still gaping. But conservative media counterparts see a chance to soften some resistance on the right after trusted messengers who have mocked the shots or otherwise encouraged audiences to resist efforts to get them vaccinated have died.
It is an indication of just how influential local conservative radio hosts, many of them hardly known outside their local or regional communities, continue to be for many Republicans.
“I think, certainly in the case of Phil Valentine and Farrel, who both had recanted their anti-Covid vaccine views before their deaths, it could have as much impact as anybody could possibly have,” said Jim Bohannon, a longtime right-of-center radio host. “For Marc Bernier, who maintained his stance as Mr. Anti-Vax till his death and never publicly recanted a thing, I think the impact will be less, although certainly it must be hard for people” to see his death and not question their stances on vaccination.
With the delta variant of the coronavirus having surged across much of the South as states like Florida experience record case, hospitalization and death counts, the overwhelming majority of Covid hospitalizations and deaths nationwide are among unvaccinated people, NBC News reported last month.
Bernier, 65, a longtime conservative radio personality in Daytona Beach, Florida, died last week, as announced by WNDB, the radio station he broadcast from. A little more than three weeks before, Farrel, 65, who formerly hosted shows for several Florida stations and was a fill-in anchor on Newsmax, succumbed to the virus. Between their deaths was Valentine’s. The 61-year-old hosted a prominent Nashville-based radio program.
Each had publicly either mocked vaccination or derided broader vaccination efforts. Bernier, who called himself “Mr. Anti-Vax,” said on Twitter that the Biden administration’s push for vaccine intake was Nazi-esque. Farrel posted to Facebook in July: “why take a vax promoted by people who lied 2u all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll?” And Valentine questioned why he should get the shots and risk side effects when he was at low risk of death. Before they died, Farrel and Valentine changed their postures.
Politics have played a key role in who is and is not getting the shots, as NBC News polling has shown. A recent survey found that just 55 percent of Republicans have been vaccinated, which drops to 50 percent among Trump voters and 46 percent among Republicans who support former President Donald Trump more than the party — each total among the lowest of any demographic group surveyed. In contrast, 91 percent of Biden voters said they have gotten vaccinated. In addition, a Kaiser Family Foundation vaccination tracking poll released last month found that Republicans were the second-least-likely demographic group to be vaccinated.
That can be a signal for conservative media personalities to play into their audiences’ skepticism.
“A lot of people, of course, are going to do what they think will improve their ratings and will appeal to their core audience,” said Bohannon, who got vaccinated as soon as a vaccine was available to him. “I know these people are whores in the worst sense of the term. … Others, I think, may be more open and may, in fact, go ahead and alter their view.”
Southern Stone Communications and Cumulus Media, the companies that own the radio stations Bernier and Valentine broadcast from, did not respond to requests for comment about the hosts’ deaths.
Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative media creator who has left the movement and is now at the media platform Flux, said that he hopes some listeners will learn from what happened but that as for any change in messaging, “that’s just not how things work there in that media world.”
“There’s too much money to be had. And blind people,” Sheffield said. “So it’s not going to change. The only thing that people in right-wing media are going to respond to are legal threats. The death of their colleagues means nothing, but the loss of their personal fortunes is meaningful to them. And that says a lot.”
But even when it is delivered by icons of the far right, a pro-vaccination message can fall upon deaf ears. Late last month, Trump was greeted by some boos at an Alabama rally after he told supporters they should get vaccinated.
Don Thrasher, former chair of Nelson County, Kentucky, GOP, is one such Republican for whom Trump’s message falls flat. He said in an email that the recent deaths of conservative radio hosts “would give some people pause to reconsider, but there are a lot of people including myself that are still hesitant.”
He said that hesitancy extends outside the conservative world and that “the sooner we have open and honest debate on these groups’ concerns and not the demeaning, condescending attitude of ‘do as we say,’ the better.”
Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.