| Cincinnati Enquirer
In the past week, conservative radio host Bill Cunningham has lived up to his nickname perhaps like never before during his long, distinguished career.
The “Great American” has undoubtedly put his love of country above his affinity for Donald Trump.
Cunningham has used his powerful microphone at Cincinnati’s 700 WLW to repeatedly slam Trump for his role in inciting the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. One of the Midwest’s most influential pro-Trump voices – a man the president himself had leaned on to gauge the pulse of voters across Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana – has jumped off the Trump train.
Even as other prominent conservative radio and TV hosts – most notably Rush Limbaugh – have stubbornly defended Trump, Cunningham said he couldn’t take up for the president anymore after his rhetoric and behavior fueled the siege.
“The saddest part is he sat in the White House watching what was going on in real time on cable TV and did not stop it,” Cunningham told me. “In fact, he received joy from watching it. Can you imagine (Cincinnati Mayor) John Cranley sitting at home watching City Hall being ransacked and enjoying it? No! Would (Ohio Gov.) Mike DeWine watch the Statehouse get ransacked and then say, ‘Have a nice evening, everyone. You’re great Americans.’ No!”
In the interview, Cunningham compared Trump to embattled baseball legend Pete Rose because of their refusal to admit mistakes and accept reality.
“I have to recognize reality,” Cunningham said. “I hope Joe Biden does a good job. I’m catching a lot of flack from conservatives who are saying I’ve jumped the shark and turned on Trump. He turned on himself. By the standards of the American law, he lost the presidency. Some people can’t handle the truth.”
Loyal listeners of the top-rated show on one of the Midwest’s largest AM stations have bombarded Cunningham with dozens of nasty emails. Other Trump supporters have gotten a hold of Cunningham’s cellphone and anonymously called him.
Suddenly, you flip-flopped, you a–hole, one emailer said.
Willie’s OK with the criticism. Some of it has apparently gotten out of control, but Cunningham said he doesn’t fear for his safety.
Asked if he’s received death threats, Cunningham said: “I’d rather not talk about that.”
Cunningham’s weekday afternoon, three-hour show has nearly 500,000 listeners on average, according to 700 WLW data. A weekly ratings report was not yet available, but Cunningham doesn’t believe his criticism of Trump has hurt listenership. He added that it was his decision alone to criticize Trump, and his bosses at iHeart Media continue to give him complete autonomy to say what he wants about the president.
“The worst thing being said about me (on the air and email) is I’m a liar and a hypocrite,” said Cunningham, in his 39th year on the air. “And that I had an opportunity during my contacts with the president to change his presidency and I failed to do so. It doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I’m on no one’s team.”
Cunningham, 73, originally wasn’t behind Trump after the real estate mogul launched his first presidential campaign in 2015. Cunningham thought Trump would be a RINO (i.e. Republican in name only) considering he’d supported Democrats for several years. But Cunningham liked what he heard from Trump on the economy, immigration and federal judicial appointments.
Trump and Cunningham developed a relationship in 2017 after the president had seen the radio personality on George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning ABC News show. Cunningham told The Enquirer’s That’s So Cincinnati podcast last year that he’d become an unofficial midwestern adviser for the president.
Willie was always willing to offer Trump – and his sons, Don Jr. and Eric – advice on what message to share with voters in middle America.
“I wouldn’t say it was a friendship, but we developed a pretty good relationship,” Cunningham said. “They’re ‘radio friends.’ They use you as a medium to get out their message.”
Cunningham and Trump last talked in October, a few weeks before the election. Trump asked the radio host whether the president should do a final rally in Ohio. Here’s how the conversation went, according to Cunningham:
Trump: How am I going to do in Ohio?
Cunningham: Mr. President, you’re going to win Ohio.
Trump: By more than 8 points again?
Cunningham: I believe so.
Trump: My people are telling me I have to go to Circleville, because Ohio might be lost.
Cunningham: Don’t waste your time in Circleville, Mr. President. Go to Michigan and Pennsylvania, instead.
The president went to Circleville on Oct. 24. He won Ohio by 8 percentage points.
Cunningham, who was a Democrat early in life, represents a lot of Trump voters. They were willing to look beyond the president’s juvenile behavior and Twitter wars in favor of Trump’s pro-America, conservative policies.
But Trump’s reckless rhetoric could no longer be overlooked after the Electoral College voted for Biden in mid-December. Trump continued to claim the election had been stolen and rigged without legal evidence of widespread voter fraud. Many believe Trump’s ongoing claims fueled his fervent supporters’ anger, leading some of them to erupt in violence.
“I’m disappointed that he continued to feed the false narrative after the Electoral College voted,” Cunningham said. “He should’ve addressed the nation in mid-December, acknowledged that Joe Biden was the president-elect and wished everybody a Merry Christmas. If he would’ve taken that approach, he would’ve been a very viable candidate in 2024. I think he’s done now. And that pisses me off.”
Enquirer political columnist Jason Williams hosts a Saturday night show on 700 WLW from 9-12 a.m. Contact Jason by email at [email protected] and on Twitter @jwilliamscincy