“People develop really close relationships with podcasts,” said Evelyn Douek, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. “It’s a parasocial medium. There’s something about voice that humans really relate to.”
Marc Bernier, a talk radio host in Daytona Beach, Fla., whose show is available for download or streaming on iHeart’s and Apple’s digital platforms, was among the talk radio hosts who died of Covid-19 complications after expressing anti-vaccination views on their programs. The deaths made national news and set off a cascade of commentary on social media. What drew less attention was the industry that helped give them an audience.
On a June episode, Mr. Bernier said, after referring to unvaccinated people: “I’m one of them. Judge me if you want.” The next month, he cited an unfounded claim that “45,000 people have died from taking the vaccine.” In his final Twitter post, on July 30, Mr. Bernier accused the government of “acting like Nazis” for encouraging Covid-19 vaccines.
Jimmy DeYoung Sr., whose program was available on iHeart, Apple and Spotify, died of Covid-19 complications after making his show a venue for false or misleading statements about vaccines. One of his frequent guests was Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state representative who likened the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to Nazi tactics and made a sweeping false statement. “This is not a vaccine, by definition,” Mr. Rohrer said on an April episode. “It is a permanent altering of my immune system, which God created to handle the kinds of things that are coming that way.” Mr. DeYoung thanked his guest for his “insight.” Mr. DeYoung died four months later.
Buck Sexton, the host of a program syndicated by Premiere Networks, an iHeart subsidiary, recently floated the theory that mass Covid-19 vaccinations could speed the virus’s mutation into more dangerous strains. He made this suggestion while appearing on another Premiere Networks program, “The Jesse Kelly Show.”
The theory appears to have its roots in a 2015 paper about vaccines for a chicken ailment called Marek’s disease. Its author, Andrew Read, a professor of biology and entomology at Penn State University, has said his research has been “misinterpreted” by anti-vaccine activists. He added that Covid-19 vaccines have been found to reduce transmissions substantially, whereas chickens inoculated with the Marek’s disease vaccine were still able to transmit the disease. Mr. Sexton did not reply to a request for comment.
“We’re seeing lots of public radio stations doing amazing local work to spread good health information,” Mr. Loviglio, the media professor, said. “On the other side, you’re seeing mostly the AM radio dial and their podcast counterparts being the Wild West of the airwaves.”