ideological battle to win the hearts and minds of American
voters, Mike Stark is a political sniper. Armed only with
a telephone, enough facts to support his positions, and the
patience to wait as long as it takes to get on the air, the
self-described “Albany gadfly” has become a frequent caller
on right-wing radio and television shows around the nation.
So much so, in fact, that the best measure of his success
might not be the number of calls he’s made, but the type of
enemies he’s making along the way.
go to his house. We should all go,” threatened Fox News right-wing
pundit Bill O’Reilly during an October 2005 show, just moments
after hanging up on a call from Stark. The local stay-at-home
dad, who plans to begin law school in the fall, had tried
to address some inaccuracies in O’Reilly’s discussion of the
outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, but O’Reilly disconnected
the call after only a few seconds.
get the address when he calls in and we can trace it back,”
continued O’Reilly with a sinister inflection. “We should
all go over and surprise him.”
in a local café, Stark laughs about the incident as he rolls
his daughter’s stroller back and forth on the floor.
Bill my address, but nobody’s shown up yet,” he grins. “I’m
in a worn T-shirt, with his 4-month-old daughter happily gurgling
on his knee, the 37-year-old Stark hardly seems capable of
eliciting such attention—let alone such a venomous response—from
a major media figure. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what he’s
done over the last few years, causing politicians and pundits
at all levels of influence to roll their eyes, bristle defensively
or, in the case of some local and national media figures,
issue absurd threats at the mere mention of “Mike from Albany.”
they talk bullshit to millions of people, I feel like it’s
my job to dilute it with facts,” he says of his reasons for
spending hours every day cycling through the talk-radio schedule
for a few seconds of on-air time.
to “air out the airwaves” (as he puts it) is the reason Stark
first started calling, and the reason he continues to do so.
In an age where the line between media and government has
become increasingly blurred, he argues, it takes far too long
for the truth to find its way past all of the propaganda artists,
pundits and paid advertisements and into the public eye—so
people need to go out and find it themselves.
days, it feels like the media’s been neutered,” he says. “They’re
not asking the questions people really want to know the answers
the role of an adversarial press very seriously,” continues
Stark. “But in its absence, we need to fill that role.”
says he placed his first call back in 2002, to a University
at Albany professor’s radio show. The professor was discussing
the impending war in Iraq, and Stark believed he had a fact
the professor didn’t seem aware of. Despite an initial feeling
of “He’s a professor, he probably knows more than I do,” he
picked up the phone and placed the call. The rest, as they
say, is history.
the following years, Stark’s voice began peppering call-in
shows on both the local and national airwaves. In addition
to chronicling his call-in experiences on national progressive
Web sites like DailyKos, Stark became a regular contributor
on those sites’ local equivalent, Democracy in Albany. During
the run-up to the 2005 city elections, “Mike the Friday Caller”
quickly became a regular fixture on DIA, one of the city’s
most active political Web sites.
questioning Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings about police corruption
on his weekly show or pushing right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh
to back up his positions, Stark wasted no time in making a
name for himself as exactly the sort of caller hosts of political
programs dread: educated, stubborn and armed with supporting
there are a lot of times when I spend all day trying to get
on the air, only to be hung up on when they either recognize
my voice, decide they don’t want to address a certain topic,
or I get fooled into going off-topic [a standard cause for
disconnection on many programs],” says Stark. “But when I
do manage to get the message out, I consider that a success—and
it’s an even sweeter success when you have the host fumbling
over their own words, too.”
effort to give those rare moments of success their own platform,
Stark recently set up Calling All Wingnuts (www.callingallwingnuts.
com), a Web site that collects the recordings of all his calls.
By engaging talk radio hosts on their own shows and then posting
the results, he says, there’s not only the potential for reaching
millions of people with a progressive message, but also the
chance to set an example for anyone else who’s tired of hearing
the same old propaganda.
the opportunities to get on the air are few and the chances
to insert a proper counterpoint are even fewer, on those rare
occasions when Stark does manage to get a call answered, move
past the call screeners, get on the air and deliver his point,
the results speak for themselves.
last month, Stark posed a question to local radio host Andrew
Wilkow of 810 WGY, asking Wilkow, as a professed anti-choice
advocate who believes that life begins at conception, whether
he would rescue a 2-year-old girl or a petri dish full of
five fertilized eggs if forced to make a choice in a burning
building. On one hand, Stark argued, there’s a single life,
and on the other, if Wilkow truly believed in the definition
of “life” he had been trumpeting, there were five lives. Which
would he choose to save?
non-response this question elicited from Wilkow caused Stark’s
recording of the program to spread like wildfire on the Internet,
garnering not only a mention in the online news site Salon.com,
but also overloading Stark’s new Web site with massive levels
of traffic. After being online for only a month, he was forced
to upgrade the site and increase his bandwidth to accommodate
the 5,000 visitors his site was receiving, and continues to
receive, each day.
I did was to pose a question,” says Stark. “After that, the
recording just exploded on the Internet.”
to Stark, the hubbub surrounding the call quickly gave rise
to talk of impending cease-and-desist orders and harassment
complaints from Wilkow, but no action was ever taken.
try to paint me as a crazed lunatic, saying I take it personally
when I don’t get on their shows,” says Stark. “They complain
when I post the clips, saying I’m taking their comments out
of context and they complain about me using fake names. The
truth is, I have to use the fake names or they wouldn’t take
my calls, and I never swear on the air or do anything to jeopardize
just don’t want anyone to make them sound like asses on the
air, and they don’t want any voice to get familiar to their
listeners except their own,” he shrugs. “That’s fair, because
it’s their show. But there’s no law against what I’m doing,
so I’m going to continue to confront them with the liberal
perspective and the facts that back my case up.”
Stark says he can’t take credit for the question he posed
to Wilkow because it was initially posed on a popular left-wing
blog, he hopes the flustered response it received is proof
that anyone can stand up to right-wing radio’s bullies. Along
with the archive of recordings Stark maintains on his site,
he also provides a schedule of many programs’ call-in times
and phone numbers with the hope of encouraging his readers
to also test the intellectual mettle of any pundit or politician
using the airwaves as a political soapbox.
a fake name, disguise your voice, do whatever it takes to
get on the air and force them to defend their positions,”
he says. “There aren’t any laws against that.”
doesn’t mean those same hosts won’t try and convince you otherwise,
as Stark recently discovered.
urging his readers to flood Bill O’Reilly with calls mentioning
the pundit’s left-wing rival, Keith Olbermann, Stark witnessed
the effects of his weeklong campaign on March 2.
was being peppered all week by these calls, and he kept having
to answer a call, cut it off when the caller mentioned Olbermann
and go on to the next one over and over again,” laughs Stark,
who devised the campaign in response to O’Reilly posting a
petition on his Web site to get Olbermann fired.
says he was on hold during that day’s broadcast when the right-wing
host—fed up, perhaps, by all of the calls he had been hanging
up on all day—threatened to send “Fox security” after a caller
from Orlando who mentioned Olbermann’s name.
your phone numbers, by the way,” said O’Reilly after dropping
the call, “and we’re going to turn it over to Fox security,
and you’ll be getting a little visit.”
so you know, we do have your phone number,” continued O’Reilly.
“And if you say anything untoward, obscene, or anything like
that, Fox security then will contact your local authorities,
and you will be held accountable.”
threat made headlines on media watchdog sites, television
and radio programs around the nation, and soon Stark found
himself in the spotlight once again as many of his readers
began reporting that they had received strange phone calls
from a mysterious “Fox security” officer. Several even provided
Stark with recordings of the messages left on their voice
mail. Soon Olbermann was joined by Air America pundit Al Franken
and Sirius digital radio shock-jock Howard Stern in ridiculing
not only the threat, but O’Reilly’s belief that he could enforce
fact of the matter is, you are allowed to call into a radio
show and say whatever you want,” remarked Stern during a recent
broadcast. “Just because the host doesn’t like what the caller
is saying, you can’t alert the authorities.”
There’s no harassment in what I’m doing,” says Stark. “No
one is doing anything to make anyone feel threatened—that’s
the callers who received the messages from “Fox security”
might be the only individuals involved who have legitimate
cause for a harassment suit. Stark has in fact encouraged
his readers not to file such a suit.
have a call-in show and people call in to offer an opinion
different from your own you shouldn’t be crying about it,”
shrugs Stark. “But I don’t want to be the first one to run
to court over this.”
this series of events, combined with the recent news that
a Washington, D.C., group raised more than $1,000 last month
to support maintenance of Stark’s site and the acquisition
of better recording equipment for him, that he says convinced
him that his unique form of activism might be even more successful
as a group effort. By the time he enters law school this fall,
Stark says he hopes to have a legion of callers to provide
content for the site.
radio hosts are going to put themselves out there, I don’t
see why people don’t take advantage of that,” shrugs Stark,
still calmly rolling his daughter’s stroller back and forth
next to him. “I’d like to think I’m empowering people to do
all of the drama and conflict he’s creating, Stark acknowledges
that what he’s doing—and what he’s encouraging other people
to do as well—falls short of journalism. But he says it should
be considered a way to bring the issues to an audience that
might not otherwise hear them. While media watchdog sites
like Media Matters.org and CrooksandLiars.com chronicle the
on-air inaccuracies of politicians and pundits on a daily
basis, Stark says, their soft, for-history’s-sake approach
to the spread of misinformation often preaches to the choir.
By engaging the right-wing propagandists on their own turf,
you not only provide a more entertaining debate, but gain
a larger audience.
who might be hearing from Stark in the future, he says he
likes to consider himself an equal-opportunity pest. Much
like the way he measures his own success, he gauges the value
of targets not by the political friends they keep but by the
enemies they’ve made.
the sort of person politicians don’t like, you probably won’t
hear from me,” he laughs, “because you’re probably a fair
if you’re the sort of person who all the politicians like,
you can expect to get a call from me.”