COVER- Limbaugh, Hannity... Schilling? Is the former councilor the next radio talk star?
On Friday, June 19, he opened his noon radio show by dubbing Congressman Tom Perriello (D-Ivy) "a boy doing a man's job" and a "lapdog" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). He decried the closure of the U.S. prison at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay "a disgrace," and blasted City Hall for an alleged "attack on local media."
And that's just in the first segment.
To read such statements in black and white, it might seem that Rob Schilling is a stereotypical right-wing talk radio loudmouth. Yes, he is a pull-no-punches conservative, but the easy charm of his Schilling Show is that such lines are delivered with such calm that he sounds more like a courteous next-door neighbor than a microphone-equipped agitator.
But is the incendiary nature of such comments merely flying under a blanket of mild-mannered cloud cover?
Is Schilling, who broadcasts weekdays on WINA AM 1070, really any different from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage, the four top-rated radio talk shows of last year, according to trade publication Talkers Magazine?
For starters, the Charlottesville talker has actually held elected office. In 2002, Schilling won a seat on Charlottesville City Council as a Republican, the first non-Democrat to win a seat since 1986. For another, he sports none-too-conservative shoulder-length hair.
While the latter may not be evident to radio listeners, his mane would set him apart should he ever make the leap to television. He certainly didn't look like any other conservative commentator on Fox News Channel when he was invited on the network's Fox & Friends earlier this month.
As the political right attempts to rehab its image after monumental losses in the 2008 election, might a long hair-wearing, goatee-growing, guitar-playing, rabble-rousing, voice crying from deep inside "the People's Republic of Charlottesville" be the fresh new face of American conservatism?
Had you told a young, twenty-something Schilling in the early '80s that at age 47 he'd be making a living on the radio, it would have come as no surprise. Only he would have assumed it was on the FM dial. For the young Schilling was dead set on stardom of a different sort, as a guitarist in the Los Angeles-based band the Sneaks.
"We were what I like to call power pop," says Schilling, in a recent interview. "For a while in the early '80s, we tried to do the new wave thing. That was actually the last time I wore my hair short, because everyone in new wave was wearing short hair."
To look at archival Sneaks footage on YouTube, it seems Schilling had a kinetic performance style, often pogo-ing all over the stage, frenetically strumming his Fender Stratocaster. His fashion choices were equally eye-catching, with Schilling having a penchant for rainbow pinstripes, sometimes combined with biker boots. But even then, making a living as an entertainer, working in the usually left-leaning showbiz industry, living in the left-leaning Los Angeles area, Schilling says he was a conservative.
"One of the things I loved to do then that I still do now is look at my water bill," says Schilling. "I love to look at my water bill and see how much money I've saved. From a very young age, I'd wanted to buy a house, and I knew I had to be conservative with my money."
That dream would be put off through much of the '80s and '90s, as Schilling continued to spend much of his time on the road as a rock 'n roller playing with several more groups like Chagall, Blue Frontier, and the Prime Movers, with whom he had played a series of dates opening for Thomas Dolby not long after Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" reached the Billboard top 10.
Yet, by 1998, wanting to start a family with his wife Joan, Schilling decided to leave the L.A. area.
"It was getting to be too much of a metropolis, and we had come to Charlottesville on our honeymoon in 1991," he says. "We just loved the area, and it kept coming up in our searches for the best places to live. So we came and first we lived out in Fork Union, but then we bought a house in the city in 1999."
Little did Schilling know at the time, but this purchase would not just be the realization of a lifelong dream, but also the beginning of a new career.
'I'd had enough'
When Schilling bought his new place in downtown Charlottesville, it was, to say the least, a fixer-upper.
"Have you ever seen The Munsters?" says Schilling. "This looked like 1313 Mockingbird Lane."
While Schilling says he fully intended to spruce up his new home, he wanted to take his time and make sure he was getting the best deals. The City of Charlottesville wasn't as willing to wait.
"As soon as I moved in, I got a letter," recalls Schilling, "that basically said, 'You have two weeks to paint your house, or we'll come and do it for you and charge you for the privilege.' I couldn't believe they had the nerve to send that kind of letter."
Outraged, Schilling wrote a letter back expressing his dismay.
"They wrote back and said that maybe they could have phrased it better, but that they weren't changing their position," says Schilling. "I'd had enough."
At that point, the new Charlottesville resident, who has made his living for over 20 years as a realtor, made two decisions that introduced himself to the neighborhood. The first was that he reached back into his new wave rock 'n roll past and painted his house bright pink.
"I'd always wanted a pink house," says Schilling. "This seemed like as good a time as any."
The second was that, when the next City Council elections came up three years later, he would seek a seat on the five-person board as a Republican.
It was a tall task. No Republican had been elected to City Council since 1986, when insurance firm owner and philanthropist Darden Towe earned a single term.
"I had thought about running for office back in California," says Schilling, "but there was always a line to be the next candidate. Here, I approached the local Republican party, and there was no line at all."
So in 2002, Schilling began the work of campaigning door-to-door as a self-styled "outsider." Considering that President Bush had only garnered only 30 percent of the city's electorate two years earlier, the odds were stacked against any member of the GOP. But Schilling did have one thing going for him: his hair.
"I remember once, a senior citizen answered the door," recalls Schilling, "and I told her I was a Republican running for City Council. She later conveyed to me that she had showed her daughter a picture of me and asked, 'What do you think of a Republican who looks like that?' And she thought about it and finally said, 'He looks honest.'"
With his unconventional tresses matching his unconventional politics (in Charlottesville at least), Schilling managed to build a coalition of those who didn't necessarily agree with him, but believed City Hall needed a voice of dissent. By the time the election rolled around in May 2002, the coalition crested.
"I had a number of people come up to me and say, 'I've never voted for a Republican in my life,'" says Schilling. "I even had one woman come up to me and give me her stub from the voting machine and told me that voting for me as a Republican was the hardest thing she'd ever had to do."
By the time the vote was tallied on May 7, Schilling had edged out a victory by the smallest of margins. Out of 7,396 votes cast, Schilling had won one of the two open seats by 127 votes.
According to Schilling, his fellow councilors– all Democrats– greeted him with a healthy serving of skepticism.
"I remember going on the first City Council retreat," says Schilling, "and Kevin Lynch comes up to me and asks, 'How long have you worn your hair like that?' As if I had grown it out to give me some sort of authenticity or not to look like a Republican."
While Schilling has worn his hair this way since the end of his new wave musical days, he says the reason for the choice is simple.
"I just like wearing it this way," says Schilling. "In some ways it's become my brand. I may even cut it one day if I feel like it."
While Lynch says he doesn't recall the conversation, he does remember being hopeful that he might find a new ally, a budget hawk on Council.
"We're both fiscal conservatives," says Lynch. "Rob believes government shouldn't be spending your money, period, and I believe government should be spending your money wisely."
Fellow Councilor Blake Caravati sensed early that he would "totally disagree with his approach to civics," he too had a feeling that he may be able to use Schilling to his political advantage.
"I called him 'Dr. No,'" says Caravati. "So the trick became that if I opposed something on Council, all I had to do was find one other vote, because I knew Rob was going to vote against it anyway."
"I take that as a compliment," says Schilling of Caravati's moniker. "City Council needs to have that kind of scrutiny."
Yet both Lynch and Caravati say it was precisely Schilling's lack of scrutiny on details that made for his biggest weakness as a Councilor.
"He would request these stacks and stacks of documents on any given proposal," says Caravati, "and then when it would come time to debate the issue, he would ask very general questions that showed he hadn't read a word of it."
Lynch is a little more charitable.
"He wasn't really concerned with the nuts and bolts of how to streamline the budget," says Lynch. "When it would come time to cut $100,000 in the budget, I would actually try to figure out a way to do it, whereas Rob would go to the City employees and say, 'Get me something $100,000 cheaper.' It's essentially asking people how they can do their jobs for cheaper, and most people's response would be 'You're lucky I'm doing this at the price I'm doing it.'"
Schilling disagrees with the allegation that he didn't apply enough specific scrutiny to his work as a City Councilor, and says that the proof is in the reaction of city staff.
"I've had city employees tell me," says Schilling, "that their bosses would come to them and say, 'Be able to justify every dollar of your budget, because Rob Schilling is going to be asking questions about it.' If they're scared of me, that's great because that means there's somebody there minding the store."
He recently uncovered school book dumping at Albemarle High. He also made an issue of a City policy to give public school students–- whom Schilling called "indoctrination hostages"–- a lower price at public pools. But Schilling firmly disagrees with the notion that he opposed everything.
"I pushed hard for an elected school board," says Schilling. "I went door-to-door fighting for that and when we put it on the ballot, people were overwhelmingly in favor of it."
His efforts paid off in 2005 when Charlottesville voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum for elected school boards, something the Democratic machine had fought. Moreover, Schilling suspects Caravati's and Lynch's claims have more to do with their prickly political relationship with him. Then again, Schilling says he never tried to make friends.
"I never reached out to them because there was no reason to reach out to them," says Schilling. "The bottom line was that I wanted to cut taxes and make the budget smaller. Nobody else was joining me in that, because they had too many constituencies to buy by funding pet programs with city tax dollars."
His days on Council would be short-lived, however. In 2006, Democrats Dave Norris and Julian Taliaferro trumped Schilling in his re-election campaign, earning 39 and 37 percent to Schilling's 24 percent. Still, Schilling says this was not a referendum on him as a councilor.
"I didn't lose the coalition. If anything, my coalition grew," says Schilling. "I had more votes cast for me the second time, and I got the endorsements from people like the head of the NAACP and lots of other prominent people. In the end, the City Democratic machine got turnout way up, and it was just a bad year to be a Republican."
Not that Schilling would go quietly.
Within a few months of his November 2006 defeat, Schilling says WINA radio began talks with him about doing a show.
"I'd never done radio before," says Schilling, "but, then again, I'd never run for office before either."
At first he became a temporary replacement for Dick Mountjoy, as the veteran morning show host underwent treatment for tongue cancer. But neither he nor WINA management felt this was the right format.
"In the morning, it was difficult," says Schilling, "because with all the news and commercial breaks, it was hard to really give some of the stories the time I needed to tell them. Plus, there were definitely some things I said that made some people in the building uncomfortable."
But rather than cut him loose completely, WINA found a home for Schilling three months later at 1pm every weekday. Given that much of the rest of WINA's late morning and afternoon lineup consisted of right-wing talkers like Neal Boortz and Laura Ingraham, it seemed natural to give Schilling an hour each day with which he says he got to do what what he pleased.
Schilling says it didn't take long for his audience to grow, simply because his term on City Council meant that he was the only one capable of doing his kind of show.
"I set out to be someone who speaks truth to power, stands up for what he believes in, and do that with particular focus on local government and local schools," says Schilling. "Nobody else is in a position to do that the way I did it because I have the advantage of being an outsider who's been on the inside. I know where the bodies are buried."
Still, Schilling's approach is not about decibels but ideas. For instance, he maintains an oft-updated blog, and he moderated a June 17 debate on the area's controversial water plan in which both sides treated each other respectfully.
"I don't think of someone like Rush Limbaugh as a screamer, and I have great admiration for him," says Schilling, "but yes, I do have my own style, and while I do sometimes raise my voice, I really only do it when something gets me really upset. Otherwise, I'm here to have a dialogue with people."
For 10 months, Schilling developed a steady following among those who appreciated his speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick style.
"He's providing information nobody else is providing," says listener Linda McRaven. "He doesn't put up with any nonsense, calls a spade a spade, and calls himself what he is–- a conservative. You can't find that anywhere else in local media."
Then the bottom fell out of the economy for Charlottesville Radio Group, its parent company Michigan-based Saga Communications, and the nation at large in the fall of last year. On December 19, WINA management called Schilling in for a meeting.
"I had just finished my show, and they called me in, said that local radio was expensive to produce," says Schilling, "and that I had just done my last show."
Back from the dead
It took less than one month without Schilling for WINA management to persuade Saga's corporate office to bring Schilling back by popular demand.
"I wrote letters, I made phone calls, I wrote e-mails," says McRaven. "I told them that if they wanted to use their airwaves to just read the city and county press releases, that was fine, but that I wouldn't be listening. I wanted to hear the light being shined where nobody else was shining it."
For Schilling it was the first time he realized just how many people were listening, let alone caring what he had to say.
"It was humbling," says Schilling. "It was the last thing I expected to happen."
Not only was Schilling back, but he was also given a second hour, now running weekdays from noon to 2pm.
"My sense was that it had struck a chord," says Schilling, "there was enough of a demand out there for what I do, and I'm happy to do it."
WINA management did not return the Hook's calls for comment for this story.
Should the time ever come when Schilling gets the axe again, it may be that he finds a new home on a bigger stage.
On May 3, 2007, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, 10 people stood onstage before MSNBC's cameras for the first debate among the candidates for the Republican Party nomination for President of the United States. While they hailed from Massachusetts to California and eight states in between, and came from varied professional backgrounds, there was one common trait plainly obvious to anyone watching, they were all white men over the age of 50.
Since a 47-year-old African-American man became the Democratic nominee, and ultimately the president by a wide margin, conservatives have made efforts to present a more diversified image.
In August 2008, 44-year-old Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin became the first woman to appear on the national GOP ticket when she became the party's vice presidential nominee. In January of this year, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele became the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee.
While it's true Rob Schilling is a white male approaching 50, and prefers to be called a "conservative" rather than a Republican, the fact that he looks more like Jack Sparrow than Jack Kemp makes him an intriguing choice to speak for the American right. He certainly didn't look like any other right-winger on the Fox News Channel on June 3, when he made his national television debut.
The issue he was there to discuss was an example of what Schilling does nearly every week on his show: take a listener tip on a story that no other member of the local media has covered– and run with it.
"A parent came to me and told me about some liberal indoctrination that was going on at their child's school," says Schilling, "and they had the photographic evidence to prove it."
And so on Sunday, May 31, Schilling penned a piece on SchillingShow.com, complete with the pictures, calling out Albemarle County Schools officials to explain why Henley Middle School social studies teacher Margie Shepherd had bingo cards mocking Sarah Palin, posters promoting the United Nations, and bumper stickers like "Good Planets Are Hard to Find" and other materials Schilling found improper for "captive government school students."
By Monday, June 1, he had discussed the matter on his show, and the next day received a call from a Fox News producer in New York asking him to come on Fox & Friends the next morning to take the issue national.
"There's no business having this up on the wall," Schilling told television viewers. "The election was six months ago. What purpose is it serving?"
However, Schilling admits to the Hook that he never contacted Ms. Shepherd to ask those very questions.
"I'm not a journalist; my program is an advocacy program," Schilling responds. "So I'm not going to call her up. My show is a show of my opinions. That's different from what you do. So I'm not going to call her up and say 'Oh let's come to a conclusion we can all feel good about.'"
The Hook did contact Ms. Shepherd, but she did not return our calls.
Schilling said he felt an immediate effect of going on Fox News.
"I was getting e-mails and phone calls from all over the country, and our website traffic increased to 20 times over normal," says Schilling. "This is something that's clearly a national problem, and I wanted to speak up about it."
Rob on the rise?
Does this mean we'll be seeing more of Schilling in a national forum?
"I'm open to whatever God has in store for me," says Schilling. "I never planned on serving on City Council, and I never planned on hosting a radio show either."
Regardless of whether he ever expands beyond the Charlottesville market, Schilling says he will never compromise his values or his style, and will ultimately let the market decide.
"If people don't like it," he says. "There's always NPR."
"That's actually the last time I cut my hair short," says Schilling of his time as guitarist in California-based power pop band, the Sneaks.
COURTESY OF ROB SCHILLING
Earlier this month, Schilling made his national television debut on Fox & Friends to slam an Albemarle County teacher's alleged political indoctrination of students.
COURTESY OF ROB SCHILLING
In 2005, Schilling upset the Democratic machine with a referendum, overwhelmingly passed by voters, favoring an elected board.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
Surprise indeed– Schilling wins a Council seat in 2002.
Could Schilling become the next big voice in talk radio? If so, he'll have to compete with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage–- the four top-rated radio hosts in the country.
COURTESY OF THE PALM BEACH SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT/COURTESY OF AMERICAN SOLUTIONS/PHOTO BY KEVIN TROTMAN-FLICKR/PUBLICITY PHOTO