Chuck Bonniwell on School Shooting Joke, Death Threats, New Podcast

Chuck Bonniwell during an appearance on The Devil's Advocate, with Jon Caldara.
Chuck Bonniwell during an appearance on The Devil's Advocate, with Jon Caldara.
There's no silencing Chuck Bonniwell.

Last month, the 710 KNUS program co-starring Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle publisher Bonniwell and TV news vet and significant other Julie Hayden was abruptly yanked from the airwaves amid fallout over a December 17 broadcast after the former jokingly wished "for a nice school shooting" to interrupt what he saw as ultra-dull impeachment proceedings aimed at President Donald Trump. But at 3 p.m. today, January 8, Bonniwell and Hayden are returning by way of The Chuck & Julie Show, a new podcast that will find the pair looking at local and national news from their decidedly conservative perspective.

Bonniwell repeatedly voices remorse over his gag gone wrong — one particularly problematic for radio listeners in a community forever scarred by the 1999 attack on Columbine High School, which Hayden covered as a reporter. "I'm sorry for the remark and wish I could take it back, which you sometimes can't," he says.

But Bonniwell doesn't apologize for being provocative. "In the radio business, you usually go out one of two ways," he maintains. "You go out because you say something you regret, or you're so boring they cancel you. So I'm certainly not proud of making the quip, although I'm surprised by how a lot of people took it, since it was obviously said in the context of impeachment hearings that were so boring. But if you spend all your time on air terrified that you might say something wrong, you're no longer effective. You're just one PC guy in a world of PC-dom."

No one can accuse Bonniwell of fitting this description. While most radio personalities who exit from a station resist the urge to talk about departure details for fear of burning bridges, he boldly suggests that Salem Media Group, the faith-based broadcasting concern that owns KNUS, used the controversy over the school-shooting line as a pretext to shift syndicated yakker Sebastian Gorka into the couple's weekday afternoon slot — a move he says the company had been pressuring local management to make for ages.

"Salem has wanted Gorka there for almost two years," he claims. "They spent a lot of money on him, and they didn't want to have him on late at night. We knew that at the first sign of bad news, we were going to be gone. We were lucky to have enough loyal listeners and advertisers that we were able to fight them off for a couple of years — that was almost a miracle in itself. But the first time we stumbled, they were going to give us the boot as quickly and as hard as they could."

KNUS vice president and general manager Brian Taylor declines to comment about this take, which is a little off time-wise; Gorka debuted on the Salem network circa January 1, 2019. For his part, Bonniwell praises Taylor, and says that he doesn't think the hammer fell more quickly on him and Hayden because of KNUS public-relations nightmares that preceded theirs, including the banishing of pro-impeachment host Craig Silverman and reports that accused producer and podcaster Kirk Widlund of being a neo-Nazi. (Widlund was laid off late last month, along with another employee.)

click to enlarge The logo for the new Chuck Bonniwell-Julie Hayden podcast. - BBSRADIO.COM
The logo for the new Chuck Bonniwell-Julie Hayden podcast.
At the same time, though, Bonniwell alleges that the national progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America has been monitoring all of the couple's shows in hopes of finding ways of embarrassing them and the right-wing press in general. In his view, "It was an orchestrated campaign, and it went around the world. It was on front pages everywhere. My sister in London told me about it. It was on Fox, CNN, People." He adds that local scribe Jason Salzman, whose article about the joke triggered the backlash, sees their dismissal as "probably his proudest accomplishment ever."

"Oh, God, no," responds a laughing Salzman after hearing this claim. "Far from it. In my wildest dreams, I would never have guessed it would have made the kind of splash it did." Salzman, who's affiliated with Colorado Times Recorder, not Media Matters, confirms that "we listen to talk radio shows and hold them accountable as much as possible for misinformation, bigotry, factual errors, and we try to encourage them to change their ways. He may think I was waiting for one mistake, but I'd done lots of posts on Chuck and Julie before."

Examples include the time Bonniwell argued that Governor Jared Polis had the support of the "gay mafia" and his assertion that state senator Faith Winter is "an overweight, unpleasant, vicious, amoral human being." Salzman also called Bonniwell out for dubbing Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, who was body-slammed by Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressman from Montana, a "little jerk" and a "metrosexual."

Such invective echoes the verbiage Bonniwell aims at critics (he suspects some were tied to antifa organizations) who went after those he loves during the post-joke firestorm.

"We got endless calls, saying, 'We're going to get your wife. We're going to get your son. We're going to get your whole family,'" he contends. "We knew which ones they were, because they were always restricted numbers, which 99 percent of people don't know how to do. Every time I got a call from a restricted number, it was almost inevitably someone threatening us in one way or another."

Not that this invective caused him to balk. "At the Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle, we ran all the Charlie Hebdo comics," he says in reference to the illustrations at the center of the 2015 attack on the satirical French magazine that killed twelve people and injured eleven others. "Those were quality death threats. They'd say they were going to slay you, cut off your head."

Other recent feedback has been more positive. "The thing that surprised me was the enormous outpouring of support I got from listeners and friends," Bonniwell allows. "I thought I'd lose friends over this, but we were inundated by friends calling in supporting us. And listeners did, too. We covered Trump and international stuff, but we also did local politics, which a lot of people really appreciated. More than a few people said it's really sad that a truly local program that covered local politics is now gone. Sebastian Gorka is a nice guy, but you won't have to worry about hearing him talk about anything that's not nationally in the news."

Salzman concurs. After hearing that Bonniwell figured his offense deserved something along the lines of a seven-day suspension, he responds, "I fully agree with him. I didn't think the show should have been canceled for that joke, and I would much rather have Chuck and Julie than Sebastian Gorka. They all have their faults, to put it mildly, but I'm not out to eliminate KNUS or Chuck and Julie or any other host. I just want them to be civil and factual and not be bigoted and to basically act like adults."

As for the new podcast, Bonniwell promises, "We'll cover local and national politics — but a lot of what's happening in Colorado. And we'll also do a lot of family stuff. Our son is eight, and we talk a lot about drills they're having at schools and things like that, which we love to cover."

The podcasting format also offers freedom for the occasional misstep, which Bonniwell appreciates. On radio, after all, "you're always one inappropriate comment from going off the air."

Click to access The Chuck & Julie Show podcast.