The ‘host’ made famous by David Foster Wallace became an early skeptic of the BYU-Duke volleyball story
John Ziegler’s occupational hazard is courting controversy, but he’s also made a career betting against the house
The most famous talk radio host you’ve never heard of is probably John Ziegler. For years, the Los Angeles podcaster and author bobbed tantalizingly close to the highest levels of talk radio stardom; he filled in when Matt Drudge had a radio show and says for a while, he was being groomed to fill-in for Rush Limbaugh.
In 2005, Ziegler was profiled by noted writer David Foster Wallace in a famous cover story for The Atlantic. In more recent years, Ziegler became known for his heterodox politics — he was conservative by most measures, but he didn’t like Donald Trump. And that cost him.
“In a very real sense,” Ziegler mused after Trump’s 2016 win, “my show was an experiment to test whether it was possible for a radio show that simply called things like I saw them, and which didn’t consciously pander to the bulk of the ‘conservative’ audience which listens to talk radio, could endure.”
The experiment, he concluded, failed.
Although he stays busy with podcasting and other projects, Ziegler’s most regular work these days is parenting his young daughters and tending to his 57,000-plus followers on Twitter, where he goes by “Zigmanfreud.” More recently, he made waves for being one of the earliest skeptics on Twitter raising his eyebrows regarding allegations of racial heckling at a Duke-BYU women’s volleyball game.
Although he has no connection to BYU, or even, for that matter, to Utah, Ziegler was interested in the story because it indulged two of his passions: excoriating the news media and ferreting out the truth about widely believed stories that don’t pass the smell test.
“There have been many times, probably far too many times, that I have jumped on hand grenades for people I have no connection to,” he said in a recent interview over Zoom. “I have this bizarre quirk in my DNA where I really care about truth and justice, and it really bothers me when people are accused of things that didn’t happen, and it was obvious to me from very early on in the BYU-Duke story that what was being alleged did not happen.”
BYU’s investigation, which was later reviewed by the West Coast Conference, found no evidence of racial slurs and several commentators eventually backed off from their criticism of the school and its fans.
It was the latest in a string of questionable stories Ziegler says he’s debunked, from actor Jussie Smollett saying he was the victim of a hate crime, to a 5-year-old said to have died in the arms of a professional Santa Claus. Ziegler’s occupational hazard may be courting controversy, but the “host” has managed to build a career betting against the house.
When Wallace, the much vaunted writer who died by suicide in 2008, chose Ziegler as the face of conservative talk radio for his deep dive into what Wallace called a “frightening” industry, Ziegler was 37 years old and laboring in a late-night slot on KFI AM in Los Angeles, where he worked from 2003 to 2007. It was, Wallace wrote, “either the eighth or ninth host job that Mr. Ziegler’s had in his talk-radio career, and far and away the biggest.”
That, according to Ziegler, was one of three inaccuracies in the opening paragraph of “Host.” Ziegler gives Wallace more leeway on his job history than he does on the other things he says were wrong. (Ziegler says he did not drive a U-Haul from Louisville to LA, as Wallace wrote, and lived in Burbank, California, not near Koreatown.)
But Ziegler was willing to dismiss much of what was wrong in the piece as creative license, even though the 23-page article broadly painted talk radio as negative for society.
“John Ziegler is not a journalist — he is an entertainer,” Wallace wrote. “Or maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved.”
Ziegler, who grew up Catholic in Philadelphia, said he didn’t know who Wallace was when the writer first contacted him in 2003. Wallace was then teaching at Pomona College in Claremont and his novel “Infinite Jest” had garnered acclaim, but Ziegler didn’t look into the background of the stranger who wanted to shadow him for weeks and didn’t know until the article came out that it would be a cover story for a major magazine.
Even if he had, he wouldn’t have known that the article would become one that would trail him for his entire career. After Wallace’s suicide at age 46, “Host” and other essays published in the collection “Consider the Lobster,” along with Wallace’s novels, had heightened value. A signed first edition is going for $917 online at this writing.
“(Author and commentator) David Frum, when he and I met, the first thing he said to me was, ‘A hundred years after you’re dead, that’s all anyone will know of you, that David Foster Wallace piece.’
“I thought, is that a compliment? It was an odd thing to hear, but it’s probably true. From the standpoint of history, it’s an odd claim to fame.”
Ziegler said that he doesn’t regret giving Wallace access to his life and career, although he probably would have handled it differently if he’d known who the writer was.
“Frankly, he was so personally unimpressive that it never occurred to me to bother to find out who he was because I didn’t think there was any chance he was anybody of note — kind of hilariously, in retrospect. Had he been a homeless person, I would not have been surprised.
“I’m sure he was very amused by the fact that I did not know who he was. ... But maybe it was a better story because I just didn’t care. (I said,) ‘Here I am, warts and all, write what you want to write.’ And he did.”
Although he earned a degree from Georgetown University in government, Ziegler began his career as a sports broadcaster. This was in the early years of the “Rush Limbaugh Show,” when conservative talk radio seemed new and hot. Soon enough, as Ziegler told Wallace, he figured “maybe my controversial nature would work better on talk radio.”
Given the volatility of talk radio, having a CV punctuated by a certain staccato is something of a badge of honor. “Somebody in the industry said, if you haven’t been fired a lot, you’re not any good,” he said. And Ziegler, like many others in the field, often seemed to find a better job after the loss of one.
As Ziegler pointed out in a letter to the editor of The Atlantic, by the time the article “Host” was published, he was no longer broadcasting late at night, but had moved to the more desirable 7 p.m. slot and soon thereafter published a book called “The Death of Free Speech,” in which he detailed how he got fired from a sportscasting job after making a joke about O.J. Simpson’s innocence.
It was the first of multiple firings for saying extremely controversial or taboo things. Indeed, once he was “fired, rehired and fired again within a three-week period by an FM station that was going through a major format shift from traditional talk to ‘All Madonna, all the time.’” he wrote in “The Death of Free Speech.”
“I certainly do take chances. But that’s what makes for good talk radio,” he said. “No one ever accused my shows of being boring. That was never a concern.” One need only scroll through Twitter to see that others have accused him of many other things. In fact, Ziegler makes a habit of retweeting, without comment, every pejorative thrown his way.
He’s even become controversial among conservatives.
Working with co-host Leah Brandon, another veteran of KFI in Los Angeles, he was part of “The John and Leah Show,” which lasted 19 months on a small network of 24 stations and ended shortly after Trump was elected. “There was no path,” for the show after Trump’s election, said Ziegler, who was and remains vehemently anti-Trump. “That created friction between Leah and I,” he said. “I wasn’t going to waste anyone’s money, but there just was no path (for the show’s success) once Trump won.”
That freed up more time for another project of the past 10 years, investigating the Penn State sex abuse scandal and producing a podcast called “With the Benefit of Hindsight...” that Ziegler says “will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about this case.” (The case is also prominently featured on his YouTube channel.)
These days, Ziegler tweets voraciously, usually about sports and politics, and sometimes about the family he never thought he’d have.
He said he never intended to get married because he didn’t want to subject a wife to the lifestyle and controversy that comes with being a host. But that changed after he met his wife-to-be when, on the five-year anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks, he invited local teachers to be on his show to talk about how 9/11 was being taught in schools.
After meeting the middle-school teacher who would eventually become his wife, Ziegler said his co-host told him, “You should date her.” They’ve been married 12 years, and have two daughters, 10 and 5.
“Ironically enough, if I were in talk radio, I’d be a far better host today than I ever was in my life. ... But the industry has changed so much that there’s really no place for somebody like me.”
Ziegler said he has survived the lean times because he has been frugal with money and invested well, knowing that the industry was unpredictable.
He also has had numerous other projects, such as making documentaries and writing for publications that include Mediaite, where he was one of the first people to question the validity of a viral story in 2016 of a 5-year-old dying in the arms of a mall Santa Claus.
Using the same sort of reasoning that caused him to be skeptical of the BYU-Duke story, Ziegler pointed out a lack of details and a puzzling timeline. Despite the red flags, there were a burst of headlines that still exist on the internet such as “Sick child dies in Santa’s arms.” The newspaper that first published the column later updated the file to say that the facts of the story couldn’t be verified, causing other news outlets that wrote about the story, including The Washington Post, to publish what amounted to retractions.
Ziegler applies an equation he invented to determine the probability of a story being untrue.
“You give three things a rating on a scale of 1 to 10. First, what is the level of evidence that you would expect to see if a story was true? Take that number and divide it by the actual evidence in existence. Then multiply that number by how much the news media wants a story to be true. Any story that gets a number 25 or higher is probably false.
“(BYU-Duke volleyball) was a 45,” he said, adding of his equation, “I should probably copyright this.”
As for the future, Ziegler plans to continue with podcasting; not surprisingly, his next project, available within the next few weeks through Workhouse Productions, will take on what he sees as the disintegration of credible media. It’s called “The Death of Journalism.”
“I am not a conspiracy person ... but I believe truth is in grave peril in this country,” he said.
He does not, however, see a path to another talk radio show, either local or national, saying that the medium is now “therapy for Trump conservatives. There’s no space for people who are going to challenge the thinking of the audience.”
This bothers him, not only because of the implications for the nation, but because he worries about how his daughters see him, as someone without a “regular” job, who is most always around and talks a lot in front of a fake background in his home. “It’s very difficult to explain to my 10-year-old what I do, even though she sees the Emmy (award) in the living room and thinks it’s cool.” (The Emmy was for 9/11 coverage for a TV talk show in Philadelphia that he worked for from 2001-2002.)
Talk radio, he says, has gone from broadcasting to a large audience, to “narrowcasting” to “cultcasting” in the Trump era.
“Ironically enough, if I were in talk radio, I’d be a far better host today than I ever was in my life. ... But the industry has changed so much that there’s really no place for somebody like me. I’m a square peg in a round-hole world.”