“Hockey’s really important to us, but what’s going on right now in this rink—people getting vaccinated—is even more important. This is a matter of life and death.”
That’s how Jeff Vinik welcomed guests on June 22, as the Tampa Bay Lightning owner prepared to introduce First Lady Jill Biden and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to Shots on Ice, a vaccination event at Amalie Arena giving the freshly jabbed a chance to score a goal, meet Lightning mascot Thunderbug, or win tickets to the next night’s Eastern Conference Final Game 7 against the New York Islanders.
It was just the latest in the finance and real estate magnate’s vaccine promotions; the team had previously been offering ticketed fans the chance to get vaccinated before games throughout the playoffs, and Vinik was cosigner to an open letter to Ron DeSantis urging Florida’s governor to prioritize K-12 teachers during the vaccine rollout earlier this year as well as a second open letter that asserted “It’s clear that vaccinating as large a portion of our population as possible will eventually end the pandemic and is the surest path to our state’s economic recovery.”
That sentiment, it turns out, is not shared by one of the Lightning’s most prominent business partners.
A week after Shots on Ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning Radio Network wrapped up its broadcast of the Lightning’s 3-1 win over Montreal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. As Dave Mishkin and Phil Esposito signed off, Lightning radio flagship NewsRadio WFLA (970-AM) shifted to its overnight programming—a program called “Ground Zero,” hosted by Clyde Lewis. Lewis opened his show declaring that masks were “useless,” that mRNA vaccines (like those from Pfizer or Moderna) were “dangerous experiments” that “can cause massive damage” and have killed “thousands,” that there was a “mounted effort to actually gag those who are speaking up about how the vaccines are hurting people,” and that a “radically evil agenda is under way whose goal is harm, not health, because those in charge believe that we need to find creative ways to cull the population or enable a long term plan of zero population growth” in the process of installing the “New World Order.”
Not long after, Lewis declared “The bottom line is: taking the vaccine is just as risky as getting COVID-19.”
That Lewis—a notorious Oregon conspiracy theorist and self-styled “paranormal expert” who regularly claims the Apollo moon landings were a hoax—would promote COVID denialism on his late-night radio show isn’t exactly shocking. (On May 26, the night the Lightning beat Florida 4-0 to move onto the second round of the playoffs, he called COVID precautions “The New Final Solution.”) But his anti-vaccination message isn’t unique among NewsRadio WFLA’s programming; indeed, hosts and guests of programs in nearly every hour of NewsRadio WFLA’s broadcast day have spent the better part of 2021 discouraging listeners from getting vaccinated and casting doubt on the highly effective COVID vaccines. At the same time, NewsRadio WFLA programming has gone in deep on so-called “alternative therapeutics” like hydroxychloroquine or, more recently, ivermectin, promoting the latter more than 250 times since March according to research conducted using a media monitoring platform.
Lightning on the radio
While WFLA-TV, News Channel 8 and NewsRadio WFLA 970-AM once shared a corporate parent, they have been owned by different companies since 1983 and today are completely unaffiliated with each other.
The Lightning’s partnership with WFLA is unique. Among the NHL’s 32 teams, the Lightning are the only one whose radio flagship is an explicitly political radio station; 21 teams are hosted on sports talk stations, five air on “straight news” stations, two on community or college radio, and one on an alternative rock station. Local broadcasts don’t work like national TV contracts do; while the big networks bid on rights to air sports programming, at the local level it’s the teams themselves that shell out cash to rent airtime on the station and recoup the cost through selling ads.
For NHL teams, that’s sometimes a struggle.
Hockey doesn’t command the radio audiences other sports do, and second-tier teams in packed markets sometimes can’t find airtime at all. That’s what led the Los Angeles Kings to ditch terrestrial radio entirely last year; the San Jose Sharks did the same earlier this year, citing the costs associated with maintaining a radio broadcast.
It’s been a similar ride for the Lightning, despite the team regularly scoring radio audiences that rank among the NHL’s best—and that ride has occasionally brought the team into conflict with Tampa Bay’s other pro sports teams. The Bolts debuted their 1997 season on Jacor Communications-owned sports-talk WDAE, only to see Clear Channel Communications gobble Jacor up the next year. After the Rays’ surprise 2008 season—which saw Dave Wills and Andy Freed calling the World Series on WDAE’s tiny sister station WHNZ 1250-AM—the decision was made to move baseball to WDAE; when games conflicted, which happened often in late fall or early spring, the Lightning were relegated to 1250 themselves. (Team management prior to Jeff Vinik’s acquisition of the team in 2010 paid so little attention to its radio obligations that at one point, its Clear Channel deal expired and nobody even noticed.)
Vinik’s influence on the organization showed results quickly, as the team came a win away from making the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. Lightning executives, tired of fans complaining that they couldn’t find playoff games on radio, asked Clear Channel for a permanent home for hockey—and were handed NewsRadio WFLA, where they’ve been ever since. In 2014, Clear Channel changed its name to iHeartMedia; it now owns 855 stations across the country, nine of them here in Tampa Bay.
A safe haven for disinformation
NewsRadio WFLA’s programming, meanwhile, has long been representative of conservative politics. Glenn Beck’s program originated there in 2000—giving the boot to Dr. Laura—while the right-wing malcontent’s “Assault On America” show (conceived after the 9/11 attacks) carried the station’s afternoon broadcasts before giving way to Rush Limbaugh. Beck remains a WFLA staple, alongside Clay Travis and Buck Sexton (who inherited Limbaugh’s throne), Sean Hannity, and Jesse Kelly.
Each of these shows has spent 2021 dedicated to downplaying the severity of COVID-19, dismissing the value of vaccinations, and promoting untested and potentially dangerous remedies.
One of the biggest purveyors of anti-vax disinformation on WFLA has been the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton show, airing between noon-3 p.m. On July 6—the day before the Lightning claimed their second-straight Stanley Cup—Travis falsely claimed that “There’s no reason whatsoever” that young, healthy people should get the vaccine. A week later, Travis & Sexton hosted prominent COVID disinformation purveyor Alex Berenson; Travis welcomed Berenson by falsely claiming COVID posed a “0% danger” to kids, and Berenson responded by alleging the vaccine was responsible for “many, many cases of myocarditis.”
On Sept. 21, the show hosted Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has been one of the loudest and most prominent voices casting skepticism on the vaccine.
JOHNSON: It doesn't look like the vaccine's holding up very well against Delta. The most recent technical brief by Public Health England shows that overall in 2021 70% of deaths are in partially or fully vaccinated individuals, 30% in the unvaxed. Over the most recent time, August 2nd to September 21st, it's about 74% in fully vaccinated vs 26% in the unvaxed. So, that's unfortunate. I wish the vaccines were 100% effective, 100% safe but it doesn't appear that they are.
Johnson is citing a common anti-vax misreading of the data; USA Today provides a full fact-check of how Johnson and other anti-vaxxers are wrong. Furthermore, his assertion that “it doesn’t look like the vaccine’s holding up very well” is completely false.
Hannity’s show has also been a fount for anti-vax rhetoric. On July 20, he praised a caller for not getting vaccinated; the same day, he praised Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for doing the same.
HANNITY: And, you know for example, Yahoo News: "Suddenly Sean Hannity and other Fox hosts are urging their viewers to get COVID-19 vaccines." Suddenly? Well, first of all, I'm not urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, because I'm not a doctor. That is not what I said [...] You know, Biden suggesting that people like me had an altar call on vaccines -- no, I haven't. .. "Sean Hannity basically begs his viewers to get vaccinated." No, I didn't. I'm begging everybody, don't mess around with this thing. Take it seriously... It would be wrong of me, not knowing your medical condition, to tell you what to do. It's not right.... Now, we do have therapeutics. I mean, they could be saying, "Wow, studies show that people like Hannity were right on hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and therapeutics like Regeneron," but we're never going to hear that either [...] "Hannity's pro vaccine speech is welcome" -- I mean, what -- why are they saying something I didn't say? [...] "Hannity urges viewers, get COVID vaccine." I never said that.
A week later, Hannity claimed the Delta variant would see a “dramatic reduction probably in around six weeks.” The next day, Aug. 3, Hannity dedicated an hour of his show to hosting anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists Brian Tyson and George Fareed, who advised a caller to not vaccinate his special needs child and falsely claimed that “The vaccine has lost its efficiency as far as protection.” And on Sept. 23, Hannity hosted Robert Malone, the self-proclaimed “inventor” of mRNA technology. Malone falsely claimed vaccinated individuals were “a whole huge bunch of super spreaders” and that “The truth is, it’s the unvaccinated that are at risk from the vaccinated.”
Other NewsRadio WFLA programming quickly fell in line. On Aug. 30, Jesse Kelly show guest-host James T. Harris alleged COVID precautions were a conspiracy and that “the vaccine doesn’t work.” The morning Business Happy Hour program on Sept. 19 declared “there’s really no need” to get vaccinated if you’re healthy and young; “If you go to the gym, get exercise, you’re not going to get that sick.”
Bill Cunningham’s Oct. 3 program launched deeply into the conspiracy theories, asking viewers, “You don't have the right as a human being, as an American to say no to a medical treatment that has killed some thousands, have either died or been hospitalized after getting the vaccine?”
“When we have well less than 1% of the American people who received the COVID-19 viral infection actually even went to the hospital. 1% guess what is 3.5 million people. Talk about panic porn,” Cunningham added. “Talk about giving up your constitutional rights.”
That was echoed the next morning by Glenn Beck who said, “It’s going to be for the common good that we all take the Borg chip.”
What, then, should the solution to COVID be for the unvaccinated? NewsRadio WFLA programming has that answer, and it’s often “ivermectin.” The anti-parasitic drug that has caused hospitalizations around the country due to misuse is heavily promoted by hosts on the station and has been dating back to March 16, when Limbaugh show guest-host Ken Matthews mentioned it as a therapeutic being overlooked due to its endorsement by Donald Trump.
More recently, Travis & Sexton on Sept. 8 misled listeners with the claim, “There's been some in vitro—he's actually read the scientific studies, real scientific studies, sorry, not in vitro, whatever, there's been some, in the lab, studies of this done that it actually seems to show some effect against the virus. [...] You can take it, it may not do anything, but it's really not going to hurt you.” The study cited by Buck Sexton is a common one pointed to by conspiracy theorists; the research was not conducted in vitro (in a test-tube) or in vivo (in a live organism) but in silico, meaning as a computer simulation. Sexton attributed his recovery from COVID-19 to ivermectin.
The same show on Sept. 16 hosted a caller who, too, credited ivermectin for his COVID recovery, and the next day had three separate callers all of whom promoted ivermectin as a COVID cure. And on Sept. 27 it hosted Yale researcher Harvey Risch who claimed “Hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, are very strong medications that work. Vitamin D and Zinc. They are extremely successful.” (Yale has distanced itself from Risch’s claims.)
Bill Cunningham’s show on Sept. 13 stated ivermectin was “the only thing that works.” The George Noory show the next day featured a guest that called hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin “extraordinarily effective,” asked “Why are we hammering away at everyone being vaccinated? There are alternatives and there's very good evidence for them. Ivy is extraordinary in its effectiveness. HCQ is extraordinary,” and that “the government only wants us to hear one message which is: ‘Vaccines work. They're harmless. Go get them.’ That's not true.“
On Sept. 19, Business Happy Hour featured an anecdote from a doctor that had previously been curing patients using “ivermectin and hcq and all that” but that “I got a letter in the mail signed by President Biden saying my medical license would be at risk if I prescribed any of these drugs for COVID.” (There is no evidence Biden has sent any such letters and the story appears to be a corruption of another debunked conspiracy theory.)
And on Oct. 1, Glenn Beck flat-out declared “Ivermectin: it works!”
Summed up, the likelihood you’ll land on anti-vaccination disinformation simply by tuning into the back-to-back and reigning Stanley Cup Champions’ radio flagship is extremely high. The team is in the final year of its broadcast deal with iHeartMedia—early negotiations for a renewal have already taken place—but it’s not clear if the team plans to stay with NewsRadio WFLA, seek a new home somewhere else in iHeartMedia’s Tampa Bay portfolio, or with a new partner entirely.
We called the Lightning and asked what was up, but the team told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the team would not comment on its radio agreement and whether or not it wants to stay on NewsRadio WFLA.
So will the Lightning ditch its radio partner after the 2021-22 season? That’s about as predictable as trying to figure out if the Bolts can join the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Islanders as the only franchises to win the Stanley Cup three times in a row.
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