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Devil's Advocate

Ed Dean is the new face of talk radio

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Ed Dean keeps crazy hours, to put it mildly. By the time we meet Downtown for lunch, he has already done his radio show and run four miles. You can do things like that when you’re up before dawn. Dean, he usually rises around 3:30 a.m., sometimes four (if he’s feeling lazy). And his day sometimes ends as late as 11 p.m. Work leaves little time for sleep, but it doesn’t seem like he really needs it.

The youngest of four, he was born and raised in Cocoa Beach; he still gets down there on an almost weekly basis. “Do I have to tell my age?” he asks, before relenting. “I’m still in my early 40s, born in the ’70s.” He looks much younger, which is part genetics, and part commitment to fitness. He graduated from Riverside Christian Academy in Melbourne, then he had the proverbial cup of coffee at Brevard Community College. He had an early interest in filmmaking, but shifted to print journalism rather quickly. Ultimately, radio commentary is where he would make his mark.

Dean’s eponymous show airs locally on WBOB from 6 to 9 a.m. every weekday, but that’s just the beginning of his work day. His broadcast schedule is listed in military time, which speaks to the degree of discipline he applies to his trade. And he needs it, because the job is about much, much more than just talking into a microphone. He’s writing copy, selling advertising and networking with sponsors and station managers. Most of the boring side-work, usually delegated to staff, Dean takes on himself, partly out of necessity (because his is still a small business) but largely out of genuine passion for the work.

Ed Dean is a conservative, and his show airs almost exclusively on conservative stations. At a time when American politics is hyper-polarized, however, with both sides giving increasing power to their respective fringes, Dean is carefully charting a new course in the industry—more thoughtful, less dogmatic, more inclusive, less exclusionary. “I love having liberals come on,” he says. “I’m very fair. I get accused by my conservative friends of being too fair.”

Dean got his start toiling in print media outlets around the state. That was when he began developing the instincts for politics and people which he eventually applied to his radio work. “I had offers to go work for Fox News Radio,” he says, dutifully mowing down a Caesar salad at Cowford Chophouse, “but I didn’t want to move to South Florida.” He saves the grilled shrimp as a reward for later, throwing an occasional jealous glance at my fish and chips (with a side of fried oysters). Having just lost 42 pounds, he’s trying to be a good boy, but the struggle is real.

A hectic schedule keeps Dean on the road for most of the week, massaging his markets from one end of the state to the other. Still, there’s a special place in his heart for Northeast Florida. “I love Jacksonville—love it. I came up here all the time as a reporter. The competition, I get feelers from them, but I’m, like, ‘I don’t need to be in Orlando.’ I love it in Jacksonville.” He gestures with a shrimp for emphasis, then pauses. “Oh, wow. This is really good!”

Among homegrown radio products, Ed Dean is easily the most prominent in Florida. “We’re in every major city, excluding maybe Miami,” he explains. “I’ve had offers to go down to Miami, I say no; I’ve had offers to go down to Tampa, I say no.” This decision was driven by economics, and Dean’s desire to maintain maximum control of his own creative destiny.

“There was more money to be made from statewide syndication than from nationwide,” he says, “because there are, like, 100 to 200 radio talk hosts, and only the top 10 or top 20, like Limbaugh or Hannity—those guys make the big bucks. So we were originally in the Central Florida area, and then I sat back in 2014 and said, ‘I want to make more money—I want to be statewide syndicated.’ Nobody had it. Nobody was doing statewide.”

“The only difference between a statewide issue and a nationwide issue is the city that you’re in. So we took the opportunity to go full-blown syndicated in 2014.” Northeast Florida was established not long after. “I was in all the markets,” he says, “but Jacksonville was [just] the weekends. We had gone back and forth for a year or two. We came to an agreement in October of 2016. They gave us the morning show, and in the words of Ric Flair, ‘We’ve only just begun’. No one’s touched us.”

Even as his radio show took off, Dean maintained a lucrative side-hustle in print media, eventually becoming his own master in that realm as well. “I was always a reporter,” he observes. “I worked for several newspapers, I became an editor with Sunshine State News, and a couple years ago, I wanted to buy them out. They originally said yeah, but they came back and said, ‘Would you keep some of the extra owners?’ And I said, ‘I love ya, but I’m here to make a buck.’ So we started Florida Daily, and the numbers are just huge. We started last June, and every month since October, it’s been at least a quarter-million readers; last month, we had over 400,000. Our biggest markets for readership are Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Our biggest for Facebook is Jacksonville, because of the morning show.”

This phase of Dean’s career kicked off right as the political scene was morphing into something new, with social media driving the business into a hyper-polarized new era, from Washington on down. Meanwhile, political journalism has undergone massive changes, especially in Florida. Newspapers—and their staffs—are shrinking, leaving fewer reporters to cover more statewide developments. This shift has created an opening in the information market, and folks like Dean are filling that gap.

“When I write articles for our publication, I cover both sides,” Dean explains. “The differences between reporting and covering are night and day sometimes. Some of my conservative friends complain that we don’t cover the story ‘the way it is,’ and I get it. I cover it right down the middle, and they complain that it’s not conservative enough. I do have an opinion, but I try to leave that to the audience.”

Like many Floridians, Dean is part of a growing cadre of conservatives who’ve followed Bill Buckley’s lead in supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. “That’s always a hot topic on my radio show,” he says. “I give credit to [Governor Ron] DeSantis. I was a little nervous when he came in, but I like what he said: You can differ with the amendment but, hey, the people voted for it, so just do it. I’ve never [smoked marijuana] myself, because I worry about what it would do to my health. I’m always the designated driver.”

Another point of commonality shared by DeSantis and Dean is the environment, specifically the slight moves made by the governor in regard to water quality. “I agree with him on the environment,” Dean says. “We’ve got to clean up our freakin’ water, folks! We used to be able to fish in the St. Johns, or some of the Indian River lagoons. We have runoff—that’s just the way it is, and that’s not some liberal viewpoint. Water is a big deal in this state.”

He does, however, take a more nuanced approach to Big Sugar, which has been widely depicted as the villain in public discourse about runoff and corporate responsibility. “Red tide has been around since I’ve been a boy,” Dean shrugs. “Nothing is proven about where it comes from. I don’t know anybody big in Big Sugar. People act like they’re Satan or whatever, or gambling, or the offshore drilling people.”

I’m almost convinced, such is Dean’s affable, everyman grace. This virtue has served him well. Building his own network holistically required him to personally sell his show to each of his member stations, one by one, face to face. This would be a challenge for most conservative talk hosts, who are by nature pushy, ill-tempered and obnoxious (to say nothing of their actual physical appeal, because there is really nothing to be said). Dean, on the other hand, is a natural salesman, with relentless energy and a certain degree of sly charm. Think Eddie Haskell. He’s also tall and reasonably good-looking, which is a refreshing change within the genre.

Above all, Ed Dean is not dogmatic. “Though we don’t always agree,” says Claire Goforth, a frequent guest on The Ed Dean Show (and the former editor of Folio Weekly), “I respect his views and always feel as though he respects mine. At first, I thought it was just another garden-variety conservative talk radio show—full of conspiracy theories, shouting and fake news. But I soon realized that Ed is genuinely thoughtful and informed. He steers clear of that stuff.”

For her part, Goforth adds a fierce, funny and progressive perspective that cuts through the conservative orthodoxy like lemon juice through butter. Whether they admit it or not, even conservative callers seem to appreciate Goforth’s snark and sass.

“Ed won’t take a position just to rile people up,” she says. “He’s going to push back, even against listeners, if they say things that aren’t true, are bigoted or otherwise ill-informed. In this way, he’s far more responsible and balanced than pretty much any other host in the conservative radio space.”

After an hour talking about local and state issues, it was inevitable that talk turned to 2020, and what is already looking to be an exceptionally crazy super-election cycle. “It’s funny,” he says, “because the polls are all over the map. I think Trump could win, but he’s vulnerable, as well.” With Dean being a solid conservative, and almost certain to vote for Trump no matter who his challenger is, I was curious to find out whom he would nominate if he were running the Democratic Party. His answer reflected the kind of intellectual dexterity for which he’s known: “I think Andrew Yang is credible. He’s a business guy. He’s got some liberal views, like the Universal Basic Income, but he’s a moderate.”

As for the president himself, Dean bought the ticket, and now he’s taking the ride, but unlike most conservatives, he doesn’t mind admitting to a little bit of motion sickness. “When you look at conventional wisdom,” he says, “Trump should have never won.” Trump won by subverting standard procedure, exploiting his opposition’s reliance on protocol and optics to keep them perpetually off-balance, whether it was the bland, almost robotic Clinton campaign or a massive Republican field that, in retrospect, never had a chance.

Will history repeat itself? Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter either way to Ed Dean. His business model is not dependent on the situation in Washington, or Tallahassee, or anywhere else. He’s in this for the long haul, and his machine is built to last. By reaching out to the other side, he is building his base, and encouraging the kind of realistic dialogue that one rarely sees in mass media these days. It’s a risky proposition, but the numbers don’t lie. His vision of a more nuanced approach to the business is paying off, literally, and he’s only just begun. “I give God all the credit,” says the minister’s son. “I’ve been very blessed.”

The interview over, Dean strides out of the Chophouse. His gold watch glitters in the noontime sun. It’s been a long day already, but it’s far from finished. His black SUV is parked not far away; he gets in and waves before driving off. He didn’t say where he was going, but he was clearly in no real hurry. On the road, or on the air, he moves at his own speed, which is a good deal faster than most.

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