Faith and Talk Radio: An Interview with Michael 'Lionel' Lebron
Lionel (Michael Lebron) is a New York-based nationally syndicated talk radio veteran and television personality. He is also an ex-prosecutor, author, bluegrass musician and standup comedian. He currently broadcasts online at LionelMedia.com with podcasts, audio, video and other multimedia platforms in addition to being a legal analyst and news decoder on television, radio and print media nationwide.
He is listed as number 23 on Talkers Magazine’s list of “The 100 Most Important Radio Talk Show Hosts in America” and is the author of “Everyone's Crazy Except You and Me...And I'm Not So Sure About You: America's Favorite Contrarian Cuts Loose.”
Lionel is a proud 1976 graduate of Jesuit High School in Tampa.
On July 28, I interviewed Lionel by telephone about the intersection of his Catholic faith background and talk radio career. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.
As a kid in Tampa, you were taught by nuns in grade school and by Jesuits in high school. How did they help make you who are you are today?
Well, first of all I am an absolute rabid opponent of the “anti-Catholicist,” if there is such a term. Anti-Catholic rhetoric enrages me if the people attacking the faith aren’t Catholic. I have been a great friend of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, a real bulldog on that issue. In my 25 years of broadcast excellence, I have a simple rule: If you find something in another person’s group objectionable, and you are not a member of that group, then shut up! When I hear people suggest “Why can’t the priests get married,” I ask them who they are to comment on it. Do you want to be a priest? Are you a Catholic? Then shut up. What difference does it make? It’s a house rule; it’s a rule that Catholics have agreed to. It’s not state action, it’s private, and you’re under no compulsion or duty to follow it. I don’t understand certain dietary habits of other religions, but so what? It’s not my faith; it’s not my place to object.
It’s open season right now on Christians, but on Catholics in particular. I’m fervently opposed to the popular defamation of Catholicism that comes not out of an objection to faith—it’s a first amendment right and I don’t want people to be arrested—but out of a thrill people get from it that snowballs down to everyone else. When I’m on TV with people who question things like the public celebration of Christmas, I make a point of looking them in the eye and asking if they would make the same objections about Ramadan.
Right now it’s become de rigeur to always say “pedophile” and “pervert” with the word “Catholic,” and as a former prosecutor I know it’s unfair, even though awful things have happened in the church. I was never hit, assaulted, kicked or abused by a nun or priest or layperson in 13 years of Catholic school. Catholicism was the biggest influence on my life as a kid, especially my four years at Jesuit High School, but also my entire Catholic educational background. When I was a kid, I never even heard sexual transgressions whispered about. Now, I’m not saying these things don’t occur and that victims should keep quiet. But it’s unfair the way people outside of the church say “aha” about it, as if priests do these things because they don’t marry.
Were there any signs in Catholic school that you were a future talk show host?
No, because I had never imagined doing that. But I will tell you, if anything helped, it was the spirit of free speech at Jesuit High School that came from the Jesuits in particular. On two separate occasions, our principal Father James Bradley came to my defense, even backing up my free speech over and against a priest—cementing my belief in free speech. That may have played a role in my boldness.
What were you like as a teenager at Jesuit High School?
Pretty much what I am now, I think. Not as seasoned, but Jesuit was a great academic atmosphere where it was cool and hip to do well in school. In my circle, you made your mark in Latin, physics and calculus. And in my circle, that’s the way you made your mark, but not in a nerdy or wonkish way. It was a great atmosphere where you did it because you understood why you were doing it and you liked it.
Has your Catholic faith changed or evolved over the years?
Oh absolutely. That’s a personal thing, but not only is it my Catholic faith, but my “faith faith”—my faith in humanity, my distrust, my sadness, my skepticism, my reality. A lot has changed and evolved. Where it can fit now, I’m not even sure there’s a name for it.
Do you pray? If so, how do you pray?
I would say I don’t classically pray for divine intervention. I do believe we tend as humans, sadly, to pray only when we are concerned or worried. We don’t pray because we’re happy. I never understood praying for baseball teams like the Yankees to win. But in terms of becoming meditatively focused on a problem, that’s my prayer.
How does your Catholic and Jesuit background influence the way you do talk shows?
Well, one of the best things is the way I try to be open-minded and to have a sincere interest in free speech. You know, the Jesuits and the church in general have been very outspoken against the death penalty. I can understand them being against abortion. I can understand the consistency of never being afraid of speaking up, taking positions that aren’t necessarily mainstream. I love the new pope—best thing that ever happened. First, he’s a third world pope, which is great. Second, he’s a Jesuit. And even among Catholics, you hear “ugh, a Jesuit”—kind of a reminder that the Jesuits have historically been the free spirits, the loving troublemakers, the pope’s army.
In 2010, you made the transition from talk radio to television news commentary and online broadcasting. How has that changed the way you approach your work?
Well, right now I’m privileged to be in the midst of seeing broadcast talk shows change into many platforms and delivery systems. You don’t even think about broadcasting anymore, but about “branding,” about everything you can possibly do today in the media. It’s not enough to do radio anymore because radio is being more and more diluted by alternative broadcasting, blogs and podcasting. Music radio is so commercial that I’m not sure how you’re even going to do that with Pandora, Spotify and that sort of thing. But you have to do everything. You have to be able to speak and constantly put out a product all the time because nobody’s sitting by a radio waiting for you to come on at noon. I mean, some might still be, but it's different. And as far as visual vs. radio, I think radio’s much more difficult because you have nothing to help distract people visually.
My wife is in show business and constantly deals with branding. Look at what’s happened recently with binge watching on Netflix and on the web, where you put up every show and you can watch whatever you want whenever you want it. You know, “Game of Thrones” was probably watched as much online or on Twitter as it was on TV. Think about the tie-in car commercials featuring “Ron Burgundy” from the last “Anchorman” movie—we’re talking about vertical, multi-layered, multi-tiered branding that is completely different from anything we’ve seen before.
The Catholic Church has got to start branding too—I’d love to do that PR! Bill Donahue is a media professional and a bulldog, as I said before, and I love it. We need it and we’ve got to have it.
How are the new media platforms going for you?
Exceedingly well. It’s never been a more fascinating time to work in media. I’m an author, a standup comedian, a bluegrass musician, a podcaster, a legal commentator, a news decoder. I’m on more video, television and radio talk shows than ever before. Some of this was possible before, but not like today. So these are great and exciting times, and we’re “blowing up the brand” as we say.
Do you have any hopes for the future?
None! No, that’s a good one. Of course I do. Well, the first thing is that I want governments to fear us. The biggest threat we’ve ever faced is not from “the enemy,” but from people in our own leadership who assume the mantle of government and tell us what to do—and who limit us and scare us and watch us and keep us under surveillance. I don’t like that.
I also want people to know a little bit more about history. I’ve never understood why they don’t, but as Tolstoy said, history is a wonderful thing if only it were true. Today is the 100th anniversary of World War I and I would venture to say that most of the people stopping in Times Square haven’t got the foggiest idea of what happened. And it’s repeating itself now in different places around the world. We need to know more and I think what’s going to help that is the internet. I want people to be absolutely immersed in knowledge.
Do you have any regrets about the past?
Technically speaking, in a post-hoc review, sure I do. But a real regret is when you did something you know you shouldn’t have done and it came out just the way you feared. I haven’t had any of that. I don’t even worry about that. There’s something about the notion of redemption that I like—forget about it, put it behind you, reset, restart, that was then and this is now. What am I going to do, compare myself now to when I was 20? Why? It’s over.
What do you think about the papacy of Francis so far?
I hope he uses the power of PR and I hope he makes being Catholic “cool.” John Paul II did it, people liked him, but this pope could really change the narrative. He’s got a different style. Again, non-European, third world, Jesuit. I wish there was a campaign where young hip Catholics in the entertainment world remind people that they’re proud of what they believe and who they are as Catholics. I would tell Pope Francis to make it cool, use Madison Avenue in your favor, but without losing the message.
If you met St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, what would you say to him?
“Could you have ever imagined this?” I love to play similar thought experiments with people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, asking them what they think about current issues like airport security.
Any final thoughts?
Well, first and foremost, every American Christian needs to understand the First Amendment—and the Establishment Clause especially—is there to protect your unfettered ability to experience and practice your faith. Government has no business anywhere near any religion, ever—either in endorsing it, or denying it, or commenting on it, or rejecting it, or in any way whatsoever. If I had my way, you would never see anything on coins, anything in public schools. You would never hear “under God” in anything that is remotely governmental, because that separation will protect religions in the long run. You do not want any entanglement, any mention, any reference. I want a firewall between the two, an actual separation which is not in the Constitution but Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Church—I think that’s really critical. I want people to really understand: Keep religion out of government, or before you know it you’re going to see a little Hare Krishna cult or something is going to take over a little town in Florida or somewhere like that. And you cannot tell somebody “wait a minute, hold that” when you look the other way and give the more “popular” religions a pass. You don’t do that because it will ultimately harm you. You don’t want government anywhere near religion or vice versa. John Adams even said that in the Treaty of Tripoli, pointing out that the government was in no way based on any religion.
Secondly, lest I forget, I want to point out that Pope Pius XII and John Paul II said you can believe in evolution and it doesn’t contradict your faith at all. Nobody understands the importance of that. But listen to what the Vatican itself has been saying about extraterrestrials. The Vatican has been hipper than anything people want to imagine! It boggles the mind to consider how a lot of people miss that.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.