Tune into AM frequency 600 in Montana's Flathead Valley, and all you'll hear is static now. It's an audio milestone in the West's prolonged amble toward reasonableness.
Notorious shock jock John Stokes, the former owner of radio station KGEZ in Kalispell, used that frequency for nine years to broadcast vicious attacks against environmentalists, the government and the very idea of respecting the other side in a disagreement. "The Edge," his daily talk show, reached listeners up to a hundred miles away, and coverage of his rants by the likes of The New York Times reached a much wider audience.
Stokes was outrageous, even by the standards of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. He didn't just blame environmentalists for wildfires and the logging slump, he labeled them "Green Nazis" and "vile vomit ... pure, unadulterated satanic evil." And he didn't stop with words: In his "anti-Earth Day" rallies in 2001 and 2002, he burned big wooden green swastikas while crowds applauded. When a Holocaust survivor objected to the use of the Nazi symbol, Stokes called him "a cheap whore."
Stokes even appeared to encourage his listeners to literally attack environmentalists and liberals, according to the Missoulian, with lines like: "Finish them off and make sure they don't have babies." In a 2003 cover story, High Country News dubbed Stokes "The West's Biggest Bully." (That story also noted Stokes' difficult upbringing; he attended 28 different schools because his father was a Navy enlisted man who moved frequently.)
Inevitably, Stokes got into many court battles. He suffered a major blow in a dispute with neighbors who own land where he has radio towers. After he accused them on the air of committing bank fraud and perjury, they sued for defamation of character, and in late 2008, a jury ordered him to pay them $3.8 million. Stokes had other debts, his station was reportedly losing money, and he admitted that he hadn't filed tax returns for more than a decade. Finally, eight months ago, he filed for bankruptcy.
A federal bankruptcy judge, however, said that Stokes' "declarations are not truthful," and on Sept. 21 ruled that he was concealing millions of dollars of assets, including "vehicles and at least one boat." The judge appointed a trustee to take over Stokes' assets and sell them to settle his debts. On Sept. 24, the Flathead County sheriff, the county attorney and deputies seized the radio station; Stokes abruptly signed off around 2 p.m.
"We're thrilled," says Kate Hunt, a local sculptor who created a Web site to challenge Stokes' claims over the years. "The sentiment around here is: It's about time."
It's not clear what will happen next. The trustee — a Missoula lawyer — might sell the radio station or turn its license over to the Federal Communications Commission; the Montana Human Rights Network wants the FCC to yank the license.
In the end, Stokes' hateful rhetoric was his downfall. He succeeded primarily in uniting people against him. Ultimately, he "didn't damage any of his major targets," says Ben Long, a local political consultant. Environmentalists, for instance, helped defeat a county commissioner who was a frequent caller on Stokes' show, and helped elect a commissioner who is more aligned with their goals, which include support for conservation easements. Gays and lesbians and their supporters, also targeted by Stokes, staged Kalispell's first gay pride march last summer. "This is still a conservative community," Long says, "but we can have a conversation, good democratic disagreements."
Stokes still has fans. He's blogging and appearing on other right-wing stations around the country, complaining that his station was "murdered." He's seeking donations to raise $75,000 to hire Bob Barr, a Georgia libertarian lawyer, to handle his appeal of the bankruptcy judge's order and other court actions.
This November on his blog, Stokes vowed that he'll be back on the air someday: "I told you there was no station in the world like KGEZ 600 AM, THE EDGE. Boy was that true!"