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Group led by former Trump adviser runs anti-trans political ads on Pittsburgh radio stations

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
A sign in support of Black trans lives during a demonstration on Sunday, May 2, 2021.

 Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

A sign in support of Black trans lives during a demonstration on Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Pittsburgh civic leaders —including Mayor Ed Gainey and City Council— have joined the city’s LGBTQ community in condemning a political ad aired by some local radio stations this month. The commercial, paid for by America First Legal, castigates President Joe Biden and others who want to offer gender-affirming care to transgender youth – and demonizes the kids themselves, according to LGBTQ advocates. The spot has been heard on at least seven Pittsburgh-area commercial radio stations this month.

“These radio ads and their hateful rhetoric only exist to further harm and marginalize an already vulnerable community,” Mayor Ed Gainey said Wednesday. “I hope everyone in Pittsburgh will join us in speaking out against this hate, and stand with our transgender residents as they continue their fight for equal rights.”

The 60-second commercial features ominous music and begins, “Not long ago everyone knew that you’re either born a boy or a girl. Not anymore.” It then recites often-repeated conservative arguments against minors receiving hormone therapy or being permitted to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The ad claims that President Joe Biden “and his left-wing allies” will force doctors to prescribe “dangerous drugs” to trans kids, and that they “want to make it easier for boys to take estrogen to appear more feminine. They want to make it easier for girls to take testosterone, so they grow facial hair.”

Sean O’Donnell, whose daughter is a trans teen, recalled being “horrified” after hearing the ad on WSHH 99.7, an adult-contemporary station owned by Renda Broadcasting. “They’re using these tropes, this idea of a man that’s feminine: ‘Oh! Be careful! You know what that means.’”

“It was so clearly meant to divide people [and] foment hatred,” he said. “The fact that they would choose to attack kids is disgusting.”

O’Donnell said these lines, which refuse to validate the chosen gender of trans kids, hit close to home for teens like his daughter. Trans kids “are so sensitive to their appearance,” he said. “So much of what they’re going through is wrapped up in feeling like they don’t look the way they should look.”

Later in the commercial, the narrator claims Biden and others “even want to make it easier for teens and young adults to get surgery to remove breasts and genitals.”

That line stood out most for Jam Hammond, a trans man and executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. He first heard the ad during an Uber ride. When his driver didn’t react or change the channel, he wondered about his safety.

“I was like, ‘whose car am I in? Do they know who I am?” Hammond said. “Now they’re going to know where my house is.”

While “I’m used to attacks on me as a trans person,” Hammond added, “the thing that made me feel more disgusted was the discussion of breasts and genitals on the radio.”

America First Legal, the organization behind the ad, is led by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller. Similar radio commercials have popped up across the country. According to The Colorado Sun, the group is airing ads there as well as in Arizona, Texas and Michigan.

Among the local stations airing the ads are KDKA 1020 AM and Y-108 (WDSY), both owned by Philadelphia-based Audacy. The stations did not respond to WESA’s request for comment, but according to political filings with the Federal Communications Commission, the contract for the advertisement is still active. WESA heard it run on KDKA as recently as Oct. 26.

Several other local stations owned by iHeartRadio, among the nation’s largest radio broadcasters, also played the ad. They include 96.1 KISS (WKST), WDVE, and WXDX. Filings with the Federal Communications Commission suggest that at least some of the ads were pulled before they were set to air.

The media company did not respond to WESA’s request for comment.

On-air personalities contacted by WESA declined to speak on the record about the ads. But Michael Dougherty and Bob Mason, who co-host the 96.1 Kiss Morning Freak Show, addressed the commercial on a recent episode of their program. Dougherty claimed that on-air talent stood together against the ad and management eventually agreed to pull it.

“The radio show, I felt like, was closer to ending … than it ever has been,” Dougherty said on the air. “That’s the kind of messaging that leads to trans people getting hurt or getting killed.”

Dougherty and Mason said they view their program as a safe place for all people to tune in, and they worried the commercial would reflect poorly upon their work as allies of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community.

“I feel like people look at our station… as a reflection of us. This is nothing that I would ever want to reflect us approving or condoning,” Mason told listeners. “For me, it falls right into hate speech.”

Wilkinsburg-based WAMO, which partners with Pittsburgh Public Schools to broadcast athletic events, has also run the ad, according to listeners. That prompted a statement from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers criticizing WAMO for the fact that “a mean-spirited, anti-transgender radio advertisement packed with mistruths is playing on local radio stations in Pittsburgh.” The union statement, attributed to union president Nina Esposito-Visgitis, said, “Our union condemns using children for political propaganda and for the attack on the lives of transgender youth and their families.”

Local LGBTQ activist Sue Kerr, who also serves as board president of Pittsburg LGBTQ Charities, first reported the ads on her blog, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents on Oct. 16. Kerr has been calling radio stations and business partners to have the ads removed.

Kerr said WAMO and other stations have done so, but in a recent post said, “It is exhausting to have to fight this battle station by station. … It is terrorizing trans and nonbinary children. Our moral obligation as adults is to get it off the air.”

The City’s LGBTQIA+ Commission, which includes Kerr and Hammond as members, issued a statement last week demanding the commercial be removed from rotation. Maria Montaño, Mayor Ed Gainey’s press secretary, also serves on the commission. Montaño is an openly trans woman.

City Council members also spoke out this week against the commercials. Bruce Kraus, Council’s only openly gay member, denounced the ad as harmful to Pittsburgh at large. He alleged that the ad is designed to “just bully the weakest among us and pretend that somehow they are the cause of all the ills of society.”

Members unanimously passed a Will of Council demanding that any local stations still airing the ad remove it immediately.

Kerr said she hopes that since some stations pulled the ad, others could follow suit. But she stressed that even if the ads disappear from the airwaves, stations should change policies to protect listeners from hateful rhetoric in the future.

“What kind of ad is going to run next?” Kerr asked. “That should be something that people worry about.”

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