Commentary: The Tom Sumner Program leaves a history of civil conversation in uncivil times

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By Paul Rozycki

After a decade and a half of giving Flint-area listeners hours of high-profile, civil conversations about politics, music, science, writing and the arts, Tom Sumner has decided to end his show. radio. It ran on WFOV 92.1 FM in Flint.

In his recent article, Sumner said “I suspend production of The Tom Sumner Program from Friday, September 2, 2022 for an indefinite period. There are many reasons, but if I had to choose three, they would decrease the audience, increase the difficulty of raising funds, and for 15 years I have tried to set an example of how information should be explored, respected, and shared in a civilized way — and yet — the public conversation across the country is getting meaner and less informed.

Local radio personality Tom Sumner at the microphone. (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

Democrats, Republicans and “outside the box”

Over the past 15 years, Sumner has interviewed about 20 presidential candidates, most Michigan candidates for governor, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, numerous local candidates for the Senate and the State House and nearly every candidate for mayor of Flint. He also interviewed nearly every candidate for city council or the Flint County commission. He organized forums for many candidates, including an “outside the box to the White House” where smaller parties, which rarely have a forum, had a chance to air their views.

Tom Sumner interviewing former Flint Mayor and local and state politician, the late Woodrow Stanley. (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

Expert advice

The program introduced listeners to a variety of experts in many fields. Longway Planetarium alumnus Richard Walker offered insights on astronomy and geology, UM-Flint economist Chris Douglas gave regular updates on the state of the economy, and legal expert Brendan Beery explained the latest Supreme Court rulings and their implications for the average citizen.

Musical artists

Sumner has hosted musical artists who have played everything from Bach to Grand Funk. Sumner fondly recalls conversations he had with Flint Symphony Orchestra conductor Enrique Diemecke about the intricacies of Mahler or Bach. But he also recounts the times he welcomed Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner of Flint and Eddie Money on the show. Even after recalling the famous names in music he’s interviewed, he’s most proud of the “local Flint-area musical talent” who often performed on the show.

Sumner with Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

Writers and authors

He has arranged interviews with authors of mystery novels, cookbooks, travel guides, history books, political books, photography books and art books. Bestselling authors David Baldacci, Mary Higgins Clark and Debbie Macomber have all been regular guests on the show. He recalls a story where President Obama met Baldacci at a book signing, when Obama smiled and said “you’re a celebrity,” to the writer. One of his interviews involved writers who were lucky enough to finish writing Mark Twain’s children’s book.

Sumner with co-host and longtime assistant Andrea Sutton (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

Artists, actors and witches

He said one of his most memorable interviews was with Carl Reiner, who talked about his days working with Sid Caesar and how his interest in acting was sparked by the WPA arts programs developed by FDR. in the 1930s. A last-minute connection allowed him to interview actor Tony Shalhoub, of Monk fame, when he was in the area.

He also interviewed the sons or daughters of a number of celebrities, including Vincent Price, Rod Sterling and Charles Schultz.

On Friday the 13th or Halloween, he would often have a Wiccan priestess take calls and do live tarot card readings.

“He’s been everywhere, man!”

He even took the show to hell, (MI) every Halloween, and did the show on a train to Lansing. He did the show on the road to St. Ignace, Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant and the Birch Run Speedway as part of the Back to the Bricks promotional tour.

Tom Sumner’s show broadcast from Hell Saloon in Hell, Michigan. Seated with Sumner are Jan Worth-Nelson (left) and Henry Hatter (right). (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

He has done shows from the White Horse Tavern, Kettering University, Baker College, Mott Community College, Good Beans Café, WFNT 1470, a studio at Flint School Bus Depot, the Burton Town Hall, a basement on the east side of Flint, the Lansing Lugnuts ballpark, a new supermarket on the north end of Flint, The Bavarian Inn and Slo’ Bones Bar, in Frankenmuth, Calvelli’s in Lapeer, Bluebell Beach, the Flint Flat Lot during Back to the Bricks, Flint’s New McCree Theater, and for the past two years, his home studio in the Davison area.

Armchair Politics sign at the Hell Saloon in Hell, Michigan. From left to right: Paul Rozycki, Tom Sumner, Jan Worth-Nelson and Henry Hatter. (Photo submitted by Paul Rozycki)

And while Sumner gives great credit to the critical role played by those who have helped as co-hosts and tech savvy over the years, he has done a lot on his own, airing five shows a week, three hours a day, 52 weeks a year. , with a lot of preparation for each show, delivering the quality you expect from a major broadcaster.

Civil discourse and informed democracy

But the importance of the Tom Sumner program isn’t how many places he’s been, or how many people he’s interviewed over the years, important as those numbers may be. It is the nature of these interviews that counts. In his political interviews, he has had Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Libertarian and Green Party candidates on the program and treated them all with respect and dignity.

Unlike many interviews where candidates are given two minutes to pitch their ideas, the Sumner program typically gave candidates 45 minutes to an hour to talk to voters and answer Tom’s questions. The questions he asked were a serious attempt to find out more about the candidates and their views. He didn’t fall back on “softball” questions or try to embarrass a candidate with “trick” questions.

At a time when so much political speech boils down to a 30-second ad, a tweet, or a sarcastic one-line post on Facebook, Sumner’s interviews were an example of informed democracy. He said his goal was to “get to know the people behind the news and get people to listen more.” Almost every interview ended with information on how to find out more about the candidate on their website or another source.

More importantly, his talks and discussions were an example of what a civil discussion is. He often compared his program to what he called “rage radio” where the loudest, loudest voices got the most attention.

Unfortunately, over the past few decades it has been the “rage radio” of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and their imitators that has defined much of our politics. There are many causes for the divisions we see in our politics today, but much of the tone has been set by these kinds of programs. Social media has made it even easier for anyone to join in on the rant.

With Sumner’s civil discussion, even among those who come from different parties and have opposing views, common ground could be found. His program was a stark contrast to much of the divisive rhetoric we see in much of the media today.

Chair Policy

My own involvement with the Sumner program came over a decade ago with its weekly “Armchair Politics” segment, where every Wednesday morning Henry Hatter and I, along with a rotating third president, discussed the politics of the week. Although Henry and I came from different perspectives and partisan loyalties, the discussion was always informative and civil. One of the greatest rewards I have from the Sumner program is the friendship with Henry and the chance to meet the many guest presidents who have been part of Armchair Politics.

One of the third regular chairs on Armchair Politics is East Village Magazine Editor Jan Worth-Nelson. His perspective on the Sumner and Armchair Politics program speaks for everyone who has been on the program for the past decade or more.

Tom Sumner with Jan Worth-Nelson at a fundraiser at White Horse Tavern in Flint. (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

She said: “He was one of the best propagators of good citizenship I know. In this time of tampering, mediocre thinking, and massive bullshit, Sumner has always maintained his grace, immense curiosity, and humor. He tolerated emotional outbursts but always brought things under respectful scrutiny. He is world-weary but still loves the old values ​​of fair play and – yes, democracy. I learned so much from him and his guests. It was so much fun – and an honor – to be on the show with him, Paul Rozycki and Henry Hatter. I love her voice, literally and figuratively, and I can’t bring myself to talk about it in the past tense: I’m sad it’s over.

Part of Flint’s History

Not only was the show a forum for civil discussion in these divisive times, but it was also a valuable historical record of much of the politics of Flint and the surrounding region. With the changing nature of local print media, much of this history could be lost. Fortunately, Tom recorded his program and it is available on www.tomsumnerprogram.com and as part of this history, he is making arrangements to donate the program’s recordings to the University of Michigan’s Flint Genesee County Historical Archives in the near future.

A thank you to all

At the end, Sumner warmly thanked everyone who participated in the program.

Tom Sumner, signing… (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

He said, “Any disappointment and/or exhaustion I may feel cannot diminish the pride I have in the caliber of guests the show has attracted. Political candidates, best-selling authors, live music, and a variety of studios and locations have earned the show a reputation I never could have imagined when I started 15 years ago. The list of people I’m incredibly grateful for includes guests, listeners, and contributors of money and other resources. To all of you, I say THANK YOU!”

EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at [email protected]

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