The Right: The Next Big Thing?

Hugh Hewitt is a master of multitasking. Week after week, the sanguine, persistent pundit hosts his "center-right" talk radio show from a nondescript office in Orange County, Calif.--and more than a million people tune in. Two computers flank his mike. While on the air, Hewitt uses the first to surf news sites, then swivels to the second during breaks to update his well-trafficked blog. "Both spoken words and written words are powerful," he says. "Acting in harmony, the effect is exponential." Just ask Rick Santorum. In May, he urged Hewitt's listeners to fork over campaign funds, and the host, ever eager, posted a link. Donations shot up 500 percent.

Chances are Santorum won't be the last candidate between now and November to benefit from Hewitt's brand of blog-broadcast synergy. On July 4, Salem Communications, one of the country's largest radio-station owners, will relaunch an old Web war horse called Townhall.com as a hub for its stable of stars (including Bill Bennett, Michael Medved and Hewitt himself). The hope? That "Web 2.0" wherewithal can transform what was once an op-ed clearinghouse into a single nerve center serving the separate conservative communities of talk radio and the Internet. To Hewitt, a valuable White House ally, the math is simple: add 6 million Salem fans to Townhall's 1.4million unique monthly visitors and you've got an audience six or seven times the size of liberal site Daily Kos, the Web's biggest political blog. "We will overwhelm them," he says.

Like Daily Kos, the revamped Townhall will focus on motivating and activating the grass roots. That's where Chuck DeFeo comes in. As manager of Bush's 2004 eCampaign, DeFeo was widely credited with winning that year's war of the Web by emphasizing word-of-mouth marketing over fund-raising appeals. Soon after, he signed with Salem and, spurred by Hewitt, spent months building a group blog called Beyond the News. But when the 11-year-old Townhall (a Heritage Foundation-National Review coproduction) went on the block, DeFeo had Salem snap it up. He would still use his 2004 tools to assemble a site where "you're no longer just listening and learning about politics, but can impact the debate and make your voice heard." Only now he would have an existing brand to expand on.

So Townhall gets its second act. Every day, Salem's nationally syndicated hosts will post show summaries, blog entries and podcasts. On the air, they'll encourage listeners to visit the amped-up "Action Center," where users can "push out" petition alerts on customized e-mail lists, set and track fund-raising goals, contact their elected officials and create personal blogs--a first, DeFeo claims, for a conservative Web site. As Kerry '04 blogmaster Dick Bell has said, "the hosts will act as recruiters for the millions of people listening every day--and that could really change the dynamic in terms of impact."

Should Dems be alarmed? "Absolutely," says Hewitt. "Unless they don't mind political exile." Not everyone is so sure. "Kos can't be duplicated," saysSalon.com blogwatcher Peter Daou. To date, conservative sites have attempted little in the way of activism, but with talk radio's class of '94 climbing aboard--and two tough election seasons looming--that seems certain to change. "It's not about getting people angry," says Hewitt. "It's about being effective."