- Courtney Lamdin
- Kurt Wright
Kurt Wright starts his day when the songbirds are still sleeping.
He's up at 4 a.m., and by 5, he's seated quietly in an overly air-conditioned, soundproof studio at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, the home of WVMT 620 AM radio. It's still dark outside when Wright catches up on the news on the bright screen of his laptop. He jots notes on a yellow legal pad, talking points for "The Morning Drive," a news talk radio program he cohosts from 6 to 9 a.m. five days a week with longtime DJ Marcus Certa.
As the Burlington City Council president, however, Wright's decisions as an elected official sometimes are the news. Since March, and after more than 100 episodes on air, the Republican politico is still figuring out how to straddle the line between media personality and public figure, two roles that often overlap.
"I'm in this twilight zone area where I'm a little bit in both," Wright said.
"Sometimes I'm getting a call from a reporter to answer questions about CityPlace or whatever it is," he added. "And sometimes, it's the other way around."
Wright's role as a commentator could create issues if he were to run for reelection next March. Federal Communications Commission regulations require equal on-air time for candidates that meet its definition of "legally qualified." That means that if Wright were to run and remain a radio host, WVMT would be legally required to offer his challenger — or challengers — equal time at the mic during the course of the campaign.
Wright has been a politician for far longer than he's been on the airwaves. The New North End resident has served stints on the city council since his first in 1995, and he's run three unsuccessful bids for Queen City mayor. He most recently lost in 2012 to Democrat Miro Weinberger, who's now a regular guest on "The Morning Drive." Wright also served nine terms in the Vermont House as Burlington's lone Republican rep before Democrat Bob Hooper unseated him last fall.
That political background earned him a weekly radio segment on WVMT's "Charlie + Ernie in the Morning" show with Charlie Papillo and Ernie Farrar, who retired from the coveted spot last winter after two decades on 620 AM. "Coffee With Kurt," which became a regular segment in 2017, carried over to "Pete and Sarah in the Morning," a show that lasted just two months this spring.
In a "leap of faith," station owner Ken Barlow said he called Wright and offered him the job. Wright and Certa started March 4, the eve of Town Meeting Day.
Wright didn't have any hosting experience, but he is a talk radio junkie. He regularly called into shows as a kid, and he later played "The Jack Barry Show" over the store speakers as the longtime manager of Kerry's Kwik Stop on St. Paul Street. A beloved voice on airwaves, Barry was also a politician, albeit not simultaneously. He hosted a morning show on WVMT and, in retirement, served as a Democratic state senator from Chittenden County.
Wright has an easy rapport with Certa, who identifies as "left of center" while Wright is, well, to the right. The call-in program is a mix of politics and light-hearted banter, inviting conversation on topics from gun control to pet care.
Listeners hear a different side of Councilor Kurt on the mic. During the July 29 show, Wright regaled his cohost with an account of a turbulent plane flight to Chicago that left him literally screaming in fear. The affable Wright, it turns out, is claustrophobic and deathly afraid of flying. He even underwent hypnosis before takeoff, which, apparently, didn't help.
From there, Wright and Certa fielded calls about a mass shooting in California before chatting with Leunig's Bistro & Café co-owner Bob Conlon about panhandling on Burlington's Church Street. The issue allowed Wright to lend some of his "insider knowledge" that Certa says makes the show a success. Wright told listeners that the Church Street Marketplace District Commission and others are discussing an ordinance to restrict stores from selling booze until the later morning to try to reduce unruly behavior downtown.
"I think there are a number of things that we need to be looking at, and I think that's one idea that might be helpful," Wright said on air.
Later, the hosts interviewed Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, gave away some gift cards and called it a day.
Whatever their formula, it's working: "The Morning Drive" has drawn twice the number of male listeners ages 25 and older, the station's target audience, than did "Charlie + Ernie," according to Barlow.
"We're excited to have both of those guys with us," he said. "They've become really good friends for two guys who really didn't know each other before this started."
Indeed, Certa admits he was skeptical of his future cohost when they first met. He questioned Wright's political aspirations and asked whether the show would become the councilor's bully pulpit. But he soon saw that Wright conducts himself with the same measured tenor he displays in Burlington City Hall Auditorium: He's fair and respectful, and he invites criticism, Certa said.
As for reelection, the station agreed to "figure it out" if and when Wright decides to run again. The longtime pol has previously said he won't seek another term when his current one expires next March, but he told Seven Days last week that he'd decide for sure this summer.
"So, will you be running?" asked Certa, who sat in on the conversation.
"I'll let you know soon," Wright said.
"I better be the first to know," Certa quipped.
"Maybe my wife," Wright retorted. "Maybe [I'll tell you] right after that."
All kidding aside, Certa thinks Wright's insights have bolstered the show, and WVMT general manager JoAnn Cyr agrees. She wrote in an email to Seven Days that phones are ringing off the hook, and Wright's political background "adds color and credibility" to the broadcast.
It also builds name recognition, an undisputed boon to any potential political campaign.
Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism associate professor and nationally known media commentator, said that's problematic, even if Wright doesn't politicize his platform. After all, Kennedy said, why would someone vote against that nice guy on the radio who knows the best burger joint in town?
"He's certainly bolstering his visibility and his reputation," Kennedy said, adding that it gives Wright "a significant advantage if anybody wanted to run against him."
Kennedy had never heard of an arrangement quite like Wright's, but there's actually precedent for it in Vermont. State Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) retired from WSYB last week after cohosting a news talk radio show for 45 years. He thinks the roles of commentator and lawmaker mesh nicely, particularly on a call-in show like his or "The Morning Drive." Every Monday, Collamore took questions from constituents, which he said made him more accessible than he would have been if he worked a regular desk job.
"It's kind of like doing a news conference with no safety net," Collamore said. "They can ask me any question ... and I have to come up with an answer because everything is live on the air."
The show also made Collamore a household name. His old college classmate, former governor Jim Douglas, said as much to convince Collamore to run for Senate in the first place. The show, Collamore said, gave him a "built-in advantage."
But he's also maintained boundaries. Collamore said he stepped away from the mic during election cycles so the station would not have to offer equal time, per the FCC rules, to the other Senate candidates.
For his part, Wright has earned glowing reviews from his council colleagues. Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) has listened several times and thinks Wright gives constituents a chance to engage on a deeper level. He doesn't think Wright pushes a political agenda.
"It's definitely no Rush Limbaugh, that's for sure," Pine said.
Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) sees no conflict with Wright's roles. Neither does Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7), who thinks Wright has honed a sense of humor on air that's carried over to council meetings.
Mayor Weinberger, too, supports Wright's right to talk. The councilor has quizzed him on all sorts of topics during his monthly guest spots, and the mayor said he welcomes it.
Wright even got kudos from an on-air sparring partner: South Burlington City Councilor Meaghan Emery. She engaged in a very public spat with Wright and the Queen City's council in June over a zoning change that would allow Higher Ground to relocate next to a quiet SoBu neighborhood.
When Certa invited her on the show, Emery didn't know what to expect. She mentally prepared herself for the interview: Wright might try to corner you, she told herself. He might embarrass you.
Rather, what ensued was a somewhat tense but respectful conversation, both Emery and Wright recounted. She's started listening to his show more since her guest spot and said she thinks that politicians hosting shows like "The Morning Drive" is good for democracy.
"He's being a real member of the community ... He's just a normal guy," Emery said. "I think that makes what we do in serving as city councilors or as elected officials seem attainable, and it should be."
Back in the studio, Wright and Certa wrapped up the broadcast and prepared to record promos for the week's upcoming shows. They'd have plenty of fodder from the Democratic presidential debates. Mostly, Wright was just thankful there was no city council meeting that night, a Monday. The gatherings have been known to continue late into the night, he said, making it tough to wind down when he has to get up just a few hours later.
"I've come here operating on a few hours sleep, but you kind of have to suck it up," Wright said. "The show, as Marcus has said other times, must go on."