By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
DES MOINES, Iowa — The rants are familiar to any listener of talk radio — blistering critiques of the Occupy Wall Street movement, outrage over Washington’s intrusion into the lives of Americans and mockery of a congressional dispute over whether tomato sauce on a pizza counts as a vegetable.
But the voice espousing the familiar tea party fare was not. No country twang or flat Midwestern accent; the voice was distinctly British — proper, posh, clipped, biting and incredulous. It was Simon Conway, Iowa’s newest radio phenom. Or, as his radio show introduces him, “one of the proudest citizens of the United States, ever.”
Conway, 51, sits in the drive-time chair at WHO, an AM radio station here that holds major sway among the GOP voters who will cast ballots next week in 2012’s first presidential contest in the nation.
The station is an institution. Long before Ronald Reagan was a movie star or a politician, he called baseball play-by-play here. It has been awarded 13 Marconi awards, among the most prestigious honors in radio — more than any other station in the nation. On a clear night, the 50,000-watt behemoth can be heard across a wide swath of the country, and its influence in Iowa is unparalleled.
Conway began airing his show in April, replacing popular talk-radio host Steve Deace, who left to pursue other opportunities. (Deace now works for a station in nearby Ames and runs a website emblazoned with his slogan: “Fear God. Tell the Truth. Make Money.”) Deace is a social conservative, credited in many quarters for blunting Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign and aiding the eventual caucus winner, Mike Huckabee. Conway has taken a different path — less concerned with issues such as abortion and gay marriage and more aligned with the tea party.
“Balance our budget, stop spending our money, lower taxes — those three things matter to all tea party people and I absolutely embrace all of them,” he said in an interview over falafel at a diner in the trendy Ingersoll neighborhood.
“We don’t talk about abortion on the air, and I’ll tell you why — I’m not going to move any minds; there’s no point. We could talk about it for three hours. I could say, ‘Let’s talk about abortion,’ and put my feet up on the desk and watch the phone go off. It’s lazy radio.”
Conway’s approach is grounded in his unusual path to Iowa. Born in England, he briefly lived in Israel before returning to London by himself at 17. Interested in journalism from a young age, he freelanced for newspapers in both countries. But he long held an admiration for the United States.
“My eyes were always looking over the Atlantic from an early age,” he said.
The rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts in 1970 was pivotal for him.
“I basically didn’t leave television. It was kind of my first 9/11 moment,” Conway said. “It became very clear no other nation on the earth could have pulled off what we pulled off. … What’s sad is we couldn’t do that today. If that happened today, they’d die.” Because, he said, Americans are not the same industrious people now as they were then.
Conway, a chain smoker who favors rumpled blazers and cowboy boots, said he became increasingly interested in politics as he aged.
Conway had an epiphany about health care, a pressing tea party issue, when his father was tangled in the British medical system while awaiting minor surgery. He was put on a waiting list and could not have the procedure for almost two years, until he was 77. He suffered a stroke on the operating table.
“People talk about death panels. They absolutely exist, and frankly, it’s what killed my dad,” Conway said, repeating a statement he makes frequently on his program when criticizing President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
“These people are not evil; they’re adhering to a budget,” he said. “They didn’t know my dad had a stroke till they tried to wake him up. … If (the surgery) had happened much earlier, everybody has told me, almost certainly he would have made it. He shouldn’t have died.”
After working in British journalism for 25 years, Conway found that the United States still beckoned. He planned to move here in 2002 to pursue a property management business in Florida. After Sept. 11, he pushed up his move, arriving just two months after the attacks.
“I got here as fast as I could because it was my way of telling the terrorists, ‘You’re not messing with me,’ ” he said.
It took seven years for Conway to obtain citizenship. During that span, he anchored a radio show about real estate in Orlando, but he rarely talked about real estate and instead discussed politics and current events. Soon, he was asked to fill in as a radio host at various stations around the country. Then came the job at WHO.
The show, laden with the tale of his father and other apocryphal warnings about England, is a must-stop for candidates as they campaign through Iowa — despite Conway’s refusal to endorse anyone. Though he is conservative, he can exhibit as much wrath for Republicans as he does for Democrats.
He pressed Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, into saying he would not have ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though he was friendly to candidate Herman Cain when allegations of sexual harassment were first raised, he urged Cain to drop out of the race after a woman alleged she’d had an affair with him.
Radio personalities can often be anonymous to all but their most fanatic listeners, but Conway has become a celebrity in Des Moines. The accent gives him away.
Shortly after he began his show, he and his daughter stopped in a grocery store.
“We’re checking out, we’re talking, the guy’s packing it up and I paid for it. He gave me change and says, ‘By the way, I love your show.’ It’s strange, that’s not who I am. I’m not a prima donna.”
“Just ask my people. Ha ha ha. Rim shot!” Conway said, slapping the table in glee.