cover story

September 16, 2010

Big Talker


Some people believe Steve Deace is full of hot air; he says he’s just doing his job

By Matt Miller


Talk Radio is undeniably one of the most popular radio formats in America today. Years ago, when the public stopped listening to the radio and started engaging it, the dynamics changed, and the medium hasn’t been the same since. Today, talk radio is available anywhere, anytime, and with leading talk show personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, Howard Stern, Don Imus and former talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, it’s easy to see and hear why this type of entertainment has our ears waning for more.

Just like the aforementioned hosts, Steve Deace, host of “Deace in the Afternoon” has audiences listening, too. The Christian and conservative talk show host and sports fan has a widespread following that tunes in to 1040-WHO Radio while covering a bevy of topics during your drive-time commute.

But are his evangelical ways overpowering the radio?

“I have a unique gift that I don’t need or require validation from other people, which allows me to do what I do,” Deace said. “I don’t do things to get approval. I would like approval; I’m human. But it’s not a life requirement for me.”

This way of thinking has propelled Deace to the top of one of the nation’s most powerful talk stations. While his program starts daily with the mantra of “Fear God, tell the truth and make money,” it hasn’t always been like that for Deace.

A rough childhood

Life didn’t come easy for Deace who was born in 1973 at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines to a 15-year-old single mother. At age 3, his mother married Dave Deace, a Michigan native who was a soldier in the Navy. The family had moved from Iowa to California and while Deace’s biological father wasn’t around, Deace says Dave did play an influential role on him.

“Dave taught me about becoming a man, but he was also very abusive to my mom and me,” Deace said. “That type of environment had a huge impact on the young man I would become. The one thing I really struggled with was I didn’t have a connection with Dave, so while I learned from him, I struggled to find my place in the world.”

Deace attended Michigan State University, but his college years were filled with partying, playing video games and spending time with friends on the co-ed dorm floor. Deace says he went a whole semester without attending a class. He didn’t graduate.

“My 20s where a dark period,” Deace said. “I pretty much stopped drinking when I was 21 because it was legal and it wasn’t fun. I was also good at betting on sports, and frankly, the details are a little foggy. There are whole weeks and months I don’t remember.”

During college, Deace also had an extensive collection of pornography.

“I used to be a porn connoisseur — I had it alphabetized and categorized,” he said. “I had the type of porn collection that would have made Ron Jeremy blush.”

In the fall of 1995, Deace met his wife-to-be, Amy, online over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“I wish I could tell you it was like eHarmony, but it wasn’t. It was one of those Pagan hook-up chat rooms in the early days of AOL,” Deace jokingly said. “If you couldn’t score in that environment, you should consider Bob Barker’s commandment to get spayed or neutered.”

Over the next year, he and Amy began “hooking up” with no idea what the future would hold.

“While our relationship was immersed in 20-something debauchery, if anyone would have come and told me that I would be now doing the stuff I’m doing, and saying the things I’m saying, and actually believe it, I would have said they were certifiably insane.”

Times were tough for Deace as he juggled multiple jobs, working as a mailroom clerk at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, then later at a local law firm and also at The Des Moines Register under Dave Witke, who was the sports editor at the time.

“I called Dave and told him that I had no experience, no prospects, no education, but I want to be a sports writer,” Deace said. “I told him if he gave me the chance, I’d start at the very bottom.”

Deace did start at the very bottom, taking scores and doing the basics, a job which he summed up as “pretty much swabbing the poop deck.” Soon after, Deace was given his first assignment of covering high school track and field. He thought the job was beneath him, so he didn’t do it. Shortly after, Deace was involved in a near-death automobile accident on Des Moines’ south side. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

“I walked away from the emergency room that night despite stitches, glass in my hair and my head going into the windshield — miraculous frankly,” Deace said. “I wish I could tell you I saw the light or had an epiphany, but I didn’t. But I did begin to re-evaluate how I got there. I was chosen as the most likely to succeed in the high school, and now I’m slotting mail. How did I get here?”

Deace found out later he was going to be fired from the Register, but when he walked in to work the next week with a neckbrace on, he says Witke didn’t have the heart to cut him.

“For the next several months I worked my rear end off, even though I hated the job,” Deace said. “I didn’t have a car, so I was taking taxis to and from work at night. So it was actually costing me money to go to work. I actually used my insurance settlement money to attend a couple of Michigan football games and get some really good seats to see Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at Hilton Coliseum.”

By that time, Amy and Deace had begun to talk about getting married, and Deace knew he needed a stable job. He came up with a plan to see if he had a future in journalism.

“The Register hadn’t yet done a story on the Mason City boy’s basketball team, who was ranked No. 1 at the time, so I thought I would try it,” Deace said. “I called Bob Horner, who was the coach at the time, and pretended to be a reporter that was assigned the job. No one at the Register knew I was doing this. I figured no one fired someone for showing some initiative.”

The following Monday while working at Wellmark, Deace received a phone call from the Register telling him to stop by.

“I was read the riot act,” Deace said. “I did violate protocol — I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. While I was being reprimanded, I was thinking ‘I’m going to come up with a very witty parting shot and walk out of here.’ But they ended up liking the story, and it ran that night on the front page of the sports section. I still have that story today.”

From then forward, more opportunities opened for Deace. He covered various high school sports, some Drake games and the Des Moines Buccaneers beat.

A time of transition

Amy and Steve married in 1997, overcoming marital problems, which Deace cites as two people who weren’t “spiritually healthy” and that he brought a lot of baggage into the relationship. The couple currently has three children — Anna, Zoe and Noah Andrew.

In the fall of 1999, Deace received a phone call from Ken Thompson, who was Marty Tirrell’s producer at “The Jock,” asking him if he’d like to be on the radio. Deace agreed and did the weekly “Monday Night Sports Huddle” at Billy Joe’s Picture Show.

Soon after, Deace was alerted there was an opening at “The Jock,” so he pursued the job. Only 26 years old at the time, Deace was given his own show entitled the “Afternoon Sports Daily,” a program similar to what nationally-known talk show hosts Jim Rome and Rush Limbaugh were doing at the time.

“I developed my own persona and my own voice,” Deace said. “I learned a lot about myself and it was pretty successful.”

With Deace’s radio program and his job at the Register, there happened to be a conflict. Deace was at the bottom of the pole at the local paper and was giving opinion on sports he didn’t cover. Eventually Deace left the Register and joined “The Jock” full time.

After “The Jock” folded due to financial problems, Deace began working at Clear Channel Radio in 2002. During that time, he realized that finding enough sports issues to talk about year-round was tough. So during the off season, Deace covered local news, politics and other issues.

In 2005, Clear Channel Radio changed from ABC Radio Networks to Fox News Radio Network, which meant the loss of Paul Harvey. Deace filled in with noon commentaries.

“That was the first step being on WHO more and more,” Deace said. “It was an opportunity for me to move beyond sports and do radio without leaving the market. Once that opportunity presented itself, everyone decided to make the transition to WHO.”

A controversial Christian?

Saying you’re a Christian and actually being one are two separate things. Growing up in the suburbs, Deace believed he was a Christian.

“Like most white America, I thought I was a Christian because I lived in the suburbs, knew the Christmas and Easter stories and typically voted Republican,” Deace said. “For white America, they’re called ‘C&Es’ — around for Christmas and Easter, when you feel guilty or when the mood is right. It’s not a day-to-day commitment. Voting Republican is like being a Christian for white America in the suburbs. I would have figured I was one.”

Deace’s path to living for Christ took a step forward after the couple’s first child was born. The family joined Point of Grace Church in Waukee for five years. During that time, Deace was baptized but still felt his heart was in a different place.

“I intellectually knew what I was doing, but there wasn’t really any changes taking place inside me. I was the same guy, I just knew more Bible verses,” Deace said. “Looking back, I can now say it was God’s way of wooing me in.”

Change did come to Deace eight years ago when he attended Promise Keepers in Kansas City. Jam-packed with thousands of Christian men, Deace says the event altered his life.

“For the first time, I was confronted with my whole nature,” he said. “I remember the speaker asked for an altar call, and I felt like I needed to go down. But then I thought I was too cool for that. To this day, I don’t remember how…all I know is that I’m face down at the altar crying my eyes out. All the changes in my life started that day. For the most part, I’ve been a dramatically new person.”

The family now attends Grace West in West Des Moines where Deace teaches classes. Bob Deever is the lead pastor.

“Steve is very active; he teaches a variety of classes, mostly dealing with worldview topics,” Deever said. “He’s done a great job.”

As Deace has come to know his own faith and learn about the Lord, he has also made headlines questioning the faith of others. During his radio show in 2009, Deace and Deever confronted Democratic State Sen. Matt McCoy, Iowa’s only openly gay legislator. McCoy is a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines.

“For whatever reason, Steve and Bob spent most of the show telling reasons why I couldn’t be a Christian,” McCoy said. “I found their discussion disturbing and offensive. My feelings are that individuals need to live their lives to their standards and to be accountable for their own decisions.”

Deace responded by saying McCoy will be held accountable.

“I look at Matt McCoy as a talented individual who was created in the image of God,” Deace said. “God loves him every bit as much as he loves me. But I was born with the orientation to get with as many women as I could. This happened before God pulled me out of it and gave me a new life. That same grace is available to Matt.”

Although the incident took place last year, the war of words between employees at WHO-Radio and McCoy resonated again last month during the Iowa State Fair when conservative talk show how Jan Mickelson said some AIDS education efforts destigmatize the “stupid behavior” of homosexuality.

“In general right now, I find the whole thing too much to take,” McCoy said. “Between Jan Mickelson’s and Steve Deace’s hate speeches, there’s a clear agenda. It used to be a decent radio station, but they’ve turned it into a fanatical, religious agenda.”

McCoy took it one step further, questioning Deace’s past.

“Steve’s homo comments are almost obsessive — almost like Adolf Hitler in a type of way,” McCoy said. “I’ve learned to be weary about people like him. There are people like him who possibly have some deep dark secrets that have made them think that way.”

Deace says it is not up to him to have the final say, but rather God’s.

“Matt and I are in the same light in the eye of God,” he said. “But our behaviors are different, and when we do things outside of God’s nature, there are consequences. In fact, a healthy society should seek to provide consequences for activities that God says is wrong.”

Deace goes on to say if you are going to follow the Lord, to remember it isn’t easy.

“Don’t ever start reading this book [the Bible] unless you are really serious about it because it will challenge your preconceived notions,” he said. “The areas you think you’re the most compassionate and most self-righteous, it will take you down a peg or two. On the other hand, the areas where you think you’re failing and falling the most, it will really encourage you.”

Game time

Deace considers himself a competitive person. It doesn’t matter if it’s behind the microphone or cheering on his favorite sports teams — he gives it his all.

“There’s a lot of similarities between my professional career and sports,” Deace said. “Politics is a winner-take-all competition, and sports is like that, too. Competition drives me.”

While Deace admits he is a die-hard Michigan Wolverine fan, his love for the Iowa State Cyclones came when he began covering the university’s athletics. He, along with Cyclone Illustrated editor Bill Seals, launched Cyclone Nation and its website.

“I was born here in Iowa and have liked the Cyclones for many years,” Deace said. “I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some of the present and former staff, including Dan McCarney.”

Following Iowa State athletics, Deace has seen coaches and players come and go. But with that being said, the 37-year-old Deace is confident that the Iowa State University athletic department is in as good of shape as it’s ever been. He gives credit to Athletic Director Jamie Pollard manning the ship through a tough couple of years, including when Gene Chizik was head football coach during 2007 and 2008. Chizik compiled a 5-19 record in two seasons with the Cyclones until jetting off to his current head coach position at Auburn University. Deace says plain and simple, Chizik wasn’t the man for the job.

“Gene hired a bunch of his buddies that he used to coach at Clemson University, and they might not have been the best fit,” Deace said. “On the other hand, Paul is a great fit at Iowa State. He understood what needed to happen in Ames by the way he hired his staff.”

This past weekend, Iowa State lost to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Deace believes Iowa is headed back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 20 years.

“I think Iowa has a phenomenal football team,” Deace said. “If they were Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State and would have won a BCS bowl game, along with the players they have back, we would be talking about them being pre-season No. 1. Iowa is just on another level compared to Iowa State right now.”

With much of this year’s sports hype around the Hawkeyes, Deace is still confident the Cyclones will have plenty to be happy about this season.

“They have a tough schedule, but the whole year comes down to the growth of the offense,” Deace said. “If that offense can reach 31 points per game, I think they could repeat what they did last year and win a bowl game.”

Your drive-time entertainment

Some people love Deace and his ideas, while others believe he is an egocentric, self-centered, opinionated evangelist who can’t keep his mouth shut. Regardless, Deace feels it’s his job both on and off the air.

“Steve has the ability with his sports and his worldview backgrounds to engage the audience,” Mickelson said. “He can aggravate you, make you laugh and make you ponder ideas. People tune in to hear him.”

Hear him or not, the confident Deace always has something to say.

“Believe me, I’m good at what I do,” Deace said. “I’m aware of that. I am aware of the talent that God has given me. If I did this show in a way that served my ego, our ratings would be even better. We’d have more advertisers. I’d probably be syndicated by now. I’d have more opportunities. Every day I go to bed with this knowledge: Hell is hot, and Hell is forever. I will not give an account one day to anyone for the forum that God has allowed me to have.” CV


Round Kick Gym

Best of Des Moines 2011

Fall Relish

Coupon Guide