When drive-time fans of WMAL’s O’Connor and Company tune in for their morning O’Connor fixes, they don’t directly hear the voice of one of the most important people in the studio: Heather Hunter, Larry O’Connor’s executive producer.
Hunter, however, has a profound effect on what the audience hears: she feeds constant tips to “the talent.” Hunter knows everybody in Washington, D.C., and can get VIP guests. Hunter often finalizes a topflight guest after the show is on the air, necessitating a seamless reconfiguring of the line-up.
Think of Heather Hunter as Holly Hunter playing Jane Craig the savvy producer in Broadcast News, feeding information and angles to on camera journalists—except that Heather Hunter is in radio, conservative-leaning, and her talented colleague Larry O’Connor, who has a nationwide following, has nothing in common with the dim newsman William Hurt portrayed in Broadcast News. O’Connor and Company is the way many listeners prepare for their day.
“What’s interesting about our audience,” Hunter tells IWF, “is that even though we’re a local talk radio station, what is local news, in Virginia, D.C., Maryland, and West Virginia, is also national because the White House is in our backyard. Capitol Hill is in our backyard, Defense Department, and State Department. And so, there are all these people who are driving to work, who deal with national issues and so we talk about those things, but then we also talk about local issues.
“We have the most fascinating audience members who call in because they all work in these departments all over the government and you have to be that much smarter and able to talk in a way that they feel that we understand what they are going through. So let’s say, when the emails issue was happening with Hillary Clinton in the State Department and we were exploring that news story, well, we would get calls from people who worked in the State Department’s I.T. Department.”
As executive producer of O’Connor and Company, Hunter sets the news agenda for thousands of commuters.
“On the morning show,” says Hunter, “a lot of our audience is driving to work. They’re looking to find information and also to be entertained. They are starting their day, and so we are a mood-setter. It’s not just politics. We talk about things that are happening in everyone’s lives, like the parents’ movement that is happening in Northern Virginia, which for our listening audience is what is happening in their own backyards.”
WMAL’s coverage of the school board meetings in suburban Virginia that pitted parents against imperial school officials was enormously important in keeping the issue in the forefront of public consciousness. “We’ve been all over the parents’ issue,” says Hunter. “A lot of people think that it just started recently. But it’s been going on for years. I was keeping an eye on parents’ meetings in 2014. I watched school board movements and city council meetings. I watched the parent movement reacting to a lot of the issues that were coming before the Fairfax School Board.
“There was the transgender issue, budgeting, and various things, and it just didn’t seem like the school board cared what the parents were saying at those meetings. And what we would do is we would grab the audio of what happened at those meetings, and it was important for people to hear that. And a lot of times on a local level, people don’t actually get that experience of radio shows paying attention on a very granular level of what is happening locally.”
A former radio producer for Laura Ingraham and Lars Larson, Hunter is a small dynamo who is always stylishly turned out. She goes in for edgy fashions such as leather pants or mini-skirts. She is quiet but always in control. Hunter has been producing WMAL’s popular morning show since she arrived at the Cumulus Media-owned station in 2010. It is a demanding schedule. “The show starts at five, so I am usually up around three,” says Hunter. “I go to work and we have our preshow meeting at 4 am. I’ll tell the host who the guests I’ve booked are, and we go through the news of the day. I start putting the rundown together, laying out what we are going to do in different segments. I am constantly adding show prep, guest information, and audio production.
“The show goes until 9, and I am able to go home. But my day doesn’t end because I start booking guests for the next day. I aim for famous people, senators and congressmen, the who’s who of the political world, and pop or cultural guests, sometimes sports. I am busy until I go to bed, usually around 9 pm. But there are times when a major story breaks—something like the death of Bin Ladin—and I scrap everything I have done and I am up booking guests until midnight.” Hunter may tune into a school board or city council meeting over dinner, often “grabbing” sound bites for the next day’s show.
WMAL’s coverage of the school board meetings in suburban Virginia that pitted parents against imperial school officials was enormously important.
This is life on a merry-go-round, but Hunter has had a life-long love affair with radio. “We always had a radio on in my house when I was growing up,” she recalls. “We listened to Paul Harvey and G. Gordon Liddy and the various music shows and all the classic programs. When I was a child, I had eye surgery. My eyes were bandaged, and I remember hearing something and trying to figure out what it was. I had gauze patches on my eyes and as I was lying on my parents’ bed, I remember thinking I was just in love with whatever this sound that I was listening to was, but I just, I couldn’t figure out what it was. And so, I remember pulling these patches off my eyes and seeing in front of me a radio. I thought, wow, I’m in love, like whatever this is. My love affair with radio stemmed from that.”
Heather was born in California coastal city, but grew up in Florida. Her father, who served in the Army, loved a military base in Key West, so he took the family to Florida to live there when he left the Army. He became a history teacher. Her mother was a stay-at-home mother until Heather went to kindergarten, when she became a successful school board administrator. The family was patriotic, with roots that go back to the American Revolution.
And there was the radio. “My first experience working with radio was when I was fifteen or so,” Heather remembers. “I wanted to start a radio station at my high school. I approached a teacher and he agreed to help me. We would take over the intercom system and play music and DJ between class. I got my first experience of DJing then, and I already loved radio.” A year or so later, Heather won a competition from the local Fort Myers radio station. “They were looking for younger voices for the station,” she says. “So, I entered the competition to be a DJ on this alternative rock station called WJBX 99X. And I was picked. I competed and they said I had a velvet voice and so I became a DJ on the station. And so, I was there about two years, and then I went off to college. And it was fun. It was a lot of fun.
She continues. “So, I started my career actually on air and then later I kind of ended up behind the scenes. I actually, I like being on the 3000-ft level now in my career, but it was fun to be in front of the microphone as well. But that was a neat experience to do music radio and then eventually go into doing talk radio.”
Hunter may tune into a school board or city council meeting over dinner, often “grabbing” sound bites for the next day’s show.
Heather enrolled in the University of Central Florida, where she planned to major in filmmaking, but, not surprisingly, halfway through college changed her major to radio and TV and legal affairs. After graduating, Hunter worked at a drive-time radio show in Orlando, booking guests and producing segments, and eventually came to Washington, where she has served as a producer for the late Tony Snow at Fox News, and worked as a producer on several documentaries. Along the way, Heather got to work with a radio voice from her childhood—G. Gordon Liddy. She felt a special bond with Liddy because, like Liddy, Heather’s much-admired grandfather also had been an FBI agent who worked on several high-profile cases.
Heather is married to fellow conservative commentator Derek Hunter, a Baltimore radio host on WCBM and former managing editor of The Daily Caller, whose work appears on Townhall. They met in 2008 at a presidential debate watch party sponsored by Reason magazine. At the time, Derek was working for Americans for Tax Reform. They enjoyed talking, and Heather thought, “I want to make sure that I don’t get him out of my sight tonight, and I’m going to make sure that he asks me out before the end of the night. And he did by the end of the night.” They live in the Maryland suburbs with their two children.
The other guy in Heather’s life—Larry O’Connor—has also been a friend since 2008. O’Connor came to WMAL in 2011, and Heather has been O’Connor’s executive producer since then. If it all sounds unbearably glamorous, picture Heather Hunter eating her dinner, glued to video of a school board meeting. No, it’s not always glamorous, but O’Connor and Hunter together help thousands of morning commuters understand life in the world’s most high-powered back yard—Washington, D.C.