Archive for November, 2005

Long Live Lassiter

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Lassiter1 While it wouldn’t be accurate to call Bob Lassiter the best talk radio host of all time, it would be fair to say that he’s probably the least famous great one. In the metro areas where he took calls on the radio (Miami, Tampa and Chicago) he’s still loved and loathed by those who remember his work, but everywhere else he’s mostly known by those who collect and trade tapes of arcane and unusual radio.

So, why am I writing about a local Florida talk host who hasn’t been on the air for six years? And what would make recordings of a talk show collectable in the first place? Simple. When Lassiter was good, he was REALLY good. He could make your jaw drop, make you curse the radio, or maybe just pee your pants.

Unlike other talk hosts who hope to change the world (assert an agenda) or want to be liked, Lassiter’s was always driven to simply grab and hold the listener’s attention. And he would do whatever he could get away with (or whatever amused HIM at the time) to shock or awe listeners into becoming addicted to his program.

A key element to what made Lassiter’s radio work mind-blowing was how he consistently generated confrontational calls and turned them into compelling radio theater.  Every other talk host I’ve ever heard usually gets off on like-minded callers, but not Bob. In fact, he was often quite impatient with callers who agreed with him. As a master contrarian, phone-in fans and callers on his side merely bored him. They were just getting in the way of the pissed off listeners who were steaming on hold, waiting for their chance to take on the Mad Dog. 

WFLA – Mad Dog Promo  1:01

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Lassiter2_1The classic Lassiter approach was to lay out a talk radio trap and let the fun begin. He’d often launch his show with an incendiary monologue, or just let loose with a few insults or comments designed to provoke certain types of listeners to dial up in a fury and spew emotional diatribes against him. At heart, Lassiter was a radio predator armed with a big deep voice and enough facts and debate tricks to destroy almost every susceptible challenger on the line.

Before he would take down his prey, he’d often toy with the caller or play games with their mind. And ultimately, he would show no mercy. While he learned much of his technique from his mentor, caustic talker Neil Rogers, Lassiter’s style was all his own. Beyond his debating skill and the fact that he’s a bright guy, what made Lassiter different from any other talk host was that he was willing to win an argument at almost any cost, and he really doesn’t like people all that much.

While not a bigot or someone filled with hate, Lassiter is a bit of a sociopath– or more accurately, a misanthrope. Oh, he likes and loves many in his circle of friends and family, but he’s not what you’d call a “people person.” Yet, Lassiter isn’t really a sadist either. You never got the feeling that he exactly relished the pain and anguish of others, but the truth was that he was never all that concerned about the “feelings” of strangers who were willing pawns in his schemes to provide tension and entertainment for his radio audience at large. Anybody who was willing to call his show was fair game.

There were periods where Lassiter was on-fire with this style of confrontational talk radio. And unless you lived in one of the markets where he did his program, it’s hard to convey the daily excitement of turning on the radio to find out what Bob was going to do next. Fully aware of his own power in that way, Lassiter would rachet up the anticipation (or trepidation) by teasing and taunting the audience, promising more outrage and controversy over the air in days to come.

It’s a formula that worked for a while, many times.

More or less, the secret of Lassiter’s success was that he could amass a large audience of people who loved what he did on the radio AND listeners who hated him with passion. The latter group generated the calls that were really the signature of his program. While most people who dislike a talk host just turn the station, with Lassiter’s show his detractors would tune in again and again in pure outrage and in hope against hope that one angry caller would get the best of Bob Lassiter. And I don’t think that ever really happened.

Lassiter’s willingness to go over the top over and over again, and to utilize charged emotional content for entertainment value carried a price. Eventually he stood the risk of burning out his audience, both the fans and the anti-fans. While his usual targets– old people, Christians and snowbirds from the north (who flock to Florida every winter), were always easy action for Lassiter’s tactics, almost anyone or any group could become a target for his predatory radio shtick. Lassiter was willing to piss off almost anybody for the sheer entertainment value it might provide. While it was like no other radio show and provided thrills and giggles you couldn’t find anywhere else, eventually the lack of substantive content and the reliance on raw emotion as titillation had a shelf life.

However, his willingness to take risks was balanced with plenty of calculation and an acute awareness of when his act might be wearing thin. So, after a few weeks or months of coliseum-style radio, Lassiter would back off. While not acknowledging any change in his style, Lassiter would warm-up and pour on the charm for a while. Although the challenging callers would still come up on the board from time to time, and they were always appropriately taken down by the mad dog, but his show wasn’t wall to wall provocation when he was lying low.

Lassiter3_1During these times, Lassiter did his best to soften up the audience and almost encourage them to identify with him. A good storyteller, Lassiter could be quite revealing about his personal life and was capable of sharing details that could make you squirm. He’d even be patient with fan calls and accept compliments with uncharacteristic grace. I don’t recall any evident radio genius when Lassiter downshifted into more friendly territory, but his talent and sharp mind would usually carry the show. That said, every once in a while Lassiter could bore listeners with the minutia of his hobbies– like playing with his home computer or his obsession with day trading.

Like many, I admit a fascination with the unique (and often absurd) mind to mind combat that made Lassiter’s show powerful. Sure, every once in a while he might come off as a bit cruel, but most of the time the frothing callers on his program got what they deserved. However, my favorite Lassiter moments were when he would be more playful and used satire and whimsy instead of direct instigation to stir up listeners.

For your pleasure, I’m offering two examples. Both are extended segments from The Bob Lassiter Show during his first run on WFLA in the fall of 1987. As far as I know, these bits have never been rebroadcast on the radio since they first aired. The first is “The Lassiter Group”– A takeoff on the inane TV show, "The McLaughlin Group.”

WFLA – The Bob Lassiter Group  88:03

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Lassiter’s "panelists" were four of the more notorious chronic callers on Tampa radio. And like McLaughlin’s program, they were divided in a loose kind of right/left pairing. On the more “traditional" side of things, were “Rocky The Rock & Roll Klansman,” and a surly good old boy who called himself “Captain Jack." The opposing two were Carolyn from New Port Richey, an aging lefty with a radical side, and someone I’ve already written about a couple of times on this blog, “Lionel.“

Lionel was soon to be elevated to the role of talk host on WFLA, where he first gained notice as a popular and often hilarious caller. Instead of the refined and moderated Lionel you hear on the radio today, Lionel the caller is much more flip and emotional than the talk persona he’s developed over the years. It’s interesting to hear the difference.

For those who first heard of Lassiter from his infamous "Airstream" call, Rocky himself eventually revealed that he was actually the grouchy old geezer in the trailer. Whether Rocky’s Klan affiliation was also a put-on is still a subject of debate. But he did maintain the same persona over many years as a Tampa talk radio caller. I’m not going to spoil your fun by revealing what happens during the Lassiter Group roundtable. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of fireworks.

Around this same time, Lassiter’s show was under fire from an anti-porn group called “The National Federation for Decency” (which eventually changed its name to “The American Family Association) who were calling for Lassiter’s dismissal. In return, Lassiter brought in his own “decency lady” to oversee his program with interesting results.

WFLA – The Decency Lady  48:55

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Bob Lassiter’s radio career ended with a contract dispute during his second run on WFLA in 1999. And much to the dismay of his fans, he won’t be coming back to radio. He doesn’t have the stamina for it these days.

Lassiter is in ill health, suffering serious complications from advanced diabetes. And while I’m not apt to discuss other’s health issues in a public forum, I’ve said as much as I have because Bob himself is out there talking about it himself, on his blog (link here).

So, while Lassiter is no longer making fools of unwitting callers, he is still doing something else that has always been an inherent part of his radio work– talking about himself and Lassiter4_3his life in a stark and painfully honest way. Just as his occasional raw candor wasn’t easy listening, his blog is not always light reading either. Sure, there’s the same Lassiter wit, and the occasional cutting comments you’d expect, but the real meat on Lassiter’s blog are his anecdotes about what it’s like to be a loner in ill heath connected to the world though the internet.

It’s actually his third blog. An earlier version had audio bits you could stream, and was open to comments from readers. People who were accustomed to being able to contact Lassiter on the radio were shunned when they tried to engage him in email dialogue or become pen pals. The new blog is a one way street, with Lassiter completely in charge of all content.

Lassiter has just turned 60. A talk host who gained plenty of notoriety for making fun of old folks is now growing old before his time. Sure, it’s very sad, but I have to say that Lassiter’s blog shows him to be in a pretty good humor about it all. And not surprisingly, he’s a good writer too.

Somewhere up in his room in Florida, with his computer and stuffed animals, Bob Lassiter will be reading this. From what I can tell, Lassiter keeps meticulous track of his legacy on the web, and will be sure to find this post. And if you go to his blog, he will notice. He seems to track every hit, and to comment on the blog when there are a large number of readers, or when someone in a far off place opens his blog in their browser.

You see, Lassiter still loves the attention. But, please– leave him alone.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Air America’s Next Big Mistake (part 2)

Monday, November 21st, 2005

     "Has anyone ever heard of Rachel Maddow?"
                                               – Rush Limbaugh

Rachel_sorts_papers

Yeah Rush, we sure have. And by now, so have of you.

That little quote has been an oft-played sound bite at the beginning of The The Rachel Maddow show since it debuted on Air America last April. And the fact "El Rushbo" hadn’t discovered Ms. Maddow last spring can probably be based on two things– For one, Limbaugh most likely knew nothing about Air America, beyond that fact that TV stars Al Franken and Janine Garofalo were a part of it. And the other reason Maddow was probably off the Limbaugh radar back then was his comment came at the dawn of Maddow’s new sub-career as a liberal TV pundit. And it isn’t hard to imagine that most of Limbaugh’s media intake (beyond the likely emailed orders from Rove staffers and the heralded "stack of stuff" his staff prepares) would come only from television.

For most people, Maddow’s program airs when they’re unconscious. On the radio from five to six in the morning from the Air America studios in New York, The Rachel Maddow Show is a hot coffee jolt of headlines, breaking stories, and some news almost no one else is talking about. And twice each program, you get 2 off the wall satirical newscasts from Kent Jones. The hour goes by fast, and by the end you feel a little smarter. She’s like that.

Rachel_show_bannerRachel Maddow is a unique and powerful new media entity, and a young honest voice in the age of Bush II who offers challenging facts instead of raw malice against all the madness the administration propagates.  Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar and a proud "out" lesbian who comes across on the radio as warm, sincere and a little fierce. Her approach to radio has a paced athletic quality that makes her a bit of a current events trainer on the radio. I imagine it’s the perfect show to accompany a gym regimen. Maddow never goes over the top, but the pace is rapid, and to the point with context. She maintains good humor and spirit in the face of bad news and strange times. Combined with the sharp humor of Kent Jones, her program is an informative and practical way to deal with the onslaught of nauseating news, and to keep up with the bad guys.

Situationjune2005Maddow’s powerful presence on television is ironic in a number of ways. First, Maddow doesn’t watch TV. Her media intake is print media, internet and radio. But she’s become a cable TV talking head via a regular role on Tucker Carlson’s show on MSNBC– "The Situation." And what’s odd, is he had another program last year on PBS called "Unfiltered," which had the same name as Maddow’s original show on Air America. Although both were canceled, it was Air America who first used the title.

While Carlson‘s gotten mixed reviews at best as the host of the show, Maddow star has quickly risen as a respected progressive pundit on the cable news scene by being a regular panelist on his program.

Maddow_msnbc_3_1For now, radio remains the focus of Maddow’s energies. It’s a statement to Air America’s recognition of her talents that they expanded their schedule one hour into the early morning to create a program just for her. Maddow’s original Air America program, "Unfiltered," was a bit of a muddle at times, but had it’s moments and built a loyal fan base. While the other co-hosts of the show, Lizz Winstead and Chuck D. were already minor celebrities in their own right, Maddow’s only media fame before Air America was a morning radio show in western Massachusetts. Yet, it was the boyish Maddow’s news doggedness and earnest energy that drove the show and gave Unfiltered purpose.

So while most are either sleeping or hitting the snooze alarm, Maddow bolts out of the gate at 5:06 a.m. And for thirty some minutes (minus the commercials and the Kent Jones hijinks) Maddow informs, opines and speaks truth to power with a warm voice of authority and positive style that always calls on activism and humor instead of boiling over in outrage.

She sprints through the lead stories that are out there each morning, and digs in and finds stories she thinks should be in the headlines. And whether or not the wars in the Middle East are making the headlines, each day Maddow kicks off her show with "news from life during wartime." But her signature bit is when she "pokes a stick at the soft white underbelly of the right-wing scheme machine" and offers insight on the latest and shadiest political tactics of the neo-cons and the religious right. It’s a tradition she developed during the days of Unfiltered as a liberal muckraker who predicted what the right was going to do next, and let you know what the Bush Administration was trying to hide when they released bad news right before a weekend news lull or when a bigger story was attracting everyone’s attention.

If you’re interested in upgrading your news & information media diet, you can download daily archives of The Rachel Maddow show here, and if you follow the directions you can podcast any Air America program via this site.

Nyt_aa_story_2The New York Times ran a minor feature on Air America a week ago Sunday which sang the praises of hosts Rachel Maddow and Randi Rhodes. In it, Air America CEO Danny Goldberg is quoted saying that both are "exactly the two people who have emerged in dramatic fashion" from the shadows of Franken and Garofalo as prominent voices of Air America. The fact that the controversy over Air America getting rid of Morning Sedition’s Marc Maron is NOT mentioned in the article is telling. For one, it seems that at far as Air America is concerned Maron is history. And sadly, it seems like the New York Times is either not paying much attention to what’s going on at Air America, or is selectively reporting the news again. But most significantly, it seems to foretell of the post-Maron Air America. Most likely, Ms. Maddow will probably be the anchor of the next incarnation of Air America’s drive-time morning slot.

While Maddow’s talents would undoubtedly translate to good radio no matter which slot she might occupy at the network, it seems unwise to completely dump one of the most dynamic programs on Air America, especially the ONLY one that always delivers laughs, in order to give Maddow more air time. Let’s not forget that the 9am to noon slot is occupied by the radio non-talent Jerry Springer, who sounds as if he’s explaining the issues of the day to a room full of middle-school kids, AND controversial talk monster Howard Stern is about to abdicate his morning throne and head off to Sirius Satellite Radio. While some of his fans will fork over the dough for the equipment and subscription fee to follow Stern, a lot of his other listeners will be scanning the radio dial for topical comedy talk, and if it were around Maron’s Morning Sedition might be a viable magnet for the coming Howard Stern radio diaspora.

Springer_2 While I don’t have the Arbitron data, the word on the street is that Morning Sedition is yet to make a big dent in the morning New York market, and that’s the bottom line reason Maron is being squeezed out of the slot. Sure, that’s important stuff but Air America is a network and Morning Sedition is national. If Air America is making decisions based on traditional NYC radio statistics could be counterintuitive. Over 5000 people have signed the internet petition to save Maron’s role on Morning Sedition since my last post on his pending removal. While the NYC ratings may not be what the network desires, it seems obvious the program has strong support within the Air America listener base. Shouldn’t that mean something? And in the last year I’ve seen outdoor advertising in New York for Franken, Rhodes, Springer and The Majority Report. I’ve never seen one ad in the city for Morning Sedition.

Again, I’m not privy to the Arbitron numbers, but I think internet data has a significance that’s not to be ignored. For example, look at the difference between the number of strings on the Jerry Springer show’s message board, compared with the how many are running the Morning Sedition board (these are NOT official Air America boards by the way). One show inspires discussion, the other almost none. The Springer show has all of three threads, one of them about how LITTLE discussion there is on the board. Springer’s daily show blog posts generate a handful of comments. The Morning Sedition daily blog posts gather from 150 to 250 comments.

Internet_boy Less than stellar ratings aside, Air America has been an important element in countering the Republican noise machine and is developing an avid fan base on the internet. It’s damn important that they succeed financially, but in the scheme of things they’re not paying attention if they totally ignore the power and persuasion of their internet crowd. People who podcast, download archives, and post on the web aren’t just net savvy, they’re strategic links in a broad network of thinkers and disseminators of information that Air America needs for voices and networking nodes within the burgeoning media counterbalance to the right-wing propaganda machine. And they spread the gospel of Air America on the internet. That’s promotion you can’t buy.

No doubt, Rachel Maddow would kick ass in a better (and longer) slot on Air America’s schedule. But to scrap one of their best programs (one that also has cutting edge comedy, has co-host chemistry that works, and fires up the internet listener base) seems like a bad idea– Especially when there’s another morning program on Air America with an insufferably boring host who engenders almost no significant internet fan base.

While it’s obviously a smart move to give Maddow more air time on the network, it’s a shortsighted move to eliminate a dynamic and vital chunk of programming to give her the airspace she is due. And it seems that’s what’s about to happen, and it’s possible that there’s nothing any bloggers or internet posters can do keep Maron on Morning Sedition. Go ahead and add your name to the web petition. Feel empowered?

I advise you to go ahead and enjoy what’s left of the doomed Morning Sedition. Listen via your local affiliate or Podcast the show by going here, or snatch up one the archives right here. In theory, you’ll be able to access Morning Sedition archives at Air America Place for a while, but if you want to hear the show right up until the end (which is supposed to be the end of November), or you also can stream it live in the morning from Air America’s site. And if you’d like to just check out some of the hijinks of Morning Sedition satirists Jim Earl and Kent Jones there’s archived bits available here. (Or you could scroll down to the 11-04-05 post on this blog to see a insightful love letter to the show.)

Rachel Maddow is an excellent host and pundit with a sensitive sniffer for important stories that are off the radar. It was smart to keep her around after the dissolution of Unfiltered. Considering her work at Air America it would be damn intuitive to bring her into a better time slot and give her more time. Though Maron has a much different approach to radio, like Maddow he’s quickly evolved and improved as a talk radio personality in the twenty months of Air America’s existence. Not only that, but they both come across as dedicated to sticking with the network Springer_idiocy_3for the long haul. And their two programs are currently followed by two shows hosted by dabblers in talk radio. It’s very likely that Springer and/or Franken could easily shed their radio pulpits in the near future to dedicate their time to television again, or even seek political office. Franken’s show is a mixed bag, but he’s still the face of Air America. However, Springer’s radio program is second rate across the board and he offers nothing beyond his notoriety. Admittedly, Franken has successfully marketed himself as a powerful political force, but Springer’s fame in the general public is based solely on a legacy of sleazy television that anybody (including Springer himself) would admit has coarsened the medium. If he was doing groundbreaking radio, it might be easier to forget his crappy TV show or his past political scandals, but he’s NOT. What’s the point?

Sammy_the_stem_cell_2Never a fan of Howard Stern, I’ve never heard compelling satire on a morning radio show until I heard Morning Sedition. But I’ve also never heard a talk show like Maddow’s with a host who digs into the news with a voracious and graceful fury that enlightens and empowers the listener. They’re both strong programs, but the block they now fill is unfortunetly followed by a radio amateur who happens to be a celebrity.

Best idea? Trim Springer’s show, or just pay him off and cut him loose. Maddow and Maron are homegrown Air America air talents who have proven themselves, and with the news wisdom of Mark Riley and the satire of Jones and Earl, their work makes the first four hours of the Air America’s weekday schedule the most listenable and informative chunk of their line-up.

Maddowglobe_5Air America is an ongoing experiment and radio is extremely competitive, especially mornings. One can understand Air America’s desire to tweak and perfect their schedule, but making network wide decisions this early in the game based on the ratings in one city instead of making a judgment based on the merit and viability of the hosts they’ve successfully developed seems wrongheaded.

If the rumors are true, and Maddow gets a better and bigger role on the schedule, it’s a plus. But if Maron disappears too, there won’t just be a backlash, there will be a drastic loss to Air America’s air staff. That would be sad.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

The Unfairness Of Balance

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Want to hear some really bland talk radio? Check out WNYC here in New York from 10 to noon weekdays. It’s the home of "The Brian Lehrer Show," a program so uncharismatic that it’s hard to believe that it’s broadcast on two powerful transmitters to the biggest city in America. With monotonous tooty groove bumper music and a host who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, it’s what you’d expect to hear in less popular slot on a small town public radio station. It’s kinda sad.

There’s obviously a lot of work that goes into the Lehrer’s show, but the end product is so invertebrate that it’s telling of the leadership and vision of WNYC, and indicative of the lack of bravery in general at NPR. Although they often have big name guests, there are almost no great moments on Lehrer’s program. They try so hard that you feel sorry everybody behind the scenes. For a while, Lehrer was host of NPR’s "On The Media," and it turned out to be one of NPR’s best shows, AFTER he left. While Lehrer is no longer a national NPR figure, he does a high profile program on one of NPR’s most important stations, and his show is the only talk show on WNYC focusing exclusively on current events. You’d think it would make for good listening, but instead it’s a lame balancing act, often lacking courage and at times as compelling as a traffic update.

It’s not that Lehrer’s show is without content or occasionally energy, but it chronically comes across as a utilitarian effort that never seems to inspire. And the program suffers from the same two-dimensional vision that has affected news and issues programing in television and radio– you have to match pro with con, left with right, and yes with no. It’s a methodology that was forged with the onset of cable TV pundit packed panel shows in the 1980’s, and now that same kind of thinking goes into much of the programming of NPR and their affiliates.

In this era of Bush II and the rise of Fox News, NPR in general is feeling even more pressure to be "fair and balanced." Along with PBS, the network has been under fire from Bush lackey and former editor of the heralded Reader’s Digest Kenneth Tomlinson, who was head of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting before he resigned yesterday. (Like Libby, Rove, Delay, and Frist, Tomlinson has been under investigation for shady practices.) Tomlinson has been fighting a multi-front war against NPR and PBS in hopes of not only limiting government money to our public TV and radio networks, but also to reduce the actual hours of news programming they feature. Why? It’s that pesky liberal bias. And while Tomlinson stepping down would seem to be good news for public broadcasting, there’s still plenty of like-minded Republicans at the CPB who wish the network ill.

It’s damn sad that it’s come to this. Compare the situation to what’s happened in Britain. The BBC, the best government-funded news network in the world, is able to criticize the Blair government and their partners in crime (the Bush administration) without similar threats, NPR has been trying to appease the American right wing for years. Of course, the neo-cons and the religious right aren’t going to approve of any government funds going to NPR until they parrot their views without giving the opposition credence or coverage in any meaningful way. Of course, they won’t do THAT, but what NPR has done is comprise their journalism in the name of survival. To quote former NPR host Bob Edwards– "In today’s media, we seem to bring on the liars in order to balance the truth." It’s enough to make your stomach hurt.

While you hear the worst of NPR’s "balance" efforts in their high-profile national news programs, Brian Lehrer’s local show on NPR’s biggest station is a great example of spineless radio. When you do hear some guest making a case against corruption, torture or war, you’re probably also be subjected to some apologist explaining that corruption, torture or war is really okay (or they’ll just deny it’s happening at all). And if there’s not an opposing guest, Lehrer himself will play devil’s advocate and challenge the person with material his staff has grabbed off the web from writers or politicians who defend corruption, torture or war. The net effect is that Lehrer totally cloaks his own opinion on almost every issue, and the content further encrypts him as a journalist or political thinker.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the show rarely gives more than a dozen minutes to most issues and guests. I suppose Lehrer and his staff think it makes for a fast paced show, but instead it’s a superficial herky-jerky two hours of radio which neither enlightens nor entertains. Too many segments on the show end with Lehrer cutting off a guest in mid-sentence because he is "out of time."

On Wednesday, progressive scholar and curmudgeon Gore Vidal was his first guest. The initial topic was his involvement in a National Day of Protest against the Iraq War. But what you hear in this interview is Lehrer attempting to neuter the opinions of the eloquent Mr. Vidal, and then bragging how comprehensive his radio show is. When Vidal brought up the fact that he believes that Bush stole both elections, Lehrer tried to steer him away from the controversies by saying that his show already covered those elections and there’s nothing new to talk about regarding them. Vidal nails him by pointing out that the war and the obscene foreign policies of the Bush regime were all made possible by stealing elections.

Then after twice trying to divert Vidal, Lehrer pulls out a New York Times Magazine piece that paints Vidal as an "America hater" with Harold Pinter. And then Lehrer uses Pinter’s opinions expressed in the piece to see if he can get Vidal to equate the dual invasions of the Bush presidency with the UN military action in Kosova during the Clinton administration. Gotta keep that "balance" after all.

And then after Lehrer isn’t able to successfully counter Vidal in any appreciable way, BOOM– another interview comes to a screeching halt. Total time, just over 11 minutes. The listener learns almost nothing, except that Lehrer is an incompetent talk host with an inflated opinion of his own program. It’s pointless radio with a great guest. Have a listen…

WNYC – Gore Vidal on the Brian Lehrer Show – 11-02-05  12:38

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And if you want to hear another brilliant old fart really chew up Lehrer, you ought to hear his interview with Mort Sahl from April, 2004. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a talk host slammed so hard on their own program. Sure, Sahl is a grouchy contrarian and it sounds like he’s just gotten out of bed in this clip, but whether he’s fully awake or not he takes aim at the alleged balance of Lehrer and NPR with deadly accuracy. He outs them both for what they really are–  a closeted liberal talk host and a liberal radio network too afraid show anything but chronic and disengenious moderation to the public at large.

In the interview, Sahl brings up Air America and says if NPR had done its job they wouldn’t have had to create a commercial liberal talk network in the first place. While that’s an arguable idea, he makes a valid point. By their constant balancing act, NPR and hosts at their affiliates like Lehrer aren’t just hypocritical, but they’re polluting the news intake of the millions of NPR listeners by putting on liars and conservative apologists and taking extra effort to not irritate the Republicans who hold the purse strings for the government dough they depend on.

This clip is rather amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of a host roast…

WNYC – Mort Sahl on the Brian Lehrer Show – 04-29-04  18:01

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To be fair, there’s some fine programming on WNYC. Leonard Lopate, who follows Lehrer every day, has some compelling moments. While it can get a little precious now and then, he does have some great guests from time to time and you never feel like they’re being cut off before you get hear them complete a few thoughts. Unlike Lehrer, Lopate has interesting bumper music and never masks his political leanings. And if he happens to challenges a guest you know it’s coming from the heart and not some exercise in balance. Speaking of a lack of balance, you oughtta check out Steve Post’s "No Show" on WNYC. Dark, hilarious and as real as anybody you’ll ever hear on the radio, his one hour show is a real jewel in the WNYC schedule.

And at least two national NPR programs that originate from WNYC are actually quite good. I already mentioned "On The Media," the only real dirt digging news magazine in the NPR line-up. And "Selected Shorts" is a wonderful way to ingest some literature via the radio.

However, two others– "Studio 360," and "The Next Big Thing" are just awful. They’re both wine and cheese car wrecks, with so much shiny urbane smugness that you just want to grab your palm pilot and London Fog and take a spin in your new Jaguar after a good listen.

And that’s the thing about WNYC in general. There’s an elitist air to the whole station that reminds me of a Mac ad campaign. Their promos constantly tell you how smart, deep, and worldly WNYC and NPR is, and when they’re begging for money they coddle their listeners with similar praise exclaiming how you’re an erudite individual who demands great radio and comprehensive coverage of every important issue and event of the day. Barf.

During their fundraisers, WNYC’s appointed beggars are as bad as the evangelist shysters who crowd the radio dial pleading for prayer offerings and fleecing their radio flock. In short, they’ve been trained to manipulate and guilt their audience into giving their money. In general, public radio across the board has a parasitical relationship with their own audience, constantly hitting them up for cash while they continue to take huge sums from corporations, advertisers and the government. It’s disgusting. It didn’t used to be this way.

It’s about time NPR sprouted some testicles and just got off the government dole. Sure, it works in Canada and Europe but there’s rampant mental illness in America that seems to rule out being able to fund a brave or excellent public radio network. It has something to do with rampant Christianity and some inherent super-greed that prevents us from having a mature republic that takes care of itself and helps other countries in any meaningful way. The fact that we’re the richest country in the world and we don’t have national health care, we have a failing infrastructure and a hopelessly inept disaster relief program, AND we contribute a shamefully microscopic portion of our GNP in foreign aid to poor nations are ALL symptoms of our pray-and-pay way of doing things in the states, which has ultimately led to the corruption of journalism at NPR.

So it’s sad, but NPR needs to get real. Their affiliates need to quit running the polite little advertisements they call "underwriting" and just run real commercials. Sure ads are disgusting, but they’re real. Radio is a dirty business, and it’s really expensive. But the dance that NPR does every day, pretending that you’re not hearing advertising and that you are so damn smart for listening to the ads and pretending you’re not, is absurd. And the constant begging for money is very tiresome. If all the pleading will hold an audience that advertisers will pay for, then go ahead and beg away. But it’s just plain embarrassing. BBC, CBC, Radio Netherlands, and any other western public radio network I could name doesn’t get on their knees and weep at their audience.

And as far as WNYC goes, it seems like they could do a little trimming to get their budget in check if the government cash dries up. Did I mention the $400,000 salary of their General Manager Laura Walker? I meant to.

Of course, WNYC isn’t all bad. And I’ve heard Brian Lehrer is a swell guy to work with, but being nice doesn’t necessarily translate to good radio. The real tragedy is that WNYC is NPR’s main affiliate in the biggest radio market in America, and it oughtta be better, much better. But more importantly, the NPR mothership, needs a serious retooling if they want to survive and be relevant into this new century. And I don’t think that firing their long-standing morning host or creating a mid-day magazine program that’s even softer than "All Things Considered" has done anything to improve the outlook for NPR. Every programming move the network makes smells of the efforts of demographic number crunchers, and they only seem able to do more of what they’ve done before, with extra balance of course.

There was a time when "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" were essential portions of my media intake. Nowadays I can’t listen to either without eventually having to either turning the volume to zero, or switching the station. Why is it that NEVER happens when I listen to similar shows on BBC or CBC? For every interesting deep news story I hear on NPR I’m subjected to some warm and fuzzy anecdote about grandma’s kitchen or a story about stuffing the kids in the station wagon and heading to the box store. There’s almost no edge or guts to NPR anymore. Okay, there’s Daniel Schorr.

Am I suffering from memory loss, or didn’t public radio in this country used to be creating a superior product without pandering to make itself more popular? These days, NPR is in the business of super-tweaking their programing across the board to make it’s programming more attractive to suburban college educated homemakers, young white collar dudes, or some other type of human being that I am obviously not (and don’t want to be). I want information, entertainment and cogent opinion now and then, but when I hear some inane commentary on NPR I wanna scream– "Take the goddamn pink fuzzy blanket of feel-good radio off me, NOW!"

Just to end this critical rant on an up note, let me mention a really great NPR program. If Harry Shearer‘s "Le Show" isn’t the best show on NPR, it’s damn sure the funniest. It’s a packed hour of Music, comedy and cutting commentary that doesn’t suffer from weak-kneed "balance" and is never cute or cuddly. In fact, it’s so good that it isn’t even on WNYC. Apparently they tossed it into a late night time slot and pissed off Shearer, who took it from the station. It can be heard locally on WNYE (91.5 fm) on Monday nights at 9 p.m. You can also stream it or podcast it. Check his site for details.

Meanwhile, if after reading this you want to check out Lehrer’s show, it’s on WNYC (93.9 fm and 820 am) Monday through Friday from 10 to noon, and is rebroadcast from 1 to 3 a.m. on 820 am. You can also podcast it or listen to individual segments at WNYC’s website. There’s also an official blog for his show which you can check here. Last time I looked it featured a menu from the White House dinner being held for Prince Charles. But don’t be planning to leave any comments on his blog. Balance is best left to the experts.

Air America’s Next Big Mistake?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Maron_emotes_1It looks like Air America is about to lose one of their best on-air personalities, Marc Maron. There’s been no official announcement, but on his show, Morning Sedition, Maron has repeatedly said he’s probably on his way out. And yesterday he said it’s unlikely he’ll be part of the Morning Sedition air team (with radio veteran Mark Riley) after this month. And they’re promoting their live remote at O’Neal’s in the Upper West Side this Thursday as their "last live appearance."

Why would Maron leave? Or why would Air America let go of the funniest guy on their talent roster? Best guess– deadlocked contract negotiations.

Maron_rileyWhen Air America went on the air over a year and a half ago, a lot of us in radio were dismayed that a new talk network would go on the air with so many air personalities and writers who made their mark in television instead of radio. Not that media cross-pollination in general is such a bad idea, but just that when a start-up radio network was trying to do something SO new (a national liberal talk network) AND they were also attempting to reinvent the medium at the same time by leaning so heavily on TV talent instead of loading up the schedule with radio veterans.

The big exceptions were South Florida’s leftist talk bulldog Randi Rhodes who’s held down the late afternoon slot since the beginning, and then a few months later acerbic career talker Mike Malloy who was tacked onto the late night end of the schedule. Those programs were the only ones done in the traditional talk radio manner–  one host on the air brings up issues, vents, and takes calls. All the other shows were more experimental– with multiple hosts, many guests, and only a few (if any) calls. And all these programs featured one or more hosts best known for their work in TV or film.

Aa_logoAir America’s biggest experiments were their two morning shows, both featuring teams of three hosts– "Morning Sedition" and "Unfiltered." Morning Sedition came into its own after one host left the show (more on that in a minute). But Unfiltered only survived the first year. Two of the hosts, Rachel Maddow and Public Enemy’s Chuck D now have their own programs (Maddow’s early early morning show which now runs from 5 to 6 a.m. is a tight and timely review of the news well worth a listen). But the third other co-host Lizz Winstead (who was also one of the key programming-creative figures at the dawn of the network) is gone. Best known as one of the creator’s of TV’s "The Daily Show," Winstead was the biggest architect of the "television-vision" for Air America. And now she’s in the middle of a lawsuit to claim unpaid wages from the network. While I don’t know the details as far as which side seems to be in the right, the filing of the suit revealed that they were paying Winstead a quarter million a year for her services. And you wonder why they’re having money troubles…

Springer_1 Oh and speaking of television, Unfiltered was replaced by TV crapmaster Jerry Springer. It’s easy to forget that Springer was a politician before he became the host of one of the most inane hours in television. His Air America talk show is a serious one featuring his heartfelt leftist views on political issues. However, it is BORING. It’s traditional talk radio run by a host who has no understanding of the medium. It’s so boring that I don’t have anything more to say about it, except to hope it’s not long for this world. It’s a waste of valuable radio frequencies across the country. And let’s hope they’re not spending a lot of money to keep Springer’s big name on the schedule.

If you’re talking to someone unfamiliar with talk radio or leftist media and mention "Air America," they likely won’t know what you’re talking about. Then tell them it’s that new talk network with Al Franken, and then they’ll probably recall hearing something about it. Best known as a TV writer and comedian, Franken has become a political media superstar. He’s just finished another lefty book sure to rise up the best-seller list, and seems to be headed toward a U.S. Senate run in 2008 in Minnesota.

His mid-day show has been the flagship show for the fledgling network since its inception. Teamed with public radio’s Katherine Lanpher, Franken’s program settled into a groove pretty quickly as a breezy political talk show with plenty of writers, researchers and politicians discussing the issues of the day. And of course, there’s always heaping helpings of Franken style humor to be found in between the serious bits. However, despite his big name and notable accomplishments in the comedy realm, Franken’s constant retelling of bad jokes and his just plain hokey sense of humor doesn’t often make for cutting edge radio.

Lettermanfranken_3 And what’s worse, Lanpher has left the show and Franken seems to be floundering a bit without her there to keep the show on track and keep Franken’s expansive ego in check. Franken now is using the technical and production staffers around him as comedy foils and it’s a little painful to hear. That said, his appearance on Letterman the other night was quite funny and almost electric. It all made it painfully obvious that Franken’s charisma doesn’t translate well to radio or the long form medium of a three hour talk show. And how will he fare on the campaign trail? Or on the Senate floor? You gotta wonder.

Which all gets me back to the subject at hand, Marc Maron. If you happened to see the excellent and insightful HBO documentary on the beginning of Air America, "Left of the Dial," you saw the good and bad of Mr. Maron at the dawn of his radio career. Previously Maron had been a stand-up comic (and author) best known for his appearances on cable and late night talk TV. Painfully neurotic and unsure of himself, Maron is seen in early scenes in the film as someone out of his element, having no idea how to navigate three hours of radio five days a week, as well as having to adjust to working pre-dawn hours every day. And in the beginning Morning Sedition show was a mess, with three separate personalities trying to find some kind of chemistry. Just to hear all three of them conduct an interview or take a call kinda hurt.

Maroncigg And it was plain to hear (and see in the documentary) that there wasn’t a lot of love between Maron and one of this co-hosts, Sue Ellicott. A former BBC TV commentator (and frequent panelist on the NPR comedy show abortion known as "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me"), Ellicott didn’t have much of a stomach for Maron’s fast-paced acid humor. My favorite line in the whole movie occurs when the show is live and Ellicott tries to smooth out and "balance" something Maron had said in an interview– and Maron fires back: "Who’s side are you on British Lady?" Perhaps more than Randi Rhodes’ first-day slap fight with Ralph Nader, that moment was a telling blow that Air America was going to be nothing like the limp-wristed and neutered political coverage of NPR. Thank god.

Since Ellicott has left the show, the partnership of Marc and Mark has gained fame and followers across the country. Each local remote appearance is packed with fans. They’re a good team. Co-host Mark Riley’s decades of  newsroom experience grounds Maron’s scattershot rants, and his "everyman" quality makes him the perfect straight man for Maron’s rabid wit. And then you have some solid wacky writers (including comedian-writer Kent Jones who adds his stable of characters and impersonations into the mix), and the end result is a dependable helping of news and chuckles in every show. It’s a radio program that offers up-to-the minute information, historical context, and wild-ass funny bits. And any moment can yield an impromptu dose of Maron’s off-the-cuff self-obsessed rambling about his life. Somehow, it’s about as good as morning radio gets in this era of incompetent and malevolent governance. It would be a shame to lose it.

Unlike anyone else on Air America (including Franken), Maron slams the idiocy and evil of the Bush administration AND makes you laugh at the same time (which isn’t easy). If you can imagine combining the indignant anger of Mike Malloy (without the froth) with the dark comedy of Bill Hicks and the over-the-top irreverence of Andy Breckman, you get an idea of Maron’s talk radio persona. Air America has grown a real radio talent with Maron, and while nobody on the outside seems Maronriley_remoteto know the exact details of why they may soon part, you’d have to hope that Air America wouldn’t let loose one of their best on-air assets at this point in the game.

You don’t have to look far on the internet to find the details of the money troubles Air America has had since the very beginning. And Maron had a fairly successful career before Morning Sedition, and one would think that the radio show has probably given that career a boost. He also has a long-distance marriage (to his wife in California) because he has to be in New York for his Air America duties. If he’s holding out for a healthy sum, it’s easy to understand why. Maron has become a valuable asset to the network, and must he know that. One can only imagine what they pay Franken, and it’s assumed that he’s probably only going to be around for so long anyway. Air America should invest in their future, if they want to have one.

If you’re not familiar with Morning Sedition or Maron’s radio efforts, have a listen to some MP3 bits from yesterday’s show. It ain’t the funniest one I’ve ever heard, but hey it’s fresh.

Maron Discusses Leaving The Show  1:07

(download)

Cat Giveaway  0:47

(download)

O’Neal’s Announcement  1:20

(download)

Email Plea-Belly Dancing Call  1:40

(download)

The INews 5000 WiFi Headline Translator  1:36

(download)

The Monday Job Listing  1:13

(download)

Morning Remembrance  5:05

(download)

Liberal Marching Orders-Halloween Tripping Story  2:09

(download)

Maronriley_official_3And if you’re not up early in the morning, or you can’t hear Air America where you live, you can download Morning Sedition (without ads) every day right here, and even easier, you can podcast it with links from this page.

Maron is now saying that he may occasionally be part of Morning Sedition in some small way, and he occasionally hints that there’s some small chance he’ll remain as co-host. But it’s important to remember, even if you love the host of any show or love the station that carries it, radio is really a cutthroat business. It’s rare that a radio personality remains on the air when contract negotiations are failing. And you can hear in Maron’s on-air discussions of the matter that he’s being very careful about what he says, and what he doesn’t say. If you piss off the boss and you’re on your way out, you’re likely to be off the air in as soon as they can drag you out of the studio. It happens all the time.

Manic_maron_1Ongoing online conversations regarding Marc Maron leaving Air America can be found on the Morning Sedition Blog, or the Morning Sedition Message Board. An online petition to keep Marc Maron on Morning Sedition can be found here, and the official email address to plea for Maron’s survival at the network belongs to the Air America CEO, Danny Goldberg (dannyg@airamericaradio.com).

Air America is not Clear Channel, and they undoubtedly have some hard financial choices to make, at least for a while. However, there’s a couple of weak shows in their lineup that are just ripe to be plucked from the schedule and replaced with something else. But Morning Sedition isn’t one of them. And while Riley is a real radio talent with more experience than almost anyone else on the air at the network, it’s the manic magic of Marc Maron that keeps people listening every morning. Let’s hope Air America figures that out before it’s too late.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)