Bye Bob

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

I was in the middle of working on another radio piece for this blog when I took a break to eat and trolled a few blogs for some dinner reading. I guess I was feeling a bit braver than usual and ended up at a blog I’ve been avoiding lately because the content there has gotten increasingly painful to read. That’s when I found out that Bob Lassiter has signed off.

No, he’s not dead. Not yet. But the running theme of Lassiter’s blog has always been about the rapid approach of the end of his life and the thoughts and reflections inherent in being aware during the process. In his last blog entry (May 21), Lassiter says: “I am faced with both a certainty that cannot be denied, and an uncertainty that consumes me. I choose to make the remainder of the journey in privacy…” 

In a way, Lassiter’s blog has been a long goodbye letter to his fans, and that’s never been more true than this last post. You can read it here.

In this profound period for Lassiter, it’s as difficult for me to write about him as it ever was. Lassiter is a such a paradoxical character. He’s a brilliant high school drop-out, an introvert who loves attention, and a man who debated great spiritual and intellectual issues with callers just to entertain and attract listeners. On any given show you might hear a raging provocateur, an obsessed geek, or just a sentimental fool.

Bloglassiter_1As I’ve said before, Lassiter was one of the greats of talk radio. A host like no other who sought and created adversary listeners, demanded intellectual honesty over belief, and was often audibly bored or uncomfortable when embraced over the phone by fans or folks who agreed with him. There was nobody like Lassiter in talk radio before, and there won’t be another anytime soon.

 As Lassiter’s blog comes to a close, the other popular site for Bob’s fans is going strong and getting better all time. "Bob Lassiter Airchecks" started small a while back when a fan put up a simple site with a few recordings he’d purchased from a collector. I happily sent him a bunch of the Lassiter material I had, and more people have been doing the same thing. While it’s hardly complete, this site now offers a compelling overview of most of Lassiter’s career, and quite a variety of his antics and monologues. No eye candy there, just plenty of Lassiter radio you can download for free (thanks George!). Have at it. And there’s more… VIDEO.

Yes, you can now WATCH Bob Lassiter. There’s two extended clips there. One is from 1988– a wacky local Tampa public access show– "Hot Seat

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Hot Seat was a Florida public access TV show hosted by Carroll Sudler (Who now has a loopy left-wing talk radio show out in California as “Harrison”) And doesn’t Lassiter look remarkably healthy and confident in this clip? And he actually seems to be having fun.

However, what’s really amazing is an episode of CNN’s "Crossfire" featuring Lasster AND Rush Limbaugh. 

It was 1990, and Limbaugh had only been national for a couple of years and Lassiter was doing afternoon drive at WLS in Chicago. At this time they were roughly equals in their field. Of course, it’s the same obnoxious TV slapfight Crossfire always was, and nothing is really discussed or decided. However, Lassiter actually looks more comfortable than Limbaugh on camera (and for all the talk of Bob’s weight back then, he is CONSIDERABLY thinner than Rush), and he gets his licks in nicely over the course of the bickering. If you’re a Lassiter fan, you’re going to want to downloadboth of these clips and take a look. You’ll see him in his prime and at the peak of his career.

The irony I get from the Crossfire clip is how flustered and defensive Limbaugh gets about being labeled a "radical." He retorts that he’s merely “an entertainer” who doesn’t want to “change people’s minds or to cause people trouble.” El Rushbo says he just wants to “fun on the radio.” It’s too bad Lassiter didn’t say it. Because in that case it actually would have been close to the truth.

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But I gotta tell you, one aircheck that’s recently been added to this site is one I’ve been wanting to hear for a long time. It’s Lassiter’s final radio show, from December 1, 1999. And fans will be happy to know that the Mad Dog went down in style that day, raging and ranting with his dark sense of humor intact. The target of his anger? The very station he was on– WFLA. You don’t hear this kind of thing very often in commercial radio.

Bobrush_1WFLA management (and Clear Channel) had apparently decided not to renew his contract, and were avoiding Bob in the hallway and not taking his calls. So, breaking a big talk radio taboo he took his beef with the station on the air. It’s “nothing to lose” radio and Lassiter is in fine form.

By this time, Lassiter knew he was a lame duck. He’d lost gigs before and was well aware that radio was a cutthroat business. However, what really irked him was the silent treatment he was getting. I mean, who WOULD want to fire Lassiter face to face? And no one did. He says on his blog that he got a short call the next day simply telling him he didn’t need to come in to work anymore.

On this last show, Lassiter mentions several times another show he did a few years before where he discussed the heartless and gutless realities of the radio business. It was quite a program. For three hours Lassiter didn’t take calls. He just recounted his radio career in dramatic detail, highlighting the lack of mercy in the business. I featured some of it when I did a two part profile on Lassiter for WFMU’s “Aircheck” in 2003, but you can hear the last two-thirds of that show at Bob Lassiter Airchecks. It’s called Radio For One.”

In fact, you can go to the Bob Lassiter Airchecks site and listen to his last show at WPLP, then Radio For One, and finish up with the WFLA finale you’ll hear the definitive history of Lassiter’s radio career from the man himself.

Squares1_1And now, it’s equally difficult to end this post and say something meaningful about Lassiter’s declining health, or that he’s ending his relationship with his fans and followers. So I won’t. Except to say I wish him well (as much as that means). And thank you Bob, for the time you  spent with me a decade ago, as uncomfortable as it was for the both of us.

So, for a few hours or days (or until Lassiter turns the comments off on this latest post) you can still say something to Lassiter if you wish. Or you might just want to read some of the comments there. He’s requested “no questions.” Seems fair. And also, don’t pray for Bob. He wouldn’t like that either.

Be good.

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

The Last of Lassiter

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Lassiter_smile The Mad Dog has been silenced. After six years of rapidly declining health, talk radio giant Bob Lassiter passed away Friday morning October 13, 2006. His died in his bed, unconscious and without pain. And while Lassiter didn’t choose to suffer as he did over the last few years, he did manage to die as he had wished (considering the circumstances). And an integral part of that process was discussing his impending death with his fans, or anybody who cared to read about it. For over a year he blogged his slow demise.

Lassiter had turned 61 just days ago. Although the official cause was kidney failure brought on by diabetes, Lassiter was also a heavy smoker, a junk food enthusiast, and somebody who carried around a lot of bottled up frustration and anger. All life-shortening habits. Up until the end, Lassiter did what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it. Sometimes being headstrong can be fatal.

Younger than most of the 1960’s rock stars still working the oldies circuit, Lassiter died of old age. If there is some mercy in all of this, it’s that Bob’s radio career was marked by an impatience and disdain for old feeble callers, and he became elderly rather quickly and in private. And thanks to the blog he kept right up until the end, it was plain to see that he never lost his edge.

It seems a bit pointless to recap all I’ve written about Lassiter while he was alive (you can read those here, here, and here). In his own strange way, he was a talk radio giant who continues to have a huge effect on those who recall his program, as well as those who continue to hear his work via the growing archive available on the web. And when Lassiter’s blog occasionally opened for comments from readers (as it has now at its closing) the onslaught of listener accounts of changed lives and his influence were astounding. Having such power always seemed to baffle Lassiter, who once said: "It makes no difference if I change anyone’s mind, or influence anyone to do something. It’s not the point of my show."

Lassiter delighted in making listeners look at issues and ideas from a different angle, to break open clichés and tired narratives to re-examine the contents. For me personally, I know that after listening to Lassiter’s show for a while I’ve never heard (or thought about) talk radio the same way. 

Through almost pure happenstance (basically by being in the right places at the right time) I found myself in the strange position of becoming a torchbearer of Lassiter’s legacy over the last few years. However, that torch has since been passed into the hands of others who have provided online places where people can hear, discuss and learn about "The Bob Lassiter Show." While it only aired in three radio markets over the course of roughly twelve years, Lassiter’s program was one of the most powerful in the history of talk radio. And although he never reached the national syndication status many felt he deserved, Lassiter in all his show biz complexity is now international and forever. Aspiring talk hosts would be wise to study his work.

Before I ever heard Bob Lassiter on the radio, I had heard of him. Almost by accident (it’s a long story…) I ended up moving to Tampa in early 1991. While it took me a while to adjust to Florida life, I was immediately impressed with the local talk station, WFLA. I’d never heard anything like it. The presentation was cocky and irreverent (Lionel was doing afternoon drive at the time) and more importantly, it was unpredictable. And except for the warm and breezy morning show (and the daily syndicated Limbaugh garbage) WFLA’s hosts would insult and spew and hang up on stupid callers and talk about things I never heard discussed on the radio before. Little did I know that I was witnessing the heyday of Florida entertainment talk radio. But at that time, Bob Lassiter had already come and gone.

I used to occasionally chat with one of my neighbors over the fence behind my subtropical apartment, and often he’d hear me out on my little patio listening to WFLA. He would always talk about how WFLA wasn’t the same since this Lassiter guy had left town. He’d recount Lassiter’s antics in great detail and talk about how popular he was. I imagined Lassiter as some dark prince of talk radio, a strange force of nature I had sadly missed out on. It was still a few years away from the time when you could discover a distant (or dead) talk host through the web.

Then a year and a half later, Lassiter reappeared on the Tampa radio scene. This time at a new talk station, WSUN. It was billed as “Entertaining Talk Radio For the 90’s,” and they set out to out-attitude the fearless Jacor talk leader in the market (and Lassiter’s former employer), WFLA. (For some reason, I was mailed a promotional cassette promoting WSUN at the time, and you can download a copy of from the Bob Lassiter Airchecks website.)

It’s hard to imagine today, but WSUN was not only apolitical in its approach to talk radio. It was also rabidly un-topical. Topics they said, were “poison.” The format jumped into the Tampa market with a bunch of high-end radio talent (specifically Neil Rogers) by shipping in most of the programming from Cox Broadcasting sister station WIOD in Miami. Lassiter was cooling his heels in Iowa after his tumultuous gig at WLS in Chicago when Rogers lobbied for Cox bring him back to do morning drive at WSUN, followed by the WIOD line-up.

While I’m not a morning guy, I went as far as setting up a timer and tape deck to occasionally listen to this show. Although Lassiter was impressive and funny, it wasn’t the wild radio ass extravaganza I’d been led to expect. In retrospect, at a station where shows weren’t supposed to be topical Lassiter’s trademark incendiary monologues and convoluted set-ups were rarely heard. Most of the time Bob was left to try to do what Neil does so well– to riff and bitch and cause trouble for hours on end.

When Lassiter moved to afternoons at WSUN, now following Rogers show, I listened to both of them all the time. And when Lassiter and his mentor began their famous on-air feud, their back to back programs took a nasty turn. Neil incessantly provoked Lassiter into a frothing rabid dog every afternoon, and Lassiter responded in kind, countering Rogers point for point and it got meaner every day. And just as getting stuck at station where a loose shock-talk approach prevailed put Lassiter at a disadvantage, the on-air slap fight between talk monsters was just something Rogers was much better at as well. While Rogers seemed to enjoy getting Lassiter’s goat more every day, Lassiter seethed and sniped and became moody and dark as he found himself becoming the public enemy of his radio mentor. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard Lassiter lose a fight. For those of us who witnessed the carnage it was nice to hear them made amends last year when Bob made his last radio appearance on Roger’s show.

And then after WSUN disbanded, Lassiter was under a contractual non-compete clause and couldn’t work in Tampa area radio for a number of months. But as soon as he became available, WFLA started sniffing around and brought Lassiter back into the fold one more time. And thus began his last hurrah.

Suddenly, I was hearing the Bob Lassiter I’d only heard my neighbor talk about. Lassiter was truly the Mad Dog once again. For me, Lassiter’s new nightly show on WFLA was immediately addictive in a way I can only compare to how people get locked into television programs. It was like a soap opera you couldn’t miss, or the way a geek might crave a Star Trek or Twilight Zone fix. I found myself spending my daylight hours recalling Lassiter’s antics from the night before with my friends, and then coming home in prickly anticipation over what kind of crazy shit Lassiter might do that night. It was a constant parade of unpredictable drama and wit and thought, and countless strange radio conversations. 

I was doing a lot of freelance journalism at the time, and I got a green light from one of my editors to put together a cover story feature on the Mad Dog. Suddenly something I just enjoyed for entertainment became an intellectual pursuit, and so much more (and less).

Now instead of just listening, I began recording every Lassiter show to study for the article. Of course, I had no idea at the time that airchecks of Lassiter would be something I would collect or cherish years later. As the tapes piled up, I would edit significant monologues and calls from these tapes into complications for source material for the profile. Then, after weeks of listening and recording and interviewing many of Lassiter’s past associates and co-workers, I assembled a tall stack of questions and was ready to actually talk to the man himself. When I asked for the interview, I assumed it would take place at the radio station. Instead, Lassiter invited me into his house. Several days later I spent four hours in an air conditioned suburban kitchen drinking hot weak coffee and interrogating Bob Lassiter. And boy did he hate it.

In the course of working on the article, I probably met with Lassiter three or four times (including sitting in with him during his show) and he was always civil and basically pleasant. But he was never friendly. Not even close. In fact, after the interview Lassiter went on his show and made fun of me and complained about having to put up with the inquisition. To add insult to injury, he misrepresented my questions and generally made me look foolish. I hadn’t expected that.

In general, writing the piece became an unpleasant experience. The more I delved into Bob’s reality the worse I felt. I was having Lassiter nightmares, dreaming he was taking me to task for my foolish musings or that I never was able to actually finish the damn profile. In the end I found myself trying to adequately balance what was good and bad and true about Lassiter without writing a puff piece, or mentioning how creepy it felt being in the same room with him. There was so much to say about Lassiter, but it was difficult to have it all make sense.

But finally after much rewriting and editing it all came together. In the article, Lassiter claimed he tried conduct a two-tier program. "I do a show for half the audience that understands what I’m doing, and the other half that don’t can amuse the other half" he said. The piece I ultimately wrote was two-tier as well. I hoped that those who loved or hated Lassiter’s show (and there were many in both categories in the Tampa area) would find many reasons to justify the feelings they already had about the man, and that others could get a grip on his interesting inconsistences. My father, who couldn’t stand Lassiter thought the feature helped him understand why Lassiter was such an asshole. On the other hand, Lassiter himself really liked the article. (If you’re interested, you can read the text here.) And contrary to his earlier insults, Lassiter was quite appreciative and personally thanked me for writing it (and for getting all his quotes right). I was glad it was all over, and was a little thankful that I wouldn’t have to deal with Lassiter again, except as a listener.

To be fair, Lassiter wasn’t any more or less warmhearted with me than he was with most people. On his show (and later on his blog) he’d always been quite open about being a misanthrope. “I don’t like people,” Lassiter told me during that interview. “I don’t like people around me.” And while I never intended to be his friend, I was a bit taken aback by how awkward it was just talking with him. I’ve never experienced anyone quite like him in person– soft-spoken, cordial, and cold. Then again, it didn’t feel personal. I don’t think he disliked me in particular. But he did want to make it profoundly clear that he wasn’t going to be my pal.

By the time I left Tampa in 1997, Lassiter’s show lacked the buzz and crackle it had just a year before. After not being able to ply his provocative trademark radio style for a number of years, Lassiter burst out of the box at WFLA with guns blazing. But this time around was different than the times he did the same thing at WPLP, WFLA the first time around, and at WLS. Lassiter was wiser this time. When I interviewed him he told me: "You have to constantly change, yet without giving the perception of having changed, or you eventually burn out your audience." He knew his hostile radio style could create a big splash in a media market (and occasionally create some really unique radio), but maintaining that abrasive vibe for an extended period would likely darken the show into a negative mess for all concerned.

I think his new game plan that time around was to cycle his approach. All his previous gigs hadn’t lasted much longer than two years, and this time around in the home park where he had perfected his style he planned to have a long successful run. I asked him if at the beginning of this WFLA stint if he’d ever shift into the warm and fuzzy persona he often offered up at WSUN. “I will eventually be able to,” he said. “But I can’t right now."

Then a few months later Bob took on a female co-host as he did at WSUN. At SUN it was Sharon Taylor (who is mentioned in the last post on his blog, and currently is part of the morning team at WFLA), but on WFLA he was joined by his wife Mary (who masqueraded as “Lou”) and often his producer “Flounder.” While it wasn’t bad, and Bob at times was still the irascible “Mad Dog” when cornered, it wasn’t the carefully constructed outrageous drama with a constant stream of entertainingly angry callers. It was an attempt to be conversational and to have fun without resorting to being a prick so often. Bob’s obsession with computers and day trading became a major feature of his show as well. In retrospect, I think that the less than ballistic Lassiter was still a more compelling and individual talk host than over ninety percent of what passes for talk radio nowadays. But it wasn’t the same wild ride that made Lassiter the legend who burns bright in listener’s memories.

Once I moved to New York, I occasionally checked out Lassiter’s show over the web. I don’t recall anything special. I had heard second hand from Florida friends Lassiter’s three year run at WFLA ended in late 1999, and that in the end he did something you rarely hear. He went on the air and trashed the station. The Bob Lassiter Airchecks site has an archive of his final show, and it’s classic smoldering Lassiter. As his contract was running out, WFLA management was putting off negotiating a new one with him. Even the staff was avoiding him in the building. But after his audience was made aware of the situation and his anger at the station, Lassiter was asked to stay home. And that’s where he spent the rest of his life.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Bob Lassiter had been on the WFMU radar for a long time. I was working a table at their record fair when I discovered the first volume of the station’s “Radio Archival Oddities” cassette featuring a “Tampa talk host” who was none other than the magnificent Lassiter. When the Aircheck program debuted in 2002 I began contributing clips I had compiled when I wrote the article, and people beyond Tampa and Chicago began to discover there was more to Lassiter than those calls from Rocky the Rock-n-Roll Klansman and the guy in the Airstream trailer (who in reality were actually the same person).

Meanwhile, the state of talk radio (especially in New York) was increasingly right wing and depressing. It seemed like a prime time for Lassiter to appear in some market and stir up trouble again. As I regularly searched the internet for news of (and references to) Bob Lassiter, two things became obvious. The first was that Lassiter had indeed disappeared from the talk radio scene. Occasional postings on message boards and Usenet only revealed people who were doing the same thing I was, wondering what ever happened that Lassiter character?

The other thing I realized was that the few clips of Lassiter that were floating around hardly gave a full picture of his complicated and convoluted radio persona. Many people who discovered Lassiter through WFMU were blown away by his provocative talk style, but it also gave many superficial snapshots of his work. In the age of Bush, Lassiter sounded to many like a cunning and angry liberal who bravely battled rednecks, fundamentalist kooks and conservative morons. While he indeed contended with all sorts of folks on the battlefield of his program, Lassiter was never really left wing. He was a libertarian leaning contrarian with a mean streak. And he was so much more (and sometimes so much more frustrating) than what newcomers might glean from a few heart-pounding bits.

So in 2003 I set upon the task of providing a more complete overview of The Bob Lassiter Show by assembling a retrospective which turned out to be a two-part special on WFMU’s Aircheck program. (Which you can hear and/or download here.) I had recently swapped copies of some of my Lassiter archives with an aircheck tape collector for some 80’s Lassiter material he had. And after carefully combing through it all I had enough stuff to assemble a feasible documentary of Lassiter’s career, which aired over two weeks in late July of 2003.

Although, I considered contacting Lassiter to give him a heads-up on what I was doing, but I was frankly apprehensive about reaching out to him again. And while working on the shows I began to get a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be happy about it. I chickened out.

I was wrong. In less than a week after the first installment aired, Lassiter had found the archive, listened to it, and sent me an appreciative email. “I had forgotten most of the calls, and even some of the "monologue" snippets,” Lassiter said. “Things sure were different back then. It’s hard to believe that I actually got paid to do some of that stuff. It was a lot of fun – though I didn’t always realize it at the time!” In that email I also found out for the first time that Lassiter had serious health problems stemming from diabetes.

Well, that was a relief. Lassiter was happy and I got plenty of positive response from listeners as well. And thanks to the internet, all the Lassiter featured on aircheck continued to find old Lassiter fans and create new ones. Instead of the politically driven smear merchants who clutter talk radio today, Lassiter offered edgy entertainment that was both intellectual and absurd. And at his best he created gripping theater of the mind.

A few weeks later an old Lassiter fan from Tampa heard the Lassiter Aircheck specials and sent me an email. It has inspired him to digitize hundreds of old tapes of Lassiter and other Tampa talk hosts he rescued from his garage. I swapped some of my material with him, and he went on to create some nice CD’s collecting some of the highlights of the golden age of Tampa talk radio. I hope one day that all the material he’s gathered together finds a home online. Speaking of that, a few months later a guy named George in Texas who used to listen to Lassiter on WLS in Chicago found these shows as well, and sent me a nice email thanking me. “Man, I just shit my pants,” he said. And then George set out to spread the joy.

After purchasing some of the aircheck tapes of Lassiter available on the web, George put up a bare bones website featuring MP3’s of these tapes, and asked fans to contribute more. That was the beginning of the wonderful “Bob Lassiter Airchecks” site, which continues to grow with more new additions all the time. Now anyone who wants to truly explore (or remember) the full breadth of Bob Lassiter’s radio magic and mischief can access a huge online resource that could keep them busy for months. And I should add that it’s free as well. More than anyone, George has assured that Lassiter’s radio legacy will live on for many years to come, warts and all. That’s what I call public service. A busy Yahoo Lassiter fan group has sprung up as well, which often served as a place for his followers to converse when they were shut out of speaking on his personal blog.

Sometime in 2004 the first “blog lassiter” began. Lassiter shut it down after he began to get too many people wanting to associate with Lassiter via the comments section. The second (or maybe third?) version of his blog went online last summer, and it remains today. While comments were normally closed (except on the rare posts where Lassiter would allow them), the last post has been opened for comments from readers and fans. And as you might guess, they’re piling up quickly at this writing.

What became obvious to anyone coming across Lassiter’s blog was that it was going to be a chronicle of the end of his life. It was the document of a grouchy old man going through a slow and painful death. But it served a more important purpose in the long run. It kept the long love affair between Lassiter and his listeners alive until the very end. To be sure, it was often a dysfunctional relationship, but he cherished the attention and his fans clung to having some connection to a voice that had meant so much to them.

I’ve come to believe that Lassiter was as shy as he was egocentric and angry. He functioned best when he was in charge of the things, especially when lording over a talk show. Or by conducting a personal blog which allowed only a minimum of reader comments. Which brings me around to Lassiter’s last words.

While we all have no idea of the what Bob actually said or did in those moments before he lost consciousness or took his last breath, what we are left with is the personal public diary he left for his wife Mary to post after his passing. And his very last entry is telling. Until the end, Lassiter obsessively monitored his blog readership and web presence. And after seeing a post in the Yahoo group regarding how his last employer, WFLA, was putting together his obituary. “Overall, I’m amused that the bastards who threw me out in the gutter, now want to honor me with a fancy obit,” Lassiter spewed. “I’m sure that it will be a warm and fuzzy thing, praising me to the hilt – why must the world be so phony?”

There you go. While not knowing those would be his last words in public, that final accusation exemplified what made Lassiter good and bad and a little strange. Radio is a cutthroat business and many of those who work in the trenches on the business end find themselves in ugly roles and end up doing disingenuous things. And there is a phoniness there deserving of some bile and bluster. On his show, Lassiter was always a master of revealing the hypocrisy of many institutions, including his insights into the dark side of the radio business. However, if you read between the lines on this one you also get a sense of how difficult it could be to know (or care about) Lassiter the person, not the voice on the radio or the writer of a blog.

I know a few of Lassiter’s “many friends” at WFLA who Lassiter denounced for not calling or visiting him over the years since he parted ways with the station. While I don’t know the details of why his contract wasn’t renewed or the business angle of the decision. I do know that there was a huge respect for Lassiter at WFLA, which I’m sure didn’t end when he left the building. Lassiter had his greatest success there, with two stints marked by now historic moments of cutting edge talk radio. More than at any other station, they let him do his thing, to the hilt. They promoted him. They were proud of him. The acrimonious split with WFLA aside, you can be sure that the concern many there felt for Lassiter in his last days was hardly phony.

In real life, Bob Lassiter was a formidable character. Difficult to read. Difficult to approach. As a former co-worker, Lionel, said the other night when offering a brief eulogy during his show was that Lassiter wasn’t "somebody you’d wanna hug." He could be as pungent in real life as he was during those acerbic moments of radio genius. There was always the sense that he might unload at you at any time. It was a strange feeling, being in the presence of a man you respected and admired and having the distinct feeling that he not only didn’t care, but thought less of you because of it.

Lionel’s Lassiter Eulogy 10-16-06  02:38

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I don’t want to delve into psychobabble regarding what made Bob tick. By the time he started his talk radio career he was already around forty years old, a fully formed man with all his powers and faults well-defined. And like many in show businesses, he employed his flaws into his act. The bitterness and anger you might hear during his show was real. And so was the honesty and the intellect, and on those rare occasions– the warmth.

So, the truth is I never really knew much more of Lassiter than what I heard on the radio, and what he told me. Although he could be painfully confessional on his radio program, it seems that during the last third of his life Lassiter was a cipher to most of the people who actually knew him. But what we’re all left with at his passing, is the power of life itself that he invested into his radio program. What he had such a difficult time expressing in person, came out in blustery torrents over the radio. He had a rare intellect powered by raw untethered emotions. And nothing was sacred… except his wife, him mom, a few friends and Christmas.

There will never be another Bob Lassiter. And as long as I’ve been aware of him, I’ve never heard anyone (including myself) fully define or explain his radio program, or his power as a media personality. Anybody with any interest in the guy should go through the archives at the Lassiter aircheck site and give a listen. Bob would like that.

There was only one last question I wanted Lassiter to answer. I did ask it once in an email, but he never responded to the question. Lassiter was such a storyteller and often built his show around extended monologues. And I’ve long wondered if he was influenced by the great radio raconteur, Jean Shepherd. Lassiter grew up in New Jersey and could have easily heard Shepherd’s show. And he even used to pull out a kazoo bust into a hot number when he was in the mood, just as Shepherd would. And I was actually considering emailing Bob one more time, just last weekend, to ask this one more time. I didn’t know he was already gone.

Lassiterwfla_2 If there would ever be a school for talk show hosts (and sometimes I think there oughtta be one) it should have a specific class (or seminar) on the work of Jean Shepherd and Bob Lassiter. Not to inspire imitators or clones, but to make future talk hosts realize the potential of talk radio. Sure it’s a swell forum for spreading propaganda or keeping people company, but it can and should be so much more. On the radio, both Lassiter and Shepherd explored the rudimentary mysteries of being alive, and threw aside conventions and assumptions to explore what things really might mean. They created something very rare– adventurous radio. That’s why people collect and trade their old shows. That’s why their work is as compelling now (or even more so) than it was when they were on the air.

In closing, I want to say that my intention here is to neither sully Lassiter’s legend or to inflate my small role in an important man’s life. I guess I wanted to pass along some of the ways I was personally bitten by the Mad Dog. I suppose I would have liked to have been his friend, but it was an honor to have been able to occasionally shepherd his legacy. And yes, Bob Lassiter was a strange and difficult man. But he was always honest about that. In fact, the one thread that runs through all of Lassiter’s work was a raw honesty that made his work intrinsically human and valid and ultimately appealing. And let’s be honest. It was almost always fun to hear foolish callers make fools of themselves.

"My worst fear would be that no one wants to listen to me," Lassiter told me that afternoon at his kitchen table. Don’t worry Bob, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

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

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.)

Wartime Lionel

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

LionelLionel is funny. And in talk radio these days, funny is hard to come by.

Sure, if you get your jollies hearing jokes about environmentalists, the poor, and the disenfranchised you probably can’t stop slapping your knee during the Rush Limbaugh program. But in general there’s not a lot of wit on talk radio lately. For the most part, the talk radio format has become a humorless void of political grandstanding and smearcasting. Blame the right wing morons for turning an entertainment medium into a barren kiosk of propaganda.

Lionel’s show originates from WOR-AM here in New York City, but it’s syndicated nationwide. In fact, the radio mega-corporation Clear Channel has been gradually creating new “progressive talk” stations, which feature Air America programming, and Lionel’s show is often tucked into the schedule. Which is strange in a way, because Lionel isn’t really a political talk show host at all.

He makes it clear on his show, he is NOT a liberal. However, he is most certainly a lawyer and an eccentric raconteur with a wacky vocabulary and an acid wit. On the side, he takes on a few stand-up comedy gigs too.

I’ve listened to Lionel for a long time, and traditionally he focuses his quirky intellectual laser beam on legal issues in the news, as well as sex and “news of the weird" kind of stuff. Actually, almost any topic is fair game. If it’s strange, titillating, or pisses him off, he’ll talk about it. But lately, Lionel is a little less lighthearted than he used to be. The war in Iraq and the war-promoting lockstep rightward march of talk radio has REALLY pissed him off. Yet, it seems to have made his show a little better. He may have the perfect temperament for relaying really bad news and trying to make sense of it.

While he’s not really a lefty, his opposition to the Bush agenda has made his show a good complement to Air America’s programming. Although they’re doing a fine job providing an oasis of liberal talk and a significant radio news portal, Air America isn’t always easy listening. With all that information and attitude, the listener is also subjugated to occasional waves of hysteria and raw anger that can be hard to take.

To be fair, when it comes to Bush and the war I’ve been known to exhibit a bit of hysteria and raw anger myself, (I’d like to think I do a better job of venting than Janeane Garofalo) but even I can only take so much naked fury coming out of my radio.

Lionel however, keeps his cool. The only histrionics you hear on his show comes from the callers. Instead of ratcheting up the emotional content of the show when he gets an obnoxious or irate call, Lionel handles each situation with aplomb. As a lawyer, he knows how to let fools prove themselves foolish. And his firm grasp of talk radio dynamics have made him a master of mercilessly poking fun at call-in knuckleheads (or any caller really) without getting them too upset about it. A concise definition of Lionel’s radio persona– gracious spirited smart ass. And perhaps another reason Lionel is so good with the phones is that he got his start in radio as a caller himself.

Back in the 1980’s, there was a golden era of South Florida talk radio, when legendary radio hosts like Neil Rogers and Bob Lassiter perfected the talk format as “theater of the mind” broadcasting. (Air America’s Randi Rhodes came out of that same scene.). Over the years, Lionel became one of the most well known caller’s on shows like Lassiter’s. In an unprecedented move, the program director at WFLA in Tampa let him come in and try his hand as a talk radio host in the late 80’s He soon had a regular gig there, which eventually led to a stint at talk radio giant WABC in New York in 1993.

Lionel came into his own as a talk host doing afternoon drive at WABC. Funny and unpredictable, Lionel was the opposite of the dour talk-corpse he replaced, Bob Grant. However, when they put Lionel on in the morning with Mike Gallagher, who must have the second lowest IQ in talk radio (But I don’t think anyone on the air is dumber than Michael Reagan), it was a HUGE mismatch. Within months Lionel was gone. After a brief career fling with Court TV Lionel went solo, syndicating his own radio program from New York.

If you had to pinpoint Lionel politically, he’s more or less a contrarian libertarian with a passion for individual rights. Actually, before the Iraq War started, Lionel supported the invasion. While not beating the war drums like most right-wing hosts were at the time, he was still a New Yorker shaken up by 9-11. And like a lot of Americans, back in 2003 Lionel admits that he still harbored some irrational bloodlust leftover from the terrorist attacks. Also like so many, he assumed that the Bush Administration wouldn’t launch a big bloody war without some damn good reasons. Oops.

While the recent revelation of the Downing Street Memo seems to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the war was started under false pretenses, it’s been obvious for a long time that the Bush Administration has been less than honest– conducting policies that have not only have killed and maimed many thousands, but has also made us LESS safe than we were before the terrorist attacks.

And what makes Lionel different from the Air America roster and new batch of lefty talk hosts out there, is that there’s a real “everyman” quality to his take on the war. On his own, he came to realize the war wasn’t just a big mistake, but that it is an ongoing outrage committed in our name AND that we are being lied to about it (or diverted from it) everyday. And while his program is often cobbled together with Air America programming, Lionel is also broadcasted on stations which carry bloodthirsty racists like Bob Grant and Michael Savage (like WOR here in New York). And he must REALLY piss off some of the listeners of those radio stations. I like that. Sometimes WOR lets him fill in for Bob Grant in the afternoon. Now that’s FUN.

So, here’s a big commercial-free chunk of Lionel’s show from last Friday. It’s one of his more serious programs, specifically about the Iraq War.

The Lionel Show – 05-13-05  76:52

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While he’s as likely to do a show about porn, a celebrity trial, or music (unfortunately his taste in music isn’t so hot– he thinks Chicago was a great band), he also can dig right into a political topic, without screaming, yelling, or foaming at the mouth.

Also, if you haven’t heard Air America in the morning, check out Morning Sedition. After a rocky start, they jettisoned the lame British broad and the comic insanity of Marc Maron has taken center stage. Here’s the unofficial site for Air America archives, including Morning Sedition. Also, if your interested in giving a listen to some of the other anti-war voices in talk radio (Yes there are a few now, besides the Air Americans), check out The White Rose Society.

Sadly, there is no site currently hosting archives of the Lionel Show. Although for those of you who know how to download binaries from Usenet, I’ve seen archives posted in this group– alt.binaries.sounds.radio.misc.

You can see a list of all the affiliates that carry his program, and you can find a number of stations there which stream Lionel’s show live as well. It’s usually broadcast on Monday thru Friday from 10pm to 1am eastern time. Here in New York, they only play the last two hours starting at 11pm on 710 WOR-AM.

I like Air America, and I hope they succeed on every level. These are dire times, and there is a real need for leftist voices to be heard in talk radio, and the massive propagandist lies of Hannity, Limbaugh and the snorting droves of talk pigs must be challenged. But it’s equally important for talk radio listeners to hear from someone who ruminates on current affairs with logic and wit, unfettered by party politics. And if the talk host happens to be a radio professional AND mischievous AND congenial, all the better. We need to laugh. We need common sense. We need Lionel.

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