Thursday, March 20, 2008

Medved on Franken

The Michael Medved Show
KTTH 770 kHz
Weekday afternoons noon-3

While priming his national audience for Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman's appearance on his program later in the hour, Michael Medved a few minutes ago discredited Al Franken by referring to the Democrat celebrity challenger of Coleman as "a failed radio talk show host". That's profoundly unfair and incorrect, despite Franken having in his previous endeavor been at the center of one of the worst productions in newstalk radio history.

There is no reason to believe that Air America, the mismanaged, struggling liberal newtalk radio network which aired The Al Franken Show 2002-2007, would not have continued the production, had the onetime Saturday Night Live stalwart not elected last year to try to unseat Coleman.

Sure, Franken's style was breathtakingly inappropriate for the commercial newstalk genre, but his AA show, by the time of its cancellation, was most assuredly no failure. In fact, it had cultivated a loyal following on its Sundance Channel cable simulcasts in addition to the affiliates AA had lined up for Franken on several dozen minor AM outlets around the country.

As much as I hated Franken's show due to the factors explained below, I detest even more the tendency of so many talk radio listeners--and even practitioners like Medved--to reflexively dismiss any cancelled show as "failed".

Newstalk radio shows are cancelled for various reasons, many of which are completely unrelated to ratings; just because your favorite program is no longer carried by a station doesn't mean that the production was unsuccessful at realizing whatever aims the show had, or that it had not necessarily acquired a sizable following.

Oh how I wish that AA had dumped Franken's show merely because of its supposed anemic numbers, for that would be a small victory for the those of us who naively dream of a media world where the best newstalk radio shows get the best ratings while the lame ones all languish as Arbitron cellar dwellers. Alas, with the notable exception of genre kingpin Rush Limbaugh, whose consistent peerlessness in broadcast execution matches his unchallenged ratings dominance, in newstalk radio success seldom tracks with quality.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Newstalker Mark Davis Anointed by...Bryan Styble?!?

Just one posting below I first wrote about Mark Davis, and now this morning up again pops his crisp national newstalk hosting style! Another coincidence or two like this, and I'll surely start delusionally believing that RadioactiveSeattle is having industry impact.

You see, I lamented only two nights ago about the dramatic drop-off in hosting calibre we've suffered ever since Matt Drudge last year vacated his influential Sunday night show ["Not (Ahem) Bonding with the Cunningham Show"]. Then I parenthetically observed that the best choice as a Drudge replacement might have been veteran WBAP host Davis.

And now, a mere 35 hours later, the Dallas-based Davis is in an even more coveted chair than Drudge's--he's subbing for an influenza-felled Rush Limbaugh on the Excellence in Broadcasting Network. It's his debut turn in the stead of the newstalk radio titan, as well as the first time in years I've heard Davis's voice--which is penetrating, not unlike his hosting approach.

Davis first dazzled me early this decade on his weekly open-line syndicated program, now defunct and which never aired in Seattle. I'd await every new week, as The Mark Davis Show often regaled me each Sunday afternoon down in nuclear New Mexico, where I listened over his Duke City affiliate KTBL, a competitor to KKNS, where Radioactive Albuquerque with Bryan Styble was heard weekdays across what I enjoyed mischievously calling the Nuke City.

His weekly national platform may be no more, but Davis seems to have lost none of his terrific faculty for newstalk. By sign-off yesterday, Limbaugh did sound like he was dissatisfied with some of his under-the-weather performance, so there was an unexpected opportunity that Davis has seized adroitly on less than 24 hours notice, becoming one of but a handful of conservative newstalkers entrusted even for a single shift with the EIB network, the genre's gold standard.

Davis is also the beneficary of good fortune, with Limbaugh being unable to answer the bell on a crucial primary day. Hillary Rodham Clinton is widely seen as holding her last stand against the Obama juggernaut in today's Ohio and Texas races. Limbaugh's senior staff, who reportedly choose his subs subject to their boss's right of refusal, would have accordingly been expected to tap a fill-in talent in either of those pivotal states. Such attendance to detail is but one of a couple dozen reasons why Limbaugh's production remains the best in the business with nary a close second, as RadioactiveSeattle has been recently spotlighting.

Davis, an intellectual stalwart since 1994 to his loyal Dallas-Fort Worth area listeners, was described in my piece below with the unfortunate modifier "obscure". And that's too bad, for his WBAP local show, heard mid-mornings across what everyone there calls the Metroplex, is widely-recognized there as first-rate, in part due to his capacity for perspicacity.

I've bragged to my KIRO overnight audience that the critic's comment in review of my newstalk work of which I'm most proud was penned by a Harvard man. That was the quite liberal rock-band frontman John Sousanis, who had guested on my show less to talk about politics than music. Sousanis was also a weekly newspaper columnist, and I was surprised when one Friday soon thereafter he devoted his entire space to his in-studio experience with me, concluding that "Styble is one of the few people in newstalk radio who understand that a heated discussion need not be uncivil." He was writing about The Pontiac Insomniac with Bryan Styble, heard over suburban Detroit WPON--talk about obscurity!--but that so-gratifying evaluation applies equally to Davis.

A fine example of why for me Davis's work was love-at-first-listen was heard in his second EIB hour this morning. He was annoyed by the rampant incorrect employment of a particularly nasty word, so he offered a tutorial on what precisely it means to lie.

Davis emphatically implored the Rush audience to get this down once and for all: "A lie is something that you know to be untrue, but you say it anyway, with the intent to deceive." His was an irrefutable slam of a confounding habit so many unclear speakers display in the current political culture, where any misstatement or opinion someone disagrees with can be viciously mischaracterized as a lie. As Davis explicated, this not only treats a particular statement unfairly, but also downplays the erosion of veracity fostered by those far fewer untruths which actually qualify as lies.

As it happens, my own audiences heard me hammer home those very same you-can't-unintentionally-lie points over KIRO, WJR and lesser newstalk venues for many years. Now, some of those listeners might assume that a perennial small-time player like me, who never in nearly two decades as a newstalk radio professional got a national shot (despite one notable near-miss [see "Styble on the late Messrs. Buckley & Steibel", archived 2/27/2008]), would have some mixed emotions here. They might presume I'm listening to this ascension of Davis with some embitterment.

After all, Davis engages in this arcane art form known as commercial newstalk radio hosting with an overall sound more elegant yet still quite similar to my own. (And yeah, that inherent bias may inevitably taint this rave review.) So while I deal with the prospect of my particular style maybe never again gracing a station lineup, Davis has just zoomed into my beloved genre's stratosphere. So some cynics might even suspect I'm secretly wishing failure upon him as a national talent.

Sorry, but I don't do schadenfreude. But Mark Davis does do absolutely sterling newstalk radio, and I hope any syndication deal for him ensuing from this EIB anointment today rapidly becomes the next big nationwide newstalk hit.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Not (Ahem) Bonding with the Cunningham Show

The Bill Cunningham Show
KVI 570 kHz

Sunday evenings 7-10 pm

"Maybe I'm the one who's stupid!" Billy Cunningham thunderingly theorized just a few minutes ago.

Not likely, Bill. But your argument sure is dumb. And, sadly, your nationally-syndicated newstalk broadcast often sounds it, too.

But make no mistake: Cunningham is no dimwit. But it's also not a smart strategy for the Cincinnati-based conservative who inherited Matt Drudge's influential Sunday night newstalk radio platform to be feigning mystification as to why John McCain and so much of the GOP establishment was so embarrassed by the broadcaster's YouTube moment. (As you surely know by now even if you haven't watched it replayed on the Internet, while warming up a McCain rally prior to the candidate's arrival in Ohio last week, Cunningham twice provocatively repeated Barack Obama's unfortunate despot-evoking middle name.)

Some of Cunningham's callers tonight at least have pretended to back his dubious what's-the-big-deal-about-a-name defense, but surely few serious observers this remarkable campaign season can believe Cunningham isn't merely posturing, although for what purpose I can't imagine. And Cunningham doesn't seem naive enough to not realize virtually no one's
buying it.

That harsh-sounding voice of Cunningham's sounds nonetheless unbowed, defiantly proclaiming his newfound solidarity with Ann Coulter's much-publicized ironic support for Hillary Clinton. That's actually an idea newstalk titan Rush Limbaugh has been advancing for weeks now, to help sustain a Democrat internecine battle that has turned out to be the most titanic primary struggle since Ronald Reagan nearly wrested the 1976 Republican nomination from a sitting President. McCain wisely (if rather cravenly) disavowed Cunningham's remarks almost immediately. He also claimed he doesn't recall ever meeting Cunningham, something the longtime WLW talent insists has actually happened twice. In any event, McCain has, as Limbaugh put it on his own show, "Thrown Cunningham under the wheels of the Straight Talk Express".

As I pointed out just one posting below
["Quincy's Predecessors Never Had 'Em"], this entire business could easily have been avoided, had Obama earlier taken the bold step I still recommend he seriously consider sometime well before the general election. But barring that infinitesimally improbable eventuality, Cunningham's national clout may end up being permanently marginalized by this episode. And it wouldn't be an undeserved fate for the big-mouth broadcaster.

Ever since I first heard Cunningham's retooling of the show after Drudge stepped down a year ago, I've been puzzled why this guy, already burdened with a grating voice, didn't strive more to ingratiate himself at least early on with the vast audience of Drudge's he had been foisted upon by the talk radio gods. (I mean, even the ever-contemptible Don Imus served up some faux graciousness during the early months of the greatly-diminished Imus in the Morning production assembled as successor to his controversially-cancelled morning show, pathetically and futilely endeavoring to reclaim the lofty broadcast perch from which he so spectacularly leapt in April.)

Cunningham often grandiosely (and with wild inaccuracy) calls himself the Voice of the Common Man, but it's really uncommon to hear any caller call him on that preposterous assertion. Too many of his regular callers are toadies, and also unlikely to point out that his in-your-face variety of libertarian conservatism may repel as many fence-sitters as it attracts.

The program is far from meritless; Cunningham understands how well-executed formatics undergird and thus fortify any show, and he came up with one nifty caller-introducing device ("Give us a full report!") I sure wish I'd thought of first. And Cunningham is, to his ideological credit, a Reaganite, but unfortunately one who possesses precisely zero of the Gipper's charm.

By the way, First Amendment absolutist that I am, I don't consider Cunningham to have stepped outside of any legitimate bounds when he repeated "Hussein". His big mistake is in his refusing to own up to his obvious motivation, something that's crystal clear to everyone, thusly eroding and perhaps completely washing away the one thing indispensable to every newstalk radio host, his credibility.

Occasionally I would listen to Cunningham's local Cincinnati weeknight show during the mid-90s over the powerful WLW signal at 700 kHz, back when I was doing my own call-in program in the WJR overnight slot a couple hundred miles to the north in Detroit (and sixty kilocycles to the right at 760 kHz). Cunningham, who is way too prone to shouting on-air, came in very loudly throughout Michigan most nights over that powerful signal radiating from the southwestern corner of Ohio. (Incidentally, the roughhewn Cunningham style was never nearly as pleasant a WLW listen to my ear as was Dale Sommers's long-running Truckin' Bozo program...which many nights, as it happened, would directly compete for Midwestern long-haul listening loyalty with Open Lines for Open Minds with Bryan Styble, heard over WJR's even more far-ranging signal.)

After Drudge rather abruptly--and with little explanation, characteristically--announced his impending abandonment of the successful Sunday night show last year, the applicable talk radio syndication gatekeepers could have selected as his valuable franchise's heir any one of many first-rate local hosts around the nation. (My choice, incidentally, might have been Mark Davis, whose defunct Sunday afternoon national newstalk show based at WBAP/Dallas earlier this decade was one the best weekend programs ever available up on the satellite.)

When Drudge was awarded his Sunday night slot by ABC Radio in 1998, many industry types (including yours truly, I'm ashamed to admit) clucked about how the network was foolishly elevating such a New Media hack, an editor-lacking gossip writer who wasn't even respected as a reporter, much less as a broadcast journalist.

Yet the radio rookie's apparently natural skill set made it easy for his off-air team to quickly amass a 50-state network while he developed the edgy, formatics-free style he would eventually forge into one of the most compelling listens in newstalk radio history. Drudge's typically penetrating interviews, perspicaciously probing his usually conservative pundit guests, were sandwiched between cynical yet informative open-line caller segments that were usually terrific. It was a witty if sardonic production which tidily packaged often inspired takes on the newsmakers disparately populating our political, media and celebrity cultures. And he aloofly pulled off all this Sinatra-style--i.e., his way--hat and all. (And yes, I fully realize Drudge emulates Walter Winchell, rather than The Voice, when he dons his trademark topper, but my comparison just possibly is more apt.)

But the mostly trenchant Drudge quit, and we're left with mostly blowhard Cunningham. Of course, most industry types, apparently including those who chose Cunningham, don't regard newstalk radio as a journalistic endeavor anyway. And it's definitely all just showbiz to maybe a majority of the program directors who make the line-up decisions at each of the 300-odd newstalk affiliate stations Cunningham was bequeathed. But his show sure irritates a lot more than it entertains.

Cunningham often calls himself "Billy". Employment of that particular diminutive of William does happen to reinforce the impression that his radio efforts have over nearly two decades yet to mature into the sort of responsible and substantive broadcast every national newstalk audience deserves in this important media genre. Thus to my mind, at least, Bill Cunningham replacing Matt Drudge ranks as perhaps the greatest quantum plunge in cultural quality since 007 fell to Roger Moore after Sean Connery.