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.



Camano Island Carl said...

Any comments about the poor shows:

Ron & Don


Camano Island Carl said...

Please comment on the show that I consider poor:

Ron and Don