BREAKING: Major Layoffs At WBZ Radio?

**** UPDATE: CONFIRMED BY THE BOSTON HERALD ***

Rumors of deep cuts at WBZ 1030 AM have been running rampant in local media circles for some time, but now, one inside source claims sports anchor Tom Cuddy, overnight host Steve LeVeille, as well as weekend talkers Lovell Dyett and Pat Desmarais have all been sacked.

So far, this is entirely unconfirmed and their names are still found on WBZ’s program schedule. So take it for what it is and nothing more, at least at the moment.

But if this turns out to be true, it’s a sad day for WBZ. With a mammoth overnight signal reaching many states and provinces, it’s hard to believe the station would resort to syndication or infomercials in those hours. It’s more evidence of the extreme nature of the media’s meltdown.

UPDATE: LaVeille is indeed off tonight, but that could be due to the holiday. I’ve been checking around, hope to hear soon whether there is anything to this rumor.

Vay Cay Hell: 2008 Edition

Have you been able to stomach this year’s talk radio holiday fill-in roster? I’d provide a detailed account of just how awful it has been, but that would be a lie: I’ve heard relatively little.

There’s a vent-fest going on here.

As callers discussed their own interpretations of biblical passages and religious views in general, I did suffer through over an hour of Avi Nelson covering for Howie Carr, however.

What in the world was this doing on WRKO? Did Salem buy the station when I wasn’t looking?

As a talk radio topic, it’s truly one to avoid at all costs. On a religious-formatted station, that sort of discussion is obviously appropriate, but on a general issues talk outlet, it’s an audience killer. The one exception is a major global news event triggered by extremist doctrine (as in Islamofascism).

Why do holiday fill-ins seem worse every year? Easy: it’s all about protecting fragile broadcasting egos. Nobody wants to return from two weeks (or in Severin’s case, a month) away only to find he or she wasn’t missed. Programmers work around this by selecting subs that won’t upstage the regular guy.

Boston Media’s House Of Cards Collapses

Got bad news to report? There’s no better time all year to disclose it than on Christmas Eve, when few are paying attention.

Used this year by Obama to dump his internal Blago report and the New York Times Company to disclose that its stake in the Red Sox is up for grabs, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

Just a year ago, disposing of this key asset would have been unthinkable, as it ranks just behind the paper’s fancy Manhattan headquarters in value. It’s the equivalent of taking one’s family jewels to the nearest pawn shop.

As the holiday week continued, however, that nugget was revealed to be merely the tip of the iceberg. A Boxing Day story in London’s Financial Times contained the real bombshell: the Boston Globe may now be worth as little as $27m. And a follow-up report in yesterday’s Boston Herald cites a more recent Barclays estimate of $20m.

Remember: the Morrissey monstrosity was sold to the Grey Lady for $1.1 BILLION in 1993. In 2008, it is now worth what a paper in Fall River, Newport or Bangor might have fetched five or six years ago.

Here’s the kicker: according to the FT, the Globe is now worth so little that it might simply be given away as part of a sweetened (soured?) Red Sox sale. One could assume the Worcester paper would be thrown into this mix as well.

From there, the FT’s coverage moves into the realm of the bizarre, however, as it speculates that the Globe might be folded into the remnants of the Ottaway Newspaper chain, now owned by News Corp, but once part of Dow Jones & Company. Under this scenario, the Herald would shut down:

Another scenario under consideration by potential bidders includes merging the Boston Globe with News Corp’s Ottaway newspaper chain and consolidating and shutting down the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe’s rival.

Patrick Purcell, owner and publisher of the Boston Herald and a former News Corp executive, was recently tapped by News Corp to run the Ottaway chain.

Mr Purcell is understood to have visited the Globe’s printing plant in Massachusetts shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday in November, the person said.

News Corp pulled the Ottaway chain – comprised of eight daily newspapers and 15 weeklies – off the market after failing to sell the papers before a June 30 deadline. One News Corp source said it was not currently involved in discussions.

But the FT badly underestimates Purcell’s love for the Herald and its key role as perhaps the lone remaining opposition voice fighting corrupt, one-party rule on Beacon Hill and at Boston City Hall.

Though The Globies will occasionally go after one or two of our local political crooks, with Sal DiMasi as a recent example, there’s usually a political agenda in the mix: supporting other aspiring Democrats who seek these coveted positions.

Beyond Purcell’s passion for the Herald, why merge the Globe with Ottaway, when he can combine his own paper with that chain (since he is now in charge of both)?

Because the Herald is a scrappy operation with outsourced printing, a bare-bones staff and plans to dispose of its headquarters building, it easily has the potential to become Boston’s surviving newspaper.

The bigger picture, however, couldn’t be more significant: if the Boston Globe is worth only $20m, then how does one value any other print or broadcast media outlet in New England? What’s it like to own WRKO, WBZ or WTKK right about now? Or any of the local television stations?

Rather like how foreclosed properties on one’s street depress home values for an entire neighborhood, a near-worthless Globe means a full collapse of the Boston media’s house of cards. How much longer our other regional players can survive is anyone’s guess, but I’m willing to bet more than one of these outfits doesn’t see the end of 2009.

Care to take bets on who that will be?

Boston Herald delivery vehicle image: Boston Globe, Purcell image: Boston Herald

Engagement: What Conservatives Must Do

By now, it should be obvious to conservatives that the Republican Party’s policy of writing off large chunks of the American landscape simply because they had “turned blue” was a major mistake.

Without a dog in the fight, voters in Northeastern and Western states are no longer even hearing conservative arguments, much less being offered a right-leaning choice on the ballot. That means the outcome is determined before the first vote is even cast.

In 2008, for example, it was sickening to see some of Beacon Hill’s sleaziest characters run unopposed. And sadly, the GOP couldn’t even field candidates to take on most of our embarrassing excuse for a congressional delegation.

When it comes to dealing with the mainstream media, the same dilemma exists: do we ignore or engage them?

When a reporter from the fire-breathing lefty Miami Herald contacted me last week for an interview regarding talk radio and the Fairness Doctrine, that was my thought process. A year or two ago, I might not have even returned the message, assuming that any on-the-record response would be twisted in a way that would make me appear foolish.

But after 2008’s election debacle, that’s no longer a consideration. It’s time to engage these people head on, regardless of the outcome. If there’s an opening to influence newsroom lefties even one tiny bit, why not take it?

So during the course of a lengthy conversation with the Herald reporter, Glenn Garvin, I tried to hammer home two themes: one, that it is impossible to force listeners to stick with programming they don’t like (with The Felon as Boston’s Exhibit A) and second, that conservative talk radio is a format, not unlike Country, Urban, etc. That’s why it’s wrong to mix left and right-leaning talk on the same station, it’s oil and water.

While the resulting piece certainly wasn’t the way I would have represented the fight over the Fairness Doctrine, at least a bit of my viewpoint was incorporated:

Can you imagine it? The Limbaugh lying down with the lamb? The Christians-and-lions slaughterhouse of talk radio turning the other cheek, or, at least, the other ear? Conservatives can — though in place of the word imagine, they’re more likely to use fear.

They say the incoming Barack Obama administration and its Democratic allies in Congress plan to strangle talk radio with fairness: specifically, the Fairness Doctrine, a long-abandoned federal policy that requires radio and TV stations to balance conservatives with liberals and vice-versa.

At its most extreme, the Fairness Doctrine might require Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck to follow every right-to-life phone call with one from a doctor who does partial-birth abortions. Or, for that matter, pro-gun-control people calling in to lefty Randi Rhodes to be balanced by commentary from AK-47 owners.

Even a more moderate and more likely scenario — forcing stations to carry shows from across the ideological spectrum — would wreak havoc with talk radio, station managers and other industry figures say, since most talk stations brand themselves as either conservative or liberal.

”Why would you air something your listeners don’t like?” says Brian Maloney, a former conservative talk-show host who now writes a blog called Radio Equalizer, widely read in the industry. “Why would you play classical music on a country station? The listeners just turn it off.”

Though a resumption of the Fairness Doctrine would affect all broadcast television and radio stations, its biggest impact would be on conservatives, who by some estimates outnumber liberals on talk radio by a margin of nine to one — in South Florida, three of the four talk stations are conservative. It’s become the place where grass-roots conservatives meet, organize and develop talking points with the help of Limbaugh and other movement mouthpieces.

Funny enough, when I mentioned during our phone conversation that many people see the Miami Herald as a very liberal newspaper, Garvin broke out in laughter, almost as if he’d never before heard the accusation made.

Nonetheless, for conservatives, a new policy of engagement will be key to winning future battles. It’s time to field candidates, raise money and above all else, return calls from reporters in far-left newsrooms.

Real Cuts And Rumors Of Cuts

If I had a buck for every rumor of a broadcast person about to get the sack that has emerged over the past week, we could fund Deval Patrick’s Cadillac expenses for the next year. And that’s saying something.

Over the years, layoff and format change rumors have always tormented radio (and TV) people during the holiday period. The difference in 2008 is that they are now taken much more seriously, leading to unnecessary anguish. That’s why I generally don’t write about them here unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Let’s face it: there’s not much left to cut in the devastated broadcasting business. But I do wonder (as have some in our comments section) whether some of these near-bankrupt outfits can still afford hefty talent contracts signed a year or two ago when the world was a very different place. It seems unlikely.

We’ve seen some weird moves in several cities over the past week, where programmers leave bankrupt or deeply troubled firms for others that might (emphasis on MIGHT) have a bit more time to spare. It’s all about buying some extra time to remain employed a few months, or perhaps a whole year longer.

Meanwhile, you know things are bad when the bloated public television stations are cutting staff, especially at WGBH, even if it is confined to the underlings. It’s just 12 out of 960 (!!!) employees, but the symbolic nature of any cutbacks in that arena is still significant.

I’ve long wondered how they were able to pay for that massive, sparkling new headquarters at Shoe Central in Brighton, right next to Entercom Boston’s dwindling operation.

Not enough government funding? Or the support of “viewers like you”?

Greater Media’s Shrewd Move

We’ve been pretty tough on Greater Media lately, especially regarding the Jimmy Carter-like malaise that has kept WTKK from fulfilling its potential for local ratings dominance. Against a badly-weakened WRKO, wiping out the competition should be a lead pipe cinch.

But today, the company made a shrewd move, one that is going over well with talk radio insiders: it has hired Tom Baker, who oversaw WRKO until 2005, when he was ordered executed by The Empress for purely evil reasons.

When asked about Baker, one respected broadcast vet had this to say: “Tom Baker knows The Empress and is wise to her game. He also knows sports very well and is directly responsible for a lot of the early, rapid growth of WEEI before The Empress inherited the glory and kicked him to the curb.

“Most importantly, he’s a RADIO guy. He “gets it” when it comes to understanding the nuance of broadcasting in a way The Empress and Coffee Boy can only dream of. I think he’ll be a huge plus. I always found him to be fair,” added Our Man In Radioland.

Because Baker knows where the bodies are buried in Brighton, he has a shot at finally polishing WTKK, a diamond in the rough. But many, many changes are needed, not just in terms of lineup, but also in the areas of marketing, positioning and attitude. The task is almost overwhelming.

Unfortunately, one flaw within the company could derail Baker’s chances for success: continued micromanagement of WTKK at higher levels by meddlers who need to move out of the way. That’s what’s held the station back. Until that changes, the task will be hopeless for just about any potential managerial recruit.

Suck-Up Radio = Ticket To Failure

Through trial and error, we’ve long known that conservative talk radio is commercially successful, while its liberal counterpart fails to generate ratings and revenue almost universally.

Even while some in the industry still refuse to learn this simple lesson, investors have lost millions betting the wrong way on the medium’s ideological direction.

In Boston, there’s another element in the mix: anti-establishment talk (Howie Carr) which succeeds, versus pointless suck-up radio (The Felon). In a state with corrupt, one-party rule that spent us into oblivion and now expects tax/tollpayers to bail them out, why would anyone want to defend our sick establishment?

Recently, WTKK’s Margery Eagan has begun to position herself much more firmly in the suck-up camp. In today’s Boston Herald, Eagan blows a kiss to the Kennedys, as New York considers out-Cameloting Massachusetts, if that seems possible.

In her piece, she provides a weak defense of New York’s widely-ridiculed move to potentially hand Caroline Kennedy a House of Lords peerage (oops, I mean US Senate seat, if any distinction remains) entirely for hereditary reasons:

What’s she done? Graduated Harvard. Passed the bar. Moved to Park Avenue. Raised three children with Mr. Schlossberg. Wrote two scholarly books about the Supreme Court. Published nostalgic collections: “My Favorite Poetry for Children,” “The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” “A Family Christmas.” Those who pine for a idealized time when parents actually read poetry to children who like it would love all three. I did.

She does the Kennedy Profile in Courage Awards, typically given to politicians who do something on principle, like raise taxes, and promptly get booted from office. She raised $65 million in private funds for very needy New York City schools. Equally impressive is how she, as a beloved historic celebrity, could bring needed media attention to issues routinely ignored, like those horrific schools.

“That is no small gift,” says Democratic strategist Michael Goldman.

If she traveled to a break-your-heart South Bronx kindergarten, so would the national media. And then the nation would see.

Most of the griping over Caroline Kennedy sounds to me like jealous whining. Oh, it’s so unfair: The noblesse oblige sweeps in, and wins. Well, I’d vote for her in a second. Plus, we could use a bit more of the high-minded and earnest in D.C. these days, no?

So what? She’s not the best qualified person for the job, it’s as simple as that.

But the larger issue here is how incompatible this type of stance is with long-term success in talk radio. If you don’t believe me, just ask The Felon about his morning show ratings.

As with music radio, the talk format succeeds when it plays the hits. That means discussing timely issues from a perspective that generally matches that of the audience. When this doesn’t happen, they tune out.

With this kind of ridiculously pro-Kennedy stance, Margery has become little more than a DJ offering three hours of hip-hop cuts in the middle of a country station’s programming day. On local public radio / PBS outlets, her sentiment would be eaten up. For commercial talk radio, it’s a disaster.

By contrast, Howie Carr spent the day blasting the potential move, representing both his true feelings and a recognition of talk radio’s natural constituency.

Talk radio is what it is. That’s something establishment suck-ups will never understand. You can’t force talk listeners to alter their political viewpoints any more than a Hank Williams Jr fan can be compelled to like Eminem.

Image: AP