A Tough Business

“The television business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

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Hunter S. Thompson 

The quote above is often attributed to Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who frequently denied he was a journalist at all.  Whether or not he said it isn’t necessarily the point; whether or not it was said to describe the television business, or music business, or radio business isn’t necessarily the point either.  Hell, you could be nodding in affirmation as you read it at your desk in the finance world, or the world of politics or sales or law or….well, now you do get the point. 

For decades, I’ve heard the quote used to explain just how challenging (Competitive? Frustrating? Morally bankrupt?) the broadcast journalism business is.  Two recent events have hammered home that most glaring truth: broadcasting is a rough business, kids.

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Just over twenty-four hours ago, social networks began picking up rumors that a long-time host of one of Providence’s talk stations was about to be let go, replaced with another, just as well-known, host.  The fire-ee* was Helen Glover.  The replace-ee* was Ron St. Pierre. 

….and the rumors turned out to be true.

The business is small enough as it is: if you’ve spent five to ten years in the broadcast journalism field, you could be introduced to a colleague whom you’ve never met in a city halfway across the country, and in a matter of minutes you’d be discussing shared co-workers, bosses and the latest gossip involving both.   Workers in the same city are even more intimate (and yes, I also mean intimate in the –shall we say- physical sense: long, stressful hours, close proximity, egos that need to be stroked, believe me when I say it creates and atmosphere that is conducive to….well, that’s fodder for another column).  Suffice to say we work, socialize and compete together. 

We also know whose job is not secure, who might be up for a promotion and –sometimes- who is going to be fired, even before the firing takes place. 

This was not the case yesterday, at least as far as I was concerned.

Helen was a former competitor (I used to co-host a morning show directly opposite her) who became a friend.  Ron was a former colleague who also became a friend.  A short time after I was let go (I told you it’s a rough business) Helen and her boss reached out and offered me a chance to provide some vacation relief for her.  I had a blast, the feedback was positive, and I looked forward to filling in again.  Unfortunately, I was job hunting in Atlanta when the second vacation relief request came.  No big deal, Helen’s boss said, he’d ask Ron, who had just been let go from our former station (see: business, rough). 

Apparently, Ron did a good enough job to prevent Helen’s boss from calling me again.

Apparently, Ron did a great enough job to allow Helen’s boss to ask him to replace her. 

The replacement request was completely understandable, as Ron is a Rhode Island Hall of Fame broadcaster (yup, there actually is such a thing).  His middle-of-the-road politics will provide an alternative to the libertarian/conservative leaning Helen, whose audience –though passionate- didn’t grow to the extent station owners expected….

….in my opinion, anyway.

Ron will succeed at WHJJ.  His quick wit, conscientious nature, and ability as a broadcaster will help him grow the audience looking for an alternative to WPRO’s morning program.  It’ll take a bit of time and his numbers may actually decrease in the short term as Helen’s listeners depart, but ‘HJJ will eventually enjoy a ratings boost and may, possibly, compete once again with the station located on Wampanoag Trail. 

Helen?  She’s made of steel.  She’ll bounce back, learn from the ‘HJJ experience and apply that education to her next endeavor….whatever it may be.

*Yup, made-up words.  But you get the idea, don’t you?

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Imagine you’re branded in your industry as a “difficult” employee.  You’re moderately successful, but everywhere you go, you leave a trail of carnage that rivals any left by a category three hurricane.  You’re intelligent, and you let everyone know it.  You’re well-known in the business, and play off any criticism of your work as petty jealousy from less well-known, less talented colleagues. 

You are Keith Olbermann. 

You are accepted into an Ivy League school at the age of 16, and, after graduation use your intelligence and drive to obtain work in markets not accustomed to seeing such youth.  You succeed, garnering numerous awards of excellence….

….but your success is combined with a prickly personality that rubs many you work with the wrong way. 

Before you can destroy too much of the good will created with your success in Los Angeles, you move to Bristol, Connecticut and become part of the most well-known SportsCenter anchor team in ESPN’s history.

And yet, years later, you’re not invited back to mark the success of that program.  In fact, you’re actually banned from ESPN’s campus. 

No matter.  You’ve moved on to ESPN’s competitor and, with your unique style and wit, achieve moderate success there, at FOX.  Yet there again you’re unable to work well with others.  Is it your request to reduce your workload for health reasons? Or your decision to report on rumors about FOX owner Rupert Murdoch’s plan to sell the Dodgers?  You’re reporting is correct, but, yet again you leave under less than pleasant circumstances.  “He’s crazy,” is how your former boss Rupert Murdoch describes you. 

But you continue to land on your feet.  MSNBC rehires you to host a political program that allows you to show off your intelligence and angry wit; the program is a success and marks you – a former sports anchor!– as a cerebral, acerbic political commentator.  You’re so successful, the network offers you a $30 million, four year contract extension.  You take it.  Hell, you’re no fool. 

And again….

…you find controversy.  You decide to donate money to political candidates – a violation of journalistic standards so egregious you’re suspended (and so basic, any first year journalism student would know enough not to do it).  On your return from suspension you announce you’re leaving the network as the network announces it’s not renewing your contract. 

So you move on, again, and sign on to work with Al Gore’s fledgling Current TV channel.  You’re hired as chief news officer and expected to host and create programming for the channel.  It doesn’t work out, and you’re fired.  Again.  Yes, you reach a settlement with Current, but the terms of the settlement are not made public, and your penchant for discord has most thinking it was just you, acting like you. Again.

But, now ESPN is calling.  And you’ve returned to Bristol, a town you once described as a “Godforsaken place” to host a new program, built around you, on one of ESPN’s many channels. 

Congrats.  Good for you. 

Perhaps this gig will last a bit longer, and end a bit better, than your last jobs. 

Meanwhile, I sit, waiting for return calls from stations in major to moderately sized cities.  I sit, looking at a resume that includes time as a Washington correspondent, as a successful anchor, producer and host.  No, I don’t have an Ivy League degree, or the experience and connections obtained by one who does have such a degree.  I have discipline, drive, intelligence, a quick wit…..

….and a nickname that came from not one, but two separate stations in which I worked: 

“The Nicest Guy In The Newsroom.”

Perhaps you and the ol’ Gonzo Journalist himself are right, after all. 

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I was worried that turning the Olbermann story to myself at the end would come across as not only self-serving, but peevish.   But you know what? I am peeved….and so are others who work hard to create a positive atmosphere in a business that is undergoing a major change.  It IS possible to succeed and make work an enjoyable place to be.  

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