“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
The truth of the matter is that there is no real definitive proof of 19th century circus owner and showman P.T. Barnum ever uttering that oft-quoted phrase attributed to him. That’s too bad, because it’s brilliant. It’s also a perfect descriptive phrase for a 21st century industry that can only be described as a circus: talk radio.
It takes a different kind of person to be a talk radio host. Intelligent, witty and insightful; thick skinned enough to handle criticism, thin-skinned enough to internalize such criticism and use it to self-motivate; disciplined, outrageous, charismatic….
…and just a little bit insane.
By now you know the story of John DePetro’s latest brush with publicity. The talk-show host characterized female union protesters at a late September Gina Raimondo fundraising rally as parasites, union hags and whores. Union members, who have frequently been at odds with DePetro’s anti-union diatribes sensed an opportunity and pounced. They created an online campaign (at http://www.forourdaughtersri.org) geared at shaming Alex and Ani, a sponsor of DePetro’s show, saying the successful Rhode Island based jewelry manufacturer’s support of the program violates the jeweler’s mission statement of “…a positive message.” Very quickly, thousands of people signed the online petition against the program. Just as quickly, pols –including United States Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse along with Governor Lincoln Chafee – announced they’d not go on any WPRO talk show as a declaration of support for the petition.
It’s not the first time DePetro has engaged in what some consider misogynistic behavior. The Forourdaughters website describes a litany of such actions, beginning with his 2006 suggestion that a woman was to blame for her rape and murder in New York. Also in 2006 he was fired from a Boston talk station after describing a female gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts as a “fat lesbian”; in 2008 ratings agency Arbitron downgraded DePetro’s ratings numbers after it was determined six ratings diaries were submitted from his house…he blamed his wife for the mistake (WPRO station manager blamed her as well and went so far as to send a press release out saying as much); in 2012 he faced allegations that he sexually harassed a coworker at WPRO. The Boston Herald, in the 2008 ratings contretemps, described him as a “controversy-dogged talkmeister.”
He’s not alone. Talk show hosts (see “insane” above) have long walked the line between good taste, intelligent discourse…
…and puerile name-calling.
Glen Beck claimed Barack Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people…”; according to Michael Savage Hillary Clinton hates white people, too; liberal talk show host Mike Malloy apparently wants Tea Party members beheaded; Rush Limbaugh called a birth control activist a slut; Don Imus lost his gig at MSNBC for calling the female basketball team at Rutgers a bunch of “nappy headed hos.”
And I used to work in this industry?
I need to take a shower.
Full disclosure here: I was a broadcast journalist with –what I considered- an impressive background. I was more than a mere local anchor – I was a national correspondent who reported live from the White House and the Capitol for a television station group. When I was approached by WPRO in 2011 to co-host a new morning show (and replace DePetro) I told executives that I wasn’t a shock-host and would love to act as a journalist along with my co-host. The show didn’t work out and two years later the station went, as they say, in a different direction.
DePetro, who survived the litany of events listed above, looks as if he’ll survive this one, too. A station source I spoke with said he is expected to return very soon. Via text, DePetro declined comment today (Sunday, December 15th) but in an email this afternoon, suggested I “…swing by the Trail this week.”
“You’ll be back on?” I asked him.
“You know the drill.” He responded, “All questions to Craig.”
Craig Schwalb is WPRO’s program director. A text from him about the issue today said simply, “Decline to comment.”
Talk radio in Providence, and across New England for that matter, has seen better days. Years ago, local ownership groups did their best to present a local presence on air; today, it’s far different. Nationally syndicated programs like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and a host of others are less expensive to air in local markets than, say, a former local politician or personality trying to bring attention to local issues. Boston, Providence and Worcester, considered larger markets, still work to produce local programs, but ownership groups looking to the bottom line are hard pressed to hire staff to fill a three hour daily show, when they need only flip a switch for a national program that potential clients are familiar with.
Holland Cooke, a national talk radio consultant based in Rhode Island, says talk show hosts have become, “a caricature, a punchline….it’s monologue without dialogue.” He says he works mainly with stations in smaller markets but was recently hired to consult for former powerhouse WRKO in Boston. “It’s too soon for me to take the blame or credit for anything going on there,” he points out, but says the station should look to engage its listeners far more than they have in the past. “Engagement,” he says speaking like a true consultant, “is the buzzword you keep hearing.”
It’s difficult to be engaged with local listeners when hosts broadcast from New York or Washington or, heck, Florida (which is where Limbaugh hosts his shows). WPRO, to its credit, continues to produce local talk shows through the day; WHJJ has just one local program; WTAG in Worcester has two such programs. Boston talk –actually most of New England talk- is now dominated by sportstalk, and why wouldn’t it be with the success of the Sox, Pats, Bruins and Celtics? WBZ in Boston does a superlative job in producing news updates through the day and presents a middle-of the road talk show in the early evening. NPR affiliates across New England pick up the national programs from NPR but, even though a few of them are produced in Boston, they tend not to touch on local issues.
Which brings us back to DePetro.
If, as expected, he returns to work this week, what is to become of those 71 pols who signed the petition saying they’d never appear on WPRO again? “He doesn’t do a lot of radio interviews,” says Amy Kempe, the spokesperson for Rhode Island’s Attorney General. Peter Kilmartin, she points out, has long refused to go on DePetro’s shows. “It was a decision he made because of John’s attacks and efforts to get a rise out of guests without a public discussion.” That, likely, won’t change. Other pols have said they’d speak on ‘PRO’s other programs, which I am sure thrills station management and those other hosts.
Finally, once DePetro takes his place behind a microphone in the studios along Wampanoag Trail, the publicity this petition gave the shock-host is sure to garner him more listeners.
Somewhere, PT Barnum is smiling at this ongoing circus.