Is there more to Howie’s suspension?

Howie Carr

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So maybe Howie Carr’s suspension from WRKO Radio (AM 680) is just a suspension. But let me inject some uninformed speculation into the matter. The once-great station has been running on fumes for some time. Maybe its corporate owner, Entercom, has decided to force an end game, let Carr out of his contract and turn ‘RKO into an outlet for, oh, let’s say Spanish-language infomercials.

The Boston Globe’s Erin Ailsworth reports that Carr was suspended for a week for badmouthing the station on the air — something he has done continuously since he was forced into staying in 2007. (Apparently it’s gotten worse lately.) Carr is said to be unhappy that Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved to Clear Channel’s WXKS (AM 1200), part of a national “Rush Radio” network.

Funny, but I thought one of the reasons the station replaced Rush with Republican political consultant Charley Manning was that Howie and Manning are buddies, and that Charley might keep the petulant star more or less in line. I don’t have any numbers in front of me, but Boston radio observers have long noted that this is one of Limbaugh’s worst markets. The idea of not fighting to keep Limbaugh and going with a local show struck me as pretty smart, even if Manning’s show is a work in progress.

Carr does seem to be wallowing in bitterness lately. For instance, he recently wrote in his Boston Herald column that President Obama wouldn’t have made it through college and law school if he weren’t black:

Of course, no one expects Barack Obama to really know anything. We understand, all too well, exactly how he got through Columbia and Harvard Law. He had certain … intangibles, shall we say.

That’s pretty rancid even by Howie’s standards. No, I’m not leaving anything out — the ellipses are his, not mine.

Back in 2007, Carr tried to jump to WTKK (96.9 FM), which wanted him as its morning guy. Unfortunately for Carr, he turned out to have a contract more restrictive than Curt Flood’s, and he was forced to stay.

What’s not known is whether Greater Media, which owns ‘TKK, still wants him. Morning drive is now ably helmed by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. Would ‘TKK move Jay Severin out of afternoon drive to make way for Carr?

Moreover, given the changed economic climate, it certainly seems unlikely that Greater Media would still be willing to pay Carr $7 million over five years.

The other mystery factor is how much Entercom really wants WRKO to succeed. There’s a lot of audience overlap between ‘RKO and another Entercom station, WEEI (AM 850), a sports-talk outlet that also carries the Red Sox. No doubt the company wants WRKO to make money, but not at the expense of its more-valuable sports station.

Carr is a legitimate talent, but it’s been years since he’s showed more than an occasional glimmer. His suspension comes at a time when he probably has little leverage. Maybe he’ll be back on the air in a week as though nothing happened. But you have to wonder if Entercom executives have finally decided it’s time to do something drastic about its faltering talk station.

Photo (cc) by Paul Keleher and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Original at Wikimedia Commons.

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25 thoughts on “Is there more to Howie’s suspension?

  1. BP Myers

    A longtime Howie fan, I happened to catch his show one day during October 2004 in the midst of the Red Sox improbable run to the world championship. That same time, a contentious (and ultimately successful) override debate was going on in one of the towns he drives through.

    He came out of a commercial and went into a diatribe lambasting the town that recently voted to increase its taxes, and breathlessly described a sign he saw outside the high school that he believed was in either in support of or mocking those who voted for the override. The sign read:

    “We love our idiots!”

    I cringed and had to change the station. I’m sure someone called in to correct him, but I was so embarrassed for him that I couldn’t listen. That he was so out of touch with what was going on around him (baseball fan or not) gave me an insight into just how much stock I could put in whatever else he had to say.

  2. Mike Benedict

    Wonder if Howie has ever considered his odds of making it as a radio talk show host without certain “intangibles” — white, male, etc.

  3. Bob Nelson

    If Howie were set free what about Clear Channel and Rush Radio? Granted they may not give him a huge salary but picture him at 3 pm (Hannity delayed till 6) or am drive
    (Katz shifted elsewhere or let go, though he’s a pretty good host too)

  4. John Geoghegan

    I think that he does have leverage; if Entercom fires him, he will go to TKK (he’d bring bigger numbers than what they have now); if it doesn’t, it’s a two-plus year paid vacation. When he finally moves, he’ll have plenty of publicity about his “triumphant” return. It seems to me that it’s Entercom that has its hands tied.

  5. Mary DeChillo

    Too bad Carr’s listeners aren’t in on the joke. That’s how much he and WRKO respect their listeners. The same listeners who claim not to be listened to by their “government” are the same ones taken for granted by Carr and the station. Yet, the listeners will await Carr’s return and not call him out on his disrespect of them.
    I don’t get the double standard.

  6. Michael Pahre

    If Howie Carr were to be suspended from WRKO or the Herald every time he insulted someone or resorted to childlish name-calling then he would be standing in the unemployment lines like many of the people he routinely criticizes.

    The problem is that WRKO seems to think that it’s OK for him to insult or offend everybody in the universe — except for themselves.

    I don’t pay to subscribe to the Boston Herald for the sole reason that the money would support Carr’s hate-filled speech (and, occasionally, Michael Graham’s). But that speech is part of their business plan; they would lose far more subscribers than they would gain were the Herald to drop Carr.

  7. Michael Pahre

    Oh, I forgot to add:

    That hack who hacks off hacked-up stories about hacks? Hack this!

  8. BP Myers

    @Michael Pahre says: The problem is that WRKO seems to think that it’s OK for him to insult or offend everybody in the universe — except for themselves.

    Hilarious.

    Watched a radio consultant on television the other evening posit that if the new ASCAP/Payment to artists bill passes, it will prove outrageously expensive for many faltering or low-end FM stations, who will be forced to change their formats to something other than music.

    In addition to perhaps more streaming television and other out-of-the-box ideas, he predicted it could very well usher in an era of even MORE talkradio, but surmised it might also offer an opportunity for less shrill and more reasonable voices to be heard. Time will tell.

  9. Aaron Read

    Entercom’s biggest problem is that WRKO is that it’s directional pattern at night means for half the year, they’ve got zilcho signal over the lucrative Metrowest market during prime drive-time hours. So it’s too “small” a signal to really be competitive against FM signals.

    But it’s still a 50,000 watt Class B signal that covers a huge number of people and puts a solid signal over most of the core Boston/Cambridge area.

    So it kind of demands that a “major format” be put on WRKO, not a “niche format”.

    The two major formats for large AM stations are still news/talk (mostly right-wing) and sports, two formats that WRKO can’t win with because WTKK 96.9FM and WBZ 98.5FM, respectively, have vastly superior FM signals with. Worse, WRKO can’t really do sports because it detracts from the meal ticket (WEEI 850AM).

    So WRKO is kinda screwed, in part by Entercom’s own success with WEEI.

    Worse still, Entercom could put WRKO on one of their other FM properties (WMKK 93.7 and WAAF 107.3/97.7) but neither of those signal pairings is equal to (much less “better”) than their chief competitors’ FM signals. And they’d be substituting a struggling product for a successful, profitable product in either case; WAAF does pretty well overall, and WMKK costs so little to operate that it rakes in the cash.

    If WGBH hadn’t gone news/talk, then a strategic partnership with WBUR to make WRKO an outlet for alternative NPR news/talk programming almost might’ve worked. Emphasis on “might’ve”. But that option is effectively off the table now.

    Honestly I think Entercom really only has two options: muddle along with WRKO as it is…and try to reduce costs to the point where lower revenues are still viable revenues. Or bite the bullet and switch to a niche format that lets them slash costs to the bone (a la “Mike” or a leased-time ethnic/foreign-language) and accept the huge drop in revenue because your costs have dropped equally.

    Of course, neither is exactly a palatable solution.

    I dunno. What the hell, put a Haitian/creole format on there. There’s tons of Haitian pirate radio stations, maybe they’ve figured something out?

  10. Tony Schinella

    I don’t know if Entercom is thinking about getting rid of Howie. However, I have caught his program recently and nothing I heard him say seemed any different than the past. So, why is it a big deal now? I don’t know. Maybe they just were getting sick of it and decided to hit him where it hurts or where it matters to him, in his wallet.

    For those of you who don’t know how radio works, here’s a quick, admittedly simplistic view. Most stations run about 12 to 14 minutes worth of ads an hour. They set the price based on what they can get and what they have to make for the quarter. They take the amount they need to make for the quarter and divide it by the number of spots in that same quarter, which gives them a rough idea of the rate they need to get. It gets a bit stickier when you have big “talent” like Howie because it throws the math off. But, the formula is still the same.

    In order to understand just how much money Howie makes – or how much money they lose on Howie – follow this math. Let’s say WRKO has 12 spots an hour, just to make the math easy. That’s about 12,500 ad minutes. per year for Howie’s four hours. To break even on Howie, WRKO needs to sell every single ad during his program for at least $96 ($80 to pay for Howie, with 20 percent, a guesstimate, going to the sales people). That’s breaking even on just Howie, not counting any other expenses to run the station. But for the example to understand the money, let’s just use this formula.

    There are other billable things, like live reads (“The Chump Line is sponsored by Lumber Liquidators …”), promotions, sponsorships, non-traditional revenue like the Web site, and other things, that bring in money to a radio station. But like ads in the print edition of the newspaper are the bulk of their money, so are spots for radio.

    Anyone listening to Howie’s show knows that it’s not sold out. There are PSAs running throughout the hour. Endlessly. So, the spot price is much more than $96 I would bet. In addition, Howie has a network deal, since the show is syndicated on a bunch of New England stations. So, the spots that air on multiple stations make a lot more money. At the same time, I have heard rumors over the years that the network spots have been difficult to sell. If you’re in Boston, you don’t care about some tiny audience in Maine or Keene.

    Back in the heyday, Howie was billing a pretty chunk of change. When I called to get an estimate for a potential freelance client back in 2004, it was $300. I seriously doubt that it is $300 now. But, it might be. I don’t know and I don’t know anyone who is buying spots on WRKO now so I couldn’t even guess.

    But, in many of these cases, it is about the money … $1 million is a ton of cash. It might be money for Entercom. In fact, as they have seen with their horrifically amateur, unlistenable paid programming, quality doesn’t really matter. Whoever pays plays. As advertising has dried up for everyone, they could be looking at other options.

    Here’s some other math to wonder about, especially when considering this situation. WRKO could easily get quality talk show programming that could potentially be more profitable for a lot less money. There are a lot of talk show hosts out there who can do it for them that won’t get $1 million. Here’s how that math would work.

    Say, for example, that Entercom is selling all of Howie’s spots for $100 each. They figure, well, we’re selling all the spots, paying Howie, and making $50K a year in profit (again, ignoring the other costs at the station, just to make the math easy).

    However, they could get another talk show host, say, Tony Schinella, who will do compelling air, build an audience beyond just those people who are knuckle-draggers, and he’ll do it for say $100K. Well, sure, Tony won’t be able to bill $100 a spot. But, could Tony bill $20 a spot? Probably, in the Boston market on a station like WRKO. And Tony would kill himself to make it work, let me tell you that right now …

    So, WRKO hires Tony for $100K, sells out all his spots at $20 a piece, and makes more money with Tony – $150K in profit instead of $50K with Howie – returning more revenue to the station’s bottom line and to shareholders.

    Now, I admit, this is a stretch of an example. I’m not going to replace Howie on WRKO and very few other people are either. But this is how they could be looking at it. Better to get a cheaper person and sell the rate for less money but make more money than to have an expensive person and play PSAs.

    In many cases, WRKO isn’t going to lose a ton of listeners for most of their shows. Sure, they will lose Howie’s rabid following. But studies done by Scarborough Research show that talk radio listeners rarely switch the station unlike music listeners who hear an ad and then flip the station. They have talk on all day long, even liberals, in the background, in the car, and are not often swayed to switch by the actual hosts. Sure, they can go to WTKK. But some won’t switch. There will always be listeners on WRKO no matter who is on. Will they be the same as Howie’s numbers? No. But there will be numbers there.

    On Howie calling Obama out for being an affirmative action success story, personally, I don’t have a problem with that. From all that I have seen, including an amazing Frontline documentary on Obama, this rings true. Throughout his career, Obama has used his race and oratory skills to dazzle guilty, white progressives into thinking he is one thing when, in fact, he is quite another, as shown by the way he governs. That is where the “messiah” stuff comes from. The list of his “accomplishments” before becoming a senator were weak and limited when compared to many other statesmen and women of our time. The fact that he was able to win the primary against Hillary still shocks me to this day. However, it does show that, yes, anyone can grow up and become the president, especially when given many helping hands along the way … Of course, the fact that anyone can grow up to be president is a good thing.

  11. BP Myers

    @Tony Schinella: On Howie calling Obama out for being an affirmative action success story, personally, I don’t have a. problem with that.

    Tried to be outraged about this, but you’re probably right.

    But “affirmative action” takes lots of forms, like when the inexperienced brother of a President is elected solely because of his name, or a silver spooned Lieutenant Governor is appointed to the position of Senator.

    When you’re a bumbling oilman who gets bailed out because your father is the President, and parlay your name into the office of Governor and beyond.

    Or when you’re a lawyer whose husband is the Governor, and parlay the bully pulpit of First Lady to the office of Senator and beyond (Obama’s accomplishments, affirmative action driven or not and however thin, certainly far outstripped anything Hillary ever accomplished on her own).

    So it seems to me that nepotism or family connections or family trusts provide far more “affirmative action” than affirmative action ever did, or will. And personally, I resent affirmative action success stories far less than I do the ones that came as a result of nepotism or family or money.

  12. Tom Underwood

    Amazing that a guy earning $1 million/year and claiming to be looking out for the average Joe can whine and moan about his employers. He should be kissing their feet every day to be able to sit on his butt and spew for 4 hours a day. What a baby.

  13. Tony Schinella

    @BP Myers … Anyone who knows me knows that I have been a critic of nepotism, set asides, and other crap like that for more than two decades.

    In the case of Hillary though, she accomplished a lot before she even met Bubba. She probably would have made her own way in life, I think, even if he was a nobody. Maybe not to the Senate or Secretary of State, but surely a position of stature in government somewhere, especially if she never moved to Arkansas with him.
    Not the same for Shrub, obviously, who couldn’t win a Congressional campaign even with his daddy’s name and rich friends, etc.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Tony: It’s one thing to suggest that Obama has, at times and in certain situations, benefited from being black. It’s quite another to assert, as Carr did, that Obama made it through college and law school because he’s black.

  14. BP Myers

    @Tony Schinella says: In the case of Hillary though, she accomplished a lot before she even met Bubba. She probably would have made her own way in life, I think, even if he was a nobody.

    I know she went to Wellesley and Yale Law and served on the Watergate Committee (along with Bill) and I suppose those are indeed accomplishments, though not sure that’s what you’re referring to as “a lot.”

    I will confess I’ve never been a fan, however I have been unbelievably impressed with her as Secretary of State. It seems the job she was born to do, and I’ve never seen her so natural and unaffected as she’s been in this role.

    Of course a seat on the Supreme Court would be hers for the asking, but if she doesn’t want that, I do hope she sticks around as SoS if there’s another term (at least for a while). But whatever she does, my opinion of her has skyrocketed over the last few years, for whatever that’s worth.

  15. Tony Schinella

    @BP Myers: If you read “Partners in Power” or even the other Hillary biogs, like, “Her Way,” you’ll see that she was going to be going places with or without Bubba. In fact, most of her friends believed that Bubba was going to hold her back.

    @DK: Until Obama releases his transcripts and writings, we really won’t ever know, now will we?

  16. Bill Hanna

    And Lanny, don’t forget his stint as professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. All of that at a tender age, well before he moved up to the Op Ed page of the Herald and radio stardom.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Rory: Howie probably knows more about state politics than anyone alive. He’s also a terrific writer, and a past winner of a National Magazine Award. It makes his devolution into a race-baiting old fool all the more frustrating.

  17. Sean Griffin

    And then there was this hilarious quip in his column two weeks ago:

    “I’m sure, though, that Barack does know some baseball. Anybody know who batted clean-up for the Nairobi Al Qaedas in 1973?”

  18. Steve Benjamin

    I think Tony’s radio 101 lesson was easy to understand, but a little oversimplified and based on a couple of faulty assumptions. While much of what he said makes sense, also consider the following:

    1. While the margins of stations like WRKO have certainly taken a hit in the economic downturn, they are not so tight that the talent contracts make the station unprofitable. As a rule of thumb, you could estimate that the talent cost of an AM or PM drive show would never exceed 25% of the gross revenue in the daypart. WRKO does not “lose money” on Howie. Do they probably make less than planned and are the stakeholders disappointed? Probably.

    2. Most advertisers (at least the important ones) don’t just buy one show or one station. They buy across multiple stations/multiple dayparts in order to create a schedule that delivers their desired reach (% of target audience that hear their spot) and frequency (the average amount of times they hear it). Stations need shows like Howie because he gets big enough ratings and is the type of marquee program so that he can be the “linch-pin” that gets WRKO on the schedule. If they ditched him for The Tony Show, assuming Tony’s ratings don’t approximate Howie’s, many advertisers will simply buy another station and leave WRKO off the buy altogether.

    3. This is purely supposition, but Howie’s suspension is both a little slap on the wrist to tweak him and a strategic legal maneuver. Howie certainly has gone after ETM on many occasions and if they didn’t suspend him at some point, it would be harder for them to go after him at a later date. Note that Imus successfully settled with CBS following his incident partly because his lawyers could make the case that he had made similar comments without punishment, and thus made the “Nappy Headed Ho’s” comment with no expectation of discipline because he had never been cautioned. Maybe this is a step in ETM’s paper trail.

    That said, I would not be. surprised if Howie stays on WRKO until he rides off into the sunset.

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