By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Finneran flashback

The Boston Globe today reports that Tom Finneran is seeking a pardon from President Bush, and that four former Massachusetts governors are supporting his bid. In 2005, Harvey Silverglate explained in the Boston Phoenix why Bush should grant Finneran’s request.

I’m not sure Finneran deserves to be pardoned for the lame talk show he hosts (now co-hosts) on WRKO Radio (AM 680). But the former Massachusetts House speaker is no criminal.

Piercing talk radio

Charlie Pierce is on a talk-radio rampage. Last month he went after WTKK (96.9 FM), and specifically Don Imus, Michael Graham, Jay Severin, Laura Ingraham and Michele McPhee, whom he doesn’t actually name, referring to her only as “a woman who sounds like she’s shouting her program off the back porch of a three-decker in Revere.”

Now he’s back, targeting Tom Finneran of WRKO (AM 680) as host of “one of the lamest shows in the history of the electric radio device.”

I can’t say I disagree, except to note that McPhee doesn’t actually shout. It only seems that way.

Finneran embraces the dark side — again

You would have thought that WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Tom Finneran had learned from his last go-round. Less than three months ago, Finneran was lambasted for signing up to be a lobbyist for the state troopers union. He quickly backed off.

Now, though, Finneran, a former Massachusetts House speaker, has officially registered as a lobbyist, according to the Herald’s Jessica Heslam, and has taken on the Liquor Liability Joint Underwriting Association of Massachusetts as a client. If that sounds a little too obscure to worry about, just consider that Finneran’s new best friends will be very interested whenever there’s talk of new laws regarding underage drinking, drunken driving, liability insurance and the like. According to the organization’s Web site:

LLJUA is a liquor liability insurer of last-resort. To be eligible for coverage from LLJUA, the business owner has to be turned down for coverage in the voluntary market. LLJUA’s liquor liability insurance is available for owners of taverns, hotels, restaurants, social clubs, package stores, caterers and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages.

So, let’s see. A man staggers out of a bar, wraps his car around a telephone pole and is seriously injured. His family sues the bar, claiming the bartender should have known he was drunk and refused to serve him. Finneran the talk-show host rails against the suit, claiming that the driver should take responsibility for his actions and that tort reform is needed to prevent such frivolous lawsuits. And Finneran the lobbyist pockets another check from the organization that stands to benefit from such “reform.” Got it.

My Northeastern colleague Steve Burgard is rightly appalled (I’m thinking of renaming this blog “Husky Nation”), telling the Globe’s Carolyn Johnson, “For a serious news organization, it would be unthinkable.” Hosting a talk show may not be journalism, but it’s an activity with many resemblances to journalism. Finneran doesn’t owe his tiny band of listeners much, but he does owe them his independence.

You’d like to think that when Finneran’s expressing his opinion in his tortured, rococo syntax that his opinion isn’t bought and paid for. But it is. He should be gone. And perhaps he will be — the Herald account suggests that WRKO management is none too happy about this.

More: The Outraged Liberal has further thoughts.

Photo (cc) by Brosner, and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Boston’s talk devolution

While the focus on the talk-radio wars here and elsewhere has generally been on the dysfunctional station that is WRKO (AM 680), it seems that the real mess may be at WTKK (96.9 FM). Globe columnist Steve Bailey reports that WRKO is charging — and presumably getting — considerably more money for advertising than its rival during the all-important morning and evening commutes.

In the morning, ‘RKO’s Tom Finneran show (on which Bailey appears) is charging $400 for a 60-second ad, compared to $250 for the same ad on the syndicated “Imus in the Morning” program on ‘TKK. In the afternoon, Howie Carr (WRKO) gets $600, while Jay Severin (WTKK) lags at $350.

I imagine this needs to be taken with at least a grain of salt. In the newspaper business, ad-rate cards tend to feature more creative writing than anything you’ll find in the actual paper, and that may be true of radio as well. But Bailey’s numbers make a certain amount of sense.

Finneran, the born-again non-lobbyist, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the aging Imus’ return has essentially been a non-story. I suspect that most of Imus’ few remaining listeners found a new morning routine during his richly earned hiatus, and they’re not going back.

As for the Carr-Severin war, it’s a shame both sides can’t lose — but Carr does manage to bring intelligence, wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of Boston to the table, despite his laziness and his occasional indulgences in homophobic snickering. Severin possesses a large vocabulary, but his ranting, his mindless cheerleading on behalf of Mitt Romney and his mundane-yet-offensive insights into politics are tiresome. I’m not sure why, but Severin has become much less listenable since his return from syndication a couple of years ago. I guess listeners agree with me, given that Severin was beating Carr in the ratings before he left.

WTKK could have solved its drive-time shortcomings. Part of it wasn’t the station’s fault — Howie Carr wanted to switch and become the station’s morning host, but his contract didn’t allow him to do so. If I were running ‘TKK and had somehow found a way to land Carr, I’d have kept him in the afternoon and moved Severin to the less important mid-day slot. Then I’d have moved “Eagan and Braude,” the station’s best program, to morning drive.

Not that they asked me. But you know what? They’d be better off if they had.

One final note. Bailey also reports that the ad rates charged by the sports-talk programs on WEEI, a sister station to ‘RKO, absolutely blow away both ‘RKO and ‘TKK. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum about academic politics, the infighting between ‘RKO and ‘TKK is so fierce because the stakes are so small.

Finneran gives up lobbying

I’m pleasantly surprised that Tom Finneran chose to keep his radio talk show over lobbying. I had figured we’d be hearing any day that he was leaving WRKO. Good for him — although I don’t understand how he ever thought he could ethically do both.

Finneran jumps the shark

Tom Finneran is on the air this morning, broadcasting from the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Which means that WRKO (AM 680) has already blown it. Program director Jason Wolfe should have hired a security guard to keep Finneran away from the microphone if that’s what it took to prevent the born-again lobbyist from using the public airwaves today.

I only listened for a few minutes so I could verify that (1) Finneran was doing his show and (2) he wasn’t talking about his lobbyist deal, reported today by Frank Phillips of the Globe. So I don’t know if the matter came up earlier in the broadcast. What I do know is that this is exactly what his critics predicted would happen when Finneran was hired, amid much ballyhoo and controversy, to take the 6-to-10 a.m. slot.

I like Finneran, even if I think his reign as Massachusetts House speaker was heavy-handed and occasionally abusive. I think his conviction on obstruction-of-justice charges was a travesty. I appreciate his efforts to establish a civil, substantive tone on his radio program, “Finneran’s Forum.” But though talk-show hosts don’t owe us much, they certainly owe us their independence. Now that’s gone.

According to Phillips’ story, Finneran the lobbyist is representing the state troopers union. How on earth can Finneran the talk-show host discuss public safety if he’s in the tank to a major player?

A word about ethics: No reputable news organization would allow a journalist to do this, whether he or she is a straight-news reporter or an opinion-monger. It’s not about objectivity, something that’s undesirable in columnists and talk-show hosts alike. Rather, the principle is that your opinions can’t be bought and paid for.

Yes, I understand that the ethical standards for talk-show hosts are different from those of journalists. (No self-respecting journalist, for instance, would read advertisements, which is part of the job description for talk-show hosts.) But there are areas where the ethics of these two very different media jobs coincide, and this is one of them. If Finneran were to criticize Gov. Deval Patrick’s public-safety policies, for instance, how can we know whether his opinion is sincere or if, instead, he’s grinding the union’s axe?

It’s possible — maybe even probable — that Finneran is looking beyond his talk-radio career. The show’s been dull, and one of the main reasons is that Mr. Speaker all too often sounds like he’s trying to maintain his political viability. His ratings have been painfully low. Perhaps he and management already have an understanding that when his contract runs out, he’s going to move on.

But this is an outrage. If Finneran plans to embark on a lobbying career, let him do it today. And let someone who’s not bought and paid for take his place at WRKO.

Speedy recovery, Mr. Speaker

Best wishes to Tom Finneran, who’ll be off the air for a few weeks while he prepares to undergo and recover from surgery for prostate cancer.

Vennochi to Carr: Phone home

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi absolutely nails Howie Carr and Tom Finneran today. She writes:

Other than the late Boston city councilor Jimmy Kelly and the ailing former city councilor Dapper O’Neil, I can’t remember anything nice Carr has ever said or written about anyone.

His critiques go far beyond differences over ideology. His commentary is often rude and personal and he takes adolescent delight in mocking physical characteristics. His unflinching meanness undercuts an admirable willingness to take on the powerbrokers. But from a marketing perspective, Carr obviously knows what he’s doing, as proven by the bidding war for his services.

At the same time, Finneran’s long-winded odes to every establishment figure and cause in town cry out for an antidote. Finneran has the pol gene, which makes him congenitally unable to find fault with one of his own. Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, the Boston firefighters or the Boston police — they are all heroes no matter what.

Vennochi predicts that Carr, who’s been off the air since September, will eventually see the light and return to WRKO (AM 680), whose management has so far refused to let him out of his contract. She may be right.

I had thought that ‘RKO would eventually let Carr move to WTKK (96.9 FM) in return for huge piles of cash. But there may be no pile large enough to compensate for what ‘RKO would lose if Carr is allowed to take over the morning shift at ‘TKK and compete head to head with the likable but hapless Finneran.

Progressive talk and WRKO

AlanF has posted an entertaining account at the Daily Kos about the recent FCC hearing on localism that was held in Portland, Maine. Alan is with Save Boston’s Progressive Talk, formed last year after Clear Channel dumped syndicated liberal talk shows from two weak-signaled stations and replaced them with Latino programming. He writes:

Although progressive talk attracted a loyal following among those who managed to discover it, Clear Channel switched it off abruptly in 2006, replacing it with a Latino music format (“Rumba”). Despite the fact that Clear Channel suddenly managed to find local staff for Rumba, Rumba has done worse in the ratings than progressive talk. This pattern that has been repeated across the country.

You’d think someone would take a chance on liberal talk in Boston, wouldn’t you? I continue to think that ratings-challenged WRKO (AM 680) ought to give it a try, now that afternoon host Howie Carr is jumping to WTKK (96.9 FM) this fall. Let me play WRKO consultant for a moment and try this out on you:

  • Steal Jim Braude and Margery Eagan from WTKK and put them on in the morning against Carr, who’s slotted to be the ‘TKK morning guy. Braude is the only liberal radio host in Boston; Eagan is a moderate. They’ve also got a breezy style that’s better suited to the morning drive than Howie’s sneering putdowns.
  • Move Tom Finneran from morning to afternoon drive and pair him with a liberal co-host. Instead of competing with the lazy but talented Carr, he’d be competing with the foul-mouthed libertarian Jay Severin. I don’t know who’d win that one, but my guess is that Finneran and company, by focusing on local issues, would at least hold their own.
  • Develop a new local show for the 10 a.m.-to-noon slot to go up against whatever ‘TKK is running. I’m guessing that’s where Michael Graham will land once Howie arrives, and if you can’t compete with Graham’s yipping, upper-octave rants about illegal immigrants, you can’t compete.
  • Now, here’s a tricky one. I’d definitely put syndicated liberal host Ed Schultz in the noon-to-3 p.m. segment. But Schultz works best as a counterweight to Rush Limbaugh, whom ‘RKO would be replacing. I say go with Schultz and hope ‘TKK management is stupid enough to pick up Limbaugh, a ratings monster nationwide but not here.
  • From 7 p.m. on, it doesn’t matter all that much, especially since WRKO carries the Red Sox. I guess I’d run Stephanie Miller‘s syndicated show from 7 to 10 p.m. on nights when the Sox aren’t playing. She’d be up against Bill O’Reilly — not a problem in this market.

Now look at that. I’ve solved all of WRKO’s problems, and it only took me 20 minutes. What do you think, Brian? Next?

WRKO’s long, painful decline

Because I’m on the wrong side of 50, you’ll have to indulge me for a few moments as I remember what WRKO Radio (AM 680) used to be. Twenty years ago, you had Janet Jeghelian and Ted O’Brien in the morning, Gene Burns during the midday and the late, great Jerry Williams in the afternoon. Jeghelian and O’Brien later gave way to Marjorie Clapprood and Pat Whitley without missing a beat. It was great radio, and you really weren’t tempted to change the station at any point during the day.

Now? Howie Carr is a pipsqueak compared to those towering figures, but at least he has some ties to that golden era. It was Williams, after all, who gave him his start. And Carr is a huge talent, even if he’s squandered it over the years, devolving into a homophobic race-baiter with a lazy show that usually sounds like it took all of five minutes to put together.

Even so, Carr is really all WRKO has. Now, with Carr leaving this October for WTKK (96.9 FM) — a deal we have to assume will come to fruition, despite some contract hassles — the folks at Entercom might as well turn out the lights, especially once baseball season is over.

(Disclosure: I was a regular paid guest on a late-morning show hosted by Whitley a few years ago, and one Saturday picked up a few bucks hosting a liberal program ‘RKO was then running. However, despite what N. thinks, I never had any sort of tryout at ‘RKO or any other radio station.)

The Herald, of course, is firmly in Howie’s camp, as he is the tabloid’s star columnist. But I wonder if Carr will be tempted to stop writing, or at least to cut back. A morning drive-time show typically is more heavily produced than an afternoon show, with guests and interviews. Maybe he thinks he can wing it. But if he’s going to justify the money ‘TKK is paying him, he’ll need to work harder than he has at ‘RKO in recent years.

Still, I’d rather have ‘TKK’s problems than ‘RKO’s. By far the two most important segments of the day are the morning and afternoon commutes. Consider:

  • In the morning, Carr will compete against former Massachusetts House speaker Tom Finneran. As I told the Globe’s Carolyn Johnson, ‘RKO has already done much of ‘TKK’s promotional work by playing Finneran’s hiring earlier this year as a phony feud between the two men. My heart’s with Finneran, but my head is with Carr. Howie is going to beat the overly loquacious Finneran like a drum.
  • In the afternoon, Jay Severin will have a clear field. Severin was actually ahead of Carr in the ratings a few years ago, then left to go national. Severin hasn’t been able to duplicate that feat since his return, but now he’ll have no competition.

As much of a coup as this is for WTKK, I would argue that station managers made a mistake by not giving the morning show to Margery Eagan and Jim Braude, who are on from noon to 3 p.m. Two can be better than one in the morning, and I think they’d do a better job of handling the fast pace, the guest interviews and the like that are characteristic of a good show in that time slot.

And what of the state of talk radio in Boston? Not good. With Paul Sullivan having semi-retired from WBZ (AM 1030) in order to take care of his health, by far the best talk-show host in Boston now is Tom Ashbrook, of “On Point,” on WBUR (90.9 FM). Ashbrook is very good indeed, but “On Point” is more of an interview program than it is a talk show; and because it’s syndicated by NPR, there’s not much local flavor. I’d love to see Christopher Lydon take Sullivan’s slot on WBZ, but, frankly, I can’t imagine its happening.

This would be a great opportunity for WRKO to try liberal talk, despite its long-term commitment to Finneran, a moderate conservative. Pair Finneran with a liberal co-host; run Stephanie Miller‘s and Ed Schultz‘s syndicated shows during the midday; and then come back with a talented liberal local host during the afternoon drive, and ‘RKO would have something with which to counter ‘TKK’s mostly right-wing lineup.

But I suppose that would make too much sense.

Howie Carr photo (cc) by Paul Keleher. Some rights reserved.

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