How was your day yesterday?
OK, I'll go first.
A couple of bright spots, a piece of bad news, and another day in a large, mostly vacant office. I have it a lot better than many people out there. And I'm thankful for that.
But my day wasn't as good as what Charlemagne tha God and Howard Stern were celebrating. Within seconds, the push notifications flashed on my phone. First, the news that Howard re-signed with SiriusXM for five years – an agreement that surprised absolutely no one. The “drama” between Stern and his employer was mostly publicity jousting. Howard seems to be as happy with SiriusXM as he's ever been since getting into radio. He's now been with the satellite radio network since 2006, leaving a void in terrestrial morning radio that has remained unfilled.
And then it was the announcement from iHeart they've re-inked Charlamagne Tha God for – yes, five years. This is on the heels of an amazing decade for “The Breakfast Club” on New York's Power 105, also heard on radio stations all over the U.S.
There will be a lot of justifiable celebrating in both their homes this holiday season. Each is at the top of their respective games, continuing to do great radio during these crazy times.
For Stern, yesterday's show is a great example. He didn't just play John Lennon and Beatles songs. He and his partner, Robin Quivers, shared stories and talked about Lennon‘s outsized impact on all of us. Here's a quote from Howard:
“In my lifetime, there has been no more important figure in our culture, in our world, than John Lennon.”
The show also replayed archived audio from Gary Dell'Abate's coverage of Lennon's assassination while an intern at WLIR on Long Island.
And then there's Charlamagne Tha God. I got to see him and his co-hosts, Angela Yee and DJ Envy at “Morning Show Boot Camp” last year. This show has become a must-stop for key players in the political world. In recent months, “The Breakfast Club” has interviewed key Democratic candidates, along with guests that include Dr. Fauci and President Obama.
But it was Charlamagne interviewing then-candidate Joe Biden last May that stood out. If there's a sizzle reel of radio's greatest hits from 2020, this was the moment. Biden famously (and arrogantly) declared,
“Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.”
Charlamagne called him out, and the interview became the lead story across America – and the world. And in many ways, the gaffe seemed to temper Biden moving forward, forcing him to be more thoughtful and aware.
As we know, his choice for Veep turned out to be a Black woman. And I'm sure that every time the President-Elect names a new Black cabinet member – an almost daily occurrence – Charlamagne is nodding his head.
The “Breakfast Club” is compelling, contemporary, relevant, and cool (yes, there's a word we don't often hear when most people are talking about broadcast radio personalities).
So, there was deservedly much joy for both of these shows yesterday. Not surprisingly, Stern and Charlamange paid tribute to their teams and their ownership.
But in other corners of “Radioville” – especially on the broadcast side of the spectrum – there's not a whole lot of happiness, wealth, and accolades.
That may have been crystalized last month when Mancow Mueller hung up his headphones and left the airwaves at WLS-AM in Chicago. Here was his killer quote to Windy City media maven, Robert Feder:
“Much of the enjoyment I had left doing radio has been sucked out of it. Alone in an office building with no guests and endless rules is not my idea of a creative process. . . . For me, no interaction has been the radio kiss of death. Talking during this political season and hearing endless tales of woe from my listeners has been radio without joy.”
That's a pretty sharp contrast to what Charlamagne and Howard effusively said about their line of work.
Mancow's “radio without joy” statement has resonated throughout the industry. Since declaring his retirement (at least for now), I've heard this quote many times in radio circles.
Sometimes it's been in the context of “Can you believe this guy?” Compared to many plying their craft in radio these days, Mancow's W2 will be bigger this year than most of theirs. Since coming to Chicago to take over mornings at Rock 103.5 in 1994, ‘Cow has had a great run.
But a lack of joy?
Obviously, COVID has played a role in Mancow's growing disaffection. The politics of 2020 has factored in as well.
But for many in radio, love Mancow or abhor him (and it's usually one or the other), his words hit home.
It may be true that Mancow's last pay stub was a shadow of what he was earning a couple decades ago. But in thinking about his words of frustration to Feder, it sounds like much more than money. I could hear him making that heartfelt statement with a total ring of truth. This is a guy who wears his emotions – you know what he's thinking.
It has been an excruciatingly difficult year in which to be on the air, whether you're in Chicago, Cleveland, or Chattanooga.
And while emotions in America continue to run hot, and radio has been an essential player throughout the pandemic, the rigors of broadcasting from home, occupying a virtually vacant radio studio, seeing sparse commercial logs, or participating in seemingly endless Zoom meetings has taken its toll.
I was lucky to be a part of the Rock 103.5 team with Jimmy de Castro, David Richards, Lou Brutus, Jo Robinson, and yes, Mancow, when the station took Chicago by storm in the mid-'90s.
Mancow was a huge part of Rock 103.5's success, facing up and brazenly taking on Stern – something that just wasn't done back then.
I can tell you that every time I visited the station, my visits were punctuated by Mancow enthusiastically bursting in the room, welcoming me (sort of), and then “the grilling.”
Who had I heard on the airwaves that was killing it?
What trends were going on out there he needed to know about?
What other radio personalities were having an impact and what were they doing?
It was a whirling dervish of questions, statements, and humor – all reminders this was an engaged, pumped up entertainer trying to get better at his game.
Yes, there was plenty of it back then, even though Mancow's rotation of teammates and others in Chicago radio might have a slightly different story to tell.
So that brings us to the bitter end of 2020. And in the midst of these truly joyous announcements from SiriusXM and iHeart about the next five years of projects and profits from Stern and Charlamange, what about everyone else?
I suspect that as we get even closer to 2020’s brutal finish line, there will be more retirement announcements – some forced by companies, but others by choice. For personalities with long runs, the decision to call it a career in the next there weeks becomes an easier one to make.
I'm thinking there won't be any holiday parties this year. Cash bonuses will be scarce, or perhaps even non-existent. Most radio employees will be lucky to receive that traditional Christmas ham.
And that's a shame. Because in a year with precious little joy, those who have been on radio's front lines – its talent – have faced hardships, layoffs, and other pitfalls that have made it exceedingly more difficult to squeeze the joy out of their jobs.
This, in spite of the fact that so many have brought so much joy to their listeners, their advertisers, and their communities.
Supporting local businesses, pulling off amazing radiothons and fundraisers, and simply being a friendly voice during difficult times – that's been quite an accomplishment this year.
A virtual hug and a sincere thank-you at the end of this year might not help anyone's bank account or job security, but it will be meaningful.
So to all of you on the airwaves, thank you for all you've done for radio this year – on and off the air. We may look back at these times, and come to realize just how much of a difference you made.
Joy to the world.
Joy to you and me.