I loved Mike McVay's column in Radio Ink yesterday. “A Lesson From Media's Barbie Era” takes a smart look at two very prominent females in the news – the aforementioned Barbie and Taylor Swift. Both are creating tons of buzz, selling untold amounts of tickets and merch, and setting the tone for our pop culture. In fact, both women are proving themselves to be bigger than life. Mike did a great job of connecting the dots.
Late yesterday, the news of Paul Reubens death was the topic of “Breaking News” and push alerts. A huge force in the late 80's among millions of Gen Xers, Reubens was better known as Pee-wee Herman, a true cult character. Reubens died of cancer at the age of 70, just days after the passing of Sinead O'Connor, another pop culture star from the same era.
Since the news of each of their deaths broke, news media outlets and social media sites have been teeming with heartfelt tributes, slathering on the accolades. And why not? Each was an immense talent in their own right, Reubens a brilliant comedian and satirist, and O'Connor as a singer, songwriter, and activist of amazing range, courage, and depth.
And yet for both, their careers for all intents and purposes ended tragically, due in part to the choices each made and the reaction of media and society. By now you likely know the stories behind their respective demises.
For O'Connor, it was a musical appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in October of 1992. She tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II, declaring “Fight the real enemy.” It was a shot in protest of sexual abuse in the Catholic church – and she paid the price for what was considered at the time, an outrageous, gross stunt.
“SNL's” Lorne Michaels declared a lifetime ban of O'Connor, and many took her to task, including even Madonna, no stranger to attention getting stunts on live TV of her own.
O'Connor's career would never recover. Despite being right, she was a constant victim of jokes, vitriol, and ridicule. She passed away last week at 56.
Reubens had a massive TV hit with his “Pee-wee's Playhouse.” The whacked-out show aired on CBS on Saturday mornings between 1986 and 1991, after his hit movie “Pee-wee Big Adventure.” Here's the show's theme song:
Reubens was brilliant, outrageously funny, and cult hero to millions…until he was arrested in a Sarasota, Florida adult movie theater on an indecent exposure charge.
While Reubens resumed his career after shedding the Pee-wee Herman persona, that incident in Florida stayed with him, limiting his stardom.
The deaths of both O'Connor and Reubens just days apart made me think about other talented radio stars who were often misunderstood or simply are unable to overcome an unfortunate decision or incident.
Don Imus comes to mind, a big star on WNBC in New York until drugs, his lifestyle, and his brash comments chased him to Cleveland. Of course, he returned to WNBC, and later found immense fame on WFAN.
Jim Ladd is another immensely talented star whose adherence to playing the music he wants to play no doubt cost him career stability and compensation. Always a rebel, Jim has always been a man of conviction, no matter the cost.
And more recently, the dynamic WFAN personality Craig Carton, convicted of wire and securities fraud. After serving a year in prison, Carton was released in 2020, and then rejoined the station. His career survived the momentary legal glitch and Carton has now been hired by Fox Sports 1.
And I'm sure most of you can think of other capable radio personalities who have been punished for their free spirits or who unfortunately found themselves out of work or even unemployable due to a questionable decision or simply going against the grain.
As radio pros behind the mic or behind the scenes know all too well, some of the most talented personalities can be unmanageable, incorrigible, or simply a handful.
Yesterday, this year's inductees for the Radio Hall of Fame were announced. Among the air personalities in that august group, I'm proud to count John DeBella and Bob Rivers as pros I've had the honor to work with. (I'm also thrilled for native Detroiter, Pat St. John, who also made the HoF cut this year.)
I'm sure that when DeBella and Rivers look back on their careers, they remember the glory days, but also the rough patches; those moments when someone in management took a chance on them, despite the odds, the research, and even common sense.
The passings of O'Connor and Reubens are especially sad because we were deprived of their talents, and they likely suffered the cost of their sullied images and the media fallout that followed.
It's a reminder to all of us tasked with discovering, nurturing, and trying to bring out the best in talent to be more tolerant and understanding, especially in the face of adversity.
It is their rebellious spirit that makes them popular and enigmatic. We need to respect that, and help them navigate the inevitable rough waters that accompany every high-profile career.
Every great personality plying their trade on the broadcast radio airwaves needs all the help, understanding, support, and empathy we can give them.
Thanks to “the posse,” Steve Goldstein, Tom Bender, and Buzz Knight.