Spring Cleaning

Today is Soapbox Day, a great day, a day when I get to tell the local media suits why I am so smart and they are so dumb. It is, in fact, my favorite day of the year, with the exception of the rarely celebrated Box Day, a discussion of which is really more appropriate on pages 148 and 149.

Today we will concentrate on three issues in local talk radio, as that is where most of the wrongheaded conventional wisdom is found these days. We will look at the format's quickly changing landscape, and we will conclude that the more things change, the more they resemble 1992. We will also become depressed that lessons are never learned, that failures are often repeated, and that no one has yet put the author of this column on the air and lavished him with a six-figure salary.

Wrongheaded thought No. 1: KLIF's new talk dude from 2-6 p.m., Tom Kamb, is a latter-day Freddy Mertz.

In 1992, I received a call from a furious man who had just been fired after two months on the air. Freddy Mertz--a loud, obnoxious host who replaced the genteel, liberal Bob Ray Sanders--had, he said, been fired for doing "exactly what I was hired to do." Mertz had berated callers, conducted interviews in-studio with topless strippers, and generally done everything he could to get attention save standing on Central Expressway with a placard hanging from his penis. During our conversation, he ranted for an hour, ending the call with a scary, desperate plea--"They can't do this. I need to be on the air."

What I couldn't tell him, because I am a wussie, is that he was fired because he was witless and derivative. Now, eight years later, I was convinced that KLIF had made the same mistake again with its hiring of former Denver and San Fran right-wing host Tom Kamb, whose on-air manner reminds one of Lee Ermey without the charm. To be sure, I tuned into the show this week. Shortly before I suffered a stroke from fear of having to listen to another segment, I heard Kamb intentionally misconstrue a caller's point about minority appointments in the Bush administration so he could scream at him for a solid minute. Given that he had already been suspended for one show for calling a listener an "asshole" and a "jerk-off," I was convinced that his days here would be numbered, even at a station that now gets tremendously low ratings.

I have since reconsidered, and now I think he may have a chance to stick, for several reasons. One, I have a habit of being turned off by bombastic on-air talents only to become a fan eventually. I didn't like Howard Stern or the Hardline when those shows first aired, and I eventually became big fans of each. It's quite possible he'll grow on me, so I need to give him more time. Two, I have my doubts as to how angry management really was with Kamb over his name-calling. KLIF program director Jeff Hillery assured me the suspension was real. Kevin McCarthy says Kamb's "emotional state convinced me it wasn't a stunt. I think management was really pissed at him, and he refused to apologize." But someone else at the station whom I trust told me flat-out, "It was all a stunt. They were really mad, and so was he, but the way they handled it was a stunt." Which makes sense: Why would Hillery, who worked with Kamb in Denver, be offended by his shtick? And even if management were angry, they had to love the local press the incident generated.

"Everything here is under review, because we're in something like 27th place right now," Hillery says. "But Tom Kamb is a major-market talent who is passionate and opinionated, and I think he'll succeed here."

For his part, Kamb has at least given KLIF something it desperately needed: a chance at ratings success. McCarthy, given every chance to bash Kamb off the record, said he thinks Kamb is good news for KLIF. "I really believe Tom Kamb is going to be KLIF's version of Howard Cosell. You may love him or hate him, but you'll want to tune in to hear what he's up to next."

Wrongheaded thought No. 2: The dual whammy of ESPN radio and Howard Stern coming to the Dallas FM dial will kill The Ticket.

Make no mistake: Management folk at KTCK-AM 1310 are fuh-reaking out about this spring's planned dual assault on the guy-talk station. The rumble is that ESPN's new all-sports station (at 103.3 FM) and Howard Stern's return (this time on 105.3 FM) to the Dallas airwaves, each of which is set to occur early next year, will pull listeners away from The Ticket in bunches, especially from George Dunham and Craig Miller's morning drive-time show. Those who want hard-core sports news, it is assumed, will check out ESPN; those who prefer talk of T&A and news of the weird will move to Stern. The radio wags also point out that the success of Russ Martin, who has drawn terrific ratings while holding down the morning-show fort until Stern arrives, doesn't bode well for the Hardline, which will now go up against Martin's show when it moves to afternoon drive.

All of which makes sense on the surface. Dunham and Miller's show, you may recall, got a big ratings boost after KEGL-FM 97.1 dropped Stern's show in 1997. In trying to have it both ways--mixing guy talk with sports talk--the theory that folks who prefer one or the other are ripe to leave has merit. Not to mention the stronger FM signal, the fact that ESPN carries weight with sports teams and players, and that they have tremendous marketing budgets. There is no doubt this is The Ticket's winter of discontent in anticipation of the big spring battle.

I really believe, though, that this will make The Ticket stronger, not weaker. I think the shows have gotten too pat, too predictable, too reliant on replaying bits and tossing off a we've-made-it attitude. I think the competition will cause the station to focus on local sports to distinguish it from ESPN and tighten the running soap opera that gets guys to tune in day after day. Stern will succeed, Martin will succeed, and ESPN will be a major player here. But to paraphrase the Hardline's Greg Williams, this is big-market, big-time radio. There is room for more than one kitten at the big cat's teat. As one radio vet says, "It's going to be a test for The Ticket, sure. A big one. But history suggests these guys will rise to the occasion."

Wrongheaded thought No. 3: That it will take a six-figure salary to sign me up for a talk show.

C'mon, media barons, pony up. Daddy needs a fat contract. You want to take another whipping on the next Soapbox Day?

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste