Thursday, March 03, 2011

About Fred's Departure

When former Congressman (and "Love Boat") star Fred Grandy recently resigned as morning drive host at WMAL radio in Washington, he was instantly cast as a victim of political correctness. Mr. Grandy routinely discussed the rising influence of Sharia law in America on his program, often during Friday morning segments with his wife, former Entertainment Tonight reporter Catherine Mann. That raised the ire of various Muslim groups.

And lest we forget, WMAL is the same station that dismissed talk show host Michael Graham back in 2005, under pressure from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). So, when Mr. Grandy announced Wednesday morning that he could no longer discuss "radical Islamic topics" on the air--and when he stepped down a few hours later--many saw the heavy hand of CAIR at work.

But in reality, Mr. Grandy's departure is more about money, politics and the radio business. It's a particularly toxic combination, particularly when the numbers are aligned against you.

Let's start with the radio business. Once upon a time, WMAL dominated the radio ratings in Washington. The station's morning team of Frank Harden and the late Jackson Weaver ruled the roost for more than 20 years, and the rest of WMAL's line-up pulled strong ratings as well. For the better part of three decades, WMAL was a veritable cash machine, one reason that ABC shelled out $16 million for the station--then a record for a broadcast property--in 1976.

But over the years, WMAL began to lose much of its audience. The rising popularity of FM stations was part of the problem. So was the departure of many WMAL personalities. Legendary evening jazz DJ Felix Grant left in the mid-80s and Jackson Weaver passed away in 1992. Other long-time personalities either retired or were forced out, and the station began losing some of its cachet. Frank Harden soldiered on with new co-hosts in the morning slot until 1998, but it was never quite the same.

More recently, WMAL has become a conservative talk station, featuring nationally-syndicated hosts like Rush, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. Fred Grandy joined the station in 2003, co-anchoring the morning show with WMAL veteran Andy Parks, who began as Harden and Weaver's traffic reporter.

But the combination never really clicked with listeners. Between the two of them, "Grandy and Andy" earned over $500,000 a year (Fred's contract along was reportedly worth more than $300,000 annually), but their show barely cracked the top 10 in morning drive--prime time for radio. In other words, WMAL and its corporate parent, Citadel Communications, weren't maximizing their profits in the most important time slot of the day. In response, Andy Parks was forced out last year, after 25 years at the station. Grandy continued, but there were rumors that his days were numbered as well.

Andy Parks's departure was engineered by Drew Hayes, program director of WLS, the Citadel-owned talk station in Chicago. With WLS on solid ground, Hayes also began supervising WMAL, with an eye towards making changes. When he ordered Grandy to tone down the talk about Islamic radicalism, WMAL was mired in 14th place in the market, and the morning show wasn't doing much better.

With his edict, Mr. Hayes created conditions he knew Grandy would find intolerable, setting the stage for Fred's departure. Hayes clearly believes the morning show can achieve similar--or even better--results without Grandy's expensive contract, and improve the station's bottom line. Did we mention that Citadel, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year, is in merger talks with rival Cumulus and solving a "problem" at a key station can help sweeten the pot, even a little bit?

Besides, those Friday morning rants of Grandy and his wife pale in comparison to those of mid-morning host Chris Plante, who favors a no-holds-barred approach in discussing the threat of radical Islam. Plante was fired once before by WMAL, but he returned to the airwaves after Joe Scarborough's syndicated show bombed. Some DC radio insiders believe that Mr. Plante, the son of CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante, will eventually inherit the morning show on WMAL. Even with a raise for the morning show, his salary will still be well below what Fred Grandy was paid.

And don't feel too sorry for the former Congressman. In an interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb more than a year ago, Mr. Grandy expressed interest in a "later" time slot, allowing him to escape the grind of early-morning radio. Other reports suggested that Grandy wanted out of his contract sometime this year, perhaps in preparation for another run for political office in his home state of Iowa. With WMAL behind him, his political options are open once again.

So, you might say that everyone in this sordid affair got what they wanted. Fred Grandy found an exit from WMAL, while the station jettisoned a very expensive talent that wasn't adding much to the bottom line. In a few weeks, Citadel management will announce a new a.m. drive host, and the cycle will begin anew. Fact is, WMAL has been looking for a winning morning combination since Jackson Weaver died almost 20 years ago. That search continues, while a legendary station slides a little closer to irrelevance.
ADDENDUM: Some have suggested that D.C. is a tough market for conservative talk radio, given the region's heavily-liberal population. But Rush Limbaugh's program is often #4 or #5 in its time slot, quite remarkable given the middling lead-in he gets on WMAL. Meanwhile Sean Hannity's program (which airs from 3-6 pm) is another laggard, often ranking 15th in afternoon drive. Rush's success proves that conservative hosts can attract an audience on the D.C. airwaves--provided you program the right ones. Hannity's poor ratings suggest that Mr. Hayes will be making more changes in the weeks ahead.

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