There are certain subjects in the radio industry that are complicated and impossible to provide a concrete answer for. One of them is the debate of whether or not to allow an established on-air talent a final sendoff.
To understand this subject, you have to take into account many factors. Who is the company? Who are the key executives involved in the decision? Who is the personality? What type of track record do they have? Is the split amicable or hostile? Are there future consequences facing either party? Has the situation been understood thru previous conversations or did it pop up unexpectedly?
When an individual performs for a brand for a lengthy period of time, and helps a company generate strong ratings and revenues, there is a certain respect that should be given. It might be hard to remember the value and past performance of a personality who’s at odds with a company or at the center of an economic dispute, but great leaders find a way to keep the big picture in mind when emotions get high and difficult discussions unfold.
Unfortunately finding a solution that benefits everyone doesn’t always happen.
Keith Olbermann’s initial exit from ESPN was very messy. After turning SportsCenter with Dan Patrick into the most important sports show on television, and becoming a powerful presence on the network, a better sendoff should’ve been provided. I’m sure Keith was no saint to deal with during the process, but given what each party did for one another, the ending didn’t feel right, and it left millions of sports fans less excited about watching SportsCenter or Olbermann.
On the other hand, when Dan Patrick made the choice to leave ESPN Radio, the network treated his exit in classy fashion. They gave Dan weeks to host shows and say goodbye. Guests from the past were brought back, and although there may have been some tension behind closed doors, it didn’t result in issues on the airwaves.
The same was true this past January when 670 The Score sent longtime host Terry Boers into retirement. The station did a series of final goodbye shows, welcomed the audience to attend Boers’ final program, and brought back old hosts, friends and celebrities to pay their respects to Terry. Retirement is easier to manage than a host choosing to leave or a station electing to cut ties but in this particular case, it felt right and classy, and strengthened the image of both Terry and 670 The Score.
An image issue though affected ESPN 980 in Washington D.C. last month when the station chose to part ways with Andy Pollin unexpectedly after twenty five years. Pollin hosted his normal show with Steve Czaban, and when it was over, so too was his time with the station. Czaban wasn’t thrilled with the decision, but Pollin took the high road when asked for comment. Although it may have made business sense for the station to explore a new direction and part ways with the longtime popular local host, the ending left listeners confused and upset.
Could a final day or week have been created with Pollin? Did Pollin not want to do that? Was Red Zebra worried that allowing that arrangement could harm their business? Those are all fair questions which the audience never received answers to.
In San Francisco, Ralph Barbieri helped establish one of the most successful west coast sports talk shows alongside Tom Tolbert. “The Razor and Mr. T” on KNBR became the show of record for Bay Area sports fans, and when Cumulus yanked Barbieri off the air without any send off or final comments, it left many local listeners feeling robbed. I made the decision at 95.7 The Game to give Barbieri a half hour with Brandon Tierney and Eric Davis to express himself and thank local fans, and while it may have helped my station at the time, his farewell should’ve taken place on KNBR, not The Game.
The reason Barbieri never said goodbye on KNBR is because bad blood existed between him and Cumulus. Their split led to a lawsuit. While listeners may have felt betrayed for not having a chance to say goodbye to their friend on the radio, and instead hear Tolbert address the situation by himself, it made zero business sense for Cumulus to offer up air time to a host who was suing them. It was an ugly situation with no potential for a positive resolution.
Another situation that was impossible for all involved was Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s exit from WFAN. “Mike and the Mad Dog” helped build the sports talk format and it was the most important local sports radio program in the nation’s #1 market for close to two decades. People like myself made that show part of their daily routine and the industry is now flooded with professionals who were influenced to pursue this business because of Mike and Chris. To hear the show come to an end though with “Mad Dog” spending 15 minutes on a telephone saying goodbye to Mike and the audience left many in New York feeling unfulfilled.
Although it upset a lot of listeners, I can understand why CBS made that decision. Russo was leaving for SiriusXM. Howard Stern had done the same years before. To allow their airwaves to be used for promotional purposes and grant Russo access to influence the audience to follow him to his next venture made little sense. It also would’ve put Francesa in an awkward position.
Whether it’s the examples above, or others that have been handled differently from Glenn Ordway’s initial exit at WEEI, Howard Eskin’s departure from afternoons on WIP, or Tony Kornheiser and Colin Cowherd’s sign off from ESPN Radio, when these situations occur, the listener is almost always going to rally around the on-air talent. They could care less about the business consequences or the trouble behind closed doors, they simply want to hear the personality they’ve invested their time in, and any company standing in their way of hearing what they want, is going to experience their wrath.
While it may not be popular, business isn’t always going to be pretty. Whether it feels right or not, difficult decisions sometimes have to be made, and providing a silver lining to a tough situation isn’t always an option.
I’m sure there are some executives who fail to think things through, and allow the intensity of a current situation to cloud their judgment. It’s easy to lose sight of what someone has meant personally and professionally to a company, when you’re engaged in a bitter dispute. Rather than sucking it up and doing the right thing for the audience and all involved, the need to win the battle takes over.
Equally at fault can be the personality. If a company has provided nearly two decades of paychecks, air time, and respect, it’s fair to expect an individual to be appreciative and professional when bringing an important chapter of their career to a close. But rather than reflecting on where they are in their lives and how they got there, they too get caught up in winning the war. Most of time it revolves around money or a business relationship turning sour, and the on-air talent becomes less focused on exiting with grace. That then puts the company in a position where they have to make the difficult and unpopular decision to immediately cut them off.
Not every on-air talent deserves a final goodbye, and not every company is going to get burned if they offer up the airwaves to a host who is on the verge of exiting their brand. There is no rule book which outlines how to handle these situations, and a host doesn’t warrant a sendoff for time served, especially if their impact was limited. But if they’ve become an integral part of a radio station’s identity for an extended period of time, that can make their exit very tricky. Each situation has to be dealt with on a case by case basis and regardless of the direction you take, there will be people shooting arrows in your direction, second guessing your decision.
In order to better understand how these situations should be handled, I reached out to a number of successful executives who have gone through this experience during their careers. I think you’ll find their answers to be insightful and helpful and I appreciate each of them taking the time to help educate industry professionals who may find themselves caught in the middle of it one day down the road.
- Mark Chernoff – Program Director of WFAN
- Bruce Gilbert – SVP of Cumulus Sports
- Mitch Rosen – Program Director of 670 The Score
- Jeff Catlin – Program Director of Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket
- Jason Wolfe – Chief Strategist of Money Matters Radio; Former PD of WEEI
- Andy Bloom – Former Operations Manager of WIP and WPHT
When an established sports radio host is not having their contract renewed, what do you believe is the right way to handle their exit?
Chernoff: In most cases, I suggest that when the host is notified of a non-renewal that the host has already done his/her last show. Why risk any problems? Also, you wind up having listeners generally calling in with “I’ll miss you” or “I can’t believe they’d not renew you” or something like what I’ve suggested. It may be a bit painful but if it’s the station’s decision to not renew then I’d suggest just moving on.
Rosen: When in doubt tell the truth. Without providing financial details, make it simple – the station and the personality could not come to an agreement. In the press and on the air it’s communicated the same way. The simpler the better.
Wolfe: The best way to handle it is not always the easiest, but the end result should be that the station and the talent maintain a productive relationship where there are no hard feelings. If a host is not performing, or is making too much money, and the station decides that his contract is not going to be renewed the best course of action is to be upfront and honest about the reasons why. This needs to be explained to the talent, first and foremost, the station’s staff secondarily, and perhaps most importantly, the listeners. If people don’t listen to the station, we’re all out of work, so if a major decision is forthcoming, I believe that GM’s and/or PD’s should not hide behind corporate speak, but rather offer details that can help the audience understand and, hopefully, accept the decision.
Catlin: It depends on many factors; longevity, standing with the station, standing with the audience, partnership vs. solo show. I have been part of hosts leaving and being allowed to play out the string, and hosts being taken off the air at a time of management’s choosing when the host was unaware, preventing a “good bye”.
Gilbert: There is NO right way. That’s the bottom line. Every circumstance is different. I’ve seen this handled in every way imaginable and sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s a disaster, most of the times it’s clumsy because people leaving (especially “established” talent) creates disruption.
Bloom: I believe radio makes a mistake by not giving most personalities a proper send-off. The departure of a personality can be an opportunity for a finale; an occasion for a communal event and sometimes a ratings and revenue bonus. There are going to be circumstances that don’t warrant a goodbye show and people who don’t permit it as an option. When it’s possible, however, letting air talent say goodbye is the better option.
How is the situation different if a host is retiring? What do you do differently?
Chernoff: Very different. Usually “retiring” means it’s someone who has been a long-time “good” employee. Often announcing a date, scheduling special events for and around the personality makes sense. What Mitch Rosen did with Terry Boers at the Score in Chicago was terrific including bringing back many past hosts.
Rosen: Retirement says it all. Most of the time you celebrate that person’s career. Listeners love to experience party’s, final shows, and share their respects to the hosts they’ve become connected to.
Wolfe: Retirement offers a very different course of action. Long time talent who retire have presumably had a terrific career and are in excellent standing with the station’s personnel and the company. Retirements for top talent should be celebrated. They’ve given their heart and soul to the station, driven great ratings, helped bring in substantial revenue, and therefore deserve a send off that is worthy of the job they’ve done. Companies should be glad to create this type of event or special broadcast because it shows how much appreciation there is for that specific talent.
Catlin: If a host is retiring then you would assume it has been a positive relationship. In that case, I think the audience and the host appreciates the chance to have final shows. However, I would instruct the talent that only the last show is the last show. Up until then, regular content and entertainment applies. I wouldn’t want a show or host to have a farewell week or something like that. I think in the case of retirement it also helps out the new show or replacement show to have the retiring person give them their on air blessing.
Gilbert: If the host is beloved and has decided to retire, I LOVE giving that host a chance to go on the air and go out on his/her own terms. It’s also a lot of fun to do a retirement party with gifts, special guests, fans of the show, and everything all the way to roasting the person.
Bloom: Retirement is a unique and specific circumstance. Watching the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “retirement tour” left a lasting impression on me and set a standard I’ve always hoped to duplicate. While Kareem set the standard, Kobe Bryant’s farewell last season was a reminder of how powerful “goodbyes” are among fans and contemporaries.
What is the downside to allowing a successful and established host to broadcast a final show?
Chernoff: If it’s the person retiring or a mutual agreement I don’t think there’s much of a downside. If it’s a station decision then my suggestion is “no last show”. I suppose every so often there’s an exception to the rule but it’s not a given.
Rosen: Listeners could choose to not come back. If you’re prepared though they will return.
Wolfe: I don’t believe there’s a downside to giving a major talent a final show unless the relationship between the station and the talent is so fractured that there is genuine animosity between the parties. Relationships that have gone sour, often include a lack of trust, and that lack of trust would be potentially damaging during the final broadcast. Talent whose contracts are not being renewed because of performance or because of money should get a chance to say goodbye to their audience, and companies should suck it up when the complaint calls come. The company is moving on. The talent is not.
I have little respect for corporate folks who can’t be subjected to a bit of criticism for a decision they’ve made, and therefore run from it by simply yanking the talent off the air without a legit explanation. If there is trust between both parties, I’d expect the talent to be professional and handle the final broadcast appropriately and without incident. The company/station would also take the high road and while there may be some listener blow back, as long as there’s a satisfactory explanation, the story will be short lived.
Catlin: The show could turn away from content and entertainment value for the audience and become too insider focused or selfish. I think this all depends on the talent, the factors in play, and the relationship between the talent and management.
Gilbert: If the talent is stable, not angry about the situation, and mature enough I don’t see any downside. We often talk about how radio is an intimate friend and a favorite companion, and if that is the case we should give them a chance to say goodbye. If your neighbor was your friend, you’d expect him to come over and say goodbye before he left town.
Bloom: How to handle a departure depends on the individual circumstances and the terms of separation. Is it ugly, or civil? I try to let people have a final show, even if it means sitting on the dump button, ready to escort them from the building (I’ve never had to do it). Of course, there have been personalities who I have not let have a final show, either because the split was unpleasant and I could not trust them, or their impact was not significant enough to warrant a farewell.
How does it hurt or help the radio station in the eyes of the audience if it does or doesn’t afford the talent an opportunity to say goodbye?
Chernoff: I suppose listeners might be angry for a short while if there’s no last show, but if it’s the station making the change, not the person retiring, then I would skip doing a final on-air show.
Rosen: If someone is leaving and the situation isn’t good, I do not like to have “living wakes”. It’s better off making a statement and moving on for both parties.
Wolfe: Assuming that there is not a trust issue, any station/company that does not give a major talent a chance at a final show looks small and weak. I think it hurts the station tremendously in this instance. Especially today, where social media can be very powerful in terms of listeners jumping on the bandwagon about certain stories, the level of distrust and outright anger that some would feel can be expressed over and over again on multiple platforms for many days, and that does not bode well for the company.
Conversely, if the relationship is a strong one, and the talent understands the decision, and expresses that on the air, both parties can look exceptional to the public, so while there may be disagreement, life for the station goes on smoothly and efficiently.
Catlin: Sometimes the host hasn’t earned the right to say goodbye unfortunately. A program director has to do what’s best for the station first, the audience next, and then consider how the host fits into a specific situation.
Gilbert: It can help in that it shows the station has compassion. It can hurt if the talent is beloved and people feel like the station was being mean.
Bloom: Listeners hate it when somebody they consider a “friend,” suddenly disappears from “their” station for no apparent reason and the only response is, “(Blank) is no longer with us.” Listeners CAN handle the truth. Therefore, over the years, probably a little over half the time, I have let departing hosts/jocks say “goodbye.” There isn’t a single instance where I got burned, although a couple were perhaps too morose. Thinking back, I can’t think of any I didn’t let say goodbye that with a mulligan, I probably would.