How GM went from bankrupt to best-run car company in US

How GM went from bankrupt and on the brink of death to being one of the world’s best-run car companies Matthew DeBord Oct 20, 2018, 06.27 PM Read full story Harold Cunningham/Getty; Bill Pugliano/Getty; Steve Fecht/Getty; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider A decade after the financial crisis, General Motors is led by the best management team it’s ever had and one of the best C-suites in all of business. CEO Mary Barra, president Dan Ammann, and executive vice-president Mark Reuss have overseen the birth of a New GM that’s moving aggressively to define the future of transportation. The turnaround has been impressive, as GM has racked up billions of profits and is preparing to launch 20 new electrified vehicles by 2023. Before its 2009 bankruptcy, GM was known for internal conflict, but the company is now a model of cooperation.
General Motors’ president, Dan Ammann, is a bundle of reconciled contradictions. When he laughs, it’s like Santa Claus has come to town. When he thinks, the pauses are intense. When he makes a joke or offers a wry observation, his wit is extra dry.
Sitting in a small conference room at GM’s downtown Detroit headquarters, the New Zealand native and former Morgan Stanley banker is dressed in a familiar combination of jeans, sport coat, dress shirt, and Pumas, an anti-auto-executive look and evidence of Ammann’s role as GM’s point man in Silicon Valley. The bearded 46-year-old, who previously served as GM’s chief financial offer, is mid-pause in reconsidering a comment he made about his fellow top executives at the world’s second-largest automaker.
“You have three very different personalities,” he says of CEO Mary Barra, executive vice-president and global product group president Mark Reuss, and himself. As with so many things about the guy, you understand that he’s telling you something rather important without giving away too much.
I wouldn’t want to play poker with Ammann. I’d leave the table broke, but enlightened. The best in the business GM Mark Reuss, Mary Barra, Dan Ammann, and recently retired CFO Chuck Stevens.
Until the recent retirement of Chuck Stevens, 58, as GM’s CFO after a four-decade tenure at the company, Ammann was one-quarter of the best management team in the auto industry. And, in the view of many, the best management team the 110-year-old behemoth, with 180,000 employees spread across the globe, has ever had.
GM has been led since 2014 by Barra, the first woman to run a major automaker. Ammann shares the C-suite with Reuss, a GM veteran whose father worked at the company and who oversees the development of dozens of new vehicles, and Dhivya Suryadevara, the new 39-year-old CFO who has garnered an impressive reputation. Barra describes Suryadevara, who will join her in the only female CEO-CFO duo in the industry, as “wicked smart.” Ammann also supervises Kyle Vogt, 33, the CEO of GM’s Cruise self-driving-car unit. GM bought Cruise in 2016 for an all-in price of $1 billion; investments this year from Japan’s SoftBank Vision Fund and Honda have made it worth almost $15 billion . Asked to characterize Vogt, who has in two years become an advocate for GM’s ability to take startup technology and manufacture it at a massive scale, Ammann says he’s laser-focused on solving “one of the biggest engineering challenges of our generation.”
Barra, 56, and Reuss, 55, are both GM lifers from GM families (she joined in 1980, and he came on as a student intern in 1983). Ammann is the new guy. But in many respects he seems like the oldest member of the team. His studied circumspection stands in contrast to Reuss’ gruff cheerfulness, his passion for the culture of the automobile, and Barra’s empathic precision, counterbalanced with a usefully intimidating forcefulness.
Different personalities indeed. Amman is the intellectual, Reuss the enthusiast, and Barra the embodiment of the new GM, the giant corporation’s post-bailout, post-bankruptcy incarnation. Organizing GM for collaboration instead of conflict GM The team isn’t always all smiles, but they’re having fun.
The generalization is slightly unfair, but the point is that the trio actually isn’t divisive. If this were the old GM – the company that thought what was good for America was good for General Motors – that might be the case. That’s because the old GM was organized for conflict, with division heads fighting it out for resources and the mothership often lost in a labyrinth of ruinous financial complexity.
Instead, the current team is a model of earnest conflict transmuted into productive collaboration. If you’d quit paying attention to GM a few decades ago, you wouldn’t recognize the carmaker these days. If crosstown rival Ford is family, with all the issues that implies, then GM is a country.
Until Barra’s arrival, that assessment was true: Chapter 11 has chastened GM, but in 2010 the company still swaggered into the largest initial public offering in US history. The temptation was for GM to stage an imperious return to the corporate stage.
Barra, who had run both entire factories and human resources before being tapped by the board to become CEO in 2014, wasn’t going to stick to that script. Before the financial crisis, GM believed itself to be indispensable. Barra, better than anyone, knew that was false. GM wasn’t an empire. It was a fragile, if enormous, group of people who had to work together to survive and prosper. That survival was immediately threatened. As soon as Barra became CEO, GM was embroiled in a massive recall caused by a single, innocuous yet ubiquitous part: an ignition switch whose malfunction led to 124 deaths, 275 injuries, and cost the company in excess of $2 billion. She persevered, however, and luckily she had four years of working with Ammann and Reuss to draw upon.
“The ignition-switch recall permanently changed me,” she says. “It was a tragic situation, and if I could roll back the clock, I would. But it made me impatient. When’s the best time to solve a problem? The minute you know you have it.”
Ammann actually recalls interviewing with Barra in 2010, to assume the treasurer’s job at GM. “She was very straightforward, down to business, yet very open,” he says. “I felt good about it.” Getting the new GM up and running GM Getting GM up and running after bankruptcy was serious business.
While the banking crisis that had triggered the Great Recession had largely been resolved in 2010, the US auto industry was reeling. Annual vehicle sales in 2009 had fallen to a staggering 10 million, a harrowing plunge for a market that had peaked above 17 million in prior years. Chrysler also had to be bailed out, and after its own bankruptcy was rapidly merged with Fiat in a desperate rescue undertaken by the Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who died unexpectedly this year . Ford had avoided restructuring when then-CEO Alan Mulally had presciently mortgaged the company to raise $24 billion, but its stock value fell below $2 a share.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner had effectively been fired by President Barack Obama when the government took a substantial equity stake in GM and organized bankruptcy financing. A succession of CEOs followed: Fritz Henderson, Ed Whitacre, and Dan Akerson. (The carmaker had just 10 CEOs before the financial crisis).
Externally, it was unclear the car business would recover. But Barra, Ammann, and Reuss weren’t panicking.
“Those years set a strong foundation, when we worked together as peers,” Ammann recalls. “We were getting the place up and running.”
They were also revamping the automaker’s byzantine financial system, which Obama administration “car czar” Steven Rattner, head of the Auto Task Force, had labeled as epically disorganized. “We learned where we were making money and where we weren’t,” Ammann says, adding that GM also greatly streamlined its internal finances.
That process empowered Barra and Ammann to make long-overdue decisions, such as selling GM’s perennially underperforming Opel-Vauxhall division in Europe to Peugeot in 2017 . For Barra, return on investment became a mantra. There were no sacred cows, even brands that had been part of GM for decades. Building a culture of trust GM Former CEO Dan Akerson called Reuss – a skilled driver and racing enthusiast – the soul of GM.
Ammann also spent a lot of time with Reuss as part of a traveling “road show” for investors before the IPO. Reuss for a time had been in charge of GM’s Australian and New Zealand operations, so he and Ammann could bond over their common experiences in the Southern Hemisphere. They also shared an arid sense of humor and a love of fast machines. The latter is an affection they both recently indulged when they drove the new 755-horsepower Corvette ZR1 at Germany’s famed Nürburgring track. (Reuss is well known for his skill behind the wheel, and if you ask around, people will tell you that Ammann is no slouch).
They might like to go fast, but they’re dead set against getting cocky, even as GM has posted over $70 billion in profits since the IPO.
“Not in this business,” Ammann says when asked if taking a breather after some good work is an option. “We’re wholly dissatisfied.”
Dissatisfaction doesn’t lead to unresolved disagreement, however.
“We all agree that this device has a telephone,” he says, waving his iPhone. “Mary and I never let an issue sit. We’ll quickly get to a place where we can talk about it. I have no doubt that we make better decisions because of that. It creates a richer debate and a richer analysis.”
The core concept for all three executives is trust, built on a mutual respect for what Barra calls “leveraging diversity of thought.” That’s critical because GM is huge; it combines manufacturing, financing, and technology on a mass scale, so it’s always grappling with what Reuss calls’ “big, complex problems.” That requires frequent communication. “If we’re all in the office, we talk multiple times a day,” Barra tells me while sitting in the same ultramodern talent-acquisition suite where I had interviewed Ammann. “If we’re traveling, we speak several times a week, and sometimes on the weekends. We look at things from multiple dimensions and make better decisions.”
Their diversity shows up in obvious ways. Ammann obviously prefers a more casual wardrobe, while Barra favors subdued, tasteful ensembles. Reuss is usually wearing a sharp suit, elegant shoes, and a wristwatch from his collection.
Barra has enormous respect for Reuss’ vast automotive knowledge and admires Ammann’s ferocious ability to learn and learn fast. She considers Reuss the best car guy in the business, recollecting that Dan Akerson called him the soul of the company. And she says that Ammann conducts himself as though he’d been at GM for decades, not just for eight years, thanks to his willingness to go everywhere and meet everybody. Playing to win General Motors Ammann, right, with Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt.
Their views have rubbed off on her and now shape her leadership style.
“One of the words Mark hates is ‘compete,'” she says. A word he likes is “win,” and Barra has translated that attitude into something of a mission statement.
“I ask people to give me a reason why we shouldn’t be accountable to be the best,” she says. “There’s no answer for that. So once you get that as a mindset, you can then figure out what it’s going to take to solve the issues that preventing you from getting there. Don’t tell me why you couldn’t do it in 1984. Tell me what it takes to get it done now.”
GM has been doing plenty of winning since 2010, but, yet again, when I ask Reuss if it’s pat-ourselves-on-the-back time, he looks at me as if I were insane. Being the largest automaker in North America and No. 2 in China – the world’s biggest markets, comprising 14 million in new-vehicle sales for GM in 2017 – certainly counts for something in Reuss’ book, and he’s proud of how far the company has progressed.
But he refuses to relax, and he hasn’t given into the temptation to rest on his accomplishments since a tough day over 25 years ago, when his father, Lloyd Reuss, at one point a candidate to become GM’s CEO, was fired. The son, then just starting out at the company, had to make a difficult decision: Stay or go?
He stayed, but it wasn’t a party. GM struggled through profitless years leading up the bankruptcy. When Reuss was in Australia, he and his team were essentially running GM’s business there with whatever money came in the front door each day, as the financial crisis dried up corporate credit.
Post-bankruptcy, as GM shed brands, there were serious questions about whether it would be able to match the Japanese and German automakers, not to mention the upstarts, with innovative new technologies. For a few years, GM’s most profitable vehicles, large pickup trucks and SUVs, were out of favor, as rising gas prices sent customers looking for small cars, hybrids, and even Tesla’s all-electric vehicles. The biggest change in GM’s history Bill Pugliano/Getty Images Barra and Reuss revealing the Chevy Bolt in Detroit.
If Ammann is focused on creating a fleet of cars that can drive themselves and begin ferrying humans around big cities by next year, Reuss’ main job now is to make sure that GM doesn’t get beaten in the race to build the cars of the future.
The money is flowing from the fat margins thrown off by resurgent pickup and SUV sales, but neither Ammann, Barra, nor Reuss – especially Reuss – have any illusions about the fate of the internal-combustion engine. It might be with us for a bit longer, but GM’s destiny is electric. This isn’t exactly news to Reuss, who was around in the 1990s when GM created the EV1 . But with China’s market expected to surpass 30 million in annual vehicle sales, on the road to as many as 40 million, his challenge now is to execute on the carmaker’s plan of rolling out 20 new electrified vehicles by 2023 – the biggest transformation in the company’s history.
With the Chevy Bolt, an EV with a 238-miles range that starts at $37,500 and has been on sale for over a year , GM has made an impressive start. But Reuss, in particular, understands that the electric car’s hurdles in the marketplace remain as much psychological as technical.
“We’ve got to take away all the excuses of why people don’t think an electric car is a primary car,” he says. That means more charging options and faster charging choices. (Shortly after I spoke with Reuss, Barra, and Ammann, GM announced that Pam Fletcher, who had overseen the Bolt launch, would become the company’s innovation leader and tackle the charging-infrastructure piece.)
And Reuss doesn’t intend to run the new electric portfolio at a loss. “We expect the base case to be profitable,” he says. “At all levels and for all brands.” Good times, bad times Bill Pugliano/Getty Images Barra has made tough calls at GM, calls that had been avoided by previous leaders.
Reuss, Ammann, and Barra know that since 2010 the auto industry has enjoyed nearly a decade of expansion, and that booming sales can’t last forever. A downturn will arrive, and as skillful as the team has been so far, the real test is over the horizon.
Reuss has seen his share of recessions and is unflinching about what’s in store for him and colleagues. He knows they won’t find out if they’re truly up to the task of running GM until the business gets hard. For her part, Barra, whose father worked at a GM plant, guards against overconfidence and regularly meets with GM’s board to review models of downturns both moderate and severe. The worst aspect of this difficult yet important task is uncertainty. “Every auto recession has been a surprise,” she says. “You don’t know what will drive it. But I’m confident in the work we’ve done. We’ll figure it out.”
According to Reuss, the team isn’t locked into a war-room mentality.
“Mary is good at celebrating on the run. But she says, ‘Here’s where we did a good job, and here’s what we need to work on. This is where we’re not hitting it.'”
A thornier issue is the question of why GM’s stock price has languished for years. Shares are down 30% over the past 12 months, while the S&P is up 10%. Barra has presided over a stock-buyback program that’s returned billions to shareholders as GM has raked in cash, and the dividend has remained uncompromised and relatively risk-free at 4%.
Still, Barra has had to fight off two shareholder agitations since 2015, the most recent from Greenlight Capital’s David Einhorn. The hedge fund wanted GM to create two classes of stock , one for fixed income, the other for growth. The company argued that the scheme would undermine its investment-grade credit rating, curtailing its financial options in a sales downturn. The proposal was voted down.
Stock prices matter. Ford CEO Mark Fields was ousted in 2016, replaced by former Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett. But Ford’s shares have continued to slide, and the carmaker’s market capitalization has dipped below Tesla’s. Wall Street considers the auto industry to be capital-intensive, growth-constrained, and forever vulnerable to market cycles. Since Tesla’s 2010 IPO, it’s built a few hundred thousand cars and never posted an annual profit. By contrast, GM has, in the same period, built tens of millions of vehicles and made over $70 billion. But Tesla shares are up over 1,000% and GM’s are down 5%.
Ammann can point to the almost $15 billion in previously unrealized value that Cruise has added to GM as an enterprise, while Reuss insists that the only way for GM to move the needle on the stock price is to prove to investors that it can do what it says it will do.
“It’s frustrating, but I don’t think anything but results is going to change that,” Reuss says.
“I agree with Mark,” Barra says. “We’ve just got to keep proving ourselves. If we continue to do that over the long term, we’ll earn a different reputation with investors.” A decade after the unthinkable happened GM New CFO Dhivya Suryadevara.
Almost 10 years on from the worst episode in GM’s history, I was reminded as I spoke to Barra, Ammann, and Reuss about a winter visit I’d made to the Detroit headquarters in the years leading up to the bankruptcy. It was freezing cold and there was ice in the Detroit River. At a restaurant, a group of businessmen I overheard were lamenting their trip to Motown.
“It used to be fun to come here,” one of them said.
GM wasn’t concerned with fun back then. For a century, it had been loved and feared, admired and resented, praised and attacked. The idea that it could all go away was unthinkable.
But then the unthinkable happened. And when the new guard took over, it was clear from the outset that Barra and her team wouldn’t revert to business as usual. But here’s the thing: Old GM thought of itself as the toughest company on the planet. If somebody thought it was a fun-free zone, too bad.
But the old GM didn’t know tough. And Barra, Ammann, and Reuss have proved that making some of the hardest calls in modern business, while taking some of the biggest risks, means that fun and tough can coexist.
GM has made it through two world wars, drastic shifts in the global economy, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. But the biggest changes have come since the company rose for the ashes of bankruptcy, and although they won’t allow themselves to take credit, Barra, Ammann, and Reuss – and Chuck Stevens, from the comfort of his well-earned retirement – would be forgiven if they did.

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How GM went from bankrupt and on the brink of death to being one of the world’s best-run car companies (GM)

Made in NYC Stock quotes by finanzen.net How GM went from bankrupt and on the brink of death to being one of the world’s best-run car companies 26m Harold Cunningham/Getty; Bill Pugliano/Getty; Steve Fecht/Getty; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider A decade after the financial crisis, General Motors is led by the best management team it’s ever had and one of the best C-suites in all of business. CEO Mary Barra, president Dan Ammann, and executive vice-president Mark Reuss have overseen the birth of a New GM that’s moving aggressively to define the future of transportation. The turnaround has been impressive, as GM has racked up billions of profits and is preparing to launch 20 new electrified vehicles by 2023. Before its 2009 bankruptcy, GM was known for internal conflict, but the company is now a model of cooperation. General Motors’ president, Dan Ammann, is a bundle of reconciled contradictions. When he laughs, it’s like Santa Claus has come to town. When he thinks, the pauses are intense. When he makes a joke or offers a wry observation, his wit is extra dry. Sitting in a small conference room at GM’s downtown Detroit headquarters, the New Zealand native and former Morgan Stanley banker is dressed in a familiar combination of jeans, sport coat, dress shirt, and Pumas, an anti-auto-executive look and evidence of Ammann’s role as GM’s point man in Silicon Valley. The bearded 46-year-old, who previously served as GM’s chief financial offer, is mid-pause in reconsidering a comment he made about his fellow top executives at the world’s second-largest automaker. “You have three very different personalities,” he says of CEO Mary Barra, executive vice-president and global product group president Mark Reuss, and himself. As with so many things about the guy, you understand that he’s telling you something rather important without giving away too much. I wouldn’t want to play poker with Ammann. I’d leave the table broke, but enlightened. The best in the business Mark Reuss, Mary Barra, Dan Ammann, and recently retired CFO Chuck Stevens. GM Until the recent retirement of Chuck Stevens, 58, as GM’s CFO after a four-decade tenure at the company, Ammann was one-quarter of the best management team in the auto industry. And, in the view of many, the best management team the 110-year-old behemoth, with 180,000 employees spread across the globe, has ever had. GM has been led since 2014 by Barra, the first woman to run a major automaker. Ammann shares the C-suite with Reuss, a GM veteran whose father worked at the company and who oversees the development of dozens of new vehicles, and Dhivya Suryadevara, the new 39-year-old CFO who has garnered an impressive reputation. Barra describes Suryadevara, who will join her in the only female CEO-CFO duo in the industry, as “wicked smart.” Ammann also supervises Kyle Vogt, 33, the CEO of GM’s Cruise self-driving-car unit. GM bought Cruise in 2016 for an all-in price of $1 billion; investments this year from Japan’s SoftBank Vision Fund and Honda have made it worth almost $15 billion . Asked to characterize Vogt, who has in two years become an advocate for GM’s ability to take startup technology and manufacture it at a massive scale, Ammann says he’s laser-focused on solving “one of the biggest engineering challenges of our generation.” Barra, 56, and Reuss, 55, are both GM lifers from GM families (she joined in 1980, and he came on as a student intern in 1983). Ammann is the new guy. But in many respects he seems like the oldest member of the team. His studied circumspection stands in contrast to Reuss’ gruff cheerfulness, his passion for the culture of the automobile, and Barra’s empathic precision, counterbalanced with a usefully intimidating forcefulness. Different personalities indeed. Amman is the intellectual, Reuss the enthusiast, and Barra the embodiment of the new GM, the giant corporation’s post-bailout, post-bankruptcy incarnation. Organizing GM for collaboration instead of conflict The team isn’t always all smiles, but they’re having fun. GM The generalization is slightly unfair, but the point is that the trio actually isn’t divisive. If this were the old GM — the company that thought what was good for America was good for General Motors — that might be the case. That’s because the old GM was organized for conflict, with division heads fighting it out for resources and the mothership often lost in a labyrinth of ruinous financial complexity. Instead, the current team is a model of earnest conflict transmuted into productive collaboration. If you’d quit paying attention to GM a few decades ago, you wouldn’t recognize the carmaker these days. If crosstown rival Ford is family, with all the issues that implies, then GM is a country. Until Barra’s arrival, that assessment was true: Chapter 11 has chastened GM, but in 2010 the company still swaggered into the largest initial public offering in US history. The temptation was for GM to stage an imperious return to the corporate stage. Barra, who had run both entire factories and human resources before being tapped by the board to become CEO in 2014, wasn’t going to stick to that script. Before the financial crisis, GM believed itself to be indispensable. Barra, better than anyone, knew that was false. GM wasn’t an empire. It was a fragile, if enormous, group of people who had to work together to survive and prosper. That survival was immediately threatened. As soon as Barra became CEO, GM was embroiled in a massive recall caused by a single, innocuous yet ubiquitous part: an ignition switch whose malfunction led to 124 deaths, 275 injuries, and cost the company in excess of $2 billion. She persevered, however, and luckily she had four years of working with Ammann and Reuss to draw upon. “The ignition-switch recall permanently changed me,” she says. “It was a tragic situation, and if I could roll back the clock, I would. But it made me impatient. When’s the best time to solve a problem? The minute you know you have it.” Ammann actually recalls interviewing with Barra in 2010, to assume the treasurer’s job at GM. “She was very straightforward, down to business, yet very open,” he says. “I felt good about it.” Getting the new GM up and running Getting GM up and running after bankruptcy was serious business. GM While the banking crisis that had triggered the Great Recession had largely been resolved in 2010, the US auto industry was reeling. Annual vehicle sales in 2009 had fallen to a staggering 10 million, a harrowing plunge for a market that had peaked above 17 million in prior years. Chrysler also had to be bailed out, and after its own bankruptcy was rapidly merged with Fiat in a desperate rescue undertaken by the Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who died unexpectedly this year . Ford had avoided restructuring when then-CEO Alan Mulally had presciently mortgaged the company to raise $24 billion, but its stock value fell below $2 a share. GM CEO Rick Wagoner had effectively been fired by President Barack Obama when the government took a substantial equity stake in GM and organized bankruptcy financing. A succession of CEOs followed: Fritz Henderson, Ed Whitacre, and Dan Akerson. (The carmaker had just 10 CEOs before the financial crisis). Externally, it was unclear the car business would recover. But Barra, Ammann, and Reuss weren’t panicking. “Those years set a strong foundation, when we worked together as peers,” Ammann recalls. “We were getting the place up and running.” They were also revamping the automaker’s byzantine financial system, which Obama administration “car czar” Steven Rattner, head of the Auto Task Force, had labeled as epically disorganized. “We learned where we were making money and where we weren’t,” Ammann says, adding that GM also greatly streamlined its internal finances. That process empowered Barra and Ammann to make long-overdue decisions, such as selling GM’s perennially underperforming Opel-Vauxhall division in Europe to Peugeot in 2017 . For Barra, return on investment became a mantra. There were no sacred cows, even brands that had been part of GM for decades. Building a culture of trust Former CEO Dan Akerson called Reuss — a skilled driver and racing enthusiast — the soul of GM. GM Ammann also spent a lot of time with Reuss as part of a traveling “road show” for investors before the IPO. Reuss for a time had been in charge of GM’s Australian and New Zealand operations, so he and Ammann could bond over their common experiences in the Southern Hemisphere. They also shared an arid sense of humor and a love of fast machines. The latter is an affection they both recently indulged when they drove the new 755-horsepower Corvette ZR1 at Germany’s famed Nürburgring track. (Reuss is well known for his skill behind the wheel, and if you ask around, people will tell you that Ammann is no slouch). They might like to go fast, but they’re dead set against getting cocky, even as GM has posted over $70 billion in profits since the IPO. “Not in this business,” Ammann says when asked if taking a breather after some good work is an option. “We’re wholly dissatisfied.” Dissatisfaction doesn’t lead to unresolved disagreement, however. “We all agree that this device has a telephone,” he says, waving his iPhone. “Mary and I never let an issue sit. We’ll quickly get to a place where we can talk about it. I have no doubt that we make better decisions because of that. It creates a richer debate and a richer analysis.” The core concept for all three executives is trust, built on a mutual respect for what Barra calls “leveraging diversity of thought.” That’s critical because GM is huge; it combines manufacturing, financing, and technology on a mass scale, so it’s always grappling with what Reuss calls’ “big, complex problems.” That requires frequent communication. “If we’re all in the office, we talk multiple times a day,” Barra tells me while sitting in the same ultramodern talent-acquisition suite where I had interviewed Ammann. “If we’re traveling, we speak several times a week, and sometimes on the weekends. We look at things from multiple dimensions and make better decisions.” Their diversity shows up in obvious ways. Ammann obviously prefers a more casual wardrobe, while Barra favors subdued, tasteful ensembles. Reuss is usually wearing a sharp suit, elegant shoes, and a wristwatch from his collection. Barra has enormous respect for Reuss’ vast automotive knowledge and admires Ammann’s ferocious ability to learn and learn fast. She considers Reuss the best car guy in the business, recollecting that Dan Akerson called him the soul of the company. And she says that Ammann conducts himself as though he’d been at GM for decades, not just for eight years, thanks to his willingness to go everywhere and meet everybody. Playing to win Ammann, right, with Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt. General Motors Their views have rubbed off on her and now shape her leadership style. “One of the words Mark hates is ‘compete,'” she says. A word he likes is “win,” and Barra has translated that attitude into something of a mission statement. “I ask people to give me a reason why we shouldn’t be accountable to be the best,” she says. “There’s no answer for that. So once you get that as a mindset, you can then figure out what it’s going to take to solve the issues that preventing you from getting there. Don’t tell me why you couldn’t do it in 1984. Tell me what it takes to get it done now.” GM has been doing plenty of winning since 2010, but, yet again, when I ask Reuss if it’s pat-ourselves-on-the-back time, he looks at me as if I were insane. Being the largest automaker in North America and No. 2 in China — the world’s biggest markets, comprising 14 million in new-vehicle sales for GM in 2017 — certainly counts for something in Reuss’ book, and he’s proud of how far the company has progressed. But he refuses to relax, and he hasn’t given into the temptation to rest on his accomplishments since a tough day over 25 years ago, when his father, Lloyd Reuss, at one point a candidate to become GM’s CEO, was fired. The son, then just starting out at the company, had to make a difficult decision: Stay or go? He stayed, but it wasn’t a party. GM struggled through profitless years leading up the bankruptcy. When Reuss was in Australia, he and his team were essentially running GM’s business there with whatever money came in the front door each day, as the financial crisis dried up corporate credit. Post-bankruptcy, as GM shed brands, there were serious questions about whether it would be able to match the Japanese and German automakers, not to mention the upstarts, with innovative new technologies. For a few years, GM’s most profitable vehicles, large pickup trucks and SUVs, were out of favor, as rising gas prices sent customers looking for small cars, hybrids, and even Tesla’s all-electric vehicles. The biggest change in GM’s history Barra and Reuss revealing the Chevy Bolt in Detroit. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images If Ammann is focused on creating a fleet of cars that can drive themselves and begin ferrying humans around big cities by next year, Reuss’ main job now is to make sure that GM doesn’t get beaten in the race to build the cars of the future. The money is flowing from the fat margins thrown off by resurgent pickup and SUV sales, but neither Ammann, Barra, nor Reuss — especially Reuss — have any illusions about the fate of the internal-combustion engine. It might be with us for a bit longer, but GM’s destiny is electric. This isn’t exactly news to Reuss, who was around in the 1990s when GM created the EV1 . But with China’s market expected to surpass 30 million in annual vehicle sales, on the road to as many as 40 million, his challenge now is to execute on the carmaker’s plan of rolling out 20 new electrified vehicles by 2023 — the biggest transformation in the company’s history. With the Chevy Bolt, an EV with a 238-miles range that starts at $37,500 and has been on sale for over a year , GM has made an impressive start. But Reuss, in particular, understands that the electric car’s hurdles in the marketplace remain as much psychological as technical. “We’ve got to take away all the excuses of why people don’t think an electric car is a primary car,” he says. That means more charging options and faster charging choices. (Shortly after I spoke with Reuss, Barra, and Ammann, GM announced that Pam Fletcher, who had overseen the Bolt launch, would become the company’s innovation leader and tackle the charging-infrastructure piece.) And Reuss doesn’t intend to run the new electric portfolio at a loss. “We expect the base case to be profitable,” he says. “At all levels and for all brands.” Good times, bad times Barra has made tough calls at GM, calls that had been avoided by previous leaders. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images Reuss, Ammann, and Barra know that since 2010 the auto industry has enjoyed nearly a decade of expansion, and that booming sales can’t last forever. A downturn will arrive, and as skillful as the team has been so far, the real test is over the horizon. Reuss has seen his share of recessions and is unflinching about what’s in store for him and colleagues. He knows they won’t find out if they’re truly up to the task of running GM until the business gets hard. For her part, Barra, whose father worked at a GM plant, guards against overconfidence and regularly meets with GM’s board to review models of downturns both moderate and severe. The worst aspect of this difficult yet important task is uncertainty. “Every auto recession has been a surprise,” she says. “You don’t know what will drive it. But I’m confident in the work we’ve done. We’ll figure it out.” According to Reuss, the team isn’t locked into a war-room mentality. “Mary is good at celebrating on the run. But she says, ‘Here’s where we did a good job, and here’s what we need to work on. This is where we’re not hitting it.'” A thornier issue is the question of why GM’s stock price has languished for years. Shares are down 30% over the past 12 months, while the S&P is up 10%. Barra has presided over a stock-buyback program that’s returned billions to shareholders as GM has raked in cash, and the dividend has remained uncompromised and relatively risk-free at 4%. Still, Barra has had to fight off two shareholder agitations since 2015, the most recent from Greenlight Capital’s David Einhorn. The hedge fund wanted GM to create two classes of stock , one for fixed income, the other for growth. The company argued that the scheme would undermine its investment-grade credit rating, curtailing its financial options in a sales downturn. The proposal was voted down. Stock prices matter. Ford CEO Mark Fields was ousted in 2016, replaced by former Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett. But Ford’s shares have continued to slide, and the carmaker’s market capitalization has dipped below Tesla’s. Wall Street considers the auto industry to be capital-intensive, growth-constrained, and forever vulnerable to market cycles. Since Tesla’s 2010 IPO, it’s built a few hundred thousand cars and never posted an annual profit. By contrast, GM has, in the same period, built tens of millions of vehicles and made over $70 billion. But Tesla shares are up over 1,000% and GM’s are down 5%. Ammann can point to the almost $15 billion in previously unrealized value that Cruise has added to GM as an enterprise, while Reuss insists that the only way for GM to move the needle on the stock price is to prove to investors that it can do what it says it will do. “It’s frustrating, but I don’t think anything but results is going to change that,” Reuss says. “I agree with Mark,” Barra says. “We’ve just got to keep proving ourselves. If we continue to do that over the long term, we’ll earn a different reputation with investors.” A decade after the unthinkable happened New CFO Dhivya Suryadevara. GM Almost 10 years on from the worst episode in GM’s history, I was reminded as I spoke to Barra, Ammann, and Reuss about a winter visit I’d made to the Detroit headquarters in the years leading up to the bankruptcy. It was freezing cold and there was ice in the Detroit River. At a restaurant, a group of businessmen I overheard were lamenting their trip to Motown. “It used to be fun to come here,” one of them said. GM wasn’t concerned with fun back then. For a century, it had been loved and feared, admired and resented, praised and attacked. The idea that it could all go away was unthinkable. But then the unthinkable happened. And when the new guard took over, it was clear from the outset that Barra and her team wouldn’t revert to business as usual. But here’s the thing: Old GM thought of itself as the toughest company on the planet. If somebody thought it was a fun-free zone, too bad. But the old GM didn’t know tough. And Barra, Ammann, and Reuss have proved that making some of the hardest calls in modern business, while taking some of the biggest risks, means that fun and tough can coexist. GM has made it through two world wars, drastic shifts in the global economy, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. But the biggest changes have come since the company rose for the ashes of bankruptcy, and although they won’t allow themselves to take credit, Barra, Ammann, and Reuss — and Chuck Stevens, from the comfort of his well-earned retirement — would be forgiven if they did.

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Host – The Atlantic

Host Deep into the mercenary world of take-no-prisoners political talk radio
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About this story: Readers of the April 2005 Atlantic were treated to a cover story unlike anything the magazine had published before—David Foster Wallace’s profile of John Ziegler, who was then a talk radio host in Los Angeles. In print, Wallace’s signature multilayered footnotes appeared in colored annotations adjacent to the primary text. Web design has advanced quite a bit in the decade since “Host” was published, so we’ve taken the opportunity to recreate this story online with restyled annotations; to read them, merely click or tap on the highlighted text. For example, we asked John Ziegler, the subject of the profile, for some remarks on the story; you can read those by clicking on these words. “I have done some rather large TV interviews in my career, but this cover story in The Atlantic is still how a lot of people know me best,” John Ziegler wrote in an email. “I must point out that there are at least three factual inaccuracies Asked about the three factual inaccuracies, Ziegler said that it was not his 8th or 9th host job, that he did not move to Los Angeles with a U-Haul, and that his apartment was not near the KFI studios in Koreatown. in the very first paragraph and that I believe Wallace had an agenda going into the story. It is my view that he probably ended up liking me more than he anticipated and decided in the end to only do a partial hatchet job on me.” As that example demonstrates, several annotations include their own annotations, According to Martha Spaulding, who copyedited the original story, Read Martha Spaulding’s remarks about what was involved in editing this piece. the colors of the annotations don’t have any particular meaning, but the colors did help clarify in print the link between a highlighted passage of text and the corresponding annotation. which work the same way. (1) Mr. John Ziegler, thirty-seven, late of Louisville’s WHAS, is now on the air, “Live and Local,” from 10:00 p.m . to 1:00 a.m. every weeknight on southern California’s KFI, a 50,000-watt megastation whose hourly ID and Sweeper, FCC regulations require a station ID to be broadcast every hour. This ID comprises a station’s call letters, band and frequency, and the radio market it’s licensed to serve. Just about every serious commercial station (which KFI very much is) appends to its ID a Sweeper, which is the little tag line There are also separate, subsidiary tag lines that KFI develops specially for its local programs. The main two it’s using for the John Ziegler Show so far are “Live and Local” and “Hot, Fresh Talk Served Nightly.” by which the station wishes to be known. KABC, the other giant AM talk station in Los Angeles, deploys the entendre-rich “Where America Comes First.” KFI’s own main Sweeper is “More Stimulating Talk Radio,” but it’s also got secondary Sweepers that it uses to intro the half-hour news, traffic updates at seventeen and forty-six past the hour, and station promos. “Southern California’s Newsroom,” “The Radio Home of Fox News,” and “When You See News Break, Don’t Try to Fix It Yourself—Leave That to Professionals” are the big three that KFI’s running this spring. The content and sound of all IDs, Sweepers, and promos are the responsibility of the station’s Imaging department, apparently so named because they involve KFI’s image in the LA market. Imaging is sort of the radio version of branding—the Sweepers let KFI communicate its special personality and ‘tude in a compressed way. designed by the station’s Imaging department and featuring a gravelly basso whisper The whisperer turns out to be one Chris Corley, a voiceover actor best known for movie trailers. Corley’s C2 Productions is based in Fort Myers FL. against licks from Ratt’s 1984 metal classic “Round and Round,” is “KFI AM-640, Los Angeles—More Stimulating Talk Radio.” This is either the eighth or ninth host job that Mr. Ziegler’s had in his talk-radio career, and far and away the biggest. He moved out here to LA over Christmas—alone, towing a U-Haul—and found an apartment not far from KFI’s studios, which are in an old part of the Koreatown district, near Wilshire Center.
The John Ziegler Show is the first local, nonsyndicated late-night program that KFI has aired in a long time. It’s something of a gamble for everyone involved. Ten o’clock to one qualifies as late at night in southern California, where hardly anything reputable’s open after nine.
It is currently right near the end of the program’s second segment on the evening of May 11, 2004, shortly after Nicholas Berg’s taped beheading by an al-Qaeda splinter in Iraq. Dressed, as is his custom, for golf, and wearing a white-billed cap w/ corporate logo, Mr. Ziegler is seated by himself in the on-air studio, surrounded by monitors and sheaves of Internet downloads. He is trim, clean-shaven, and handsome in the somewhat bland way (By the standards of the U.S. radio industry this makes him almost movie-star gorgeous.) that top golfers and local TV newsmen tend to be. His eyes, which off-air are usually flat and unhappy, are alight now with passionate conviction. Only some of the studio’s monitors concern Mr. Z.’s own program; the ones up near the ceiling take muted, closed-caption feeds from Fox News, MSNBC, and what might be C- SPAN . To his big desk’s upper left is a wall-mounted digital clock that counts down seconds. His computer monitors’ displays also show the exact time.
Across the soundproof glass of the opposite wall, another monitor in the Airmix room is running an episode of The Simpsons , also muted, which both the board op and the call screener are watching with half an eye.
Pendent in front of John Ziegler’s face, attached to the same type of hinged, flexible stand as certain student desk lamps, is a Shure-brand broadcast microphone that is sheathed in a gray foam filtration sock to soften popped p’s and hissed sibilants. It is into this microphone that the host speaks:
“And I’ll tell you why—it’s because we’re better than they are.”
A Georgetown B.A. in government and philosophy, scratch golfer, former TV sportscaster, possible world-class authority on the O.J. Simpson trial, and sometime contributor to MSNBC’s Scarborough Country , Mr. Ziegler is referring here to America versus what he terms “the Arab world.” It’s near the end of his “churn,” which is the industry term for a host’s opening monologue, whose purpose is both to introduce a show’s nightly topics and to get listeners emotionally stimulated enough that they’re drawn into the program and don’t switch away. More than any other mass medium, radio enjoys a captive audience—if only because so many of the listeners are driving—but in a major market there are dozens of AM stations to listen to, plus of course FM and satellite radio, and even a very seductive and successful station rarely gets more than a five or six percent audience share.
“We’re not perfect, we suck a lot of the time, but we are better as a people, as a culture, and as a society than they are, and we need to recognize that, so that we can possibly even begin to deal with the evil that we are facing.”
When Mr. Z.’s impassioned, his voice rises and his arms wave around (which obviously only those in the Airmix room can see). He also fidgets, bobs slightly up and down in his executive desk chair, and weaves. Although he must stay seated and can’t pace around the room, the host does not have to keep his mouth any set distance from the microphone, since the board op, ‘Mondo Hernandez, can adjust his levels on the mixing board’s channel 7 so that Mr. Z.’s volume always stays in range and never peaks or fades. ‘Mondo, whose price for letting outside parties hang around Airmix is one large bag of cool-ranch Doritos per evening, is an immense twenty-one-year-old man with a ponytail, stony Mesoamerican features, and the placid, grandmotherly eyes common to giant mammals everywhere. Keeping the studio signal from peaking ‘Mondo’s lay explanation of what peaking is consists of pointing at the red area to the right of the two volumeters’ bobbing needles on the mixing board: “It’s when the needles go into the red.” The overall mission, apparently, is to keep the volume and resonance of a host’s voice high enough to be stimulating but not so high that they exceed the capacities of an AM analog signal or basic radio receiver. One reason Another reason is mike processing, which evens and fills out the host’s voice, removing raspy or metallic tones, and occurs automatically in Airmix. There’s no such processing for the callers’ voices. why callers’ voices sound so much less rich and authoritative than hosts’ voices on talk radio is that it is harder to keep telephone voices from peaking. is one of ‘Mondo’s prime directives, along with making sure that each of the program’s scheduled commercial spots is loaded into Prophet Prophet is the special OS for KFI’s computer system—”like Windows for a radio station,” according to Mr. Ziegler’s producer. and run at just the right time, whereupon he must confirm that the ad has run as scheduled in the special Airmix log he signs each page of, so that the station can bill advertisers for their spots. ‘Mondo, who started out two years ago as an unpaid intern and now earns ten dollars an hour, works 7:00—1:00 on weeknights and also board-ops KFI’s special cooking show on Sundays. As long as he’s kept under forty hours a week, which he somehow always just barely is, the station is not obliged to provide ‘Mondo with employee benefits.
Pendent in front of John Ziegler’s face, attached to the same type of hinged, flexible stand as certain student desk lamps, is a Shure-brand broadcast microphone that is sheathed in a gray foam filtration sock to soften popped p’s and hissed sibilants. The Nick Berg beheading and its Internet video compose what is known around KFI as a “Monster,” meaning a story that has both high news value and tremendous emotional voltage. As is SOP in political talk radio, the emotions most readily accessed are anger, outrage, indignation, fear, despair, disgust, contempt, and a certain kind of apocalyptic glee, Here is a sample bit of “What the John Ziegler Show is All About,” a long editorial intro to the program that Mr. Ziegler delivered snippets of over his first several nights in January: The underlying premise of the John Ziegler Show is that, thanks to its socialistic leanings, incompetent media, eroding moral foundation, aging demographics, and undereducated masses, the United States, as we know it, is doomed. In my view, we don’t know how much longer we still have to enjoy it, so we shouldn’t waste precious moments constantly worrying or complaining about it. However, because not everyone in this country is yet convinced of this seemingly obvious reality, the show does see merit in pointing out or documenting the demise of our nation and will take great pains to do so. And because most everyone can agree that there is value in attempting to delay the sinking of the Titanic as long as possible, whenever feasible the John Ziegler Show will attempt to do its part to plug whatever holes in the ship it can. With that said, the show realizes that, no matter how successful it (or anyone else) may be in slowing the downfall of our society, the final outcome is still pretty much inevitable, so we might as well have a good time watching the place fall to pieces. Be advised that the intro’s stilted, term-paperish language, which looks kind of awful in print, is a great deal more effective when the spiel is delivered out loud—the stiffness gives it a slight air of self-mockery that keeps you from being totally sure just how seriously John Ziegler takes what he’s saying. Meaning he gets to have it both ways. This half-pretend pretension, which is ingenious in all sorts of ways, was pioneered in talk radio by Rush Limbaugh, although with Limbaugh the semi—self-mockery is more tonal than syntactic. all of which the Nick Berg thing’s got in spades. Mr. Ziegler, whose program is in only its fourth month at KFI, has been fortunate in that 2004 has already been chock-full of Monsters—Saddam’s detention, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Scott Peterson murder trial, the Greg Haidl gang-rape trial, and preliminary hearings in the rape trial of Kobe Bryant. But tonight is the most angry, indignant, disgusted, and impassioned that Mr. Z.’s gotten on-air so far, and the consensus in Airmix is that it’s resulting in some absolutely first-rate talk radio.
John Ziegler, who is a talk-radio host of unflagging industry, broad general knowledge, mordant wit, and extreme conviction, makes a particular specialty of media criticism. One object of his disgust and contempt in the churn so far has been the U.S. networks’ spineless, patronizing decision not to air the Berg videotape and thus to deny Americans “a true and accurate view of the barbarity, the utter depravity , of these people.” Even more outrageous, to Mr. Z., is the mainstream media’s lack of outrage about Berg’s taped murder versus all that same media’s hand-wringing and invective over the recent photos of alleged prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, which he views as a clear indication of the deluded, blame-America-first mentality of the U.S. press. It is an associated contrast between Americans’ mortified response to the Abu Ghraib photos and reports of the Arab world’s phlegmatic reaction to the Berg video that leads to his churn’s climax, which is that we are plainly, unambiguously better than the Arab world—whereupon John Ziegler invites listeners to respond if they are so moved, repeats the special mnemonic KFI call-in number, and breaks for the :30 news and ads, on time to the second, as ‘Mondo takes ISDN feed from Airwatch ISDN, in which the D stands for “Digital,” is basically a phone line of very high quality and expense. ISDN is the main way that stations take feed for syndicated programs from companies like Infinity Broadcasting, Premiere Radio Networks, etc. KFI has its own News department and traffic reporters, but on nights and weekends it subscribes to an independent service called Airwatch that provides off-hour news and traffic for stations in the LA area. When, at :17 and :46 every hour, Mr. Z. intros a report from “Alan LaGreen in the KFI Traffic Center,” it’s really Alan LaGreen of Airwatch, who’s doing ISDN traffic reports for different stations at different times all hour and has to be very careful to give the right call letters for the Traffic Center he’s supposedly reporting from. and the program’s associate producer and call screener, Vince Nicholas—twenty-six and hiply bald—pushes back from his console and raises both arms in congratulation, through the glass.
It goes without saying that there are all different kinds of stimulation. Depending on one’s politics, sensitivities, and tastes in argumentation, it is not hard to think of objections to John Ziegler’s climactic claim, or at least of some urgent requests for clarification. Like: Exactly what and whom does “the Arab world” refer to? And why are a few editorials and man-on-the-street interviews sufficient to represent the attitude and character of a whole diverse region? And why is al-Jazeera’s showing of the Berg video so awful if Mr. Z. has just castigated the U.S. networks for not showing it? Plus, of course, what is “better” supposed to mean here? More moral? More diffident about our immorality? Is it not, in our own history, pretty easy to name some Berg-level atrocities committed by U.S. nationals, or agencies, or even governments, and approved by much of our populace? Or perhaps this: Leaving aside whether John Ziegler’s assertions are true or coherent, is it even remotely helpful or productive to make huge, sweeping claims about some other region’s/culture’s inferiority to us? What possible effect can such remarks have except to incite hatred? Aren’t they sort of irresponsible?
It is true that no one on either side of the studio’s thick window expresses or even alludes to any of these objections. But this is not because Mr. Z.’s support staff is stupid, or hateful, or even necessarily on board with sweeping jingoistic claims. It is because they understand the particular codes and imperatives of large-market talk radio. The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible. That is not to say that the host would not defend his “we’re better”—strenuously—or that he does not believe it’s true. It is to say that he has exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating. KFI management’s explanation of “stimulating” is apposite, if a bit slippery. Following is an excerpted transcript of a May 25 Q & A with Ms. Robin Bertolucci, the station’s intelligent, highly successful, and sort of hypnotically intimidating Program Director. (The haphazard start is because the interviewing skills behind the Q parts are marginal; the excerpt gets more interesting as it goes along.)
Q: Is there some compact way to describe KFI’s programming philosophy?
A: “What we call ourselves is ‘More Stimulating Talk Radio.'”
Q: Pretty much got that part already.
A: “That is the slogan that we try to express every minute on the air. Of being stimulating. Being informative, being entertaining, being energetic, being dynamic … The way we do it is a marriage of information and stimulating entertainment.”
Q: What exactly is it that makes information entertaining?
A: “It’s attitudinal, it’s emotional.”
Q: Can you explain this attitudinal component?
A: “I think ‘stimulating’ really sums it up. It’s what we really try to do.”
Q: [strangled frustration noises]
A: “Look, our station logo is in orange and black, and white—it’s a stark, aggressive look. I think that typifies it. The attitude. A little in-your-face. We’re not … stodgy.” An obvious point, but it’s one that’s often overlooked by people who complain about propaganda, misinformation, and irresponsibility in commercial talk radio. Whatever else they are, the above-type objections to “We’re better than the Arab world” are calls to accountability. They are the sort of criticisms one might make of, say, a journalist, someone whose job description includes being responsible about what he says in public. And KFI’s John Ziegler is not a journalist—he is an entertainer. See, e.g., Mr. John Kobylt, of KFI’s top-rated afternoon John & Ken Show , in a recent LA Times profile: “The truth is, we do everything for ratings. Yes, that’s our job. I can show you the contract … This is not Meet the Press . It’s not The Jim Lehrer News Hour .” Or maybe it’s better to say that he is part of a peculiar, modern, Or you could call it atavistic, a throwback. The truth is that what we think of as objectivity in journalism has been a standard since only the 1900s, and mainly in the United States. Have a look at some European dailies sometime. and very popular type of news industry, one that manages to enjoy the authority and influence of journalism without the stodgy constraints of fairness, objectivity, and responsibility that make trying to tell the truth such a drag for everyone involved. It is a frightening industry, though not for any of the simple reasons most critics give.
Distributed over two walls of KFI’s broadcast studio, behind the monitors and clocks, are a dozen promotional KFI posters, all in the station’s eye-catching Halloween colors against the Sweeper’s bright white. KFI has large billboards at traffic nodes all over metro Los Angeles with the same general look and feel, although the billboards often carry both the Sweeper and extra tag phrases—”Raving Infomaniacs,” “The Death of Ignorance,” “The Straight Poop,” and (against a military-camouflage background) “Intelligence Briefings.” On each poster, the word “stimulating” is both italicized and underscored. Except for the door and soundproof window, the entire studio is lined in acoustic tile with strange Pollockian patterns of tiny holes. Much of the tile is grayed and decaying, and the carpet’s no color at all; KFI has been in this facility for nearly thirty years and will soon be moving out. Both the studio and Airmix are kept chilly because of all the electronics. The overhead lights are old inset fluorescents, the kind with the slight flutter to them; nothing casts any sort of shadow. On one of the studio walls is also pinned the special set of playing cards The Airmix room’s analogue to the cards is a bumper sticker next to the producer’s station: WHO WOULD THE FRENCH VOTE FOR?
— AMERICANS FOR BUSH distributed for the invasion of Iraq, these with hand-drawn Xs over the faces of those Baathists captured or killed so far. The great L-shaped table that Mr. Z. sits at nearly fills the little room; it’s got so many coats of brown paint on it that the tabletop looks slightly humped. At the L’s base is another Shure microphone, used by Ken Chiampou of 3:00—7:00’s John & Ken , its hinged stand now partly folded up so that the mike hangs like a wilted flower. The oddest thing about the studio is a strong scent of decaying bananas, as if many peels or even whole bananas were rotting in the room’s wastebaskets, none of which look to have been emptied anytime recently. Mr. Ziegler, who has his ascetic (He never leaves his chair during breaks, for example, not even to use the restroom.) side, drinks only bottled water in the studio, and certainly never snacks, so there is no way he is the source of the banana smell.
More about this story:
“Editing David Foster Wallace’s ‘Host'” The process behind our unusual April 2005 cover story. By Martha Spaulding It is worth considering the strange media landscape in which political talk radio is a salient. Never before have there been so many different national news sources—different now in terms of both medium and ideology. Major newspapers from anywhere are available online; there are the broadcast networks plus public TV, cable’s CNN, Fox News, CNBC, et al., print and Web magazines, Internet bulletin boards, The Daily Show , e-mail newsletters, blogs. All this is well known; it’s part of the Media Environment we live in. But there are prices and ironies here. One is that the increasing control of U.S. mass media by a mere handful of corporations has—rather counterintuitively—created a situation of extreme fragmentation, a kaleidoscope of information options. Another is that the ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which “the truth” is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. In some respects all this variety is probably good, productive of difference and dialogue and so on. But it can also be confusing and stressful for the average citizen. Short of signing on to a particular mass ideology and patronizing only those partisan news sources that ratify what you want to believe, EDITORIAL ASIDE It’s hard to understand Fox News tags like “Fair and Balanced,” “No-Spin Zone,” and “We Report, You Decide” as anything but dark jokes, ones that delight the channel’s conservative audience precisely because their claims to objectivity so totally enrage liberals, whose own literal interpretation of the tag lines makes the left seem dim, humorless, and stodgy. it is increasingly hard to determine which sources to pay attention to and how exactly to distinguish real information from spin. EDITORIAL ASIDE Of course, this is assuming one believes that information and spin are different things—and one of the dangers of partisan news’s metastasis is the way it enables the con-viction that the two aren’t really distinct at all. Such a conviction, if it becomes endemic, alters democratic discourse from a “battle of ideas” to a battle of sales pitches for ideas (assuming, again, that one chooses to distinguish ideas from pitches, or actual guilt/innocence from lawyers’ arguments, or binding commitments from the mere words “I promise,” and so on and so forth).
The ever increasing number of ideological news outlets creates precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which “the truth” is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda. This fragmentation and confusion have helped give rise to what’s variously called the “meta-media” or “explaining industry.” Under most classifications, this category includes media critics for news dailies, certain high-end magazines, panel shows like CNN’s Reliable Sources , media-watch blogs like instapundit.com and talkingpointsmemo.com, and a large percentage of political talk radio. It is no accident that one of the signature lines Mr. Ziegler likes to deliver over his opening bumper music at :06 is “… the show where we take a look at the news of the day, we provide you the facts, and then we give you the truth.” For this is how much of contemporary political talk radio understands its function: to explore the day’s news in a depth and detail that other media do not, and to interpret, analyze, and explain that news.
Which all sounds great, except of course “explaining” the news really means editorializing, infusing the actual events of the day with the host’s own opinions. And here is where the real controversy starts, because these opinions are, as just one person’s opinions, exempt from strict journalistic standards of truthfulness, probity, etc., and yet they are often delivered by the talk-radio host not as opinions but as revealed truths, truths intentionally ignored or suppressed by a “mainstream press” that’s “biased” in favor of liberal interests. This is, at any rate, the rhetorical template for Rush Limbaugh’s program, on which most syndicated and large-market political talk radio is modeled, PURELY INFORMATIVE It’s true that there are, in some large markets and even syndication, a few political talk-radio hosts who identify as moderate or liberal. The best known of these are probably Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, and Doug Stephan. But only a few—and only Stephan (whose show is really only semi-political) has anything close to a national audience. And the tribulations of Franken et al.’s Air America venture are well known. The point is that it is neither inaccurate nor unfair to say that today’s political talk radio is, in general, overwhelmingly conservative. from ABC’s Sean Hannity and Talk Radio Network’s Laura Ingraham to G. G. Liddy, Rusty Humphries, Michael Medved, Mike Gallagher, Neal Boortz, Quick sample intros: Mike Gallagher, a regular Fox News contributor whose program is syndicated by Salem Radio Network, has an upcoming book called Surrounded by Idiots: Fighting Liberal Lunacy in America . Neal Boortz, who’s carried by Cox Radio Syndication and JRN, bills himself as “High Priest of the Church of the Painful Truth,” and his recent ads in trade publications feature the quotation “How can we take airport security seriously until ethnic profiling is not only permitted, but encouraged ?” Dennis Prager, and, in many respects, Mr. John Ziegler. Mr. Z. identifies himself as a Libertarian, though he’s not a registered member of the Libertarian Party, because he feels they “can’t get their act together,” which he does not seem to intend as a witticism.
From the archives:
“Do As I Say” (January 2004)
Dr. Laura’s counsel is caustic and oftentimes hypocritical, but it is also persuasive. By Caitlin Flanagan KFI AM-640 carries Rush Limbaugh every weekday, 9:00 a.m. to noon, via live ISDN feed from Premiere Radio Networks, which is one of the dozen syndication networks that own talk-radio shows so popular that it’s worth it for local stations to air them even though it costs the stations a portion of their spot load. “Spot load” is the industry term for the number of minutes per hour given over to commercials. The point of the main-text sentence is that a certain percentage of the spots that run on KFI from 9:00 to noon are Rush/PRN commercials, and they are the ones who get paid by the advertisers. The exact percentages and distributions of local vs. syndicator’s commercials are determined by what’s called the “Clock,” which is represented by a pie-shaped distribution chart that Ms. Bertolucci has on file but will show only a very quick glimpse of, since the spot-load apportionments for syndicated shows in major markets involve complex negotiations between the station and the syndicator, and KFI regards its syndicated Clocks as proprietary info—it doesn’t want other stations to know what deals have been cut with PRN. The same goes for Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who’s based in southern California and used to broadcast her syndicated show from KFI In White Star Productions’ History of Talk Radio video, available at better libraries everywhere, there is footage of Dr. Laura doing her show right here at KFI, although she’s at a mike in what’s now the Airmix room—which, according to ‘Mondo, used to be the studio, with what’s now the studio serving as Airmix. (Why they switched rooms is unclear, but transferring all the gear must have been a serious hassle.) In the video, the little gray digital clock propped up counting seconds on Dr. Laura’s desk is the same one that now counts seconds on the wall to Mr. Ziegler’s upper left in the studio—i.e., it’s the very same clock—which not only is strangely thrilling but also further testifies to KFI’s thriftiness about capital expenses. until the mid-nineties, when Premiere built its own LA facility and was able to offer Schlessinger more-sumptuous digs. Dr. Laura airs M-F from noon to 3:00 on KFI, though her shows are canned and there’s no live feed. Besides 7:00—10:00 p.m. ‘s Phil Hendrie (another KFI host whose show went into national syndication, and who now has his own private dressing room and studio over at Premiere), the only other weekday syndication KFI uses is Coast to Coast With George Noory , which covers and analyzes news of the paranormal throughout the wee hours.
Whatever the social effects of talk radio or the partisan agendas of certain hosts, it is a fallacy that political talk radio is motivated by ideology. It is not. Political talk radio is a business, and it is motivated by revenue. The conservatism that dominates today’s AM airwaves does so because it generates high Arbitron ratings, high ad rates, and maximum profits.
Radio has become a more lucrative business than most people know. Throughout most of the past decade, the industry’s revenues have increased by more than 10 percent a year. The average cash-flow margin for major radio companies is 40 percent, compared with more like 15 percent for large TV networks; and the mean price paid for a radio station has gone from eight to more than thirteen times cash flow. Some of this extreme profitability, and thus the structure of the industry, is due to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allows radio companies to acquire up to eight stations in a given market and to control as much as 35 percent of a market’s total ad revenues. The emergence of huge, dominant radio conglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity is a direct consequence of the ’96 Act (which the FCC, aided by the very conservative D.C. Court of Appeals, has lately tried to make even more permissive). And these radio conglomerates enjoy not just substantial economies of scale but almost unprecedented degrees of business integration.
Nine months ago John Ziegler’s career was rubble, and Ms. B. is the only reason he’s here, and she’s every inch his boss, and he’s nervous around her—which you can tell by the way he puts his long legs out and leans back in his chair with his hands in his slacks’ pockets and yawns a lot and tries to look exaggeratedly relaxed. Example: Clear Channel Communications Inc. now owns KFI AM-640, Clear Channel bought KFI—or rather the radio company that owned KFI—sometime around 2000. It’s all a little fuzzy, because it appears that Clear Channel actually bought, or absorbed, the radio company that had just bought KFI from another radio company, or something like that. plus two other AM stations and five FMs in the Los Angeles market. It also owns Premiere Radio Networks. (Which means that the negotiations between KFI and PRN over the terms of syndication for Rush, Dr. Laura, et al. are actually negotiations between two parts of the same company, which either helps explain or renders even more mysterious KFI’s reticence about detailing the Clocks for its PRN shows.) It also owns the Airwatch subscription news/traffic service. And it designs and manufactures Prophet, KFI’s operating system, which is state-of-the-art and much too expensive for most independent stations. All told, Clear Channel currently owns some 1,200 radio stations nationwide, one of which happens to be Louisville, Kentucky’s WHAS, the AM talk station from which John Ziegler was fired, amid spectacular gossip and controversy, in August of 2003. Which means that Mr. Ziegler now works in Los Angeles for the same company that just fired him in Louisville, such that his firing now appears—in retrospect, and considering the relative sizes of the Louisville and LA markets—to have been a promotion. All of which turns out to be a strange and revealing story about what a talk-radio host’s life is like.
(2) For obvious reasons, critics of political talk radio concern themselves mainly with the programs’ content. Talk station management, on the other hand, tends to think of content as a subset of personality, of how stimulating a given host is. As for the hosts—ask Mr. Ziegler off-air what makes him good at his job, and he’ll shrug glumly and say, “I’m not really all that talented. I’ve got passion, “Passion” is a big word in the industry, and John Ziegler uses the word in connection with himself a lot. It appears to mean roughly the same as what Ms. Bertolucci calls “edginess” or “attitude.” and I work really hard.” Taken so for granted that nobody in the business seems aware of it is something that an outsider, sitting in Airmix and watching John Ziegler at the microphone, will notice right away. Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don’t have names.
To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you’re saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you’re speaking. Part of the answer to why conservative talk radio works so well might be that extreme conservatism provides a neat, clear, univocal template with which to organize one’s opinions and responses to the world. The current term of approbation for this kind of template is “moral clarity.” ) Plus, ideally, what you’re saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction It is, of course, much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation, and outrage in people than it is real joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et al. are more primal, universal, and easy to stimulate (as implied by expressions like “He really pushes my buttons”). in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, This, too: Consider the special intimacy of talk radio. It’s usually listened to solo—radio is the most solitary of broadcast media. And half-an-ear background-listening is much more common (as the industry is at pains to remind advertisers) with music formats than with talk. This is a human being speaking to you, with a pro-caliber voice, eloquently and with passion, in what feels like a one-to-one; it doesn’t take long before you start to feel you know him. Which is why it’s often such a shock when you see a real host, his face—you discover you’ve had a picture of this person in your head without knowing it, and it’s always wrong. This dissonant shock is one reason why Rush and Dr. Laura, even with their huge built-in audiences, did not fare well on TV. someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you’re discussing. And it gets even trickier: You’re trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you’re communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech’s ticcy unconscious “umm”s or “you know”s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You’re also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can’t be too slow, since that’s low-energy and dull, but it can’t be too rushed or it will sound like babbling. And so you have somehow to keep all these different imperatives and structures in mind at the same time, while also filling exactly, say, eleven minutes, with no dead air and no going over, such that at 10:46 you have wound things up neatly The exact-timing thing is actually a little less urgent for a host who’s got the resources of Clear Channel behind him. This is because in KFI’s Airmix room, nestled third from the bottom in one of the two eight-foot stacks of processing gear to the left of ‘Mondo’s mixing board, is an Akai DD1000 Magneto Optical Disk Recorder, known less formally as a “Cashbox.” What this is is a sound compressor, which exploits the fact that even a live studio program is—because of the FCC-mandated seven-second delay—taped. Here is how ‘Mondo, in exchange for certain vending-machine comestibles, explains the Cashbox: “All the shows are supposed to start at six past. But if they put more spots in the log, or say, like, if traffic goes long, now we’re all of a sudden starting at seven past or something. The Cashbox can take a twenty-minute segment and turn it into a nineteen.” It does this by using computerized sound-processing to eliminate pauses and periodically accelerate Mr. Z.’s delivery just a bit. The trick is that the Cashbox can compress sound so artfully that you don’t hear the speed-up, at least not in a nineteen-for-twenty exchange (“You get down to eighteen it’s risky, or down around seventeen you can definitely hear it”). So if things are running a little over, ‘Mondo has to use the Cashbox—very deftly, via controls that look really complicated—in order to make sure that the Clock’s adhered to and Airwatch breaks, promos, and ad spots all run as specified. A gathering suspicion as to why the Akai DD1000 is called the Cashbox occasions a Q: Does the station ever press ‘Mondo or other board ops to use the Cashbox and compress shows in order to make room for additional ads? A: “Not really. What they’ll do is just put an extra spot or two in the log, and then I’ve just got to do the best I can.” and are in a position to say, “KFI is the station with the most frequent traffic reports. Alan LaGreen is in the KFI Traffic Center” (which, to be honest, Mr. Z. sometimes leaves himself only three or even two seconds for and has to say extremely fast, which he can always do without a flub The only elocutionary problem Mr. Z. ever exhibits is a habit of confusing the words “censure” and “censor.” ). So then, ready: go.
It’s no joke. See for example the John Ziegler Show ‘s producer, Emiliano Limon, who broke in at KFI as a weekend overnight host before moving across the glass:
“What’s amazing is that when you get new people who think that they can do a talk-radio program, you watch them for the first time. By three minutes into it, they have that look on their face like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got ten minutes left. What am I going to say?’ And that’s what happened to me a lot. So you end up talking about yourself [which, for complex philosophical reasons, the producer disapproves of], or you end up yammering.” Emiliano is a large, very calm and competent man in his mid-thirties who either wears the same black LA Times T-shirt every day or owns a whole closetful of them. He was pulled off other duties to help launch KFI’s experimental Live and Local evening show, an assignment that obviously involves working closely with Mr. Z., which Emiliano seems to accept as his karmic punishment for being so unflappable and easy to get along with. He laughs more than everyone else at KFI put together.
John Ziegler, who is a talk-radio host of unflagging industry, broad general knowledge, mordant wit, and extreme conviction, makes a particular specialty of media criticism. “I remember one time, I just broke after five minutes, I was just done, and they were going, ‘Hey, what are you doing, you have another ten minutes!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know what else to say!’ And that’s what happens. For those people who think ‘Oh, I could do talk radio,’ well, there’s more to it. A lot of people can’t take it once they get that taste of, you know, ‘Geez, I gotta fill all this time and sound interesting?’
“Then, as you keep on doing it over the days, there’s something that becomes absolutely clear to you. You’re not really acting on the radio. It’s you . If no one really responds and the ratings aren’t good, it means they don’t like you .” Which is worth keeping very much in mind.
An abiding question: Who exactly listens to political talk radio? Arbitron Inc. and some of its satellites can help measure how many are listening for how long and when, and they provide some rough age data and demographic specs. A lot of the rest is guesswork, and Program Directors don’t like to talk about it.
From outside, though, one of the best clues to how a radio station understands its audience is spots. Which commercials it runs, and when, indicate how the station is pitching its listeners’ tastes and receptivities to sponsors. For instance, one has only to listen to Coast to Coast With George Noory ‘s ads for gold as a hedge against hyperinflation, special emergency radios you can hand-crank in case of extended power failure, miracle weight-loss formulas, online dating services, etc., to understand that KFI and the syndicator regard this show’s audience as basically frightened, credulous, and desperate (ad-wise, a lucrative triad indeed) . In how often particular spots are repeated lie clues to the length of time the station thinks people are listening, how attentive it thinks they are, etc. Specific example: Just from its spot load, we can deduce that KFI trusts its audience to sit still for an extraordinary amount of advertising. An average hour of the John Ziegler Show consists of four program segments: :06–:17, :23–:30, :37–:46, and :53–:00, or thirty-four minutes of Mr. Z. actually talking. Since KFI’s newscasts are never more than ninety seconds, and since quarterly traffic reports are always bracketed by “live-read” spots A live read is when a host or newsperson reads the ad copy himself on-air. They’re sort of a radio tradition, but the degree to which KFI weaves live reads into its programming is a great leap forward for broadcast marketing. Live-read spots are more expensive for advertisers, especially the longer, more detailed ones read by the programs’ hosts, since these ads (a) can sound at first like an actual talk segment and (b) draw on the personal appeal and credibility of the host. And the spots themselves are often clearly set up to exploit these features—see for instance John Kobylt’s live read for LA’s Cunning Dental Group during afternoons’ John & Ken : “Have you noticed how bad the teeth are of all the contestants in these reality shows? I saw some of this the other day. Discolored, chipped, misshaped, misaligned, rotted-out teeth, missing teeth, not to mention the bleeding, oozing, pus-y (It’s unclear how one spells the adjectival form of “pus,” though it sounds okay on-air.) gums. You go to Cunning Dental Group, they will take all your gross teeth and in one or two visits fix them and give you a bright shiny smile.”
Even more expensive than live reads are what’s called “endorsements,” which are when a host describes, in ecstatically favorable terms, his own personal experience with a product or service. Examples here include Phil Hendrie’s weight loss on Cortislim, Kobylt’s “better than 20-20” laser-surgery outcome with Saddleback Eye Center, and Mr. Bill Handel Handel, whose KFI show is an LA institution in morning drive, describes his program as “in-your-face, informational, with a lot of racial humor.” ‘s frustrations with dial-up ISPs before discovering DSL Extreme. These ads, which are KFI’s most powerful device for exploiting the intimacy and trust of the listener-host relationship, also result in special “endorsement fees” paid directly to the host. for Traffic Center sponsors, that makes each hour at least 40 percent ads; the percentage is higher if you count Sweepers for the station and promos for other KFI shows. And this is the load just on a local program, one for which the Clock doesn’t have to be split with a syndicator.
It’s not that KFI’s unaware of the dangers here. Station management reads its mail, and as Emiliano Limon puts it, “If there’s one complaint listeners always have, it’s the spot load.” But the only important issue is whether all the complaints translate into actual listener behavior. KFI’s spot load is an instance of the kind of multivariable maximization problem that M.B.A. programs thrive on. It is obviously in the station’s financial interest to carry just as high a volume of ads as it can without hurting ratings—the moment listeners begin turning away from KFI because of too many commercials, the Arbitron numbers go down, the rates charged for ads have to be reduced, and profitability suffers. It’s a little more complicated than that, really, because excessive spots can also affect ratings in less direct ways—mainly by lowering the quality of the programming. Industry analyst Michael Harrison, of Talkers magazine, complains that “The commercial breaks are so long today that it is hard for hosts to build upon where they left off. The whole audience could have changed. There is the tendency to go back to the beginning and re—set up the premise. It makes it very difficult to do what long-form programming is supposed to do.” But anything more specific is, again, guesswork. When asked about management’s thinking here, or whether there’s any particular formula KFI uses to figure out how high a spot load the market SEMI-EDITORIAL Even in formal, on-record, and very PR-savvy interviews, the language of KFI management is filled with little unconscious bits of jargon—”inventory” for the total number of ad minutes available, “product” for a given program, or (a favorite) “to monetize,” which means to extract ad revenue from a given show—that let one know exactly where KFI’s priorities lie. Granted, the station is a business, and broadcasting is not charity work. But given how intimate and relationship-driven talk radio is, it’s disheartening when management’s only term for KFI’s listeners, again and again, is “market.” will bear, Ms. Bertolucci will only smile and shrug as if pleasantly stumped: “We have more commercials than we’ve ever had, and our ratings are the best they’ve ever been.”
How often a particular spot can run over and over before listeners just can’t stand it anymore is something else no one will talk about, but the evidence suggests that KFI sees its audience as either very patient and tolerant or almost catatonically inattentive. Canned ads for local sponsors like Robbins Bros. Jewelers, Sit ‘n Sleep Mattress, and the Power Auto Group play every couple hours, 24/7, until one knows every hitch and nuance. National saturation campaigns for products like Cortislim vary things somewhat by using both endorsements and canned spots. Pitches for caveat emptor—type nostrums like Avacor (for hair loss), Enzyte (“For natural male enhancement!”), and Altovis CONSUMER ADVISORY As it happens, these two are products of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, an Ohio company with annual sales of more than $100 million, as well as over 3,000 complaints to the BBB and the Attorney General’s Office in its home state alone. Here’s why. The radio ads say you can get a thirty-day free trial of Enzyte FYI: Enzyte, which bills itself as a natural libido and virility enhancer (it also has all those “Smiling Bob & Grateful Wife” commercials on cable TV), contains tribulis terrestris, panax ginseng, ginko biloba, and a half dozen other innocuous herbal ingredients. The product costs Berkeley, in one pharmacologist’s words, “nothing to make.” But it’s de facto legal to charge hundreds of dollars a year for it, and to advertise it as an OTC Viagra. The FDA doesn’t regulate herbal meds unless people are actually falling over from taking them, and the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t have anything like the staff to keep up with the advertising claims, so it’s all basically an unregulated market. by calling a certain toll-free number. If you call, it turns out there’s a $4.90 S&H charge for the free month’s supply, which the lady on the phone wants you to put on your credit card. If you acquiesce, the company then starts shipping you more Enzyte every month and auto-billing your card for at least $35 each time, because it turns out that by taking the thirty-day trial you’ve somehow signed up for Berkeley’s automatic-purchase program—which the operator neglected to mention. And calling Berkeley Nutraceuticals to get the automatic shipments and billings stopped doesn’t much help; often they’ll stop only if some kind of consumer agency sends a letter. It’s the same with Altovis and its own “free trial.” In short, the whole thing is one of those irksome, hassle-laden marketing schemes, and KFI runs dozens of spots per day for Berkeley products. The degree to which the station is legally responsible for an advertiser’s business practices (Calls to KFI’s Sales department re consumers’ amply documented problems with Enzyte and Altovis were, as the journalists say, not returned.) is, by FTC and FCC rules, nil. But it’s hard not to see KFI’s relationship with Berkeley as another indication of the station’s true regard for its listeners. (“Helps fight daily fatigue!”) often repeat once an hour through the night. As of spring ’04, though, the most frequent and concussive ads on KFI are for mortgage and home-refi companies—Green Light Financial, HMS Capital, Home Field Financial, Benchmark Lending. Over and over. Pacific Home Financial, U.S. Mortgage Capital, Crestline Funding, Advantix Lending. Reverse mortgages, negative amortization, adjustable rates, APR, FICO … where did all these firms come from? What were these guys doing five years ago? Why is KFI’s audience seen as so especially ripe and ready for refi? Betterloans.com, lendingtree.com, Union Bank of California, on and on and on.
Emiliano Limon’s “It’s you ” seems true to an extent. But there is also the issue of persona, meaning the on-air personality that a host adopts in order to heighten the sense (somewhat paradoxically) of a real person behind the mike. It is, after all, unlikely that Rush Limbaugh always feels as jaunty and confident as he seems on the air, or that Howard Stern really is deeply fascinated by porn starlets every waking minute of the day. But a host’s persona is not the same as outright acting. For the most part, it’s probably more like the way we are all slightly different with some people than we are with others.
In some cases, though, the personas are more contrived and extreme. In the slot preceding Mr. Z.’s on KFI, for instance, is the Phil Hendrie Show , which is actually a cruel and complicated kind of meta—talk radio. What happens every night on this program is that Phil Hendrie brings on some wildly offensive guest—a man who’s leaving his wife because she’s had a mastectomy, a Little League coach who advocates corporal punishment of players, a retired colonel who claims that females’ only proper place in the military is as domestics and concubines for the officers—and first-time or casual listeners will call in and argue with the guests and (not surprisingly) get very angry and upset. Except the whole thing’s a put-on. The guests are fake, their different voices done by Hendrie (who really is a gifted mimic) with the aid of mike processing and a first-rate board op, and the show’s real entertainment is the callers, who don’t know it’s all a gag—Hendrie’s real audience, which is in on the joke, enjoys hearing these callers Apparently, one reason why Hendrie’s show was perfect for national syndication was that the wider dissemination gave Hendrie a much larger pool of uninitiated listeners to call in and entertain the initiated listeners. get more and more outraged and sputtery as the “guests” yank their chain. It’s all a bit like the old Candid Camera if the joke perpetrated over and over on that show were convincing somebody that a loved one had just died. So obviously Hendrie—whose show now draws an estimated one million listeners a week—lies on the outer frontier of radio persona.
A big part of John Ziegler’s on-air persona, on the other hand, is that he doesn’t have one. This may be just a function of all the time he’s spent in the abattoir of small-market radio, but in Los Angeles it plays as a canny and sophisticated meta-radio move. Part of his January introduction to himself and his program is “The key to the John Ziegler Show is that I am almost completely real. Nearly every show begins with the credo ‘This is the show where the host says what he believes and believes what he says.’ I do not make up my opinions or exaggerate my stories simply to stir the best debate on that particular broadcast.”
Though Mr. Z. won’t ever quite say so directly, his explicit I-have-no-persona persona helps to establish a contrast with weekday afternoons’ John Kobylt, whose on-air voice is similar to Ziegler’s in pitch and timbre. National talk-radio hosts like Limbaugh, Prager, Hendrie, Gallagher, et al. tend to have rich baritone radio voices that rarely peak, whereas today’s KFI has opted for a local-host sound that’s more like a slightly adenoidal second tenor. The voices of Kobylt, Bill Handel, Ken Chiampou, weekend host Wayne Resnick, and John Ziegler all share not only this tenor pitch but also a certain quality that is hard to describe except as sounding stressed, aggrieved, Type A: the Little Guy Who’s Had It Up To Here. Kobylt’s voice in particular has a consistently snarling, dyspeptic, fed-up quality—a perfect aural analogue to the way drivers’ faces look in jammed traffic—whereas Mr. Ziegler’s tends to rise and fall more, often hitting extreme upper registers of outraged disbelief (as in if you listen to an upset person say “I can’t be lieve it!”) . Off-air, Mr. Z.’s speaking voice is nearly an octave lower than it sounds on his program, which is a bit mysterious, since ‘Mondo denies doing anything special to the on-air voice except setting the default volume on the board’s channel 7 a bit low because “John sort of likes to yell a lot.” And Mr. Ziegler bristles at the suggestion that he, Kobylt, or Handel has anything like a high voice on the air: “It’s just that we’re passionate. Rush doesn’t get all that passionate. You try being passionate and having a low voice.” Kobylt and his sidekick Ken Chiampou have a hugely popular show based around finding stories and causes that will make white, middle-class Californians feel angry and disgusted, and then hammering away at these stories/causes day after day. Their personas are what the LA Times calls “brash” and Chiampou himself calls “rabid dogs,” which latter KFI has developed into the promo line “The Junkyard Dogs of Talk Radio.” What John & Ken really are is professional oiks. Their show is credited with helping jump-start the ’03 campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis, although they were equally disgusted by most of the candidates who wanted to replace him (q.v. Kobylt: “If there’s anything I don’t like more than politicians, CONTAINS EDITORIAL ELEMENTS It should be conceded that there is at least one real and refreshing journalistic advantage that bloggers, fringe-cable newsmen, and most talk-radio hosts have over the mainstream media: they are neither the friends nor the peers of the public officials they cover. Why this is an advantage involves an issue that tends to get obscured by the endless fight over whether there’s actually a “liberal bias” in the “elite” mainstream press. Whether one buys the bias thing or not, it is clear that leading media figures are part of a very different social and economic class than most of their audiences. See, e.g., a snippet of Eric Alterman’s recent What Liberal Media? : No longer the working-class heroes of The Front Page/His Gal Friday lore, elite journalists in Washington and New York [and LA] are rock-solid members of the political and financial Establishment about whom they write. They dine at the same restaurants and take their vacations on the same Caribbean islands … What’s more, like the politicians, their jobs are not subject to export to China or Bangladesh. This is why the really potent partisan label for the NYT/Time /network—level press is not “liberal media” but “elite media”—because the label’s true (Except some of your more slippery right-wing commentators use “elit ist media,” which sounds similar but is really a far more loaded term.) . And talk radio is very deliberately not part of this elite media. With the exception of Limbaugh and maybe Hannity, these hosts are not stars, or millionaires, or sophisticates. And a large part of their on-air persona is that they are of and for their audience—the Little Guy—and against corrupt, incompetent pols and their “spokesholes,” against smooth-talking lawyers and PC whiners and idiot bureaucrats, against illegal aliens clogging our highways and emergency rooms, paroled sex offenders living among us, punitive vehicle taxes, and stupid, self-righteous, agenda-laden laws against public smoking, SUV emissions, gun ownership, the right to watch the Nick Berg decapitation video over and over in slow motion, etc. In other words, the talk host’s persona and appeal are deeply, totally populist, and if it’s all somewhat fake—if John Kobylt can shift a little too easily from the apoplectic Little Guy of his segments to the smooth corporate shill of his live reads—then that’s just life in the big city. it’s those wormy little nerds who act as campaign handlers and staff … We just happened to on our own decide that Davis was a rotting stool that ought to be flushed”). In ’02, they organized a parade of SUVs in Sacramento to protest stricter vehicle-emissions laws; this year they spend at least an hour a day attacking various government officials and their spokesholes for failing to enforce immigration laws and trying to bullshit the citizens about it; and so on. But the John & Ken Show ‘s real specialty is gruesome, high-profile California trials, which they often cover on-site, Kobylt eschewing all PC pussyfooting and legal niceties to speak his mind about defendants like 2002’s David Westerfield and the current Scott Peterson, both “scumbags that are guilty as sin.” Besides legendary stunts like tossing broccoli at “vegetable-head” jurors for taking too long to find Westerfield guilty, Kobylt is maybe best known for shouting, “Come out, Scott! No one believes you! You can’t hide!” at a window’s silhouette as the J & K Show broadcast live from in front of Peterson’s house, which scene got re-created in at least one recent TV movie about the Scott & Laci case. The point is that John Kobylt broadcasts in an almost perpetual state of affronted rage; and, as more than one KFI staffer has ventured to observe off the record, it’s unlikely that any middle-aged man could really go around this upset all the time and not drop dead. It’s a persona, in other words, not exactly fabricated but certainly exaggerated … and of course it’s also demagoguery of the most classic and unabashed sort.
But it makes for stimulating and profitable The John & Ken Show pulls higher ratings in southern California than the syndicated Rush and Dr. Laura, which is pretty much unheard of. talk radio. As of Arbitron’s winter ’04 Book, KFI AM-640 has become the No. 1 talk station in the country, beating out New York’s WABC in both Cume and AQH These are measurement categories in Arbitron Inc.’s Radio Market Reports, which reports come out four times a year and are known in the industry as “Books.” In essence, Cume is the total measure of all listeners, and AQH (for “Average Quarter Hour”) represents the mean number of listeners in any given fifteen-minute period. for the coveted 25—54 audience. KFI also now has the second highest market share of any radio station in Los Angeles, trailing only hip-hop giant KPWR. In just one year, KFI has gone from being the eighteenth to the seventh top-billing station in the country, which is part of why it received the 2003 News/Talk Station of the Year Award from Radio and Records magazine. Much of this recent success is attributed to Ms. Robin Bertolucci, the Program Director brought in from Denver shortly after Clear Channel acquired KFI, whom Mr. Z. describes as “a real superstar in the business right now.” From all reports, Ms. Bertolucci has done everything from redesigning the station’s ID and Sweeper and sound and overall in-your-face vibe to helping established hosts fine-tune their personas and create a distinctively KFI-ish style and ‘tude for their shows.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Bertolucci meets with John Ziegler to review the previous week and chat about how the show’s going. The Program Director’s large private office is located just off the KFI prep room (where Mr. Z.’s own office is a small computer table with a homemade THIS AREA RESERVED FOR JOHN ZIEGLER taped to it). Ms. B. is soft-spoken, polite, unpretentious, and almost completely devoid of moving parts. Here is her on-record explanation of the Program Director’s role w/r/t the John Ziegler Show :
“It’s John’s show. He’s flying the airplane, a big 747. What I am, I’m the little person in the control tower. I have a different perspective—”
“I have no perspective!” Mr. Z. interrupts, with a loud laugh, from his seat before her desk.
“—which might be of value. Like, ‘You may want to pull up because you’re heading for a mountain.'” They both laugh. It’s an outrageous bit of understatement: nine months ago John Ziegler’s career was rubble, and Ms. B. is the only reason he’s here, and she’s every inch his boss, and he’s nervous around her—which you can tell by the way he puts his long legs out and leans back in his chair with his hands in his slacks’ pockets and yawns a lot and tries to look exaggeratedly relaxed. (On the other hand, he omits to wear his golf cap in her office, and his hair shows evidence of recent combing.)
The use of some esoteric technical slang occasions a brief Q & A on how exactly Arbitron In truth, just about everyone at KFI except Ms. B. refers to Arbitron as “Arbitraryon.” This is because it’s 100 percent diary-based, and diary surveys are notoriously iffy, since a lot of subjects neglect to fill out their diaries in real time (especially when they’re listening as they drive), tending instead to wait till the night before they’re due and then trying to do them from memory. Plus it’s widely held that certain ethnic minorities are chronically mis- or over-represented in metro LA’s Books, evidently because Arbitron has a hard time recruiting these minorities as subjects, and when it lands a few it tends to stick with them week after week. works, while Mr. Z. joggles his sneaker impatiently. Then they go over the past week. Ms. B. gently chides the new host for not hitting the Greg Haidl trial harder, and for usually discussing the case in his show’s second hour instead of the first. Her thrust: “It’s a big story for us. It’s got sex, it’s got police, class issues, kids running amok, video, the courts, and who gets away with what. And it’s in Orange County.” When Mr. Ziegler (whose off-air method of showing annoyance or frustration is to sort of hang his head way over to one side) protests that both Bill Handel and John & Ken have already covered the story six ways from Sunday every day and there is no way for him to do anything fresh or stimulating with it, Ms. B. nods slowly and responds: “If we were KIIS-FM, and we had a new Christina Aguilera song, and they played it heavy on the morning show and the afternoon show, wouldn’t you still play it on the evening show?” At which Mr. Z. sort of lolls his head from side to side several times—”All right. I see your point. All right”—and on tonight’s (i.e., May 19’s) program he does lead with and spend much of the first hour on the latest Haidl developments. FOR THOSE OUTSIDE SOUTHERN CA Haidl, the teenage son of an Orange County Asst. Sheriff, is accused, together with some chums, of gang-raping an unconscious girl at a party two or three years ago. Rocket scientists all, the perps had videotaped the whole thing and then managed to lose the tape, which eventually found its way to the police.
By way of post-meeting analysis, it is worth noting that a certain assumption behind Ms. B.’s Christina Aguilera analogy—namely, that a criminal trial is every bit as much an entertainment product as a Top 40 song—was not questioned or even blinked at by either participant. This is doubtless one reason for KFI’s ratings éclat—the near total conflation of news and entertainment. It also explains why KFI’s twice-hourly newscasts (which are always extremely short, and densely interwoven with station promos and live-read ads) concentrate so heavily on lurid, tabloidish stories. Post—Nick Berg, the station’s newscasts in May and early June tend to lead with child-molestation charges against local clerics and teachers, revelations in the Peterson and Haidl trials, and developments in the Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson cases. With respect to Ms. Bertolucci’s on-record description of KFI’s typical listener—”An information-seeking person that wants to know what’s going on in the world and wants to be communicated to in an interesting, entertaining, stimulating sort of way”—it seems fair to observe that KFI provides a peculiar and very selective view of what’s going on in the world.
Ms. B.’s description turns out to be loaded in a number of ways. The role of news and information versus personal and persona-driven stuff on the John Ziegler Show , for example, is a matter that Mr. Z. and his producer see very differently. Emiliano Limon, who’s worked at the station for over a decade and believes he knows its audience, sees “two distinct eras at KFI. [meaning for the station in its current talk format, which started sometime in the eighties. KFI itself has been on the air since 1922—the “FI” actually stands for “Farm Information.”] The first was the opinion-driven, personal, here’s-my-take-on-things era. The second is the era we’re in right now, putting the information first.” Emiliano refers to polls he’s seen indicating that most people in southern California get their news from local TV newscasts and Jay Leno’s monologue on the Tonight show . “We go on the presumption that the average driver, average listener, isn’t reading the news the way we are. We read everything .” In fact, this voracious news-reading is a big part of Emiliano’s job. He is, like most talk-radio producers, a virtuoso on the Internet, and he combs through a daily list of sixty national papers, ‘zines, and blogs, and he believes that his and KFI’s main function is to provide “a kind of executive news summary Again, this sort of claim seems a little tough to reconcile with the actual news that KFI concentrates on, but—as Mr. Z. himself once pointedly observed during a Q & A—interviewing somebody is not the same as arguing with him over every last little thing. ” for busy listeners. In a separate Q & A, though, Mr. Ziegler (with whom Emiliano, from all indications, does not enjoy a very chummy or simpatico relationship, although he’s always a master of tact and circumspection on the subject of Mr. Z.) ‘s take on the idea of his show’s providing news is wholly different: “We’re trying to get away from that, actually. The original thought was that this would be mostly an informational show, and now we’re trying to get a little more toward personality The upshot here is that there’s a sort of triangular dissonance about the John Ziegler Show and how best to stimulate LA listeners. From all available evidence, Robin Bertolucci wants the program to be mainly info-driven (according to KFI’s particular definition of info), but she wants the information heavily editorialized and infused with ‘tude and in-your-face energy. Mr. Ziegler interprets this as the P.D.’s endorsing his talking a lot about himself, which Emiliano Limon views as an antiquated, small-market approach that is not going to be very interesting to people in Los Angeles, who tend to get more than their share of colorful personality and idiosyncratic opinion just in the course of their normal day. If Emiliano is right, then Mr. Z. may simply be too old-school and self-involved for KFI, or at least not yet aware of how different the appetites of a New York or LA market are from those of a Louisville or Raleigh. ” … which, since Mr. Z. makes a point of not having a special on-air persona, means more stuff about himself, John Ziegler—his experiences, his résumé, his political and cultural outlook and overall philosophy of life.
(3) If we’re willing to disregard the complicating precedents of Joe Pyne and Alan Burke, (famous “confrontational” talk hosts of the sixties) then the origins of contemporary political talk radio can be traced to three phenomena of the 1980s. The first of these involved AM music stations’ getting absolutely murdered by FM, which could broadcast music in stereo and allowed for much better fidelity on high and low notes. The human voice, on the other hand, is mid-range and doesn’t require high fidelity. The eighties’ proliferation of talk formats on the AM band also provided new careers for some music deejays—e.g., Don Imus, Morton Downey Jr.—whose chatty personas didn’t fit well with FM’s all-about-the-music ethos.
The second big factor was the repeal, late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, of what was known as the Fairness Doctrine. This was a 1949 FCC rule designed to minimize any possible restrictions on free speech caused by limited access to broadcasting outlets. The idea was that, as one of the conditions for receiving an FCC broadcast license, a station had to “devote reasonable attention to the coverage of controversial issues of public importance,” and consequently had to provide “reasonable, although not necessarily equal” opportunities for opposing sides to express their views. Because of the Fairness Doctrine, talk stations had to hire and program symmetrically: if you had a three-hour program whose host’s politics were on one side of the ideological spectrum, you had to have another long-form program whose host more or less spoke for the other side. Weirdly enough, up through the mid-eighties it was usually the U.S. right that benefited most from the Doctrine. Pioneer talk syndicator Ed McLaughlin, who managed San Francisco’s KGO KGO happens to be the station where Ms. Robin Bertolucci, fresh out of Cal-Berkeley, first broke into talk radio. in the 1960s, recalls that “I had more liberals on the air than I had conservatives or even moderates for that matter, and I had a hell of a time finding the other voice.”
The Fairness Doctrine’s repeal was part of the sweeping deregulations of the Reagan era, which aimed to liberate all sorts of industries from government interference and allow them to compete freely in the marketplace. The old, Rooseveltian logic of the Doctrine had been that since the airwaves belonged to everyone, a license to profit from those airwaves conferred on the broadcast industry some special obligation to serve the public interest. Commercial radio broadcasting was not, in other words, originally conceived as just another for-profit industry; it was supposed to meet a higher standard of social responsibility. After 1987, though, just another industry is pretty much what radio became, and its only real responsibility now (except, obviously, for some restrictions on naughty language) is to attract and retain listeners in order to generate revenue. In other words, the sort of distinction explicitly drawn by FCC Chairman Newton Minow in the 1960s—namely, that between “the public interest” and “merely what interests the public”—no longer exists. CONTAINS WHAT MIGHT BE PERCEIVED AS EDITORIAL ELEMENTS It seems only fair and balanced to observe, from the imagined perspective of a Neal Boortz or John Ziegler, that Minow’s old distinction reflected exactly the sort of controlling, condescending, nanny-state liberal attitude that makes government regulation such a bad idea. For how and why does a federal bureaucrat like Newton Minow get to decide what “the public interest” is? Why not respect the American people enough to let the public itself decide what interests it? Of course, this sort of objection depends on precisely the collapse of “the public interest” into “what happens to interest the public” that liberals object to. For the distinction between these two is itself liberal, as is the idea of a free press’s and broadcast media’s special responsibilities—”liberal” in the sense of being rooted in a concern for the common good DITTO (Which does indeed entail government’s arrogating the power to decide what that common good is, it’s true. On the other hand, the idea is that at least government officials are elected, or appointed by elected representatives, and thus are somewhat accountable to the public they’re deciding for. What appears to drive liberals most crazy about the right’s conflation of “common good” / “public interest” with “what wins in the market” is the conviction that it’s all a scam, that what the deregulation of industries like broadcasting, health care, and energy really amounts to is the subordination of the public’s interests to the financial interests of large corporations. Which is, of course, all part of a very deep, serious national argument about the role and duties of government that America’s having with itself right now. It is an argument that’s not being plumbed at much depth on political talk radio, though—at least not the more legitimate, non-wacko claims of some on the left [a neglect that then strengthens liberal suspicions that all these conservative talk hosts are just spokesholes for their corporate masters … and around and around it all goes].) over and above the preferences of individual citizens. The point is that the debate over things like the Fairness Doctrine and the proper responsibility of broadcasters quickly hits ideological bedrock on both sides.
More or less on the heels of the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal came the West Coast and then national syndication of The Rush Limbaugh Show The crucial connection with the F.D.’s repeal was not Rush’s show but that show’s syndicatability. A station could now purchase and air three daily hours of Limbaugh without being committed to programming another three hours of Sierra Club or Urban League or something. through Mr. McLaughlin’s EFM Media. EFM Media, named for Edward F. McLaughlin, was a sort of Old Testament patriarch of modern syndication, although Mr. McL. tended to charge subscribing stations cash instead of splitting the Clock, because he wanted a low spot load that would give Rush maximum air time to build his audience. Limbaugh is the third great progenitor of today’s political talk radio partly because he’s a host of extraordinary, once-in-a-generation talent and charisma—bright, loquacious, witty, complexly authoritative—whose show’s blend of news, entertainment, and partisan analysis became the model for legions of imitators. But he was also the first great promulgator of the Mainstream Media’s Liberal Bias idea. In truth, Rush’s disdain for the “liberal press” somewhat recalls good old Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the Washington press corps (as in “nattering nabobs,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs,” etc.), with the crucial difference being that Agnew’s charges always came off as thuggish and pathetic in that “liberal press,” which at the time was the only vector for their transmission. Because of his own talent and the popularity of his show, Rush was able to move partisan distrust for the mainstream “liberal media” into the mainstream itself. This turned out to be a brilliantly effective rhetorical move, since the MMLB concept functioned simultaneously as a standard around which Rush’s audience could rally, as an articulation of the need for right-wing (i.e., unbiased) media, and as a mechanism by which any criticism or refutation of conservative ideas could be dismissed (either as biased or as the product of indoctrination by biased media). Boiled way down, the MMLB thesis is able both to exploit and to perpetuate many conservatives’ dissatisfaction with extant media sources—and it’s this dissatisfaction that cements political talk radio’s large and loyal audience. JUST CLEAR-EYED, DISPASSIONATE REASON Notwithstanding all sorts of interesting other explanations, the single biggest reason why left-wing talk-radio experiments like Air America or the Ed Schultz program are not likely to succeed, at least not on a national level, is that their potential audience is just not dissatisfied enough with today’s mainstream news sources to feel that it has to patronize a special type of media to get the unbiased truth.
In the best Rush Limbaugh tradition, Mr. Ziegler takes pride in his on-air sense of humor. His media criticism is often laced with wisecracks, and he likes to leaven his show’s political and cultural analyses with timely ad-lib gags, such as “It’s maybe a good thing that Catholics and Muslims don’t tend to marry. If they had a kid, he’d grow up and then, what, abuse some child and then blow him up?” And he has a penchant for comic maxims (“Fifty percent of all marriages are confirmed failures, while the other fifty percent end in divorce”; “The female figure is the greatest known evidence that there might be a God, but the female psyche is an indication that this God has a very sick sense of humor”) that he uses on the air and then catalogues as “Zieglerisms” on his KFI Web site .
The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible. Mr. Z. can also, when time and the demands of prep permit, go long-form. In his program’s final hour for May 22, he delivers a mock commencement address to the Class of 2004, a piece of prepared sit-down comedy that is worth excerpting, verbatim, as a sort of keyhole into the professional psyche of Mr. John Ziegler:
Class of 2004, congratulations on graduation … I wish to let you in on a few secrets that those of you who are not completely brain-dead Again, this is all better, and arguably funnier, when delivered aloud in Mr. Z.’s distinctive way. will eventually figure out on your own, but, if you listen to me, will save a lot of time and frustration. First of all, most of what you have been taught in your academic career is not true. I am not just talking about the details of history that have been distorted to promote the liberal agenda of academia. I am also referring to the big-picture lessons of life as well. The sad truth is that, contrary to what most of you have been told, you cannot do or be anything you want. EDITORIAL QUIBBLE It’s unclear just when in college Mr. Z. thinks students are taught that they can do or be anything. A good part of what he considers academia’s leftist agenda, after all, consists in teaching kids about social and economic stratification, inequalities, uneven playing fields—all the U.S. realities that actually (if conservatively disposed, please substitute “allegedly”) limit possibilities for some people. The vast majority of you … will be absolutely miserable in whatever career you choose or are forced to endure. You will most likely hate your boss because they will most likely be dumber than you think you are, and they will inevitably screw you at every chance they get … The boss will not be the only stupid person you encounter in life. The vast majority of people are much , much dumber than you have ever been led to believe. Never forget this. And just like people are far dumber than you have been led to believe, they are also far more dishonest than anyone is seemingly willing to admit to you. If you have any doubt as to whether someone is telling you the truth, it is a safe bet to assume that they are lying to you … Do not trust anyone unless you have some sort of significant leverage over him or her and they know that you have that leverage over them. Unless this condition exists, anyone—and I mean anyone —can and probably will stab you in the back. That is about one sixth of the address, and for the most part it speaks for itself.
One of many intriguing things about Mr. Ziegler, though, is the contrast between his deep cynicism about backstabbing and the naked, seemingly self-destructive candor with which he’ll discuss his life and career. The best guess re Mr. Z.’s brutal on-record frankness is that either (a) the host’s on- and off-air personas really are identical, or (b) he regards speaking to a magazine correspondent as just one more part of his job, which is to express himself in a maximally stimulating way (there was a tape recorder out, after all). This candor becomes almost paradoxical in Q & As with an outside correspondent, (for a magazine, moreover, that pretty much everyone around KFI regards as a chattering-class organ of the most elitist liberal kind ) a stranger whom Mr. Z. has no particular reason to trust at those times when he winces after saying something and asks that it be struck from the record. As it happens, however, nearly all of what follows is from an autobiographical time-line volunteered by John Ziegler (while both eating and watching a Lakers playoff game on a large-screen high-def TV, which latter was the only condition he placed on the interview) in late May ’04 over a very large medium-rare steak. Especially interesting is the time-line’s mixture of raw historical fact and passionate editorial opinion, which Mr. Z. blends so seamlessly that one really can believe he discerns no difference between them.
1967–1989: Mr. John Ziegler grows up in suburban Philadelphia, the elder son of a financial manager and a homemaker. All kinds of unsummarizable evidence indicates that Mr. Z. and his mother are very close. In 1984, he is named High School Golfer of the Year by the Bucks County Courier Times . He’s also a three-year golf letterman at Georgetown, where his liberal arts studies turn out to be “a great way to prepare for a life of being unemployed, which I’ve done quite a bit of.”
1989–1995: Mr. Z.’s original career is in local TV sports. He works for stations in and around Washington DC, in Steubenville OH, and finally in Raleigh NC. Though sports news is what he’s wanted to do ever since he was a little boy, he hates the jobs (especially the one at Raleigh’s WLFL Fox 22—”My boss there was the worst boss in the history of bosses”) : “The whole world of sports and local news is so disgusting … local TV news is half a step above prostitution.”
1994–1995: Both personally and professionally, this period constitutes a dark night of the soul for John Ziegler. Summer ’94: O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife is brutally murdered. Fall ’94: Mr. Ziegler’s mother is killed in a car crash. Winter ’95: During his sportscast, Mr. Z. makes “an incredibly tame joke about O.J. Simpson’s lack of innocence” w/r/t his wife’s murder, which draws some protest from Raleigh’s black community. John Ziegler is eventually fired from WLFL because the station “caved in to Political Correctness.” The whole nasty incident marks the start of (a) Mr. Z.’s deep, complex hatred for all things PC, and (b) “my history with O.J.” He falls into a deep funk, decides to give up sports broadcasting, “pretty much gave up on life, actually.” Mr. Z. spends his days watching the O.J. Simpson trial on cable television, often sitting through repeat broadcasts of the coverage late at night; and when O.J. is finally acquitted, “I was nearly suicidal.” Two psychiatrist golf buddies talk him into going on antidepressants, but much of the time O.J. is still all Mr. Ziegler can think and talk about. “It got so bad— you’ll find this funny ?! —at one point I was so depressed that it was my goal, assuming that he’d be acquitted and that [O.J.’s] Riviera Country Club wouldn’t have the guts to kick him out, that I was going to become a caddy at Riviera, knock him off, and see whether or not [a certain lawyer Mr. Z. also played golf with, whose name is here omitted] could get me off on jury nullification. That’s how obsessed I was.” The lawyer/golfer/friend’s reaction to this plan is not described.
Late 1995: Mr. Z. decides to give life and broadcasting another shot. Figuring that “maybe my controversial nature would work better on talk radio,” he takes a job as a weekend fill-in host for a station in Fuquay-Varina NC—”the worst talk-radio station on the planet … to call the station owner a redneck was insulting to rednecks”—only to be abruptly fired when the station switches to an automated Christian-music format.
Early 1996: “I bought, actually bought , time on a Raleigh talk-radio station” in order to start “putting together a Tape, A Tape is sort of the radio/TV equivalent of an artist’s portfolio. ” although Mr. Z. is good enough on the air that they soon put him on as a paid host. What happens, though, is that this station uses a certain programming consultant, As Mr. Z. explains it, consultants work as freelance advisers to different stations’ Program Directors—”They sort of give the P.D. a cover if he hires somebody and it doesn’t work out.” whose name is being omitted—”a pretty big name in the industry, who [however] is a snake , and, I believe, extremely overrated—and he at first really took a shine to me, and then told me, told me , to do a show on how I got fired from the TV job, and I did the show,” which evidently involves retelling the original tame O.J. joke, after which the herpetic consultant stands idly by as the station informs Mr. Z. that “‘We’re done with you, no thank you,’ which was another blow.”
1996–1997: Another radio consultant recommends Mr. Z. for a job at WWTN, a Nashville talk station, where he hosts an evening show that makes good Book and is largely hassle-free for several months. Of his brief career at WWTN, the host now feels that “I kind of self-destructed there, actually, in retrospect. I got frustrated with management. I was right, but I was stupid as well.” The trouble (the whole story of which is very involved and takes up almost half a microcassette) starts when Tiger Woods (whom the host reveres—a standing gag on his KFI program is that Mr. Z. is a deacon in the First Church of Tiger Woods) wins the 1997 Masters. As part of his commentary on the tournament, Mr. Z. posits on-air that Tiger constitutes living proof of the fact that “not all white people are racists.” His supporting argument is that “no white person would ever think of Tiger as a nigger,” because whites draw a mental distinction “between people who just happen to be black and people who act like niggers.” His reason for broadcasting the actual word “nigger”? “This all goes back to O.J. I hated the fact that the media treated viewers and listeners like children by saying ‘Mark Fuhrman used the N-word.’ I despised that, and I think it gives the word too much power. Plus there’s the whole hypocrisy of how black people can use it and white people can’t. I was young and naive and thought I could stand on principle.” As part of that principled stand, Mr. Z. soon redeploys the argument and the word in a discussion of boxer Mike Tyson, whereupon he is fired, “even though there was very little listener reaction.” As Mr. Z. understands it, the reason for his dismissal is that “a single black employee complained,” and WWTN’s parent, “a lily-white company,” feared that it was “very vulnerable” to a discrimination lawsuit.
1998–1999: Mr. Z. works briefly as a morning fill-in at Nashville’s WLAC, whose studios are right across the street from the station that just fired him. From there, he is hired to do overnights at WWDB, an FM talk station in Philadelphia, his home town. There are again auspicious beginnings … “except my boss, [the P.D. who hired him], is completely unstable and ends up punching out a consultant, and gets fired. At that point I’m totally screwed—I have nobody who’s got my back, and everybody’s out to get me.” Mr. Z. is suddenly fired to make room for syndicated raunchmeister Tom Leykis, For those unfamiliar with Tom Leykis: Imagine Howard Stern without the cleverness. then is quickly rehired when listener complaints get Leykis’s program taken off the air … then is refired a week later when the station juggles its schedule again. Mr. Z. on his time at WWDB: “I should have sued those bastards.”
Q: So what exactly is the point of a host’s having a contract if the station can evidently just up and fire you whenever they feel like it?
A: “The only thing a contract’s worth in radio is how much they’re going to pay you when they fire you. And if they fire you ‘For Cause,’ then they don’t have to pay you anything.”
2000: John Ziegler moves over to WIP, a famous Philadelphia sports-talk station. “I hated it, but I did pretty well. I can do sports, obviously, and it was also a big political year.” But there is both a general problem and a specific problem. The general problem is that “The boss there, [name omitted], is an evil, evil, evil, evil man. If God said, ‘John, you get one person to kill for free,’ this would be the man I would kill. And I would make it brutally painful.” The specific problem arises when “Mike Tyson holds a press conference, and calls himself a nigger. And I can’t resist—I mean, here I’ve gotten fired in the past for using the word in relation to a person who calls himself that now. I mean, my God. So I tell the story [of having used the word and gotten fired for it] on the air, but I do not use the N-word—I spell the N-word, In the Q & A itself, Mr. Z. goes back and forth between actually using the N-word and merely referring to it as “the N-word,” without apparent pattern or design. every single time, to cover my ass, and to also make a point of the absurdity of the whole thing. And we get one, one, postcard, from a total lunatic black person—misspellings, just clearly a lunatic. And [Mr. Z.’s boss at WIP] calls me in and says, ‘John, I think you’re a racist.’ Now, first of all, this guy is a racist, I mean he is a real racist. I am anything but a racist, EDITORIAL OPINION This is obviously a high-voltage area to get into, but for what it’s worth, John Ziegler does not appear to be a racist as “racist” is generally understood. What he is is more like very, very insensitive—although Mr. Z. himself would despise that description, if only because “insensitive” is now such a PC shibboleth. Actually, though, it is in the very passion of his objection to terms like “insensitive,” “racist,” and “the N-word” that his real problem lies. Like many other post-Limbaugh hosts, John Ziegler seems unable to differentiate between (1) cowardly, hypocritical acquiescence to the tyranny of Political Correctness and (2) judicious, compassionate caution about using words that cause pain to large groups of human beings, especially when there are several less upsetting words that can be used. Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political Correctness as a dogma (just one person’s opinion …) , there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which Mr. Z. and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions. If it causes you real pain to hear or see something, and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you THIS, TOO (And let’s be real: spelling out a painful word is no improvement. In some ways, it’s worse than using the word outright, since spelling it could easily be seen as implying that the people who are upset by the word are also too dumb to spell it. What’s puzzling here is that Mr. Ziegler seems much too bright and self-aware not to understand this.) merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there’s something wrong with my sense of proportion, or my recognition of your basic humanity, or both. but to be called that by him just made my blood boil. I mean, life’s too short to be working overnights for this fucking bastard.” A day or two later Mr. Z. is fired, For Cause, for spelling the N-word on-air.
Q: It sounds like you’ve got serious personal reasons for disliking Political Correctness.
A: “Oh my God, yes. My whole life has been ruined by it. I’ve lost relationships, I can’t get married, I can’t have kids, all because of Political Correctness. I can’t put anybody else through the crap I’ve been through. Mr. Z. explains that he’s referring here to the constant moving around and apartment-hunting and public controversy caused by the firings. His sense of grievance and loss seems genuine. But one should also keep in mind how vital, for political talk hosts in general, is this sense of embattled persecution—by the leftist mainstream press, by slick Democratic operatives, by liberal lunatics and identity politics and PC and rampant cynical pandering. All of which provides the constant conflict required for good narrative and stimulating radio. Not, in John Ziegler’s case, that any of his anger and self-pity A corollary possibility: The reason why the world as interpreted by many hosts is one of such thoroughgoing selfishness and cynicism and fear is that these are qualities of the talk-radio industry they are part of, and they (like professionals everywhere) tend to see their industry as a reflection of the real world. is contrived—but they can be totally real and still function as parts of the skill set he brings to his job. I can’t do it.”
2001: While writing freelance columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News , Mr. Ziegler also gets work at a small twenty-four-hour Comcast cable-TV network in Philly, where he’s a writer and commentator on a prime-time issues-related talk show. Although Comcast is “an evil, evil, evil company, [which] created that network for the sole purpose of giving blowjobs to politicians who vote on Comcast legislation,” Mr. Z. discovers that “I’m actually really good at talk TV. I was the best thing that ever happened to this show. I actually ended up winning an Emmy, which is ironic.” There are, however, serious and irresolvable problems with a female producer on the show, the full story of which you are going to be spared (mainly because of legal worries).
2002: John Ziegler is hired as the mid-morning host at Clear Channel’s WHAS in Louisville, which Arbitron lists as the fifty-fifth largest radio market in the U.S. According to a local paper, the host’s “stormy, thirteen-month tenure in Louisville was punctuated by intrigue, outrage, controversy and litigation.” According to John Ziegler, “The whole story would make a great movie—in fact, my whole life would make a great movie, but this in particular would make a great movie.” Densely compressed synopsis: For several quarters, Mr. Z.’s program is a great success in Louisville. “I’m doing huge numbers—in one Book I got a fifteen share, which is ridiculous.” He is also involved in a very public romance with one Darcie Divita, a former LA Lakers cheerleader who is part of a morning news show on the local Fox TV affiliate. The relationship is apparently Louisville’s version of Ben & J.Lo, and its end is not amicable. Here, some of John Ziegler’s specific remarks about Darcie Divita are being excised at his request. It turns out that Ms. Divita is suing both the host and WHAS—Mr. Z.’s deposition is scheduled for summer ’04. In August ’03, prompted by callers’ questions on his regular “Ask John Anything” feature, Mr. Z. makes certain on-air comments about Ms. Divita’s breasts, underwear, genital grooming, and libido. Part of the enduring controversy over John Ziegler’s firing, which occurs a few days later, is exactly how much those comments and/or subsequent complaints from listeners and the Louisville media had to do with it. Mr. Z. has a long list of reasons for believing that his P.D. was really just looking for an excuse to can him. As for all the complaints, Mr. Z. remains bitter and perplexed: (1) “The comments I made about Darcie’s physical attributes were extremely positive in nature”; (2) “Darcie had, in the past, volunteered information about her cleavage on my program”; (3) “I’ve gone much further with other public figures without incident … I mocked [Kentucky Governor] Paul Patton for his inability to bring Tina Conner to orgasm, [and] no one from management ever even mentioned it to me.”
John Ziegler on why he thinks he was hired for the Live and Local job by KFI (after what Ms. Bertolucci characterizes as “a really big search around the country”) : “They needed somebody ‘available.’ Mr. Z. explains the scare Quote: : s around “available” as meaning that the experimental gig didn’t offer the sort of compensation that could lure a large-market host away from another station. He describes his current KFI salary as “in the low six figures.” ” And on the corporate logic behind his hiring: “It’s among the most bizarre things I’ve ever been involved in. To simultaneously be fired by Clear Channel and negotiate termination in a market where I had immense value and be courted by the same company in a market where I had no current value is beyond explicable.”

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