Monday, November 17, 2008

Shelley's gossip column

I had to laugh when I read the Milwaukee Magazine article by former WTMJ-AM news director Dan Shelley about the “secrets” of talk radio. If you had any doubt about where he was coming from, the opening sentence gave the game away, “I first got into journalism because I thought I could make a difference.”

Not because he liked learning interesting stories, or writing, or whatever. Shelley started his career in “news” with an agenda. Maybe Shelley’s a frustrated talk show host wannabe. Maybe it was just frustrating that he couldn’t change the world with the impact of Charlie Sykes.

But to hold a grudge this long for one “I told you so” minute about a snowstorm is rather silly to me.

Shelley makes a lot of generalizations, many of which reinforce some of the stereotypes of talk radio. And when he gets into specifics, he doesn’t seem to have any point at all.

What are the examples Shelley offers?

The aforementioned snowstorm, that Sykes did not want to talk about and hype. Shelley believed the audience wanted to talk about it and Sykes understandably was a little grumpy about somebody telling him what should be the content of his show.

I think Sykes should talk more about the Dallas Cowboys and martinis. Let’s see what happens when I walk in during one of his commercial breaks and tell him.

Then there was the tennis incident. Sykes didn’t think the station should be revealing the Wimbledon results, and some tennis fanatics called Shelley to complain. Reading Shelley you would think Henry V was alive and well and still upset about the gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin. Did Shelley reply to callers,

We are glad the Charlie is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb'd
With chaces.

Then there was Harley Davidson’s 100th Anniversary. According to Shelley, Sykes didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps Sykes thought his program should be an island in the middle of all-Harley-all-the-time. And then, horror of horrors, Sykes didn’t think it was funny when someone else made fun of him on the air. From this single example, Shelley observes of all talk show hosts, “They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.”

So what are these really examples of? That Sykes might have a different view of Shelley on what constitutes entertaining radio? Or are these cheap gossip points? Certainly not examples of any big “secret” demonstrative of a general trend in talk radio.

Let’s look at the two examples that are at least related to politics.

Shelley was horrified at the slow reaction of the federal government to Hurricane Katrina, and more so at Sykes’ coverage of the event. Yet as events later proved, much of the mainstream media hype turned out to be false. Meanwhile, talk radio was able to cover different aspects of the disaster that was not going to be covered in the mainstream media, including waste and fraud in the aid programs and the unlawful confiscations of weapons.

The other example is the proposed amendment to Wisconsin’s constitution to ban gay marriage. Shelley and Sykes tell two completely different versions. In Shelley’s version, Sykes was opposed but didn’t want to tick off his radio audience. In Sykes’ version, Sykes was undecided. The facts lean towards Sykes’ version of events. If Sykes was truly opposed to the amendment, according to Shelley’s stereotypes of talk radio Sykes would not have hosted a debate on the air. But Sykes not only did so, he often expressed his ambivalence on the issue on the air, probably to the frustration of much of his audience. (I even teased on my blog predicting in 2007 Sykes would make up his mind on the ban. I don’t think he has yet.)

If anything, Sykes’ behavior during the debate on banning gay marriage in the constitution was everything Shelley seems to want in talk radio. But in this case, Shelley didn’t want Sykes to be balanced on the issue; Shelley wanted Sykes to take his side.

But you’ll be happy to know that Shelley was always there for Sykes (and Jeff Wagner). He tried to help Mark Reardon. He even worked with the sports personalities to make them “human.” He was a good Dr. Frankenstein.

Now he’s out in New York City, and the biggest item on his resume is that he was the news director and assistant program manager at a radio station he claims was called “WGOP” by former Mayor John Norquist. There has been speculation why Shelley would dish the gossip on his former colleagues, especially in the comments at the Milwaukee Magazine site. Perhaps it’s a simple matter of geography, looking for a career in liberal New York City but stuck having to apologize for working at a conservative talk radio station. Must suck when he has to talk to all the right kind of people.