Editorial by John Ziegler

Making Radio Waves

2/17/2002 6:11:42 PM

Making Radio Waves

In just the past week, Philadelphia has been the origin of two radio interview confrontations that have created enormous controversy and received national attention. Both, while vastly different in their subject matter and tone, provided great insight into the nature of humanity as well as the median on which they were broadcast.

The first was a taped interview for the nationally syndicated NPR show "Fresh Air," which is produced out of WHYY (90.9 FM). The host of the show, the mild mannered and well respected Terry Gross, sat down with Gene Simmons, who is the leader of the heavy metal rock band KISS. The image of the gentle Gross with her highbrow style conversing with a man most well known for his extreme make up, snake-like tongue, and extraordinary sexual conquests was certainly enough to make one suspect that this would be no ordinary "let me plug my new book" interview. To say that these two are like oil and water would not just be clich?, it would be misleading. At least oil and water are both liquids.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the discussion had more tension and awkwardness than a date between the President of the NOW and Mike Tyson. Gross called Simmons "obnoxious" and Simmons referred to both Gross and NPR as "boring." Newspapers everywhere were abuzz with the tales of Simmons' sexually charged response to Gross' inquiry of his studded codpiece.

Like many who missed the original airing of the interview I was curious enough to tune in when the show was repeated. Fortunately, it wasn't difficult to catch a replay; it was seemingly on WHYY all of the time. Coincidentally, last week also happened to be WHYY's fund raising drive, and it was clear that the Simmons interview and the publicity it was creating would not likely hurt contributions.

I caught the "last" airing of the interview on Friday night during the final hour of the donor campaign. I was surprised to find that Simmons, who had been portrayed as the moronic "bad boy" in every news account that I had read, actually came off as extremely honest, very well spoken, and remarkably insightful.

I can totally understand how his unorthodox view of the role of sex and money could offend someone like Gross to whom that kind of cynical worldview is a square peg in a round hole. However, I do no believe that either party behaved in a manner that could be described as inappropriate (with the possible exception of Gross calling her interview subject "obnoxious" when he had not yet attacked her personally at all).

The truly bizarre moment occurred during a break in the action when WHYY's Patrick Stoner interrupted to beg for dollars. While praising of Gross' handling of the interview, he declared that had Gross been working on a commercial station she would be forced to do this type of "controversial" radio all the time and that this is why the listeners needed to support public radio. The irony (not to mention hypocrisy) of WHYY running and hyping an interview to increase listenership at a critical time and then claiming that is the very sort of programming we need to protect AGAINST, was difficult to miss.

The other radio confrontation occurred on sports radio WIP (a station on which I used to host a show) and contained much higher levels of octane and vitriol. The skirmish occurred between WIP's Mike Missanelli and the Washington Post's Mike Wilbon. Wilbon had written that the Kobe Bryant booing flap was "Why it's okay to hate Philly" and Missanelli had him on the air to defend himself to the Philly faithful.

This interview wasted no time with formalities (perhaps because WIP's boss greatly limits the time of all calls and hates interviews) and went directly to "DefCon Five." Missanelli described Wilbon's column an "irresponsible piece of garbage" and charged that he hadn't done his homework on the history of the city's relationship with Kobe. Wilbon immediately threatened to hang up, got very loud, and then called Missanelli a "Punk" at least twice during the exchange. Things got so heated that Missanell's co-host, Howard Eskin (no stranger to name calling), actually felt the need to pacify Wilbon.

The altercation quickly became the talk of the station and much of the local sports public. My guess is that ratings (during a sweeps month) for Wilbon's ESPN television show were enhanced here in Philadelphia and I am quite sure that neither Missanelli's radio or TV employer minded the added exposure for their sportscaster.

In the end, everyone "won." Whether real or contrived (the latter is often safer and more "effective" than that former), confrontation sells. The sad truth is that in radio (apparently even the "public" variety), that is all that really matters.

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