On (and off) the air

First: I will be on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin program today doing the 8 a.m. Week in Review segment. (My prerecorded self will also be on at 9 p.m.)

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Ideas Network can be heard on WHA (970 AM) in Madison, WLBL (930 AM) in Auburndale, WHID (88.1 FM) in Green Bay, WHWC (88.3 FM) in Menomonie, WRFW (88.7 FM) in River Falls, WEPS (88.9 FM) in Elgin, Ill., WHAA (89.1 FM) in Adams, WHBM (90.3 FM) in Park Falls, WHLA (90.3 FM) in La Crosse, WRST (90.3 FM) in Oshkosh, WHAD (90.7 FM) in Delafield, W215AQ (90.9 FM) in Middleton, KUWS (91.3 FM) in Superior, WHHI (91.3 FM) in Highland, WSHS (91.7 FM) in Sheboygan, WHDI (91.9 FM) in Sister Bay, WLBL (91.9 FM) in Wausau, W275AF (102.9 FM) in Ashland, W300BM (107.9 FM) in Madison, and of course online at www.wpr.org.

That is not really media news. This is, from Madison.com:

A shakeup at WTDY radio, 1670 AM and 106.7 FM, has left several broadcasters out of work, including longtime Madison radio personality John “Sly” Sylvester.

“Message to everybody: I just want to inform you that today was my last day of employment at WTDY,” Sylvester posted on his Facebook page Wednesday. “After 15 years, I was told that my services were no longer needed. I would like to thank everybody that’s supported my program. It’s been a pleasure to share this wonderful experience with you.” …

Amy Barrilleaux, WTDY news director, said in a tweet that “WTDY is no longer news talk. That’s all I know.” Barrilleaux tweeted that she is among those who lost their jobs Wednesday.

You may recall (or you may not; that’s what archives are for) that I made a couple of guest appearances on Sly’s show as the non-liberal ex-Madisonian, or something like that. That all started with my daring to criticize my hometown, reaction to which took an entire hour of his show and led to my first appearance.

Much of the online reaction to Sly’s firing was outrage. Those people may not grasp the fact that radio is a business like any other; it’s about making money, and if WTDY’s format didn’t make enough money for its owners, management feels the need to make a change. Sly was useful to WTDY as long as he was bringing in listeners and thus advertising revenue. Those complaining about Sly’s firing and promising never to listen to WTDY — well, I’m guessing WTDY wasn’t counting on them as future listeners anyway.

James Wigderson visually demonstrates why WTDY’s owner felt compelled to make the format change:

Other reaction was in the category of schadenfreude, or the related observation that votes have consequences. (See? I told you unemployment would increase if you voted for Obama!) Sly arguably brought on that schadenfreude upon himself for some of his more hateful rants over the years. Having been unemployed myself, however, I don’t share in celebrating someone else’s unemployment. (Except for politicians.) Unemployment sucks. The fact that Sly was frequently classless on the air doesn’t mean his detractors need to be. (The funniest comment, referring to Sly’s previous radio gig: “Just like a vinyl from hell, Sly will never die.”)

David Blaska chronicled Sly’s wanderings over the line of taste, which include this. The thing is, though, WTDY didn’t fire Sly because of what Sly called Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch or WIBA radio’s Vicki McKenna. WTDY fired everybody, presumably on the way to a format change. (Including WTDY’s “news” operations, which struck me as more liberal advocacy than news.)

Two lessons come to mind. First: If someone offers you a job in radio, remember what happened yesterday. Sly was on WTDY for 15 years, a liberal talk show host in liberal Madison. I don’t know if he got up Wednesday knowing that was going to be his last day of employment, but he knew after his show. It seems classless (because it is) to fire somebody the day before Thanksgiving, but what do you suppose would have happened if Sly had been told that his last day was going to be some unspecified future date? Given his reputation, it could have lost WTDY its license.

Journalism seems to be getting to the point where it needs to be the second, not first, source of income in a family, not merely because of the traditionally low pay, but because of the less-than-low job security. Anyone who’s worked in radio beyond the smallest markets can tell stories that either happened to themselves or to others of someone who lost their radio job because the owners or managers decided on a format change, or because they were viewed by management as too old.

The other lesson is the difference between Sly and such radio talkers as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes. (Besides ideology, obviously.) If Air America’s crash and burn didn’t prove it, this should: Liberal talk radio largely doesn’t make money. If a radio station selling left-wing views doesn’t work in the People’s Republic of Madison, well, markets speak, whether or not you like what they have to say.

There is still a progressive talk station in Madison, WXXM (whose ratings, you’ll note in the graphic, are better than WTDY’s were),  but it is largely not local. It is also owned by the company that purchased Sly’s former employer, so I’m guessing Sly is persona non grata there, although one thing I’ve learned from observing radio over the years is that no one is ever truly, finally fired in radio.


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