For a few years, I made a living -- sort of -- writing about radio and publishing an online rag that covered somewhere around 100 radio markets throughout North America. The radio industry has changed significantly since I gave up that career path, what with the überconsolidation that's swept the media marketplace and all. Generally speaking, I felt the San Francisco radio community morphed from 75 stations with 75 sets of unique stories and personalities -- sort of like 75 individual WKRPs -- into about four staggeringly boring corporations. Once the boardrooms get involved, assume that anything interesting or original will make its way to the crapper pretty quickly.
Nonetheless, one of the things that always fascinated me about the industry is the cultural cross-section drawn to work in radio. I'm not talking as much about the on-air people; many times, they're the least-interesting personnel at any given station. I've always been more fascinated by the behind-the-scenes people -- the board ops and producers who work ridiculously long hours, accepting their insulting $10 an hour stipend (if they're lucky) in exchange for their ability to express a little bit of creativity now and again. They're an integral part of the whole process, although you wouldn't know it from their salaries.
A lot of people in these roles are nothing short of geniuses. They're the ones who keep the hosts informed. They keep the program flowing. Without these folks, most radio hosts are little more than blowhards standing on a soapbox in a public square. Chances are, if you're a fan of a particular radio show, it's as much because of the board op and the producer as it is because of the host. You just aren't aware of that.
However, to say some of these folks are geniuses is not to say all of them are. And Tony Rhein, the recently terminated producer of the really terrible morning show on San Francisco's KNBR, went out of his way the other day to prove it.
If you follow sports at all, you are probably aware of the recent controversy between KNBR, the 50,000-watt flagship of the San Francisco Giants, and Felipe Alou, the manager of the Giants. Last week, evening host Larry Krueger launched into a well-deserved critique of the Giants, but he stepped over the line when he taunted the team's "brain-dead Caribbean players hacking at slop nightly." While seven of the eight words Krueger used were dead on, his use of the word "Caribbean" was over the top; the Giants also have a bunch of white guys and a bunch of black guys from the good ol' U S of A who also hack at slop nightly. It's not solely a Caribbean thing.
Anyway, Alou went on the rampage, using any forum he could to attack what he perceived to be Krueger's outright racism. KNBR may be a big station, but the size of its reach pales in comparison to that of a major-league baseball manager. Alou cancelled his show on KNBR and then went into media blitz mode, even appearing on ESPN to condemn the radio host's anti-Latino attitude. KNBR announced it would suspend Krueger for a week without pay -- a punishment Alou referred to as "a slap on the wrist."
As ugly as it was, this could have been the end of it. Krueger apologized for his comments, and even though Alou refused to accept the apology -- "there's no way to apologize for such a sin ... if I say I accept it, the Latin players will never forgive me," the manager said -- he stopped short of saying Krueger should lose his job over the controversy. Station honcho Tony Salvatore also insisted Krueger would not be fired. The business reasons for keeping Krueger didn't seem to make much sense, as a station relying heavily on Giants coverage to fill its programming day need not employ hosts to whom the Giants refuse to speak, but this ordeal could have faded into relative obscurity with only Krueger nursing his self-inflicted wounds.
But on Tuesday morning, KNBR revealed to the world that the whole thing, this entire blood feud between a Latin American manager who is a hero in his country and a white guy with a big mouth and a microphone, was just a big joke to them.
During his aforementioned ESPN appearance, Alou said some things about Krueger that a lot of people may feel were over the top. He referred to Krueger as a "messenger of Satan," and he added that his personal philosophy was not to forgive any actions or words brought to the forefront by The Evil One or his couriers. Fair enough. And even though Krueger, to the best of my knowledge, never plagued entire villages with swarms of locusts, he did say some things that a guy with a microphone and decent judgment probably shouldn't say. Alou's comments were part of the public lashing that takes place in our society when someone screws up. Conventional wisdom suggested that Krueger would continue to take his lumps while serving his suspension, then he'd take to the airwaves and apologize to the listeners for his being an idiot. Alou and the Giants might not want to accept Satan's apology, but typical radio listeners likely wouldn't have a problem with it.
This is where Tony Rhein, who until his firing last night may have been the dumbest person working in American radio, stepped in. In what others viewed worldwide (yes, worldwide -- this Alou-Krueger flap has appeared in newspapers in Australia, South Africa, and Great Britain as well as all throughout the United States) as a controversy fueled by poor judgment, damaged emotions and possible overt racism, Rhein saw an opportunity for asinine, juvenile comedy. According to a report in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle, KNBR aired Alou's "Krueger equals Satan" ESPN comments and then spliced in clips of Satanic references from Comedy Central's "South Park," a cartoon not widely known for its politically correct content.
This morning, Rhein is laughing his way to the unemployment line. While there, he may bump into Krueger, who KNBR had no choice but to fire after Rhein's morning-show shenanigans. Rhein proved that employees at KNBR weren't taking the situation very seriously, which is probably why Bob Agnew, the station's program director for nearly 17 years, was also shown the door. All three men deserve blame -- Krueger was stupid enough to make the remarks in the first place, and Agnew was either too stupid to let his employees know that this was serious business or too powerless to truly do anything about it.
But make no mistake. These three men are unemployed today because Tony Rhein thinks it's funny to lampoon a well-respected 70-year-old man who believes one of Rhein's coworkers flagrantly used 50,000 watts of the public's airwaves to spread bigotry to the masses. If Rhein's arrogance is any reflection of the overall sentiment at KNBR regarding this controversy, Salvatore has more housecleaning to do.