Thursday, January 18, 2018

A broadcasting lesson I learned the hard way

Sorry to hear that Ronn Owens will no longer be hosting a talk show on KGO radio in San Francisco. He’s been there for like 40 years. Considering you get a gold watch in radio if you stay on the same station for two months, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Ronn taught me the biggest lesson in hosting talk radio shows. And I was reminded of it recently when Jake Tapper shut down White House staffer Stephen Miller.

In 1980 I began hosting a talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. My shift was Saturday nights from 8-10. One week I arranged to have Sid Caesar as my guest. Caesar was one of the funniest men in the history of television. He hosted a 90-minute live prime time variety show on NBC in the early ‘50s that was a huge hit. Ever see the movie MY FAVORITE YEAR? That was based on Sid Caesar’s show. Writers of Caesar’s show at various times included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (who also co-starred), Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen among others. The Mount Rushmore of comedy. Anyway, Caesar was BIG. There’s not even an equivalent in TV I can think of today. B-I-G.

And I got him as a guest. How cool was that?

He arrived at the station and we went on the air at 8:00. I had not realized that Sid had a drinking problem during that period. He got on the air and was surly and abrupt and started snapping at the callers. Needless to say, the phones lines went dead. Who wanted to be denigrated by Sid Caesar? Well, that left only ME. It was just me and him the rest of the hour. Picture the domestic fight scenes in I, TONYA.

The next morning I called Ronn and reported this – how mean he was, what a nightmare for me it was, etc. He listened calmly and finally said, “It was your fault.”

WHAT?!

He said it was my show and I should never give up control of it. I should always be prepared with enough other material to talk about so that if I have a bad guest I could get rid of him pronto. He said I should have gotten to the first commercial break, said “Our guest has been Sid Caesar and we’ll be back after this” and send him on his way.

I said, “Yeah, but he came all the way over here from the valley and…” Ronn cut me off. “Who gives a shit? He’s killing YOUR show.”

He was right, of course. And I have always heeded that advice. There have been times when I’ve had to abort interviews (Jose Canseco jumps to mind) and other times when there were technical difficulties and I couldn’t take callers. I always am armed with articles and other topics to fill with.

Jake Tapper must know that rule too. When Stephen Miller became unhinged, Tapper said, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” thanked him, turned to another camera, promoted the next guest, and threw it to break. Miller was gone.

Setting aside politics (if I were interviewing Obama and he suddenly starting flipping out and being abusive I’d cut him off too), to me this shows the value of experience. I always felt terribly embarrassed that I had to learn this particular lesson on a major Los Angeles radio station. Yes, we all make mistakes and we all are green, but that’s what smaller markets or weekend all-night shows are for. Unexpected things happen on live radio and TV. How the host handles them is where the rubber meets the road. All too often these days hosts are hired for their bombast or shtick. My first thought when I watched the Tapper-Miller interview was not what a loon Miller was, but what a pro Tapper was. There’s a lot to be said for experience and professionalism. In all professions.

NOTE: Stephen Miller will not be a guest on my podcast.

25 comments :

Roger Owen Green said...

Damn, I wanted to hear that Miller-Levine exchange!

Bud Wilkinson said...

The sad part to this is that there aren't any "small markets" anymore; places to get experience, make mistakes and become a pro. Consequently, there aren't many mentors anymore who can share their experience and wisdom.

Howard Hoffman said...

KABC had a security guard at the time, I believe. It would have been cool to get them to “assist Mr. Caesar” out the door as CNN needed to do with Stephen Miller. The things we can fix if we only had time travel...

Paul Duca said...

Sid had a personal problem he was able to overcome...Miller is an genetic A-hole.

Eric J said...

Bud Wilkinson: I think youtube has taken over that function. There are some horrible things on youtube by people who probably will never amount to more. But there are some incredible new talents out there paying their dues and building a following. Times change. Venues change.

E. Yarber said...

Ceasar wrote (or dictated) two autobiographies. The first was in 1982 and dealt with his comedy career almost in passing, focusing mostly on his psychological problems and addictions. The second was published in 2003 and concentrated on his television work, with a 13-page chapter near the end on the booze and pills. The second book doesn't mention the first.

I recently listened to a commentary track Mickey Rooney recorded for his solo Twilight Zone episode. One wonders why the producers allowed it to go on the disc. Rooney opens the session declaring he doesn't remember a thing about filming the show, and bursts into anger at the interviewer's questions, leaving most of the track in uncomfortable silence as the poor guy realizes he's trapped with a ticking time bomb. Once in a while Rooney points out that the photography is good.

Brian Phillips said...

Linda Ellerbee related a story in her book in which an on-air reporter had to stop a very chatty Sen. Hubert Humphrey. The reporter even said, "We have to break away...", to which he said, "Why, that's OK! I could talk all day about this."

Knowing that she had to stop him somehow, she did the first thing she could think of. She grabbed him in an area that was decidedly off-camera and suffice to say, he stopped talking!

- Brian Phillips

Brian Phillips said...

Joy Reid also knows how to keep control of her own show:

https://crooksandliars.com/2018/01/joy-reid-shuts-down-trump-talking-points

jcs said...

OK, so Stephen Miller won't be on the list. I'm not sad. But how about talking to Ronn Owens on H&L about the past four decades in radio?

Oliver Pepper said...

Trump recently bitched "Where is my Roy Cohn?" Geez, you fool! It's Stephen Miller, the cloned, self-loathing human being you enjoy having as a peer!

John Nixon said...

That Miller dude was one of the most annoying people I've ever seen and heard. The kind of guy who probably made up stuff and then told on others when he was a kid in order to gain favor with the grownups. I kept thinking that he looked a lot like Fredo from Dog Day Afternoon with his hair cut off.

Max Clarke said...

Always enjoyed Ronn Owens. A shame he became too expensive for Cumulus Media, which has declared bankruptcy.

I still recall the interview he did with Leonard Nimoy, who was promoting his book, I AM SPOCK. There was also a good interview with Peter Riegert (Animal House, Local Hero). Ronn was pretty good at making any guest seem interesting and relevant.

Way back when, I shot a photo of a newspaper stand because Ronn's face was on the cover of the Examiner for making it to 30 years. Well, he kept it going another decade. Good work.

thirteen said...

I used to work for CBS Radio. Terrible interview: Alan Dershowitz. Great interview: Howard Jarvis and Al Goldstein.

Mike McCann said...

Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Sid at some later point, after he achieved sobriety and got his life back in order?

D McEwan said...

When I was producing the "Sweet Dick" Whittington Show on KGIL radio, I booked Don Knotts as our guest for the hour-long interview section of the show one day. No, Don Knotts did not flip out and start screaming profane insults, though it would have been more entertaining if he had. Don was merely horrifically dull. Getting two words out of him in answer to any question was harder than pulling teeth. Finally, halfway through the hour, Dick said live on the air, "Well, thank you for being here this morning, Don. I know you have another appointment you have to get to, so we're sorry to lose you so early," and threw it to commercial. I was in the booth with them at the time and saw the deeply bewildered expression on Don's face when Dick announced Don's urgent appointment of which Don knew nothing. Then it was my job to get Don out of the booth during the short break. Dick played records and made jokes for the rest of the hour.

A friend of mine I've known since he was an infant went to high school with Steve Miller. He says even then Miller was universally hated, a racist douchebag who HATED all Hispanic people, a total White supremacist. He ran for student body president on a platform whose sole provision was that students should be allowed to litter the campus all they wanted, as they had "illegals" as janitors whose job it was to pick up the litter for them, so why should he, a superior white 16 year old, have to bother to walk ten feet to the trash can to deposit his litter. Well, he got a vote, his. He was loathed!

sanford said...

If you have and Chicago followers they might have heard this story. He had Gloria Vanderbuilt on. I believe he wanted to ask about here childhood. She was the Poor Little Rich Girl. Perhaps you have heard the title. She wouldn't talk about that part of her life. So he pretty much ended the interview.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Wasn't Mr. Caesar considered for the role of Coach on "Cheers"?

E. Yarber said...

Excuse the length here, but the words are Caesar's, not mine. This is his account of the Cheers audition from his 1982 memoir, "Where Have I Been?" Perhaps this is unfair to reprint in hindsight, but I always found it interesting in a train-wreck way.

"It wasn't that easy all the time.

"Once, for example, I was called over to Paramount Studios to meet with two TV producers who had sold ABC a pilot for a new situation-comedy series. I was told they had been associated with "Taxi," a series I thought was quite good. Their new show was about a bar and the quaint characters who hung out in it. I was to be one of the quaint characters.

"I had read the script, which they sent over to me in advance, and I didn't like it very much. The role they had in mind for me, in particular, was pure cardboard, strictly one-dimensional. But I saw some promise in it if I could be allowed to add some of my own *shtick*, So I went over to see the producers.

"I expected to be meeting with Jim Brooks or Stan Daniels, two top talents, who, in addition to creating "Taxi," had previously been involved in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," among others. Instead, I found myself in a room with a couple of twenty-five-year olds who seemed to know of me only from a part I had played in the movie "Grease" in 1977. I soon realized that, like so many of their generation in the industry, their concept of comedy did not go back beyond "Gilligan's Island," on which they had been raised as children.

"I said, 'I have a few ideas to make my part a little more interesting and meaningful.' They stared at me coldly and said, 'We're perfectly satisfied with the part as we wrote it, Mr. Caesar.' I felt my temper rising, but I controlled it. I went through the motions of having an amiable chat with them before I got up and said, 'OK. That's it. Thank you. Goodbye.' They were startled. Actors don't walk out on the almighty writer-producer when a possible five-year series contract is being dangled before them.

"But I figured the concept was so poor it probably never would make it to a series anyway. Besides, even if it did, why would I want to be associated with such shit? In the old days, I would have blown my top in the kids' office. Then I would have brooded and sunk into a deep depression--and hit the bottle--over having been rejected.

"Instead, I went home and sat on my patio, and look at the flowers, and listened to a Mahler symphony on my radio."

Andy Rose said...

To me, the funniest thing about that passage from Caesar's book is the way he sneers at "a couple of twenty-five-year olds." When Your Show of Shows began, Sid Caesar was 27 years old.
At the time of the Cheers audition, the Charles Brothers were already well into their thirties (and only a few years younger than James L. Brooks).

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Thank you, E. Yarber, for posting this. Interesting account.

You say Caesar's memoir was published in 1982, which was the same year "Cheers" went on the air.

I wonder what Caesar thought in retrospect after "Cheers" became an established hit.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Well, there are two sides. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were once booked on a morning radio show whose host had clearly never heard of them. "So, are you married?" he asked. Yes, they said, but to other people. "And how long have you been married?" Politely, entertainingly, they tried to explain their longtime work partnership was like a marriage, but, those other people. The host kept fiddling with his promos and weather reports. "How many kids do you have?" They gave up. "Three," said Adolph.

Mike Doran said...

This is about Sid Caesar, with assists from my reference shelf.

Caesar's 1982 book, Where Have I Been?, concentrates on his psychological collapse in the late '50s, after he lost his deal with NBC.
As a reader/buff, this was the first red flag: Sid begins seriously losing track of timelines, believing that Caesar's Hour lasted a season longer than it did, then subsequently conflating two separate series he did for ABC, four years apart; he believed that these were the same series (read the book, then check any TV reference book and you'll see for yourself).
Sid himself acknowledges his drugged-out state at the time, but to lose entire years ...

The Cheers business, which was post-recovery, can likely be ascribed to early-onset Good Old Days syndrome, the belief that anything old was automatically preferable to anything new.

For sanford:
As a lifelong Chicagoan, I got to hear many radio and early TV interviewers, from all over the behavioral spectrum.
Could you perhaps be a bit more specific as to who this was (a name, maybe)?
Just askin', is all ...

Bud Wilkinson said...

Eric J: Good point... I interviewed Sid Caesar once at a TV convention, I think in Dallas. This was after he quit drinking. He was warm, generous and outgoing. Did he have a little chip on his shoulder? Sure, but his resume warranted it. As I recall, he told a story about being in St. Louis and waking up in his hotel room in a grumpy mood one morning and not really wanting to do some interviews that had been booked for him that day. He looked out the window and saw the sun reflecting off the Arch and it dawned on him that an attitude adjustment was necessary - and I don't mean a drink. He said he said to himself, "Who do they (the interviewers) want to talk to?" "Me." What do they want to talk about? "Me." Who did they think enough of to book?" "Me." Caesar said at that moment it dawned on him that perhaps he should be grateful that there were still people who considered him a worthy interview.

Dennis V. said...

Mark Evanier had some interesting, insightful comments on Sid Caesar on his blog a few years back.

https://www.newsfromme.com/2014/02/17/from-the-e-mailbag-207/

Edward said...

Ken - I am surprised that someone that (a) worked on a TV show that had guests on set and a (b) DJ that might have interviewed recording artists (well, maybe not on the midnight-6AM shift) would not know the point of no return or be versed by the stations GM on when to exit an on-the-air situation.

Are there any stories about a guest actor on MASH/Cheers/Frasier forgetting their place...that they are a guest on someone program?