Dr. Laura Leaves Her Longtime Radio Post

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Laura Schlessinger says she will quit her national radio show, just days after apologizing for repeatedly using the N-word on air. A roundtable of media watchers talk about Dr. Laura’s exit and what it may tell us about the changing broadcast industry. Joining the conversation: Talkers Magazine Online publisher Michael Harrison, St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans, and Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The band from East L.A. is with us, Los Lobos. They're talking about their new CD, how they've stayed together for 30 years and a little politics.

But first, the ongoing story of radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger's rant, apology and her decision, she says, to end her radio show. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin just weighed in, sending Dr. Laura words of encouragement, telling her via Twitter, quote, "don't retreat, reload."

It all started when Schlessinger, who has a doctorate in physiology and thus calls herself Dr. Laura on the air, repeatedly used the N word while on the air with a caller. And this is what she told Larry King earlier this week.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Unidentified Woman: I can't believe someone like you is on the radio sprewing out the nigger word and I hope everybody heard it.

Dr. LAURA SCHLESSINGER (Talk Radio Host): I didn't spew out the nigger word.

Unidentified Woman: You said nigger, nigger, nigger. Everybody heard it.

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Right. I said that's what hear yes they did. But...

Unidentified Woman: I hope everybody heard it. So what makes...

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: They did, and I'll say it again nigger, nigger, nigger is what you hear on...

Unidentified Woman: So what makes it...

Dr. SCHLESSINGER: Why don't you let me finish a sentence?

MARTIN: And I apologize for not warning our listeners about that language that we weren't expecting that particular clip at that particular time. But that is the exchange that started the story that we are now going to talk about. So we've called to weigh in on this, Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine online, the St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher who covers radio. Welcome to you all and thank you for joining us.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Thanks.

MARTIN: Can I start with Michael? Michael, are you with us?

Mr. MICHAEL HARRISON (Publisher, Talkers): I sure am.

MARTIN: Okay. Can you just tell us how big of a star is Laura Schlessinger in the world of talk radio? How did she make her bones, as it were? How big of a figure is she?

Mr. HARRISON: She's huge. In terms of being a star, it's evidenced by the fact that her getting into this trouble is national news covered by all the major networks, television, radio and newspapers. So she's a huge star. She's probably the biggest female talk radio star of all time. One of the most important broadcasters of all time and very much at the peak of her career, which spans about 32 years. So we're talking about within radio, a very, very significant player.

MARTIN: Has she ever been criticized for language before? Has something like this ever happened before?

Mr. HARRISON: She's been criticized for her messages. She's never been criticized for language, per se. And I do think that the analysis of the language is very much at the heart of the aftermath of this issue. But, no, she's not a shock jock from the standpoint that she says words that are dirty or gets in trouble with the FCC or loses licenses for people. She's gotten in trouble for her messages, which can be, I guess for lack of a better term, politically incorrect.

MARTIN: And you're saying that she is at the top of her game. She signaled in her interview with Larry King and other she suggested that she was worried that her sponsors might be attacked. And it is true that there are organizations that were suggesting that her sponsors should reconsider their support for her program. Was there any evidence of that?

Mr. HARRISON: Oh, sure. That's an ongoing situation in talk radio. One of the things that talk radio deals with is sponsor boycotts, no buy lists. The fact that some agencies and some companies don't want to be associated with programs that are controversial because they don't want their products to be, you know, disliked by segments of the population that identify it with the host or the nature of the show, because that's also one of talk radio's strengths is that the programs are very identified with the following and the loyalty or disloyalty people have for the hosts.

So this is part of the marketing of talk radio as a business that it's not just about numbers, there is this element of bias and this element of boycott and product identification that is of concern to radio marketers.

MARTIN: And do you buy her argument that she's quitting because she doesn't want her sponsors to be attacked or is she just not up for the fight as it were? Do you think that that's true?

Mr. HARRISON: I think she's not up for the fight. I think that she's quitting because she's stressed out over the whole thing. Laura Schlessinger's an interesting character in as much as she is the combination of strength and fragility all in one package. I described her like Judy Garland in an L.A. Times interview that's running out there right now.

You never know if she's going to hit that note. If she hits the note, it'll be great and she's a superstar. If she doesn't hit the note, she could have a meltdown right there on the stage. She is a unique, complex women who in some ways suffers from I've got to be the smartest girl in class syndrome. And as a result, that's part of what made her successful is that you're dealing with somebody that's an original.

And she gets herself in trouble all the time. Well, not all the time, but many times and that's part of her allure. But I personally think, and this is just my personal feeling observing her, knowing her somewhat. I'm not a personal friend, but I know her. I think she loves radio. And I think she's just terribly, no matter what she says, terribly distraught about this. And I think that when a few months go by, she'll reconsider. And I'm not so sure she's going to be leaving after all.

But right now she's totally, absolutely, sincerely getting out of it because I don't think she could take it anymore, at least at this moment.

MARTIN: Marc Fisher, what do you think about this whole episode and what do you think it says about talk radio? Because the pattern often has been that someone offends you heard Michael say that she's not a shock jock per se, but that she is someone offends makes offensive comments and then that person is fired and then turns up somewhere else. It is unusual that a person quits because of a controversy, because controversy is what this form of radio thrives on. What's your take on this?

Mr. FISHER: Right. And Michael is certainly right that Laura Schlessinger is a very brittle, defensive person and she always has been. I remember one time writing about the fact that she's not a doctor in the sense that her listeners probably thinks she is. She has no doctorate in therapy of any kind. She is, as you mentioned at the top of the show, a physiologist which has nothing whatsoever to do with therapy. And she reacted with threats of lawsuits and so on.

So she has a long history of being extremely sensitive, which is kind of ironic given that she's a professional provocateur. She's not a shock jock. And Michael is exactly right about that. But she is a provocateur and you have to be to be a successful talk show host. Even, I mean, Michel, your job is to be provocative, but in a thoughtful, measured way.

Laura Schlessinger's job is to be provocative to reach a specific audience of women who feel sort of left out in society and who listen to conservative talk radio, which is very unusual. It's a very male audience for the Rush Limbaughs of the world. And what - the service that Laura Schlessinger's always provided to those radio stations that air her show is that she brings in a female audience in a way that most of the political talk shows don't.

And so politics is not her thing. She's mainly about offering advice on family and sexual issues and that sort of thing in a very conservative, traditional way. Well, here she is opining about race. It's something she's talked about from time to time. She's gotten in trouble about it before, but it's not talking about President Obama is just not what - the normal content of her show.

You know, I think the real problem here is the way we've become so oversensitized as a society that General Motors and Motel 6 feel obliged to drop her at the mere mention of the N word. You know, her point of view while conservative is really no different from that of, say, Al Sharpton who says why shouldn't blacks and whites be held to the same standards? And so, you know, he's saying black comics should not be saying this word out there on HBO all the time, which was essentially Laura Schlessinger's point.

MARTIN: Well, I'm interested to hear you use to word oversensitive that exactly what this controversy is about. So that one person's oversensitive than another person's what, you know, another person's entirely appropriate response to inappropriate behavior. You know what I mean?

Mr. FISHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's kind of what this controversy is. Eric, can we bring you into this?

Mr. DEGGANS: Sure.

MARTIN: You wrote a column about this saying that, well, why don't you tell us what you said?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, I said, number one, that Laura Schlessinger's contention that her First Amendment rights were being violated was off the mark. You don't have a First Amendment to a job on the radio as much as she may think that she does. But I also want to talk about some of the things that some of the other folks have said before me. First off, say that Dr. Laura Schlessinger is not at the pinnacle of her career right now.

She was at the pinnacle of her career around 2000, around 1999. She was on a lot of radio stations. She developed a syndicated TV show that flopped. And what happened was after 9/11, talk radio turned much more sharply towards political subjects and became much more male. And a lot of stations dropped Laura Schlessinger and including the station here in Tampa.

She airs in a much smaller market in Sarasota, Florida now in favor of Glenn Beck. And I think some people in talk radio suspect that Dr. Laura used this controversy as an excuse to walk away from a show that was fading in popularity anyway and wasn't fitting in with the Sean Hannitys, Rush Limbaughs, Bill O'Reillys of the talk radio universe.

You know, I'll also say, saying that people are oversensitive to a talk radio host using a profanity 11 times - I mean, if she had said the F word 11 times, that station could've been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for a lot of people, the N word is as offensive as that word. So, you know, I'm not sure I buy this idea that people are being oversensitive at a host that slung that word.

And the last thing I'll say is that my problem with Laura Schlessinger is that she had a raft of prejudices about how black people feel about the use of the N word, how black people feel about white people being sensitive to racism and prejudice. And she didn't allow her caller to really say anything. She the caller got a couple of sentences out about her situation. And then all of a sudden, Dr. Laura unloaded, you know, this raft of her own preconceived notions about this black caller on her.

And that to me is sort of it epitomizes prejudice and racism. This is the very stuff that we've been resisting for 40 years in media and society. And she brought it all up in one ugly exchange. And I think people who are unwilling to discuss that and consider that are really missing the point.

MARTIN: I want to get Michael's response to your statement that in fact her show was on the downslide, as it were. But before I do, I just want to mention if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times media critic. We are also we're here with Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine online and Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, who covers radio among other responsibilities at the paper.

And we're talking about the inflammatory remarks by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the radio host and her decision that she says, to quit the program after the controversy that followed.

Michael, your response to Eric's comment that in fact he thinks that her program is actually on the downswing and that her particular form of advice giving seems to have lost a bit of luster in the current media environment.

Mr. DEGGANS: It all depends on how you measure it. I mean, these are arguable points. I mean, she's in the top five of the current scene and she's been doing it for 32 years. A lot of hosts lost their positions and lost their jobs after 9/11 when there was a rush toward all news talk, all politics all the time. But she has since regained most of them. And longevity comes into account when you're talking about how big people are. It's like saying the New York Yankees have lost their luster when the Tampa Bay, when the Tampa Bay Rays suddenly are number one and they're number two for a few weeks. These are minor fluctuations. She's a big time host. I don't want to get into splitting hairs.

MARTIN: Sure. No, I got you. I just wanted to just get your take on that, sure.

Mr. DEGGANS: There's a point he makes a good point, I make a good point, it really takes us off target. She's a big time talk show host. And whether she's bigger than she was in 2000 or not is irrelevant. Because I do not believe the point that he made, which is an interesting point and it's possible, but I do not believe that she's using this as an excuse to get out of a show that's fading, when in fact, most of talk radio would love to have her level of failure.

MARTIN: I got you. Let me just...

Mr. FISHER: I would say, too, the notion that somebody would walk away from a 30-year career in radio because of a week-long controversy, I think strains credulity. I do think there's more to this story and I do think that if you look at her lists of affiliates in a lot of places, she's airing in smaller markets. And she is certainly not the star she was in 2000.

MARTIN: Yeah, what about her Marc Fisher makes an interesting point that she was kind of off topic. And it is interesting that she converted the conversation about this woman's particular issue and concern - and the issue, if people don't remember is that this young woman called in, she says she's African-American, she's interracially married and her husband, more to the point, friends and neighbors of his come over and make comments that she does not like. And she was asking Dr. Laura's advice on how to address it.

In fact, we CNN was able to find her. And this is what she told CNN. Her name is Nita Hanson. And here's a little bit about what she said.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Ms. NITA HANSON: It's more than just the N word. I mean, in that whole conversation she says I shouldn't marry outside my race. Dr. Laura acted as if I tried to set her up, and that's not what happened. I called for advice. I didn't try to set this woman up. You know, at the end of the tape she's, like, nice try. Like, what is that supposed to mean? So I don't think she's sincere in her apology. She hasn't she thinks it's okay to use the N word and it's not sincere.

MARTIN: Marc, I was interested in your point that, do you think in part this was and as Eric said that she then Dr. Laura then launches into this analysis, false analysis as it happens, of why African-Americans voted for Obama, saying they only voted for him because he's black. I mean, which begs the question, I mean, did the white people vote for John McCain because he's white? That kind of thing. And there's plenty of evidence of African-Americans voting for white politicians, so her political analysis seems to be off the mark. I wonder, is it part of the issue here that she's off topic, that that's not her thing and she's not effective in it?

Mr. FISHER: Yes and no. I mean, yes, she's a little bit off topic, but the caller was exactly right. She was there just as a setup. That's the nature of commercial talk radio. The host doesn't really care what the caller has to say. They're just using that as the way to tee off on the five or six themes that they keep hitting over and over again, which is what makes the program a success.

Dr. Laura talks about how people should always be in a state of marriage and single parenting is really morally wrong and that, although people have to supported. She has, you know, five or six basic themes that she hits over and over again. And the purpose of the callers is to give her the tee off for those diatribes that she goes on, which is what makes her so popular.

MARTIN: So, do you think she's coming back, Marc Fisher?

Mr. FISHER: I don't yes, I think she'll be back on the radio. That's what she does and it's really the only thing she's done with great success. She's had great success with her books, but that's solely because her listeners buy them. She needs the radio show to be a success professionally. And she'll be back. This is a result of the sponsors essentially pushing her out.

And this is really the central problem here. We have a society where we say that it's okay to disagree and yet we muzzle people through this commercial system we have where the sponsors have the say on who rises or falls. And everyone pretends to be surprised. This is Dr. Laura being Dr. Laura. She is a provocateur. That's why you see Sarah Palin and Howard Stern coming to her side because they're professional provocateurs, too.

MARTIN: Okay. Eric, finally, we only have 20 seconds left, I have to give you the last word.

Mr. DEGGANS: All I would say is that in society I think we come to understand that there are mechanisms of oppression and mechanisms of prejudice. And the media can be part of that. And one of the things we've tried to resist is radio shows and TV shows and movies that pass along prejudiced views of people and unfair stereotypes of people. And so that's why people like Dr. Laura get criticism when they indulge in that, when they traffic in that. And Don Imus got criticism, Howard Stern gets criticism. These people should not be immune from criticism just because they host a popular radio show.

MARTIN: And they have not been. And thank you so much, all of you, for your views on this. Eric Deggans is a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Marc Fisher is a columnist for the Washington Post and an editor there. And we were also joined by Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine online. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HARRISON: Thank you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thanks.

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