MAY 13, 2002
O'Reilly's tragic flaw
© 2002

Bill O'Reilly's hissy fit on the air with Don Imus has done more damage to the O'Reilly package than 50 Matt Drudges.

The last time I wrote about an O'Reilly-Drudge dustup, Bill told me, "I don't need radio." And that is true, but as I wrote previously, he obviously wants it.

O'Reilly had done a magnificent job positioning himself and his Fox "O'Reilly Factor" as a bastion of "no spin." He had crystallized himself as the guy who would ask the hard questions and not accept obfuscation, tangential diatribes or classic political spin. However, when he became the subject of scrutiny and criticism he totally soiled the sheets. He had an opportunity to demonstrate class, calm under pressure and style -- and he blew it, big time.

Bill could have ignored the Drudge stories, manufactured plausible deniability for whatever the marketing suits at Westwood/Viacom were doing to clear the radio show, and focused on what he does best.

Like an unfaithful spouse caught in the act, he could have denied it, denied it, denied it. Eventually those who love him would believe him because they want to.

Drudge's announcement that WOR in New York was being paid $300,000 to carry the show was and is shocking. The KABC kiss of $250,000 in outdoor advertising from VIACOM was a tad less egregious but equally embarrassing. The fact they couldn't even get any station in D.C. to carry the show -- even for $200,000 -- adds insult to injury.

However O'Reilly could have detached himself from the questionable conduct of the executives trying to place his show and taken the high road. "I do the talk show; other people do the business stuff" should have been his line. Instead he had apparent brain flatulence and went ballistic on the air with Don Imus and mimicked Alec Baldwin calling for Henry Hyde to be stoned to death. "There is no other cure than to kill Matt Drudge," O'Reilly charged on the "Imus in the Morning" radio show on Wednesday.


Hey, Drudge didn't bribe stations to carry his show. If Bill were true to his image and positioning he'd be ranting about the suits who were so desperate to place him they resorted to reducing him to the level of vanity radio (that's where a host buys the time from a station to clear a program). Broadcast ministries and alternative medicine programs have enjoyed huge success buying access.

If a Paul Begala, James Carville, or Strobe Talbot were caught in the controversy Mr. No Spin Zone is in now, O'Reilly would be ripping them a new sphincter in the middle of their chests.

Talk radio audiences are remarkably loyal. It normally takes three to five years to develop a station or a program. Even if a talent equal or superior to Rush Limbaugh is presented to audiences, it will take time to build and maintain an audience. Overnight success in talk radio does not happen. The field is littered with the remains of high profile wannabes like Alan Dershowitz and Mario Cuomo.

By the way, the product radio sells is not the on air talent. The talent is the vehicle for building and maintaining audience. That is the product -- the audience. Advertisers pay money to deliver their message (selling soap or cars) to the audience. Sparing you the lecture of psychographics, the bottom line in broadcast radio's business model is:

Rush Limbaugh redefined talk radio. He did it the old-fashioned way, one station at a time. He's come a long way from the $24,000 a year Paul Aaron paid him on KFBK in Sacramento. However, whether you love Rush or hate Rush, he earned his success.

O'Reilly earned his success on Fox News. However, that success is not necessarily immediately transferable to other media. Rush didn't do well on TV. Dr. Laura bombed on TV.

I recently spoke with several national radio syndicators about the O'Reilly roll out. All the supposed experts disagree with me.

I said O'Reilly would stick with the radio thing for a couple of years. When the reality check kicks in that he will not dethrone Rush, he would then bail and probably claim Fox demanded he devote his full energy and talent to what they are paying him big bucks for.

The experts say he'll be gone from radio within a year.

There is one wildcard that frankly no longer seems likely. If or when Rush were to decide to retire and play golf, O'Reilly could and probably would fill the vacuum created by the loss of Limbaugh. However in the wake of Rush's improved medical condition and the resultant improvement in the quality of his program, Rush ain't going anywhere soon. If he chooses, Rush Limbaugh will become the Paul Harvey of our generation, pontificating to my grandkids.

William A. Mayer at was much harder on O'Reilly than I. "First there is the loony tunes aspect of O'Reilly's seeming descent into madness on Imus. This is conduct bordering on the bizarre, especially for a graduate of the staid halls of Harvard, whose cool dissection of sandbagged guests, is legendary. Such a reaction seems to lend considerable weight to the veracity of Drudge's allegations -- if not O'Reilly couldn't have chosen a more damaging reaction."

The sad reality is, that at least for a while, O'Reilly and "No Spin Zone" seem to be mutually exclusive concepts.