When Laura Schlessinger announced she was ending her radio show, my reaction was: She’s still on the air?
A fair assumption. Schlessinger claims 9 million listeners but her website’s station-finder lacks such major markets as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, Atlanta and Phoenix. In her home state of California, she airs only in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Schlessinger’s stock in trade – pushing an overarching conservative agenda through the funnel of callers’ personal problems – lost relevance with the rise of more blatantly political shows. And her Conservative Values Queen of Mean schtick has been usurped by younger, flashier, nastier blondes.
Schlessinger is as quaint and extraneous a media relic as the VCR.
Which might help explain why she recently blew herself up, aided by illogical PR sensibilities.
Schlessinger is lots of things but “stupid” isn’t one of them. Particularly during her 1990s heyday, she had a knack for keeping herself in the spotlight despite countless challengers.
But I’ve always believed that a misguided publicity idea blew up her TV show and cost her permanent image damage. And I now think a similar misstep killed her radio show.
In late 1999, Schlessinger signed with Paramount for a daytime talk show. Despite her radio success, she was entering one of TV’s most competitive battlefields.
Some talent publicize the start of a season by publishing a book, launching a merchandise line, having a high-profile romance. It seemed that Schlessinger’s promotion strategy was to attack LGBTs.
In the mid ‘90s, Schlessinger began renouncing her support of gay lifestyles; over the years, she’s done likewise with feminism and Orthodox Judaism. But in the lead-up to the show’s September 2000 premiere, she ramped up her statements, calling homosexuality “a biological error” and claiming gay parenting led to pedophilia.
Were the comments’ timing a coincidence? Maybe. But it’s always felt like a calculated move to guarantee visibility.
Which it did. A powerful national grassroots movement – one of the first to strategically use the internet for such a purpose – was launched by activists. It convinced advertisers to pull out, got stations nervous, organized protests across the country and caused big corporate headaches. (Paramount even allegedly settled a publicist’s worker’s comp claim for emotional stress.)
The show lasted less than one season. The publicity surrounding Schlessinger’s comments also cost her radio advertisers and made her a permanent object of negative attention among people who’d never even cared about her before.
Which brings us to last week.
If my response was any barometer, Schlessinger’s visibility has slipped in past years. She certainly had reasons to seek renewed attention: the paperback release of her 2009 book is now out and a new hardcover’s begun pre-orders. It’s likely her current contract, the one distributing the show through 2010, had a negotiating window coming up.
So the PR tactic of doing something audacious wasn’t out of the question.
Of course, a condescending interaction with an African-American caller and 11 uses of the N-word for no apparent reason isn’t it. Media and civil rights watchdog groups jumped on her comments and called for an advertisers’ boycott, with two quickly pulling out.
Last week was déjà vu all over again for Schlessinger. Making matters worse, aside from a few niche outlets and agenda commentators, Schlessinger has no media allies to step up and defend her greater value.
And in her case, it is for lack of trying.
Scratch a media critic and you’ll hear about a Schlessinger blow-off. Exactly 10 years ago last month, weeks before her series launched, she backed out of her scheduled appearance at the TCA annual press tour; the lost media exposure undoubtedly damaged the debut. She’s pulled out of TV satellite appearances, leaving dead air, and declined requests for interviews or statements.
Her site lacks the standard page of self-promoting media coverage. Its “Press Releases” section is empty; the “Press Contacts” link goes to a dead webpage.
Schlessinger’s lack of interaction extends beyond the media. Her tweets are one-way only, promoting her blog and website. Many of her YouTube channel videos have the Comments function disabled. She has no Facebook presence.
Schlessinger, oddly, is a communicator who doesn’t seem to enjoy communicating.
Now, a decade after her biggest PR debacle, she also doesn’t appear to have learned much about crisis management. Thanks to broadband, social networks, mobile devices and audio links, awareness of her recent comments spread at time-warp speed. Yet despite so many communications channels available to her to quickly connect with the public and dilute the impact of her words before they hurt her show’s future, she took her most comfortable route: She wrote on her comment-free blog, sent e-mails to core audience and ultimately announced the show’s end on the friendly turf of “Larry King Live.”
So apart from the inappropriateness of her words and her unhappiness with pushback, it’s a good time for Schlessinger to go away: because the current media environment is beyond her skill set.
And one last thing.
In her N-word fallout blog post, Schlessinger wrote, “I have no trouble apologizing when I’m wrong and I never apologize for effect. I apologize ONLY (sic) when it is really coming from my heart. In over 30 years in radio this was the first such circumstance…”
Schlessinger apologized twice to the gay community within only nine months in 2000. Before the show’s September launch when the campaign had advertisers and stations nervous, she made a statement on her radio show expressing regret. It was pulled after a less than stellar reception.
A month after premiere, she took a full-page ad in the “Gay Hollywood” issue of Variety to offer a Yom Kippur-pegged message of atonement. Aside from livening up many holiday Break the Fast gatherings, it too did little.
So if Schlessinger is indeed leaving broadcasting for online media, I’d like to make one suggestion: introduce her to Google, Wikipedia and other research tools. And I say that from the heart.