Dec. 24, 2001
December 24, 2001Word's
out on O'Reilly
`Factor' star may become
part of the radio equation
By Raoul V. Mowatt
Tribune staff writer
Conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly is trying to become a factor on more than
just his Fox cable television show.
O'Reilly, the top-rated cable talk show host and star of "The O'Reilly Factor,"
has long talked about adding radio to his repertoire, and a recent spate of rumors
and denials suggests he might have been mulling a challenge to longtime conservative
commentator Rush Limbaugh.
If O'Reilly eventually does branch out, he would be just the latest in a long
line of media personalities trying to work across several different formats. The
difference for O'Reilly is he would be branching from TV to radio, when traditionally
the movement is the other way.
But that established trend may itself be changing. Experts note that media conglomerates
now have a bewildering array of technologies to try and market their personalities
"There are many more choices out there, so that means you have to get your message
out," said Sreenath Sreenavisan, an associate professor at Columbia University's
Graduate School of Journalism. "You have to cut through the clutter. And the more
opportunities to get the word out, the better. You see that with the current situation
where people may look for names they already know, voices they already know, opportunities
they already have."
Wanted: Versatile employees
Sreenivasan said he anticipates more media companies will demand versatility from
all their employees, not just heavy hitters such as O'Reilly.
"It won't be just celebrities," Sreenivasan said. "And there will be less choice
given about when you do it and how you do it. I think you're going to see more
and more Internet come in, and it'll just be something more and more people do."
People have been trying to bridge media platforms ever since there was more than
one. Walter Winchell was a print reporter before his radio career. Johnny Carson
started off in radio before shining as a television talk show host. Ed Sullivan
started in print and did radio before putting out his really big show on TV.
One difference now is the proliferation of formats and channels on broadcast TV,
cable TV, radio, print and the Internet.
African-American pundit Tavis Smiley says that, 15 years ago, he wouldn't have
been able to be involved with so many different media. He offers commentary for
CNN, ABC television and radio, and the Internet. Next year, he will be on National
Public Radio and star in a syndicated talk show.
"The fact that there are so many more media outlets give you more to play with
and presents more opportunities," he said. The list of stars who are taking advantage
of them is long, including sportscaster Dan Patrick, conservative talker Laura
Ingrahm and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media," Howard Stern.
"Every night you turn on CNN, Fox News Channel or CNBC and you'll see a radio
personality," said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine. "They play well
to each other."
Now -- possibly -- comes O'Reilly. His name recently surfaced on the Drudge Report,
an Internet news site, when it first said O'Reilly had been actively looking to
set up a radio program that would compete with talk-radio king Limbaugh. Drudge
then reported that O'Reilly had pulled back, but the trade newsletter Inside Radio
said O'Reilly had signed a deal to be announced in the first quarter of 2002.
O'Reilly and Fox wouldn't comment.
But where some people are able to straddle media worlds like a colossus, others
are forced to retreat and lick their wounds.
A bad decision
Even though her radio show remains popular, Dr. Laura Schlessinger probably should
have gotten some advice before embarking on a foray into syndicated television.
Ditto for Limbaugh, whose talent on loan from God wasn't enough to save his television
show. His attempt to join "Monday Night Football" also didn't coalesce.
And CNN host Larry King recently saw his USA Today column canned. There's no easy
explanation for who succeeds and who fails.
"These mediums are quite different," Smiley said. "Radio is not television, and
television is not print. So because you can master one media art form does not
necessarily mean another."
What's easier to understand are some of the elements that prompt people to try
crossing over, and why the phenomenon is, if anything, growing stronger.
Money for the stars and their distribution networks. The desire to expand one's
influence. The desire to spread one's message. Ego. Media consolidation plays
a role, Sreenavisan said; AOL Time Warner is often looking for Time magazine writers
to appear on CNN.
"You want to maximize how often your message is out there because the other properties
benefit," he said.
"The cross-promotion opportunities are wonderful. They go on one and talk about,
`Coming up on my TV show is X' or `Coming on my radio show tomorrow is Y.'"
Don Imus, whose radio show is simulcast on MSNBC, said for many it goes to the
Peter Principle, the idea that we all rise to our of incompetence. "Because somebody
succeeds at a particular level at whatever they are doing, they then think to
elevate them to the next level of that particular discipline they will then be
successful," he said.
Networks also think it's worth the gamble that proven talent will bring its audience
from one format to the next.
"They don't have to spend time establishing their own star," noted Bruce DuMont,
head of the Chicago Museum of Broadcasting. "They will take an existing star and
they'll work him like a racehorse and burn him out."
Indeed, putting out one show can be draining. Trying to put out two can be insane.
Doubling up takes toll
Mancow Muller, the WKQX (FM 101.1) personality, brought out the syndicated "Mancow
TV" in 1999, but said the effort required wasn't worth it. "I didn't make any
money on it," he said. "It was killing my radio staff and I pulled the plug on
it. . . . My personal life suffered because we were editing that thing. It was
ridiculous. It was too much work."
Now he offers commentaries for the Fox News Channel. Although he sees himself
as primarily a radio person, he can understand why people would try to cross over.
"There's a certain glamor in television," he said. "Your face is seen on television
and you're seen on the street."
Copyright © 2001, Chicago
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