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 across.

"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.

Familiar faces

"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 Tribune


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