Fox News TV talker Bill O'Reilly probably shouldn't have expected a friendly reception from his rough and unruly new colleagues on the conservative AM dial last week when he launched his own nationally syndicated radio program. But he surely didn't expect to get ambushed so quickly.
On the eve of his premiere, Internet troublemaker (and AM radio host) Matt Drudge, reporting with his typically over-the-top banner headlines, charged that the radio syndicate Westwood One had to pay six-figure sums to get some major market stations to air O'Reilly's two-hour talk program. Drudge dubbed the practice "Talkola" (a sort of pay-for-say system), with the clear implication being that "The Radio Factor With Bill O'Reilly" wasn't good enough to get picked up, so Westwood One had to pay stations, including WOR in New York.
Westwood One's CEO Joel Hollander denied Drudge's charge while, at first, O'Reilly expressed "minor annoyance" over the controversy. But O'Reilly soon appeared on Don Imus' morning talk show, deadpanning, "I just want to tell everybody that Matt Drudge is smoking crack -- right now, in South Miami Beach on Washington Avenue ... And the authorities should know it." O'Reilly added, "There is no other cure than to kill Matt Drudge."
Returning fire on his own syndicated show, which airs Sunday nights, Drudge ridiculed O'Reilly's brand of "pompous populism" and labeled the talker a "complete fraud."
Even if Drudge's charges are true -- and for now, they rest only on the word of Drudge's own anonymous sources -- would it be a big scandal? Opinion among industry insiders is divided, though no one seems to think it would be a scandal of "payola" proportions. Possibly more interesting is the intramural feud it touched off in the already congested world of conservative talk radio, intensifying a gripping clash of the titans: cable TV champ O'Reilly vs. radio king Rush Limbaugh, along with Limbaugh's No. 1 fan, Drudge.
It's also a clash between radio's two roaming corporate giants: Clear Channel Communications and Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the country, owns Premiere Radio Network, home to Limbaugh as well as Drudge's Sunday night show. Viacom owns O'Reilly's syndicator, Westwood One.
"There seems to be particular animosity right now between the O'Reilly and Limbaugh factions," notes Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers, a radio trade magazine. "And there's no love lost between [Viacom] and Clear Channel, between Westwood One and Premiere."
Perhaps that's one reason why O'Reilly's show, picked up by more than 200 stations nationwide in the largest network radio launch in the industry history, is almost inaudible on Clear Channel's roster of 1,200 stations. Notes Harrison: "There's a tremendous amount of ego involved inside today's radio scene." Neither Hollander, O'Reilly nor Drudge could be reached for comment for this story.
"I suspect somewhere in their relationship when Drudge was involved with Fox News" -- Drudge had a short-lived show on the news network a few years back -- "somebody rubbed someone the wrong way," says Harrison.
Perhaps the real issue, though, is Limbaugh. Drudge is upset because, as he said on his radio show Sunday, when the conservative talk show king announced he was going deaf last year, and news of O'Reilly's pending entry into radio was leaked, O'Reilly insisted he would not go after Limbaugh's audience. But with "The Radio Factor" airing live from noon to 2 p.m., O'Reilly is competing directly against Limbaugh, whose show is heard on approximately 600 stations. (Meanwhile, Limbaugh, who has not commented on the controversy, has said that a recent surgery has successfully restored his hearing.)
The scheduling issue may seem minor (don't conservatives welcome competition in the marketplace?), but for some it borders on sacrilege. "It's a perceptual thing with political conservatives," explains Randall Bloomquist, operations manager for news-talk station WRVA in Richmond, Va. "They'd say to O'Reilly, 'If you're really a conservative then why are you challenging the sitting president?'"
O'Reilly, meanwhile, sees a conspiracy. "The real story is why Drudge is doing this. Why he is trying to make my radio venture a bad thing," he told the New York Post last week. "For whatever reason, there is an interesting story that I can't nail down yet about who is using Drudge to get to me." (Oddly enough, weeks earlier O'Reilly told Radio Business Report he knew the identity of the culprit: "I know who did it, who called him up [and] fed him this stuff.")
But even if payments were made to stations to run "The Radio Factor," would it represent "a dramatic reversal from normal radio practice," as Drudge insists? It certainly would not compare favorably with the economics of the Limbaugh show, for instance, which annually brings in an estimated $50 million in advertising. It's so successful that Limbaugh's syndicator actually charges stations for the right to carry the top-rated program.
Yet even though Westwood One has denied it's paying stations to air "The Radio Factor," some inside the business suggest it is plausible. Harrison goes so far as to say: "I think it's likely they paid money. And let's say they did pay it, that's a very, very legitimate fee in today's marketplace. Paying affiliates to clear shows in major markets is neither an embarrassing or illegal thing," Harrison said. "Drudge's attack is beyond what is normal for radio. O'Reilly hasn't done anything that warrants investigation."
Bloomquist in Richmond disagrees, saying such payments would be "highly unusual." "It's also obviously damaging," Bloomquist says, "because if you've got a product with a celebrity name attached to it and you have to write six-figure checks to get it on, that tells you what a lot of professionals think of O'Reilly's prospects; they ain't so good."
Al Peterson, who covers talk radio for R&R magazine, suggests both views may be correct. He says radio networks often pay stations compensation for airing a whole array of programs, from three-hour prime-time talk shows, to news briefs, but it's unusual for a network to compensate a station for airing a specific program. "It's certainly not a common practice," he says. "That kind of information is usually not divulged."
But, of course, Drudge has a knack for divulging unique information. In one of his several follow-up stories, he insisted Westwood One's furious CEO threatened to withhold a $300,000 payment from WOR, blaming the station for leaking news of the payment to Drudge. The next day John Mainelli, WOR's program director, resigned, just six weeks after joining the station. (Mainelli came from the New York Post, where he worked as a radio reporter.) On his Sunday night program, Drudge told listeners his O'Reilly scoop came from a source at WOR. But station general manager Bob Bruno insists Mainelli's sudden departure had "absolutely nothing to do" with the O'Reilly situation.
As for the corporate clash between Viacom and Clear Channel, there's industry talk that Clear Channel, known for playing hardball with competitors, was keeping O'Reilly off its stations to keep him from threatening Limbaugh, a Clear Channel cash cow. Last week, Radio Business Report quoted an anonymous industry source insisting, "The bottom line is there's five major market stations that wanted to take [O'Reilly] and Clear Channel -- [radio CEO] Randy Michaels -- said no. Randy does things the way he wants to do them."
But Michaels told Salon via e-mail that he never said no to the O'Reilly show, and claims at least one Clear Channel station is carrying the program. "Competition exists between the two companies, but I'd be surprised if there was a blanket edict saying you cannot carry this show," notes Peterson at R&R. "Stations want to put on the most competitive lineup they can."
Meanwhile, it will be six months before O'Reilly's new program can be judged a success or a failure. The yardstick? Harrison, who estimates that Limbaugh attracts 13 millions listeners each week, says O'Reilly needs an audience of 5 million to be labeled a talk radio hit. Of course, if he comes up short, Matt Drudge stands ready to inform the world.