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The voice-over cuts in for a commercial break. Above the soundboard of dials, needles, and knobs, a computer screen counts the seconds until northwest Ohio returns to Brian Wilson and the Afternoon Drive.
Mr. Wilson not the legendary Beach Boys figure, but the WSPD-AM talk radio host backs away from a suspended microphone and faces his studio guest.
We re in entertainment as much as we are in information, he joked to Bill Farnsel, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Toledo, who was recently in the broadcast studio on the fourth floor of Fort Industry Square downtown to discuss area home foreclosures.
Then began the grilling. In the minutes before they were back on-air, Mr. Farnsel found himself on the receiving end of a mini-inquisition aimed at determining just where his community development corporation gets its funding.
For Mr. Wilson, answers involving government equal my money.
We get some funding from the city ... Mr. Farnsel said, as Mr. Wilson cut him off midsentence.
Why? What do you need my money to do that for?
Because we work cheap and we give people access, and ...
Well, so do I, but I don t get any money from the government, Mr. Wilson said, cutting him off again.
Since arriving in the fall of 2005, Mr. Wilson has filled the dual role of WSPD program director and host of the 3 to 6 p.m. weekday talk show that follows Rush Limbaugh, taking over the jobs from Tom Watkins and Denny Schaffer.
The politically right-leaning station broadcasts at 5,000 watts on 1370 AM.
A self-professed libertarian, Mr. Wilson has proven himself not afraid to pick a fight on air or off.
Seldom do the cross hairs of his vituperation stray from the city and Lucas County offices inside Government Center a few blocks away or the printing presses across the street from the mayor s office inside Toledo s oldest continuing business The Blade.
According to his grand theory of how Toledo lost its economic groove, politicians are in bed with labor unions in a votes-for-cushy-contracts relationship that has made northwest Ohio a hostile environment for business investment. Guarding the door to this clubhouse is none other than the city s daily newspaper.
Toledo is a tragedy, Mr. Wilson said in an interview from WSPD s offices on South Superior Street. And the tragedy is the alliance between the politicians, the unions, and not without a little help from the owners of your newspaper.
Is that so, Mr. Wilson?
No one who looks at this city as a demographic, social-economic political entity, could walk away with any other opinion there is no other answer.
It s all personality
Controversial radio show hosts are hardly new to northwest Ohio. Yet as Toledo s only weekday nonsyndicated afternoon radio talk host, Mr. Wilson stands out for his unconventional politics and his more than three decades of radio and television experience in much larger media markets.
Within the radio industry he is known for helping pioneer a business model in the mid-1990s of live, long-distance, freelance broadcasting through computer linkups that has become commonplace.
He is also a published author who has written a factoid-filled index on the Who, What, Where, and When but not the Why of the Whitewater controversy of the 1990s involving Bill and Hillary Clinton.
After high-profile gigs in New York, Baltimore, Washington, San Francisco, and on CNN, Mr. Wilson says it took the promise of a giant paycheck to get him to sign a contract and move to Toledo.
He is paid by Clear Channel Communications Inc., the largest U.S. radio broadcaster with more than 1,100 stations, including WSPD.
They pay me a lot of money, Mr. Wilson said. I said, You can t afford me. No, they afforded me.
Just how much Clear Channel pays him, he won t say.
I will not tell you, said the graying Mr. Wilson, who is equally dodgy about his age.
Radio host salaries vary widely. Arbitron, the radio audience research company, ranks Toledo the country s 88th largest radio market.
Toledo is what we would call a medium to small radio station market, said Dan Gaffney, a Delaware-based radio host who operates a talk radio industry blog, The Talk Radio Report. I have seen [salary] ranges from mid six figures down to the [$20,000s] per year in such a market. Much depends on advertising rates for the station and the ratings for a particular host.
Money aside, Mr. Wilson is joined at the station by his wife, Cassie Wilson, who works as news operations director for Clear Channel s five-station cluster in Toledo: WSPD, WIOT, WRVF, WVKS, and WCWA. The Wilsons, who have four adult children, together owned the WCTR-AM station in Maryland during the early 2000s.
Prior to arriving here, Mr. Wilson was a host of Live From 125 on the now-discontinued satellite radio station ABC News & Talk.
Radio is a very intimate medium. It s not like television, it s not like newspaper it is invisible, Mr. Wilson said. It s theater of the mind. And at least as far as talk radio is concerned, it s all personality.
A controversial figure
He s one of the most controversial radio talk show hosts that we ve had in Toledo in many years, said City Councilman George Sarantou, an occasional WSPD listener and past on-air guest. He speculated that it s Mr. Wilson s libertarian outlook which cues his criticisms of the political structure in largely Democratic Toledo.
He s definitely unusual when it comes to the Toledo market, said Mr. Sarantou, a Republican. I think he has disagreed with me on certain votes, but that goes with public life. For certain people, single votes are live or die.
Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop, a Democrat, believes he personally has eclipsed such easy targets as Mayor Carty Finkbeiner to become Mr. Wilson s number one enemy on air.
Whatever I m doing he s against, said the 31-year-old commissioner, whom the host commonly calls young Ben. Mr. Wilson has made particularly spirited attacks on the commissioner s initiatives to establish a county poet and to set up low-interest loans for the purchase of local artwork.
I ve heard him say government should not be in the business of helping people, and that s a fundamental divide [between us] that I don t think is going to be bridged, Mr. Konop said.
A voice for radio
His radio life all started at a party. The native of Wayne, N.J., was a sophomore at the time at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and majoring in psychology.
A guy came up to me and said, You really have a great voice. Have you ever thought about getting into radio? Mr. Wilson recalled. I said, No, I m going to law school. Why? and he said, Well, we just had an opening at our station and we re trying to find somebody.
The pay at the Baton Rouge station was $65 a week, or $5 more than what young Mr. Wilson was making flipping burgers at a 24-hour bowling alley.
He took the job and by the mid-1970s began a morning show at another Baton Rouge station, WJBO.
In 1978, Mr. Wilson broke into his first large metropolitan media market when he and Ross Brittain became Ross and Wilson at WZGC-FM Z93 in Atlanta. It became the top-rated morning show in the city s market.
In Atlanta Mr. Wilson jumped from local radio star to national television. He joined the original 1980 cast of startup cable news network CNN and with a partner reported entertainment news during the television station s former Music Notes segment.
Mr. Wilson finished the one-year CNN contract at the channel s New York studio after he and Mr. Brittain were hired to move their morning show to WABC in New York. There, he made guest appearances on several network shows, including Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonight, and Geraldo.
Vacation Relief Inc.
Radio stations are notorious for letting go of personalities after program cancellations and a format shuffling. So while an on-air job can bring a degree of celebrity, it s not that great for job security.
The New York station split up the Wilson-Brittain duo in 1983. After a stint in Baltimore, Mr. Wilson reunited with Mr. Brittain at WHTZ-FM Z100. From New York it was off to a sister station in Atlanta, WGST, and in 1992, Mr. Wilson landed at WWRC-AM in Washington.
In 1994, while living in Maryland, he founded Vacation Relief Inc., in which he broadcast live from his home studio remotely to radio stations that were in need of someone to fill in for an absent host.
Unlike syndicated shows that confront national issues and are heard in multiple radio markets, Mr. Wilson s show came on in just one city at a time, and he informed listeners where he was speaking from.
When the business started, Mr. Wilson s home studio was outside what he called the logic-free zone of our nation s capital. He brushed up on a city s controversies by reading the local newspaper online.
Talk radio is the most expensive, labor-intensive format to administer, Mr. Wilson said. In music radio, you can bring in any doofus and just play more music. You can t do that in talk radio.
The business model of out-of-town substitute hosts soon caught on. Today, some full-time hosts live thousands of miles from the cities where their broadcasts are heard.
It is becoming more and more of a standard in the radio industry, said Mr. Gaffney, who runs the radio industry blog. Technology is making everything less expensive. It is a way to audition talent, to get talent at a last minute.
Before hosts such as Mr. Wilson farmed out their services, stations needing a talented substitute host often would have to pay that person s traveling and living expenses on top of the work fee.
If you really wanted to have someone fill in for you, you had to bring them to town, and obviously that is really expensive, said Bill White, program director at WBT in Charlotte, which is among the stations that have used Mr. Wilson s services.
Mr. Wilson began hosting programs in cities across the country without leaving home, including eventual full-time contracts at KCMO-AM in Kansas City and KSFO-AM in San Francisco.
For a five-week period in 2000, he broadcast four different shows a day in four different cities:
I did Kansas City from 6 to 9, I did Dallas from 9 to noon, I did Baltimore from 3 to 6, and I did San Francisco from 7 to 10 p.m., Mr. Wilson said. It was absolutely insane.
He still will fill in occasionally for Dallas station WBAP and has been relieved himself in Toledo by Mike Pintek, a former host at KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh. Recently Mr. Pintek filled in Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 when Mr. Wilson was ill.
According to Mr. Pintek, one doesn t need to be an expert on a city to host a news show there.
The names change, but no matter where you are, the issues are really always the same, he said. Those issues include taxes, school performance, and City Hall incompetence.
He added that Mr. Wilson s five-week broadcast binge of 2000 has become legendary in some radio host circles.
Frankly, I don t know how he did that it would fry my brain, said Mr. Pintek, who considers Mr. Wilson a friend. Off the air, he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. But he doesn t take any crap, either.
Mr. Wilson became a Toledo newsmaker himself in January, 2007, when he and two other WSPD hosts, Kevin Milliken and Fred LeFebvre, in a show of solidarity forced their way through a door in Mayor Carty Finkbeiner s office to attend a news conference that the mayor had banned Mr. Milliken from attending.
They pushed past mayoral spokesman Brian Schwartz, who eventually let the door open when he heard cracking wood.
Contacted by The Blade this month, Mr. Schwartz said, I m reluctant to comment publicly. Any spat between Brian Wilson and me just fuels his ratings, and I don t want to be a party to that.
Ruffling feathers at City Hall is all but part of the job description in talk radio.
Just last week, Mr. Wilson showed up at a WSPD-supported demonstration on the steps of Government Center to protest Mayor Finkbeiner s decision to kick the Marines out of Toledo as they were setting up an urban patrol exercise downtown.
The mayor s actions already were generating headlines across the country.
This is another sad national embarrassment for Toledo by a dysfunctional mayor, Mr. Wilson said afterward. Toledo s biggest cheerleader is Toledo s biggest joke.
It doesn t appear the Marines and most Americans are amused.
The libertarian factor
Mr. Wilson has described himself as a small-L libertarian and has contributed essays to some libertarian-themed Web sites such as LewRockwell.com, which bills itself as anti-state, anti-war, pro-market.
For president, he s a fervent supporter of Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and not so much for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, whom he has called Osama what s his face.
We really appreciate people like Brian Wilson, because sometimes people don t want to say they have a philosophy that people have never heard of before, said Sharon Harris, president of the nonprofit Advocates for Self-Government.
Mr. Wilson s show is not syndicated, although some of his friends wish that it were. That includes Stephen Moore, a founder of the anti-tax group Club For Growth, who is now on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.
He is just one of the most lively and entertaining hosts in the country, and the challenge is to get him syndicated across the country, said Mr. Moore, a regular on-air guest at WSPD. What he s like on the air is what he s like off the air he s just a genuine, zany, crackpot personality.
The ratings game
Mr. Wilson is unmoved by his apparent slide in listeners and ratings. The results of the most recent fall 2007 Arbitron survey show that Mr. Wilson s approximate time slot on WSPD ranks seventh in the Toledo-area radio market with 26,500 listeners ages 12 and older, which is nearly 4,000 fewer listeners than the previous year.
Among what he called his show s target demographic, males ages 25 to 54, that time slot has slid to fifth from its third-place ranking the previous fall.
Still, he considers his ratings good.
We re doing better than I expected. We re not doing as well as I wish we were, but there are circumstances and unique aspects to the conducting of audience surveys in a market like Toledo this size, this demographics, this economics, and so on, that makes some goals unrealistic, said Mr. Wilson, who recently wrote online that he s in the final year of a three-year contract.
Mr. Wilson believes there are some folks in Toledo right now who can save the city from tragedy.
I hear them every day on WSPD, he said, referring to his show s listeners. But the fact is they re not going to run for office.
Why not? Because of The Blade, of course.
Nobody who has the type of ideas that could move the city forward is willing to put themselves up for microscopic inspection by little reporters and investigators that The Blade sends out, Mr. Wilson said.
And that from a man who nearly broke down a door in city hall to defend the First Amendment.
Barack Obama admitted to doing a little nose candy back in his youth, Mr. Wilson said, sniffing his nose. Shame and scandal in the city! Who cares. Me, I don t want to vote for anybody who has not done drugs before. Were you raised in the 60s and 70s?
I want somebody who s in touch with reality. Never had a hangover? You re not my guy.
Contact JC Reindl at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6065.