Saturday, December 28, 1996
WLW has no trouble
playing by Reds' rules


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WLW is crying censorship. Now that's cute. The radio station that has so frequently tortured truth to protect its financial interests is suddenly standing up for the First Amendment.

Bengals President Mike Brown has been accused of trying to ''muzzle'' some of The Big One's bigger mouths before selling his team's radio rights to rival Chancellor Broadcasting. No surprise there. What has been strange is WLW's pretense of purity.

''This radio station stepped up and set a precedent,'' Andy Furman said. ''They told a team operator that opinions are worth more than money.''

WLW said nothing of the sort. The station lost the Bengals not by standing on principle, but by stepping on toes. Conflict is what works in talk radio nowadays. Mike Brown had had enough of it, and the station wasn't about to abandon a proven formula for the sake of a football team. Ultimately, the station's interest in ratings superseded its interest in rights holding.

Confrontation is nearly always more entertaining than bland boosterism. Still, the line between debate and debasement often becomes blurry at The Big One. Some nights, WLW is to freedom of speech what the Michigan Militia is to the right to bear arms: one of the liabilities of our liberty.

''What it is over there is professional wrestling,'' Brown said Friday. ''They are not sincere. They don't mean what they say. It's just snake-oil type of stuff to get people to come in. Andy Furman has different personae on-the-air and off-the-air, just as Hulk Hogan does.''

Kinder treatment of Marge

Even on the air, Furman's is a split personality. It is a common affliction on St. Gregory St. The testosterone level of WLW's talk shows drops dramatically when the subject is Marge Schott.

To suggest The Big One is making a stand for freedom of speech now neglects the station's earlier compromises in this area. WLW's contract with the Reds stipulates that its employees are forbidden from making, ''any remarks on the air that assail the personal reputation, morality, integrity or character of any of the club's partners, officers or agents.''

Thus Gary Burbank lampoons ''St. CEO'' instead of taking direct aim at Cincinnati's most vulnerable target. Otherwise, the station typically accords Schott the deference due a visiting dignitary. Her many transgressions are treated as the quirks of a sympathetic character. Compared to WLW's coarse standards, Schott gets kid gloves.

Why? WLW needs the Reds more than it needs the Bengals.

''Any NFL franchise is a cachet,'' said Tom Owens, Jacor's vice president of programming. ''But they don't have nearly the ratings contribution made by professional baseball.''

The Reds are WLW's most precious resource. They provide hundreds of hours of high-impact programming and significant round-the-clock revenue. The Reds, in turn, receive a modest pile of cash and a priceless amount of free advertising over 50,000 watts.

'Good at what they do'

This is a powerful carrot. A prominent WLW voice predicted Friday that Brown would eventually bring the Bengals back to the station because of the strength of its signal.

''My family listens to them in Maine and in Florida,'' said Jim Bowden, the Reds general manager. ''At times, we believe that type of show definitely hurts attendance and definitely has an effect on (public) opinion. They'll make things out to be a lot worse than they are to express themselves.

''But Jacor and WLW are very good at what they do. A sports franchise is going to have a different opinion of what they want to hear. I don't think there's any question that the Reds would rather go back 25 years and have the post-game interview be a puff piece.''

Bowden recognizes this as unrealistic, and rationalizes WLW's excesses as the price of its power. If Mike Brown can no longer make this rationalization, that's his choice to make. Just as Boys' Life has the right to reject advertising from brothels, the Bengals have no obligation to be associated with WLW.

''We're going to be happier with the Chancellor people,'' Brown said. ''And I'm not trying to get in a mudbath with those guys (at WLW). That's what they specialize in.''