Some things surprise us. We never expect talk-show hosts to behave with class or to display genuine insight into human behavior.
That's why Jami McFerrin's dignified farewell to local radio last week was so astonishing.
"I'm walkin' out the door with my head held high," McFerrin said on the air. "I don't regret but one thing and that is that I didn't get out soon enough." McFerrin had been informed a month before the final show that her contract at KFYI-AM would not be renewed. She finished out the last month and endured the tension of a final show last Friday.
McFerrin is right. People simply disappear from radio, television and newspapers all the time. One day, they are happily ensconced in their jobs, convinced they're indispensable. Next day, they're gone.
Bill Stull, an outstanding professional at Channel 12, works for more than twenty years for that station and then is given his walking papers with a week's notice.
Dennis Martin worked as a newsman for almost as long at KOY radio and received no notice at all when the station changed its format.
McFerrin, I think, carried on for all of those people in her final show. She demonstrated that it isn't those holding the talent jobs who are at fault. The blame belongs to the bosses.
"There's something you need to understand," McFerrin told her listeners. "It's something I've come to understand since my ticket got punched. We all get canceled in one way or another. And this is radio. It's not brain surgery." Weeks before, the news leaked out she was not being renewed. Both Bruce Christian of the Mesa Tribune and Bud Wilkinson of the Arizona Republic wrote about it in depth.
"This is an extraordinarily uncomfortable hour," McFerrin told her listeners. "If you don't know the news, my contract was not renewed. I'm out of here." Each newspaper critic had pointed out that McFerrin's ratings had been slipping.
Fred Weber, the beer baron/ingrate who runs the station, even found an extraordinary way to humiliate McFerrin even further. Weber ordered that one hour of McFerrin's three-hour show be handed to Bob Mohan.
Word was leaked that advertisers didn't want to be on McFerrin's show. They were said to think Mohan could sell their products.
These things are poisonous for a radio personality's self-esteem. Talk-show hosts may sound irritatingly overconfident when they are hanging up on callers from New River and Apache Junction. But, in reality, they are the most totally insecure performers around. They have no real social life. They are married to their microphones. The slightest criticism sends them into the proverbial slough of despondency.
The listeners calling in last Friday were remarkably supportive.
"You're the only talk-show host at that station who has ever finished out a contract," one listener said.
He was right. Tom Leykis was driven off. Jack Cole didn't last. Roy Fox was around long enough for a cup of coffee. Mark Williams escaped. Victoria Jones was sacked suddenly. Don Silverman was sent packing.
What makes radio ratings so infuriating is that they are clearly inaccurate. The system is hopelessly flawed. The ratings bear no resemblance to any actual audience.
Who could really tell who was listening to McFerrin five days a week?
For those who complained McFerrin devoted too much time to women's issues, there were surely as many others turned off by Mohan's redneck cheerleading for the AK-47 and the death penalty.
McFerrin attacked this head-on when callers kept telling her how much they would miss her.
"For every one of you who said you like me," she said, "there are more who thought I was boring . . . called it the estrogen hour and referred to me as Mary Poppins." For the final hour of her life as a KFYI talk-show host, McFerrin was joined by Mohan and by Barry Young, the program director who officially fired her.
The match up was a blueprint for confrontation. This was McFerrin's chance to get even with both Young and Mohan. She had a chance to embarrass both badly.
Having already been released, it would be unseemly for them to answer in kind, if she decided to skewer them.
But McFerrin set the rules of the game at the very beginning of her last hour.
She referred to Young as "Pee Wee." Young, who is five feet four inches tall, may be the station's program director, but in the face of the dictatorial Weber, he has no real power.
One caller asked McFerrin to explain why everyone kept leaving the station.
She suggested that the caller ask Young.
Young immediately displayed his lack of sensitivity. He explained to the caller that he didn't want Jack Cole to leave.
"That's interesting," McFerrin said, "Barry didn't want that to happen, but he had to make a decision about my leaving." Another caller told McFerrin that he had now seen so many changes for the worse that he was never going to listen to the station again.
"I'm going on to other things," he said. "Right-wing radio has taken its toll." McFerrin never lost her poise.
The tension held right down to the show's final minutes. You were of two minds. You wanted McFerrin to lash out at Weber for his insensitivity. You wanted her to reach across the table and punch Young in his mustache.
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But she had too much class.
"Being in radio," she said, "is a little like playing baseball. When a guy owns a team, he has a right to expect that people play the game the way he wants it played." The recorded music in the background came up. It was time for the CBS news at noon.
After three years, Jami McFerrin walked away from a KFYI microphone for the last time. They'll miss her more than they realize.
"We all get canceled in one way or another. And this is radio. It's not brain surgery."