Detroit has no shortage of characters who, after achieving some measure of success, came down from the mountain head-first. Some were scoundrels, more were victims of circumstance or their own bad judgment. And say what you will about this country, but there’s always a comeback waiting for people who’ve messed up in some humiliating way.
Monica Lewinsky has a midlife career as an anti-bullying advocate. Mark Sanford hiked the Appalachian Trail, resigned in disgrace as governor of South Carolina, and was later elected to Congress from the same state. Richard Nixon said in 1962 we wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore, and seven years later, he was taking the oath of office in front of the Capitol.
In Detroit, a different fate awaits the infamous, the disgraced, the publicly embarrassed. You can find them at 910 on your AM radio dial.
WFDF-AM, rebranded 910amSuperstation three years ago, is talk radio pitched to an African-American audience, but with a unique strategy for catching your attention: If you’ve messed up in some public way, station owner Kevin Adell may well give you a show.
The lineup, which changes often, is a mix of respected, multi-platform media brand names (Nolan Finley, Bankole Thompson) and people last seen expressing their deep regret for the pain they’ve inflicted on their families. Among the rogues’ gallery of former and current hosts:
- Former Wayne County Circuit Judge Wade McCree, removed from office by the state Supreme Court for misconduct in office that included sex in his chambers, with a woman whose child-support case was on his docket.
- Christine Beatty, one-time mistress and chief of staff to former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice in connection with his epic flameout.
- Todd Courser, the Lapeer state representative who was elected as a family-values, tea-party Republican, and left Lansing in a sex scandal with a colleague, Cindy Gamrat, not even a year into his term.
Are we forgetting anyone? Oh, right -- Thaddeus McCotter, one-time representative of Michigan’s 11th House district, a man who once flirted with running for president, resigned in 2012 after his staff failed to gather signatures to put him on his own party's primary ballot. Monica Morgan, widow of the late UAW Vice President General Holifield, who herself was accused of misappropriating training funds and pled guilty to tax evasion, also has a show.
Up next: WSU refugee Jack Lessenberry
And then there’s former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers, who served prison time in a bribery scandal. Her show abruptly went off the air last year, her exit in keeping with her image in recent years – tumultuous. It involved a public tiff with station owner Adell over a $750-a-night hotel room, station swag and dueling claims of whether she was fired or quit.
Starting in early July, in a two-hour weekday show, is Jack Lessenberry, whose career as a journalist, educator and media ombudsman hit turbulence after Deadline Detroit last month detailed a history of questionabvle behavior with women.
Most of these people have or had shows on Saturday, the Siberia of a talk station’s schedule. But most generated publicity when they joined the lineup -- which may be the point.
“They are beginning to eke out a measurable audience,” said Matt Friedman, a partner in Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications and a former radio and TV producer. “Urban audiences are traditionally underrepresented in ratings in general, so the fact they now have one is something.”
Those ratings are small -- a .2 in the May 2018 book -- but not insignificant, Friedman said.
Adell declined to discuss his station with Deadline Detroit, and several current hosts did the same. Adell, in fact, threatened to “file charges for harassment” after a single call, warning: “Govern yourself accordingly” before hanging up. (More on that later.)
More willing to talk were some who worked there and have since left.
David Alexander Bullock, activist and pastor of a Highland Park church, won’t even use the word “worked.”
“I labored there,” he said of his two-hour morning show, which he said Adell pulled the plug on after Bullock joined the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar.
“Kevin was upset that I didn’t ask him about a decision I made to work with (Thanedar),” Bullock said. “He runs the station like a pastor runs a church. He felt I should have asked his permission first.”
Bullock isn’t the permission-asking type, at least not for a job that he said paid him the sum of zero dollars and the internet currency known as exposure.
“Most hosts don’t get paid,” Bullock said. “For the most part, people are volunteering their time. It’s a genius business model. Kevin builds a listenership based on the notoriety of the host. The host can build their brand, so they get something. But when 910 tries to suggest people ‘get fired,’ or are ‘let go,’ that’s not it. There is no hire, so there is no fire.”
That’s not to say hosts don’t get anything out of it.
“I used to describe 910 as the Chess Records of Detroit talk radio,” Bullock said. “You’d see all these great people there. I thought it would have made a great reality TV show. Charlie LeDuff would come on from time to time. One day, Charlie was doing this bit on Mike Duggan, and there was a dummy in Kevin’s office, dressed in a suit, (and LeDuff was) making all these jokes about the mayor, but talking to the dummy. Then they put the dummy in the studio, and Charlie does his thing. It was hilarious.
“But on a bad day, it’s like Joseph Stalin running a radio station, with a list of people he didn’t like.”
Lines are open
It’s a June morning, and host Steve Neavling, the Motor City Muckraker, is calling Mayor Mike Duggan “an Asian carp.” He’s working up a head of steam with the usual criticism of Duggan -- too much concern for billionaire developers and not enough for the little guy. Most of the callers today are demonstrating near the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office on East Jefferson, protesting the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. Detroit police have been clearing efforts to blockade and shut down the office, an effort that, in Neavling’s words, puts Duggan on “the wrong side of history.”
“Mayor Duggan, I know you’re listening,” he says. “You guys are filthy pigs. You might as well be in Selma with batons, striking protesters.” He threatens to call the mayor’s office on the air later. (He doesn’t.) He urges listeners to join the demonstration.
“He’s a fraud, he’s a con man, he’s Detroit’s Asian carp,” Neavling complains. Dan Gilbert and Chris Ilitch get everything they want from the city, “but if you’re a family living at Bewick and Mack, forget about it.”
It’s time to turn up the heat on both ICE and Duggan, he exhorts, comparing protestors to Malcolm X and those who “took batons” during the civil-rights movement of the ‘60s.
Invasive-species name-calling notwithstanding, for the most part, day-to-day listening is pretty benign at 910. Those seeking fireworks would be advised to find a morning-zoo program making prank phone calls. Even the hosts trailing spicy reputations don’t generally remind listeners of them when they’re behind the mic.
Rather, most shows, on most days, are doing standard-issue talk radio: Current events, a few laughs, the sort of thing audiences have come to expect. Long stretches go by without calls, and hosts have to be able to vamp – mixing and remixing the topics on the table, giving the studio phone number, without sounding flop-sweaty in the process.
And even though the job doesn’t necessarily come with a paycheck, compensation can be arranged. Another former 910 host, who asked to remain anonymous, said hosts were invited to sell ads on their own shows and keep the revenue. They could also make money doing live remotes, the outside-the-station appearances many stations do, which amounted to “a few hundred dollars every couple weeks,” the host said.
But it wasn’t worth the stressful environment of working there. The host called Adell “a combination of Donald Trump and Willie Lynch,” a reference to a most-likely-apocryphal slave owner in 18th-century Virginia, describing him as bossy and autocratic.
“Nothing (bad) ever happened to me,” the former host said. But, “it was such a stressful environment. Everyone complained. But (Adell) thought that mic was a crack pipe and no one could walk away from it,” she said.
He may be right about that, actually. Consider the experience of Cliff Woodards II, a criminal-defense attorney who had a two-hour weekday evening show for 18 months in 2016-17.
He describes it as “serious-minded,” with each night of the week dedicated to a different theme – relationships, health, business, etc. But Adell, he said, pushed him to be “more TMZ, talk about what baby mama got pregnant, that sort of thing.” Woodards is known for spicy, sharply worded observations on his Facebook page, and “he wanted a radio version of that.” But Woodards, who was considering a run for judge at the time, said he couldn’t go there, and “wanted to uplift the community.”
Woodards and Adell ended up parting ways, but not amicably. Woodards said Adell tapped another 910 host, Sam Riddle, the political consultant who coincidentally did prison time for the same scandal that ensnared Monica Conyers, as his agent of revenge.
“He had Riddle cut some (spots) that called me a handkerchief head,” Woodards said. He was not bothered by them, “because it was Sam Riddle,” he laughed.
And still, after all that, Woodards says today “I’d go back in a second.”
He enjoyed it that much? Absolutely, he said. “But it would have to be on my terms.”
What is 910’s brand, anyway?
Talk formats have been a part of the American radio landscape for decades, but truly exploded in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the culture wars began to rage, cell phones made calls from cars possible and hyper-partisan stars like Rush Limbaugh became known far away from the radio studio. The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, and most station owners realized people weren’t tuning in, and calling in, to hear or have a spirited discussion in the marketplace of ideas. They wanted to hear their own points of view amplified by the smooth-talking host, with snark turned up to 11. And they didn’t want the next show to be some liberal squish.
Which is why it’s hard to parse the 910 lineup, which markets itself as the voice of Metro Detroit’s African-American community, but features, in its morning drive-time slot, the distinctly white and conservative Nolan Finley (soon to be followed by Lessenberry). The lineup careens from Louis Farrakhan to Al Sharpton to Riddle to Robert Ficano to Neavling and beyond. It’s hard to discern a coherent brand-building strategy in there, but again, that may be the point.
A local radio professional who also asked to remain anonymous because radio is a small and sometimes spiteful world, said it doesn’t matter that 910 comes across, sometimes, as chaotic.
“He can hire people who will work for nothing, and have an ax to grind, and the only way they leave is if he (fires them),” the professional said. “He’s not going to go broke.” (Adell inherited a fortune from his late father, Franklin, and has outside business interests besides broadcasting.)
Friedman agreed. “I don’t know the objective of this strategy. If the objective is to make money, you need consistency and a brand. But if you want to be relevant, talked about, sampled? It’s more understandable. Nolan does a very credible morning talk show. Others are a platform for an infamous person.”
Radio stations are still worth owning in Detroit, he added, because it’s a market where people spend a lot of time in their cars.
“Listenership is consistent, but flat,” Friedman said. “There’s still an audience, but just not as much money to be made.”
Who’s harassing whom?
Which brings us, finally, to the 910 media-relations strategy. When Deadline Detroit originally approached Adell’s spokesman, Mort Meisner, he said he believed Adell would cooperate in a piece about their hire-the-infamous strategy, but later reversed himself.
The call – one call – to Adell’s cell phone June 22 pushed things to a boil.
Moments later, Adell apparently entered the studio during Neavling’s show and the on-air discussion pivoted abruptly to a perceived plot by Deadline Detroit to damage the station. (News to us.) Neavling repeatedly announced my cell number and urged listeners to call.
This was followed by the same message in a Facebook post with my picture and number, and that was followed by a live video stand-up by station employee Andre Ash. A few hours later, Riddle made “Grosse Pointe Nancy” a target for his two-hour show, accusing Deadline Detroit of harassment. About a dozen listeners called, leaving messages that ranged from calling us white supremacists to testimonials about how much they enjoy the station and that it should stay on the air.
It’s a strange way to interact with the media, but apparently of a piece with the station’s no-publicity-is-bad-publicity strategy.
Bullock, the former host, says it makes him regret what the station could be.
“I think 910 has missed a powerful opportunity. It started as an African American-focused urban talk station, never exclusively African-American hosts, but slanted that way, moderately liberal-progressive, a counterbalance to the dominant conservative radio stuff. But because of the dynamics of the ownership, now you have Finley, Lessenberry, Neavling. Now your morning has turned conservative. There’s not a whole lot of progressive talk radio out there. It could have become the MSNBC of radio.”
“It has the potential to be a fantastic radio station,” he said. “A lot of people listen to it now. But it needs a mission and a purpose, other than being at the mercy of the whims of the station owner.”