Redemption Roulette: I-Man Back In, Greaseman Still Out
As the news spread about Don Imus's return to big-time radio in New York -- complete with multimillion-dollar contract and prime morning-drive-time slot on one of the most popular stations in the nation -- Doug "Greaseman" Tracht cradled a cocktail and settled onto the Good Ship Grease in Annapolis Harbor, ready for a day on the bay.
Star sportscaster Marv Albert came back, even after felony charges of forcible sodomy. Sexually explicit voice mails weren't enough to end Pat O'Brien's career. Howard Stern, of course, rode a steady downpour of fines from the Federal Communications Commission to satellite radio megabucks. Radio bad boys Opie and Anthony survived serial suspensions stemming from offenses both sexual and racial. Now, nine months after the most notorious of the recent broadcast falls from grace, Imus is back, debuting on New York's WABC on Dec. 3, with stations around the country, including Washington's WTNT (570 AM), standing by to pick up his show in syndication.
And here, lazily pondering a cruise to the Bahamas, is the Greaseman, off the air, on the wrong end of six years of broadcasting his morning show on tiny, unknown AM stations with signals so weak they dissolve under the static created by a car's ignition switch.
When Imus comes back, the Greaseman will be on the water, wondering whether radio will again become a daring and dangerous medium. "The big companies, in their corporate consolidation buying frenzy, forgot that there must be some compelling reason for people to turn on their radio," he says. "We don't seem to have a lot of firebrands anymore. When one guy's in charge of 10 stations, are we out to do something new, or are we trying to save our jobs and keep the station on the air?"
Tracht's views on the blanding of commercial radio are hardly radical. Mel Karmazin, the former CBS president who now runs Sirius Satellite Radio, argues that the corporate consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1990s "totally homogenized radio." But while Karmazin now offers pay satellite radio as the antidote to the stultifying fare on AM and FM radio, the Greaseman believes there's still hope for old-fashioned free radio.
If he owned a station, Tracht says, "and we had people raising hell about the morning man's antics, we'd raise our glass and bring him free doughnuts every day. But until we get that station, well, I have no idea. I'll be out here on the boat, getting premature aging of my skin, holding a light gin and tonic and feeling like a million bucks."
Tracht, 57, was always the most talented of the shock jocks, a storyteller so verbally nimble, so fantastically imaginative that his showmanship seemed wasted on an audience of adolescent guys. In his heyday in Washington in the 1980s, the Greaseman rode atop the ratings, raked in big money and dazzled audiences with stories that skated at the edges of the censor's rules.
All those tales of young men and their hydraulics thrilled some and offended others, but it was two breathtakingly awful quips about race that put the Greaseman on ice. The first came in 1986, on DC-101, when, talking about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he said, "Kill four more and we can take the whole week off." For that, Tracht was suspended for a week; he donated money to Howard University to create scholarships for students.
Then, in 1999, working on Classic Rock 94.7, after playing a song by black singer Lauryn Hill, Tracht opened his mike and said, "No wonder people drag them behind trucks," a ghastly reference to the murder in Texas of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to the back of a truck by three white supremacists, dragged at high speeds and decapitated. Tracht was fired, pilloried in the media, deemed unemployable by every major league station in town.
Tracht was off the air for two years. Week after week, he appeared before any audience that would have him, shepherded by black friends who believed that his remorse was genuine. He begged for another chance, confessed his racial biases, got turned away from black churches and went on Tavis Smiley's show on BET, plaintively asking a caller, "Let me down off this cross, will you?"
No one would. Stern and others were saying things far more inflammatory than Tracht's improv bits; the N-word was standard fare on many shock shows in those years, and the raunchier hosts regularly asked listeners to describe the most extraordinary sexual acts in extreme detail. But the ugliness of Grease's racial remarks trumped any sexual material, and unlike Imus, Tracht had few defenders among the power elite.
More important, Tracht didn't offer station executives nearly the financial upside that Imus did. Though Imus's show hadn't drawn impressive ratings for many years, his unique combination of locker room humor and top-shelf guests from the worlds of politics and media drew a hard-to-reach male audience of movers and shakers -- something advertisers valued. Greaseman, in contrast, was often dismissed as a cult entertainment for young guys stuck in a comic book/video game world. The Greaseman wasn't a superstar anymore; by the late '90s, his ratings, once superior to Stern's, were just half of Howard's.
Finally, in 2001, after a long stretch in counseling with a psychologist at Howard University Hospital, and after probing a connection between the collapse of his first marriage and his resorting to cynical insensitivity, Tracht pried open slots on a few stations at the top of the AM dial, among the low-rent preachers, foreign-language broadcasts and all-infomercial stations. Working from his home studio in Potomac, Tracht was the Greaseman again, even if he was heard only on a few little stations in places such as Dumfries, Fredericksburg and Keyser, W.Va.
He sold CDs of his bits through his Web site, offered video clips online of his riffs on the morning news and served up his spicy comedy to a tiny but dedicated radio audience. As inventive as his material remained, there was no bite from any major radio executives. The Greaseman was damaged goods.
At the beginning of November, tired of toiling for a barely measurable audience, Tracht quit his morning spot on WMET (1160 AM). He and the station call it a "hiatus." The station replaced him with the "Music of Your Life" easy listening format targeted at the elderly.
Grease plans to continue his video offerings at http://www.getalife.tv, where his "Deviant Report," sometimes delivered as he sits in his bathrobe, consists of riffs on strange news items. Tracht doesn't expect to make money off his online fare; he figures that "the technology to turn it into a moneymaking venture hasn't even been invented yet." While he waits for that to happen, he's planning to spend a lot of time on the seas.
"I'm clearing my head," Tracht says from the deck of his powerboat, declining to discuss why Imus and others have found a path back into the big time, while he has not. "I'll let you grapple with the heavy questions and the whys and wherefores. When something comes along, I'll be on it like a big dog. Meanwhile, I'm out here, discovering what it's like to sleep till 10:10 in the morning and enjoying late-night TV for the first time."
By Marc Fisher |
November 25, 2007; 10:15 AM ET
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