Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The end of Ozone. Most of the time, when someone screws up he's given a second or even a third chance. Sometimes, though, a screw-up forces management to reassess -- to decide that the person who committed said screw-up isn't the right person for the job after all.

That's what happened to former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, who was forced out not because of the Jayson Blair scandal but because, in its aftermath, it became clear that Raines had fostered an atmosphere of fear and favoritism that allowed a con artist like Blair to thrive.

Not to compare WRKO Radio (AM 680) with the Times -- or John "Ozone" Osterlind with Raines, who is, despite his flaws, a great journalist -- but that's apparently what happened to Osterlind yesterday when program director Mike Elder let him go.

According to coverage today in the Herald and the Globe, Osterlind is stunned that he has been dropped from Blute & Ozone, the morning-drive-time show. And he denied to the Herald -- as he has from the beginning -- that he ever called for the entire Arab race to be "eradicated."

Osterlind was initially suspended for two weeks following reports that, on August 12, he called for the "eradication" of the Palestinians. The sequence of events that led to his suspension began when I received an anonymous tip that Osterlind had advocated the Palestinians' "extermination."

I asked Elder about it, and, after he listened to a partial tape of the show (he said a full tape didn't exist), he told me that he'd heard Osterlind say "eradicate," which was apparently close enough for Elder. (Disclosure: I'm paid to blab about the media on WRKO's Pat Whitley Show every Friday at 9 a.m.)

The suspension was reported exclusively on Boston Phoenix Media Log later that afternoon, with the Globe and the Herald not having the story until the next day.

When I interviewed Osterlind shortly after he'd learned about his suspension, I couldn't help but feel bad for the guy. He obviously didn't get it, and I can understand why. He'd been paid to be as outrageous as possible, he is not someone who's particularly well-versed on the issues, and he'd just gotten nailed for doing pretty much what he always does. On a personal level, I don't think he's got a mean bone in his body.

But you certainly can't blame Elder for taking advantage of the situation to elevate the tone of his station. Now let's see if he'll do something about his venom-spewing afternoon star, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, and syndicated host Michael Savage, the hate-mongering right-winger who holds down the evening shift.

Ten to 15 years ago, WRKO was a model for what great talk radio could be, with first-class hosts such as the late, great Jerry Williams, Gene Burns, Janet Jeghelian, and Ted O'Brien. Osterlind sneers in today's Herald that Elder apparently wants to turn 'RKO into NPR -- yet, with the exception of Burns, the station's stars of yesteryear were every bit as populist and occasionally outrageous (especially Williams) as today's fakers like to think they are.

Can the old formula work today? Well, David Brudnoy is still the ratings king on WBZ Radio (AM 1030), so clearly there is a market for intelligent talk. And Osterlind's dismissal of NPR aside, public station WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) pulls down good numbers while broadcasting hours of talk each day.

So maybe it's time for WRKO to try quality. It's certainly tried everything else.

A remarkable look at an unfit mother. If you haven't been reading the Globe's series on Barbara Paul and her sons, you can catch up by clicking here.

Reporter Patricia Wen and photographer Suzanne Kreiter have done a remarkable job of documenting the life of a mother who neglected her children, and yet who loved them -- and still does. Paul gave up her parental-custody rights under pressure from state authorities.

One minor quibble: I would have liked to see a stronger point of view. After all, it was Wen and Kreiter who spent nine months with Paul, not us.

But their even-handedness is a strength, too. We find ourselves emphathizing with Paul and yet understanding why social workers concluded that she was an unfit mother.

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