The Sun Years, Part III: A Menagerie Of Transitions

So here I was in the spring of 1991, working for the Sun Radio Network in Clearwater, Florida.  As I’ve mentioned before, Sun also had it’s own radio station locally at the time, WEND, and also owned a satellite chain that carried Sun programming 99% of the time, North America One (at one point, NA1 was its own entity entirely, but merged with Sun before I was employed there).  SRN had a quality lineup of hosts who brought in stations, large and small, from all over the country.

The network had one significant problem: it wasn’t just losing money, it was hemorrhaging it, to the tune of $202,000 a month.  It takes a lot of money to keep a national network on the air between cutting edge (at the time) phone technology, paying building rent, and paying employees.  To help pay for this white elephant came an organization from Washington D.C. called Liberty Lobby.  According to a 1991 interview with Richard Benton, who was with SRN’s affiliate relations director at the time, Liberty Lobby paid about $166,000 of that $202,000 of debt SRN was piling up, and was doing so every month.

Why would a Washington lobbying firm want to lay out that kind of money?  My guess was to control it.  And by the spring of 1991, Liberty Lobby started to consolidate its control of SRN.  There are two theories I have as to why.  The first was a simple motivation: to get the network a little less deeper into that sea of red ink it had.  My other theory, somewhat connected to the first, is a little more complicated.  Chuck Harder and Sonny Bloch sold their own products during the commercial breaks interspersed during the hours they were on.  It seems quite logical that SRN, probably at Liberty Lobby’s bidding, asked for a higher cut of what was being made at some point.  They wanted to keep shows on a smaller scale so they could by up the commercial air time for themselves to pitch their own books and VHS videos.

By the spring of 1991, the axes began to swing, and wouldn’t stop swinging the rest of the year.  Chuck Harder was the first to go, replaced by the fresh face of Tom Donahue (not to be confused with the San Francisco DJ) in April.  Midday man Joel Vincent, better known as Howard Hewes in the Tampa Bay market, a long time DJ trying his hand in the talk (just as MJ/Todd Schnitt would do a generation later), was sacked around that time, replaced by Doug Stephan.

Can I tell you all something?  I despised Doug Stephan.  Maybe it was because I enjoyed Joel so much, who was a joy to be around and treating all of us “little people” like we were kings.  With most hosts, I tried to be nice to them and get to know them.  My job performance and paycheck depended on it.  Never felt the need to do that with Doug.  He was always a first class asshole to me, and more than once, we had arguments during the commercials.  I’d get countless calls during the show, asking where Joel went, and warning me that Doug was as milquetoast as a talk radio show could get.

One day around Memorial Day (as best as I remember), June Lockhart was one of his guests.  In all honesty, I didn’t know who she was, and I thought I was a pretty knowledgeable 19 year old.  My mistake was mentioning that to June as I called her up to go on the air with Doug.  It would be like telling Jerry Seinfeld today that I didn’t know who he was if I were 19 today.

June didn’t make things any better for me, as she stooges me out to Doug ON THE AIR.  Have you ever seen the scene in Office Space where the Peter Gibbons character gets it from all of his superiors over the TPS reports…each and every one of them?  That was me over the June Lockhart fiasco.  I got beat up verbally by almost everybody like a Mexican pinata.  Not that I didn’t deserve it.  I totally did.  Occasionally in life, you need to be humbled, and that particular time frame was my turn.  I lived, I learned, I moved on.

And the changes continued.  Larry Wyman was the COO at Sun, soon to be replaced by Bill Wardino.  Karl Moore was out as program director, replaced by Stan Anderson by the end of 1991.  The weekday lineup and weekend lineup went through wholesale changes.  It seemed we threw a different lineup out every month.  Tom Donahue, the guy who replaced Chuck Harder, was replaced within four months…and I believe it was Tom Holter who wound up replacing him.

In the first few days of August of 1991, I got a heads up that a rival station, WFLA, was about to do an expose about Sun.  And that proved to be another turning point, not for the better.


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