While it wouldn’t be accurate to call Bob Lassiter the best talk radio host of all time, it would be fair to say that he’s probably the least famous great one. In the metro areas where he took calls on the radio (Miami, Tampa and Chicago) he’s still loved and loathed by those who remember his work, but everywhere else he’s mostly known by those who collect and trade tapes of arcane and unusual radio. That is, except for some lucky WFMU listeners who have heard us rebroadcast some of Bob’s radio shenanigans (and yes, there are archives).
So, why am I writing about a local Florida talk host who hasn’t been on the air for six years? And what would make recordings of a talk show collectable in the first place? And more significantly, why in the world would we play portions of his show on WFMU? Simple. When Lassiter was good, he was REALLY good. He could make your jaw drop, make you curse the radio, or maybe just pee your pants.
Unlike other talk hosts who hope to change the world (assert an agenda) or want to be liked, Lassiter's was always driven to simply grab and hold the listener's attention. And he would do whatever he could get away with (or whatever amused HIM at the time) to shock or awe listeners into becoming addicted to his program.
A key element to what made Lassiter’s radio work mind-blowing was how he consistently generated confrontational calls and turned them into compelling radio theater. Every other talk host I’ve ever heard usually gets off on like-minded callers, but not Bob. In fact, he was often quite impatient with callers who agreed with him. As a master contrarian, phone-in fans and callers on his side merely bored him. They were just getting in the way of the pissed off listeners who were steaming on hold, waiting for their chance to take on “The Mad Dog.”
The classic Lassiter approach was to lay out a talk radio trap and let the fun begin. He’d often launch his show with an incendiary monologue, or just let loose with a few insults or comments designed to provoke certain types of listeners to dial up in a fury and spew emotional diatribes against him. At heart, Lassiter was a radio predator armed with a big deep voice and enough facts and debate tricks to destroy almost every susceptible challenger on the line.
Before he would take down his prey, he’d often toy with the caller or play games with their mind. And ultimately, he would show no mercy. While he learned much of his technique from his mentor, caustic talker Neil Rogers, Lassiter’s style was all his own. Beyond his debating skill and the fact that he’s a bright guy, what made Lassiter different from any other talk host was that he was willing to win an argument at almost any cost, and he really doesn’t like people all that much.
While not a bigot or someone filled with hate, Lassiter is a bit of a sociopath-- or more accurately, a misanthrope. Oh, he likes and loves many in his circle of friends and family, but he’s not what you’d call a “people person.” Yet, Lassiter isn't really a sadist either. You never got the feeling that he exactly relished the pain and anguish of others, but the truth was that he was never all that concerned about the “feelings” of strangers who were willing pawns in his schemes to provide tension and entertainment for his radio audience at large. Anybody who was willing to call his show was fair game.
There were periods where Lassiter was on-fire with this style of confrontational talk radio. And unless you lived in one of the markets where he did his program, it’s hard to convey the daily excitement of turning on the radio to find out what Bob was going to do next. Fully aware of his own power in that way, Lassiter would rachet up the anticipation (or trepidation) by teasing and taunting the audience, promising more outrage and controversy over the air in days to come.
It’s a formula that worked...for a while, many times.
More or less, the secret of Lassiter’s success was that he could amass a large audience of people who loved what he did on the radio AND listeners who hated him with passion. The latter group generated the calls that were really the signature of his program. While most people who dislike a talk host just turn the station, with Lassiter’s show his detractors would tune in again and again in pure outrage and in hope against hope that one angry caller would get the best of Bob Lassiter. And I don’t think that ever really happened.
Lassiter’s willingness to go over the top over and over again, and to utilize charged emotional content for entertainment value carried a price. Eventually he stood the risk of burning out his audience, both the fans and the anti-fans. While his usual targets– old people, Christians and snowbirds from the north (who flock to Florida every winter), were always easy action for Lassiter’s tactics, almost anyone or any group could become a target for his predatory radio shtick. Lassiter was willing to piss off almost anybody for the sheer entertainment value it might provide. While it was like no other radio show and provided thrills and giggles you couldn’t find anywhere else, eventually the lack of substantive content and the reliance on raw emotion as titillation had a shelf life.
However, his willingness to take risks was balanced with plenty of calculation and an acute awareness of when his act might be wearing thin. So, after a few weeks or months of coliseum-style radio, Lassiter would back off. While not acknowledging any change in his style, Lassiter would warm-up and pour on the charm for a while. Although the challenging callers would still come up on the board from time to time, and they were always appropriately taken down by the mad dog, but his show wasn’t wall to wall provocation when he was lying low.
During these times, Lassiter did his best to soften up the audience and almost encourage them to identify with him. A good storyteller, Lassiter could be quite revealing about his personal life and was capable of sharing details that could make you squirm. He’d even be patient with fan calls and accept compliments with uncharacteristic grace. I don’t recall any evident radio genius when Lassiter downshifted into more friendly territory, but his talent and sharp mind would usually carry the show. That said, every once in a while Lassiter could bore listeners with the minutia of his hobbies-- like playing with his home computer or his obsession with day trading.
Like many, I admit a fascination with the unique (and often absurd) mind to mind combat that made Lassiter’s show powerful. Sure, every once in a while he might come off as a bit cruel, but most of the time the frothing callers on his program got what they deserved. However, my favorite Lassiter moments were when he would be more playful and used satire and whimsy instead of direct instigation to stir up listeners.
For your pleasure, I'm offering two examples. Both are extended segments from The Bob Lassiter Show during his first run on WFLA in the fall of 1987. As far as I know, these bits have never been rebroadcast on the radio since they first aired.
The first is “The Lassiter Group.” A takeoff on the inane political pundit panel TV show known as “The McLaughlin Group.” Lassiter's "panelists" were four of the more notorious chronic callers on Tampa radio. And like McLaughlin’s program, they were divided in a loose kind of right/left pairing. On the more “traditional" side of things, were “Rocky The Rock & Roll Klansman,” and a surly good old boy who called himself “Captain Jack." The opposing two were Carolyn from New Port Richey, an aging lefty with a radical side, and someone I’ve already written about a couple of times on this blog, “Lionel.“
Lionel was soon to be elevated to the role of talk host on WFLA, where he first gained notice as a popular and often hilarious caller. Instead of the refined and moderated Lionel you hear on the radio today, Lionel the caller is much more flip and emotional than the talk persona he’s developed over the years. It’s interesting to hear the difference.
For those who first heard of Lassiter from his infamous "Airstream" call, Rocky himself eventually revealed that he was actually the grouchy old geezer in the trailer. Whether Rocky's Klan affiliation was also a put-on is still a subject of debate. But he did maintain the same persona over many years as a Tampa talk radio caller.
I'm not going to spoil your fun by revealing what happens during the Lassiter Group roundtable. Suffice to say, there's plenty of conflict. You can hear it all for yourself, by downloading and listening to this MP3.
Around this same time, Lassiter’s show was under fire from an anti-porn group called “The National Federation for Decency” (which eventually changed its name to “The American Family Association) who were calling for Lassiter’s dismissal. In return, Lassiter hired an alleged “decency lady” to oversee his program from the control booth armed with a loud buzzer to override anything said on the program with questionable moral value. It was quite a decent program. Download and listen to an MP3 of the fun with this link.
Bob Lassiter’s radio career ended with a contract dispute during his second run on WFLA in 1999. And much to the dismay of his fans, he won’t be coming back to radio. He doesn’t have the stamina for it these days.
Lassiter is in ill health, suffering serious complications from advanced diabetes. And while I’m not apt to discuss other's health issues in a public forum, I’ve said as much as I have because Bob himself is out there talking about it himself, on his blog (link here).
So, while Lassiter is no longer making fools of unwitting callers, he is still doing something else that has always been an inherent part of his radio work– talking about himself and his life in a stark and painfully honest way. Just as his occasional raw candor wasn’t easy listening, his blog is not always light reading either. Sure, there’s the same Lassiter wit, and the occasional cutting comments you'd expect, but the real meat on Lassiter’s blog are his anecdotes about what it’s like to be a loner in ill heath connected to the world though the internet.
It’s actually his third blog. An earlier version had audio bits you could stream, and was open to comments from readers. People who were accustomed to being able to contact Lassiter on the radio were shunned when they tried to engage him in email dialogue or become pen pals. The new blog is a one way street, with Lassiter completely in charge of all content.
Lassiter has just turned 60. A talk host who gained plenty of notoriety for making fun of old folks is now growing old before his time. Sure, it’s very sad, but I have to say that Lassiter’s blog shows him to be in a pretty good humor about it all. And not surprisingly, he’s a good writer too.
Somewhere up in his room in Florida, with his computer and stuffed animals, Bob Lassiter will be reading this. From what I can tell, Lassiter keeps meticulous track of his legacy on the web, and will be sure to find this post. And if you go to his blog, he will notice. He seems to track every hit, and to comment on the blog when there are a large number of readers, or when someone in a far off place opens his blog in their browser.
You see, Lassiter still loves the attention. But, please-- leave him alone.