The Mad Dog has been silenced. After six years of rapidly declining health, talk radio giant Bob Lassiter passed away Friday morning October 13, 2006. His died in his bed, unconscious and without pain. And while Lassiter didn't choose to suffer as he did over the last few years, he did manage to die as he had wished (considering the circumstances). And an integral part of that process was discussing his impending death with his fans, or anybody who cared to read about it. For over a year he blogged his slow demise.
Lassiter had turned 61 just days ago. Although the official cause was kidney failure brought on by diabetes, Lassiter was also a heavy smoker, a junk food enthusiast, and somebody who carried around a lot of bottled up frustration and anger. All life-shortening habits. Up until the end, Lassiter did what he wanted to do the way he wanted to do it. Sometimes being headstrong can be fatal.
Younger than most of the 1960's rock stars still working the oldies circuit, Lassiter died of old age. If there is some mercy in all of this, it’s that Bob’s radio career was marked by an impatience and disdain for old feeble callers, and he became elderly rather quickly and in private. And thanks to the blog he kept right up until the end, it was plain to see that he never lost his edge.
It seems a bit pointless to recap all I've written about Lassiter while he was alive (you can read my Lassiter posts at BOTB here, here, and here). In his own strange way, he was a talk radio giant who continues to have a huge effect on those who recall his program, as well as those who continue to hear his work via the growing archive available on the web. And when Lassiter’s blog occasionally opened for comments from readers (as it has now at its closing) the onslaught of listener accounts of changed lives and his influence were astounding. Having such power always seemed to baffle Lassiter, who once said: "It makes no difference if I change anyone's mind, or influence anyone to do something. It's not the point of my show."
Lassiter delighted in making listeners look at issues and ideas from a different angle, to break open clichés and tired narratives to re-examine the contents. For me personally, I know that after listening to Lassiter's show for a while I’ve never heard (or thought about) talk radio the same way.
Through almost pure happenstance (basically by being in the right places at the right time) I found myself in the strange position of becoming a torchbearer of Lassiter’s legacy over the last few years. However, that torch has since been passed into the hands of others who have provided online places where people can hear, discuss and learn about "The Bob Lassiter Show." While it only aired in three radio markets over the course of roughly twelve years, Lassiter's program was one of the most powerful in the history of talk radio. And although he never reached the national syndication status many felt he deserved, Lassiter in all his show biz complexity is now international and forever. Aspiring talk hosts would be wise to study his work.
Before I ever heard Bob Lassiter on the radio, I had heard of him. Almost by accident (it's a long story...) I ended up moving to Tampa in early 1991. While it took me a while to adjust to Florida life, I was immediately impressed with the local talk station, WFLA. I'd never heard anything like it. The presentation was cocky and irreverent (Lionel was doing afternoon drive at the time) and more importantly, it was unpredictable. And except for the warm and breezy morning show (and the daily syndicated Limbaugh garbage) WFLA's hosts would insult and spew and hang up on stupid callers and talk about things I never heard discussed on the radio before. Little did I know that I was witnessing the heyday of Florida entertainment talk radio. But at that time, Bob Lassiter had already come and gone.
I used to occasionally chat with one of my neighbors over the fence behind my subtropical apartment, and often he’d hear me out on my little patio listening to WFLA. He would always talk about how WFLA wasn’t the same since this Lassiter guy had left town. He'd recount Lassiter’s antics in great detail and talk about how popular he was. I imagined Lassiter as some dark prince of talk radio, a strange force of nature I had sadly missed out on. It was still a few years away from the time when you could discover a distant (or dead) talk host through the web.
Then a year and a half later, Lassiter reappeared on the Tampa radio scene. This time at a new talk station, WSUN. It was billed as “Entertaining Talk Radio For the 90's,” and they set out to out-attitude the fearless Jacor talk leader in the market (and Lassiter's former employer), WFLA. (For some reason, I was mailed a promotional cassette promoting WSUN at the time, and you can download a copy of from the Bob Lassiter Airchecks website.)
It’s hard to imagine today, but WSUN was not only apolitical in its approach to talk radio. It was also rabidly un-topical. Topics they said, were “poison.” The format jumped into the Tampa market with a bunch of high-end radio talent (specifically Neil Rogers) by shipping in most of the programming from Cox Broadcasting sister station WIOD in Miami. Lassiter was cooling his heels in Iowa after his tumultuous gig at WLS in Chicago when Rogers lobbied for Cox bring him back to do morning drive at WSUN, followed by the WIOD line-up.
While I’m not a morning guy, I went as far as setting up a timer and tape deck to occasionally listen to this show. Although Lassiter was impressive and funny, it wasn’t the wild radio ass extravaganza I’d been led to expect. In retrospect, at a station where shows weren't supposed to be topical Lassiter's trademark incendiary monologues and convoluted set-ups were rarely heard. Most of the time Bob was left to try to do what Neil does so well– to riff and bitch and cause trouble for hours on end.
When Lassiter moved to afternoons at WSUN, now following Rogers show, I listened to both of them all the time. And when Lassiter and his mentor began their famous on-air feud, their back to back programs took a nasty turn. Neil incessantly provoked Lassiter into a frothing rabid dog every afternoon, and Lassiter responded in kind, countering Rogers point for point and it got meaner every day. And just as getting stuck at station where a loose shock-talk approach prevailed put Lassiter at a disadvantage, the on-air slap fight between talk monsters was just something Rogers was much better at as well. While Rogers seemed to enjoy getting Lassiter’s goat more every day, Lassiter seethed and sniped and became moody and dark as he found himself becoming the public enemy of his radio mentor. It's the only time I've ever heard Lassiter lose a fight. For those of us who witnessed the carnage it was nice to hear them made amends last year when Bob made his last radio appearance on Roger's show (Download MP3).
And then after WSUN disbanded, Lassiter was under a contractual non-compete clause and couldn’t work in Tampa area radio for a number of months. But as soon as he became available, WFLA started sniffing around and brought Lassiter back into the fold one more time. And thus began his last hurrah.
Suddenly, I was hearing the Bob Lassiter I’d only heard my neighbor talk about. Lassiter was truly the Mad Dog once again. For me, Lassiter’s new nightly show on WFLA was immediately addictive in a way I can only compare to how people get locked into television programs. It was like a soap opera you couldn't miss, or the way a geek might crave a Star Trek or Twilight Zone fix. I found myself spending my daylight hours recalling Lassiter’s antics from the night before with my friends, and then coming home in prickly anticipation over what kind of crazy shit Lassiter might do that night. It was a constant parade of unpredictable drama and wit and thought, and countless strange radio conversations.
I was doing a lot of freelance journalism at the time, and I got a green light from one of my editors to put together a cover story feature on the Mad Dog. Suddenly something I just enjoyed for entertainment became an intellectual pursuit, and so much more (and less).
Now instead of just listening, I began recording every Lassiter show to study for the article. Of course, I had no idea at the time that airchecks of Lassiter would be something I would collect or cherish years later. As the tapes piled up, I would edit significant monologues and calls from these tapes into complications for source material for the profile. Then, after weeks of listening and recording and interviewing many of Lassiter’s past associates and co-workers, I assembled a tall stack of questions and was ready to actually talk to the man himself. When I asked for the interview, I assumed it would take place at the radio station. Instead, Lassiter invited me into his house. Several days later I spent four hours in an air conditioned suburban kitchen drinking hot weak coffee and interrogating Bob Lassiter. And boy did he hate it.
In the course of working on the article, I probably met with
Lassiter three or four times (including sitting in with him during his
show) and he was always civil and basically pleasant. But he was never friendly.
Not even close. In fact, after the interview Lassiter went on his show
and made fun of me and complained about having to put up with the
inquisition. To add insult to injury, he misrepresented my questions
and generally made me look foolish. I hadn't expected that.
In general, writing the piece became an unpleasant experience. The more I delved into Bob’s reality the worse I felt. I was having Lassiter nightmares, dreaming he was taking me to task for my foolish musings or that I never was able to actually finish the damn profile. In the end I found myself trying to adequately balance what was good and bad and true about Lassiter without writing a puff piece, or mentioning how creepy it felt being in the same room with him. There was so much to say about Lassiter, but it was difficult to have it all make sense.
But finally after much rewriting and editing it all came together. In the article, Lassiter claimed he tried conduct a two-tier program. "I do a show for half the audience that understands what I'm doing, and the other half that don't can amuse the other half" he said. The piece I ultimately wrote was two-tier as well. I hoped that those who loved or hated Lassiter's show (and there were many in both categories in the Tampa area) would find many reasons to justify the feelings they already had about the man, and that others could get a grip on his interesting inconsistences. My father, who couldn't stand Lassiter thought the feature helped him understand why Lassiter was such an asshole. On the other hand, Lassiter himself really liked the article. (If you’re interested, you can read the text here.) And contrary to his earlier insults, Lassiter was quite appreciative and personally thanked me for writing it (and for getting all his quotes right). I was glad it was all over, and was a little thankful that I wouldn't have to deal with Lassiter again, except as a listener.
To be fair, Lassiter wasn't any more or less warmhearted with me than he was with most people. On his show (and later on his blog) he'd always been quite open about being a misanthrope. “I don't like people,” Lassiter told me during that interview. “I don't like people around me.” And while I never intended to be his friend, I was a bit taken aback by how awkward it was just talking with him. I’ve never experienced anyone quite like him in person-- soft-spoken, cordial, and cold. Then again, it didn't feel personal. I don’t think he disliked me in particular. But he did want to make it profoundly clear that he wasn't going to be my pal.
By the time I left Tampa in 1997, Lassiter’s show lacked the buzz and crackle it had just a year before. After not being able to ply his provocative trademark radio style for a number of years, Lassiter burst out of the box at WFLA with guns blazing. But this time around was different than the times he did the same thing at WPLP, WFLA the first time around, and at WLS. Lassiter was wiser this time. When I interviewed him he told me: "You have to constantly change, yet without giving the perception of having changed, or you eventually burn out your audience." He knew his hostile radio style could create a big splash in a media market (and occasionally create some really unique radio), but maintaining that abrasive vibe for an extended period would likely darken the show into a negative mess for all concerned.
I think his new game plan that time around was to cycle his approach. All his previous gigs hadn’t lasted much longer than two years, and this time around in the home park where he had perfected his style he planned to have a long successful run. I asked him if at the beginning of this WFLA stint if he’d ever shift into the warm and fuzzy persona he often offered up at WSUN. “I will eventually be able to,” he said. “But I can't right now."
Then a few months later Bob took on a female co-host as he did at WSUN. At SUN it was Sharon Taylor (who is mentioned in the last post on his blog, and currently is part of the morning team at WFLA), but on WFLA he was joined by his wife Mary (who masqueraded as “Lou”) and often his producer “Flounder.” While it wasn't bad, and Bob at times was still the irascible “Mad Dog” when cornered, it wasn’t the carefully constructed outrageous drama with a constant stream of entertainingly angry callers. It was an attempt to be conversational and to have fun without resorting to being a prick so often. Bob’s obsession with computers and day trading became a major feature of his show as well. In retrospect, I think that the less than ballistic Lassiter was still a more compelling and individual talk host than over ninety percent of what passes for talk radio nowadays. But it wasn’t the same wild ride that made Lassiter the legend who burns bright in listener's memories.
Once I moved to New York, I occasionally checked out Lassiter’s show over the web. I don’t recall anything special. I had heard second hand from Florida friends Lassiter’s three year run at WFLA ended in late 1999, and that in the end he did something you rarely hear. He went on the air and trashed the station. The Bob Lassiter Airchecks site has an archive of his final show, and it’s classic smoldering Lassiter. As his contract was running out, WFLA management was putting off negotiating a new one with him. Even the staff was avoiding him in the building. But after his audience was made aware of the situation and his anger at the station, Lassiter was asked to stay home. And that’s where he spent the rest of his life.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Bob Lassiter had been on the WFMU radar for a long time. I was working the WFMU merchandise table when I discovered the first volume of the station’s “Radio Archival Oddities” cassette featuring a “Tampa talk host” who happened to be none other than the magnificent Lassiter. When the Aircheck program debuted in 2002 I began contributing clips I had compiled when I wrote the article, and people beyond Tampa and Chicago (and a few aircheck tape collectors) began to discover there was more to Lassiter than those calls from Rocky the Rock & Roll Klansman and the guy in the Airstream trailer (who in reality were actually the same person).
Meanwhile, the state of talk radio (especially in New York) was increasingly right wing and depressing. It seemed like a prime time for Lassiter to appear in some market and stir up trouble again. As I regularly searched the internet for news of (and references to) Bob Lassiter, two things became obvious. The first was that Lassiter had indeed disappeared from the talk radio scene. Occasional postings on message boards and Usenet only revealed people who were doing the same thing I was, wondering what ever happened that Lassiter character?
The other thing I realized was that the few clips of Lassiter that were floating around hardly gave a full picture of his complicated and convoluted radio persona. Many people who discovered Lassiter through WFMU were blown away by his provocative talk style, but it also gave many superficial snapshots of his work. In the age of Bush, Lassiter sounded to many like a cunning and angry liberal who bravely battled rednecks, fundamentalist kooks and conservative morons. While he indeed contended with all sorts of folks on the battlefield of his program, Lassiter was never really left wing. He was a libertarian leaning contrarian with a mean streak. And he was so much more (and sometimes so much more frustrating) than what newcomers might glean from a few heart-pounding bits.
So in 2003 I set upon the task of providing a more complete overview of The Bob Lassiter Show by assembling a retrospective which turned out to be a two-part special on WFMU’s Aircheck program. (You can download MP3s of these shows here and here.) I had recently swapped copies of some of my Lassiter archives with an aircheck tape collector for some 80's Lassiter material he had. And after carefully combing through it all I had enough stuff to assemble a feasible documentary of Lassiter’s career. It aired over two weeks in late July of 2003, and has forever been archived on WFMU’s site.
Although, I considered contacting Lassiter to give him a heads-up on what I was doing, but I was frankly apprehensive about reaching out to him again. And while working on the shows I began to get a sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be happy with them. I chickened out.
I was wrong. In less than a week after the first installment aired, Lassiter had found the archive, listened to it, and sent me an appreciative email. “I had forgotten most of the calls, and even some of the "monologue" snippets,” Lassiter said. “Things sure were different back then. It's hard to believe that I actually got paid to do some of that stuff. It was a lot of fun - though I didn't always realize it at the time!” In that email I also found out for the first time that Lassiter had serious health problems stemming from diabetes.
Well, that was a relief. Lassiter liked what I had done, and I got plenty of positive response from listeners as well. And thanks to the internet, WFMU’s archiving and the miracle of search engines, all the Lassiter featured on aircheck continued to find old Lassiter fans and create new ones. Instead of the politically driven smear merchants who clutter talk radio today, Lassiter offered edgy entertainment that was both intellectual and absurd. And more than any other talk host I’ve heard, he created gripping theater of the mind.
A few weeks later an old Lassiter fan from Tampa heard the Lassiter Aircheck specials and sent me an email. It has inspired him to digitize hundreds of old tapes of Lassiter and other Tampa talk hosts he rescued from his garage. I swapped some of my material with him, and he went on to create some nice CD’s collecting some of the highlights of the golden age of Tampa talk radio. I hope one day that all the material he’s gathered together finds a home online. Speaking of that, a few months later a guy named George in Texas who used to listen to Lassiter on WLS in Chicago found these shows as well, and sent me a nice email thanking me. “Man, I just shit my pants,” he said. And then George set out to spread the joy.
After purchasing some of the aircheck tapes of Lassiter available on the web, George put up a bare bones website featuring MP3's of these tapes, and asked fans to contribute more. That was the beginning of the wonderful “Bob Lassiter Airchecks” site, which continues to grow with more new additions all the time. Now anyone who wants to truly explore (or remember) the full breadth of Bob Lassiter’s radio magic and mischief can access a huge online resource that could keep them busy for months. And I should add that it’s free as well. More than anyone, George has assured that Lassiter’s radio legacy will live on for many years to come, warts and all. That’s what I call public service. A busy Yahoo Lassiter fan group has sprung up as well, which often served as a place for his followers to converse when they were shut out of speaking on his personal blog.
Sometime in 2004 the first “blog lassiter” began. Lassiter shut it down after he began to get too many people wanting to associate with Lassiter via the comments section. The second (or maybe third?) version of his blog went online last summer, and it remains today. While comments were normally closed (except on the rare posts where Lassiter would allow them), the last post has been opened for comments from readers and fans. And as you might guess, they’re piling up quickly at this writing.
What became obvious to anyone coming across Lassiter’s blog was that it was going to be a chronicle of the end of his life. It was the document of a grouchy old man going through a slow and painful death. But it served a more important purpose in the long run. It kept the long love affair between Lassiter and his listeners alive until the very end. To be sure, it was often a dysfunctional relationship, but he cherished the attention and his fans clung to having some connection to a voice that had meant so much to them.
I’ve come to believe that Lassiter was as shy as he was egocentric and angry. He functioned best when he was in charge of the things, especially when lording over a talk show. Or by conducting a personal blog which allowed only a minimum of reader comments. Which brings me around to Lassiter’s last words.
While we all have no idea of the what Bob actually said or did in those moments before he lost consciousness or took his last breath, what we are left with is the personal public diary he left for his wife Mary to post after his passing. And his very last entry is telling. Until the end, Lassiter obsessively monitored his blog readership and web presence. And after seeing a post in the Yahoo group regarding how his last employer, WFLA, was putting together his obituary. “Overall, I’m amused that the bastards who threw me out in the gutter, now want to honor me with a fancy obit,” Lassiter spewed. “I’m sure that it will be a warm and fuzzy thing, praising me to the hilt – why must the world be so phony?”
There you go. While not knowing those would be his last words in public, that final accusation exemplified what made Lassiter good and bad and a little strange. Radio is a cutthroat business and many of those who work in the trenches on the business end find themselves in ugly roles and end up doing disingenuous things. And there is a phoniness there deserving of some bile and bluster. On his show, Lassiter was always a master of revealing the hypocrisy of many institutions, including his insights into the dark side of the radio business. However, if you read between the lines on this one you also get a sense of how difficult it could be to know (or care about) Lassiter the person, not the voice on the radio or the writer of a blog.
I know a few of Lassiter’s “many friends” at WFLA who Lassiter denounced for not calling or visiting him over the years since he parted ways with the station. While I don’t know the details of why his contract wasn’t renewed or the business angle of the decision. I do know that there was a huge respect for Lassiter at WFLA, which I’m sure didn’t end when he left the building. Lassiter had his greatest success there, with two stints marked by now historic moments of cutting edge talk radio. More than at any other station, they let him do his thing, to the hilt. They promoted him. They were proud of him. The acrimonious split with WFLA aside, you can be sure that the concern many there felt for Lassiter in his last days was hardly phony.
In real life, Bob Lassiter was a formidable character. Difficult to read. Difficult to approach. As a former co-worker, Lionel, said the other night when offering a brief eulogy during his show (Download MP3) was that Lassiter wasn't "somebody you'd wanna hug." He could be as pungent in real life as he was during those acerbic moments of radio genius. There was always the sense that he might unload at you at any time. It was a strange feeling, being in the presence of a man you respected and admired and having the distinct feeling that he not only didn't care, but thought less of you because of it.
I don’t want to delve into psychobabble regarding what made Bob tick. By the time he started his talk radio career he was already around forty years old, a fully formed man with all his powers and faults well-defined. And like many in show businesses, he employed his flaws into his act. The bitterness and anger you might hear during his show was real. And so was the honesty and the intellect, and on those rare occasions– the warmth.
So, the truth is I never really knew much more of Lassiter than what I heard on the radio, and what he told me. Although he could be painfully confessional on his radio program, it seems that during the last third of his life Lassiter was a cipher to most of the people who actually knew him. But what we’re all left with at his passing, is the power of life itself that he invested into his radio program. What he had such a difficult time expressing in person, came out in blustery torrents over the radio. He had a rare intellect powered by raw untethered emotions. And nothing was sacred... except his wife, him mom, a few friends and Christmas.
There will never be another Bob Lassiter. And as long as I've been aware of him, I've never heard anyone (including myself) fully define or explain his radio program, or his power as a media personality. Anybody with any interest in the guy should go through the archives at the Lassiter aircheck site and give a listen. Bob would like that.
There was only one last question I wanted Lassiter to answer. Actually I did ask it once in an email, but he never responded to it. Lassiter was such a storyteller and often built his show around extended monologues. And I've long wondered if he was influenced by the great radio raconteur, Jean Shepherd. Lassiter grew up in New Jersey and could have easily heard Shepherd's show. And he even used to pull out a kazoo bust into a hot number when he was in the mood, just as Shepherd would. And I was actually considering emailing Bob one more time, just last weekend, to ask this one more time. I didn't know he was already gone.
If there would ever be a school for talk show hosts (and sometimes I think there oughtta be one) it should have a specific class (or seminar) on the work of Jean Shepherd and Bob Lassiter. Not to inspire imitators or clones, but to make future talk hosts realize the potential of talk radio. Sure it's a swell forum for spreading propaganda or keeping people company, but it can and should be so much more. On the radio, both Lassiter and Shepherd explored the rudimentary mysteries of being alive, and threw aside conventions and assumptions to explore what things really might mean. They created something very rare-- adventurous radio. That's why people collect and trade their old shows. That's why their work is as compelling now (or even more so) than it was when they were on the air.
In closing, I want to say that my intention here is to neither sully Lassiter's legend or to inflate my small role in an important man's life. I guess I wanted to pass along some of the ways I was personally bitten by the Mad Dog. I suppose I would have liked to have been his friend, but it was an honor to have been able to occasionally shepherd his legacy. And yes, Bob Lassiter was a strange and difficult man. But he was always honest about that. In fact, the one thread that runs through all of Lassiter's work was a raw honesty that made his work intrinsically human and valid and ultimately appealing. And let's be honest. It was almost always fun to hear foolish callers make fools of themselves.
"My worst fear would be that no one wants to listen to me," Lassiter told me that afternoon at his kitchen table. Don't worry Bob, I don't think that's going to happen.