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December 11, 2007

Loss of Joe Elliott’s show an insult to all of us

The barbarians who own The Courier-Journal and WHAS-AM radio have never understood what made those two institutions, in their heyday, so widely beloved and respected throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Or, worse, they understood but just never really cared. Under the ownership of the Bingham family, they were more than just a newspaper and a radio station. They were family friends, welcome in homes in all 120 Kentucky counties. Farmers began the day with a cup of coffee, Joe Creason and Earl Ruby in the C-J, and Barney Arnold’s farm report on WHAS. The Binghams employed talented people and paid them well. Profit never meant nearly as much to them as excellence. They were not in the news business as much to make money as they were to educate, uplift and inform all the residents of the commonwealth, city and country folks alike, about the issues that were important.The C-J and WHAS were anomalies in Kentucky — citadels of sophistication and professionalism in a state that ranked near the bottom (and still does) in virtually every educational and economic index. Yet it worked, because the C-J and WHAS hired people who exuded warmth and caring.The paper and the radio station always were there for Kentucky and Southern Indiana, the ties that bound us through World Wars and the Great Depression and all sorts of natural disasters, from horrific floods to the tornado of 1974. Always, even amid the toughest of times and the ugliest of controversies, the C-J and WHAS were citadels of class, models of integrity, paragons of professionalism.Some of the columnists, editors and broadcasters — Creason, Ruby, Allan M. Trout, John Ed Pearce, Cawood Ledford, Wayne Perkey, Van Vance, Terry Meiners and others — became almost as famous as, oh, basketball coaches! But none was more beloved than Milton Metz, who worked at both WHAS radio and WHAS-TV for almost a half-century.Metz did a bit of everything in his career. On TV, he did a stint as a weatherman and even played a villain on the old “T-Bar-V Ranch” program starring Randy Atcher and Cactus Tom Brooks. But it was in radio that Metz made his mark. From the early 1950s through his retirement in 1993, Metz’s nightly call-in show, “Metz Here!,” was a nighttime staple throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana.Actually, because of WHAS’ 50,000 watts, Metz built a national fan base that extended as far west as Colorado. In the “Metz Studio,” as it was known, there was a map on the wall with pins from every place in the nation where Metz had received a call. It was imposing, to say the least.In addition, the studio’s walls were covered with autographed photographs of some of Metz’s celebrity guests. Metz was Larry King before Larry King. Urbane, glib, witty and sophisticated, Metz loved to chat up the rich and famous — and they always seemed almost honored to be on his show.Metz was so widely beloved that only somebody such as Joe Elliott could have succeeded him so gracefully. For the 14 years that he did the show, Elliott didn’t try to break Metz’s record for celebrity interviews, even though he had his share. His show had more of a hard news edge to it — yet it was never too hard. Elliott was a soulmate of all the classy men and women who had made WHAS-AM one of the best and most respected stations in the country.Over the years, Elliott seemed to become more conservative in his views, perhaps because Clear Channel, the communications giant that bought WHAS-AM from the Binghams in 1986, is owned and operated by right-wingers who seem to think that Rush Limbaugh is the epitome of intellectualism.But if Joe changed, it was perceptible only to those who listened closely and frequently. Most people never could decide on which side of the political fence he sat, just as most probably never knew that he’s legally blind. Watching Joe operated his special Braille keyboard in the studio was like watching a maestro at work. His fingers danced smoothly and lightly over his keyboard, seldom hitting a bad note. It must be made clear immediately that Joe wasn’t just a great blind broadcaster. He was a great broadcaster, period. He held his own in any debate, asking no quarter and giving none. He was a pro’s pro, asking the hard questions in a civil manner and actually listening to the answers instead of shouting over them.The “Joe Elliott Show” was never about Joe. It was always about you and me.Told last Thursday that he was being fired, along with several others, in a cost-cutting (read that “profit-enhancing”) move, Joe handled the news with typical dignity. He did not rail against Clear Channel. He tried, with varying degrees of success, to be philosophical about it.But I have no constraints, so let me say to Clear Channel what thousands of others in this area think about them: This decision stinks. It’s one of the biggest blows to our culture since Gannett cut back the C-J’s statewide circulation and folded The Louisville Times.It’s simply unconscionable that a bunch of empty suits in San Antonio — corporate bloodsuckers who have no concern about what they’re doing to our level of educational and political dialogue — can make a decision that has such a negative impact on our community, state and region.As good as Joe was — is, because he’s still doing his Sunday morning show — the biggest loss isn’t him personally. It’s the loss of three nightly hours of local discussion, and debate about local and regional issues. The “Joe Elliott Show” provided a unique forum where politicians and public officials were held accountable for their actions, where the average guy got to have his say, and where people got to hear newsmakers in their own words, unfiltered by newspaper editing.Adding insult to injury, Clear Channel replaced Joe’s show with some character named (Michael) Savage who is the antithesis of everything for which WHAS-AM has ever stood. His show is classless and clueless. He’s even more vicious, boorish, prejudiced and dishonest than Limbaugh, hard as that may be to believe.How sad to think that WHAS-AM has sunk this low. Once it was so special. Now it’s just another radio station — and that shouldn’t be construed as an insult to my friends Tony Cruise, Francene, Terry Meiners and Lachlan McLane. They do the best they can to preserve the station’s reputation for quality. But it’s tough when it’s obvious that the suits in San Antonio only care about the bottom line.I’ll be interested to see if one of the C-J columnists gets on his or her soapbox about this travesty. You see, it’s hard for a Gannett employee to criticize Clear Channel’s greed and avarice when the two corporate giants are so much alike.It was heartening to hear folks of all races, religions, genders and political persuasions calling to express their sadness and outrage over the assassination of “The Joe Elliott Show.” They realize that we all have lost a community treasure. They all realize that free and open speech has suffered another blow. They all realize that WHAS-AM is like the Bingham version in name only.Putting a station like the old WHAS-AM in the hands of the Clear Channel barbarians is like putting the U.S. Constitution in the hands of Dick Cheney. They don’t get it. They don’t like it. They don’t care what they break.In 21 years, our community has seen the C-J change from one of the nation’s 10 best newspapers into a Gannett profit center; Churchill Downs change from a national historic treasure into a garish Vegas joint; and WHAS-AM change from a magnificent station that used its 50,000 wants to inform and educate into a tawdry place that’s home to the likes of Limbaugh and Savage.If this is progress, I want no part of it. Kentucky Hall of Fame journalist Billy Reed’s columns can be found at www.billyreedsays.com. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.comThink Clear Channel has finally gone too far against the public interest? File a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission at www.fcc.gov.