Longtime Le Show host Harry Shearer went in to discuss a "proposal" with KCRW management last Monday, April 15, only to learn his broadcast the day before of the public radio show he’d hosted every Sunday morning for 30 years had been his last. "All (general manager Jennifer Ferro) said was basically, 'We want to make some changes, it’s time to bring in some new voices,' — sort of boilerplate management verbiage. The surprise to me was when she said, 'It’s effective immediately,'" Shearer says. "There was no commentary about whether there was anything wrong with the show."
Just like that, the hour-long mix of music, politics, sports, and industry chatter — an L.A. institution — was without a radio home. For years, Shearer, known to many as Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders on The Simpsons or Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap fame, had enjoyed an enviable amount of freedom in producing Le Show.
"There were never any meetings about the show, I don’t think," Shearer says. "It didn’t escape my notice that when you’d walk down the hall of the station a few years back, when it was festooned with photographs of everybody who contributed anything to the on-air content, the only face that I never saw in that hallway was mine. I went, 'Well, in compensation for not being in the hallway, I get total freedom. I’ll take that deal.'"
The show, which attracted a national following, aired on more than 80 stations around the country along with a few in Europe and Japan. Each episode quickly became available online, gathering more listeners through satellite and digital channels. The broad reach of the show may have been what assured KCRW that Shearer would be fine without the L.A.-based platform. KCRW will continue to
distribute Le Show, making it available to other affiliate stations and podcast distributors.
In a statement, Ferro noted that “Harry Shearer and Le Show have been a part of KCRW since its inception, providing a voice of satire and comic relief while challenging the political establishment," and said KCRW would support Shearer and "his incredible national and digital audience." Ferro was unavailable to comment further for this story.
For many listeners, the toughest pill to swallow was that they were denied the chance to hear Shearer say farewell on the air. Days after it was announced KCRW would no longer broadcast Le Show on terrestrial radio, Shearer was still stung by the decision — "Well, I’m always angry. That’s what makes people funny" — but looking forward to the next chapter, whatever that may be. "I’m not happy about the situation at KCRW," he said, "but I’m pretty optimistic about finding another broadcasting home here."
Shearer wouldn't say which stations were biting, only that while some were "initially interested" he wasn't willing to let go of the creative reins for his allotted 59 minutes. "The show is the show… I’m a contrary enough person that since the inception and the creation and the production of the show has been totally up to me, the last thing I’m going to do is let somebody else decide when it ends. It sort of made me stubbornly decide, 'Boy, I really want to do more now.'"
Shearer has plenty to keep him occupied aside from the radio show. He still records episodes of The Simpsons, and makes appearances as his Spinal Tap character — we spoke with him just after his guest spot on Conan O'Brien's stage where he played alongside Fall Out Boy in an homage to the mock rockumentary.
He also has a series ready to premiere on British TV, Nixon's the One, which he hopes will jump the pond to stateside TV. But the future of Le Show remains unclear. "I wouldn’t necessarily make a prediction about what will happen to me," Shearer says.
In the meantime, Shearer has tapped his long career in public radio to offer some thoughts about the emerging trends in a medium forever scrambling to keep up with new technology and reach a more diverse audience.
In His Own Words: Harry Shearer...
On Feedback from his Fans
I was doing a speaking engagement and someone asked, "What should we do? Do you believe if we call the station and write the station, it will change their mind?” And I said, “Me personally, I think you should speak up with the same assumption I do when I do my show.” You say what you want to say without the expectation it’ll make any difference. Say what you want to say because you gotta say it, not because you think it’s going to change anything. Sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised, but most often, things go the way they go.
On Breaking Into the Biz
It’s not a way to make money, unless you happen to be Garrison Keillor. Very few people make any more than an acceptable living in public radio. You do it if it’s something that you’re passionate about. The only stuff I do is stuff I’m passionate about. I’m lucky to be able to make a better than acceptable living doing that.
On Media Branding
It’s obvious that public radio, NPR in particular, has decided that they have — this always gets dangerous when people do this — figured out what their brand is: driveway moments and a particular brand of storytelling. You’ll notice that “journalistic excellence” isn’t included in that brand identification. You have this profusion of shows that have been developed in the wake of This American Life that are first-person storytelling. And as This American Life has shown, there’s not a lot of fact checking that goes into those narratives.
On Radio Station Formats
(NPR has) developed a number of shows with two or three highly jocular guys talking on various topics, trying to recapture the Car Guys' magic such as it was. It’s just really remarkable how they think, “Yeah, we can clone this. Easy.” I think a lot of what’s going on in public radio is sort of bad mimicry of what happened years ago in commercial radio. I don’t necessarily take this personally. I think it’s sort of symptomatic of a larger and fairly disappointing trend in public radio.
I think KCRW finds itself squeezed between KPCC with its news format and KCSN with its music format. Fear does a lot of things. In the radio and television business, it drives people into the hands of consultants who tell them, "Be more consistent!" It’s a tendency of hiding behind format that has been the hallmark of commercial radio for years.
On The Pitfalls Of Digitization
People are sawing the legs out from under the idea of radio as we speak. Television, when it came to prominence, was supposed to kill radio outright, and it didn’t. The question is: Will online audio kill radio broadcasting? I listen to about 80 percent of my audio content online, and I look at a lot of my video content online, so I’m not a Luddite in any sense of the word. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in radio broadcasting.
A lot of people driving in their cars don’t have the facility or haven’t mastered yet getting online audio into their car’s audio system. A lot of poorer people don’t have the wherewithal for broadband everywhere that they might want to hear something, and older people don’t want to mess with that stuff. Radio better be around, because in any kind of emergency, my experience has been the first thing that goes down is the electric grid, and the second thing that goes down is the telephone grid. And if you don’t have a portable battery-powered radio, you are seriously out of luck. People who are trying to dismantle this system are way in front of themselves, and may not be doing the public a service.