Soon after suspending its morning show, 790 The Zone fired "Mayhem in the AM," according to one of the on-air hosts.
Nick Cellini called me at 6:10 p.m. to say he, Chris Dimino and Steve "Steak" Shapiro were unceremoniously let go at about 5:40 p.m., just a few hours after the station released a statement saying they were "suspended indefinitely."
He said he's sorry about the "stupid" gag they did about Steve Gleason, the former Saints player suffering from ALS this morning and plans to work with his charity foundation The Gleason Initiative Foundation. He said he received a response from Gleason through a third party and heard that he was okay with the apology.
"We deeply regret the offensive programming that aired this morning on “Mayhem In The AM” on 790 The Zone, related to former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS. We suspended the three individuals involved immediately following their comments and have since terminated their employment. 790 The Zone, our owners, sponsors and partners in no way endorse or support this kind of content. We sincerely apologize to Mr. Gleason, his family and all those touched by ALS."
Deadspin dug up the audio of the two-minute bit. It features Cellini pretending to be Gleason doing not terribly funny "knock knock" jokes and "interviewed" by Shapiro and Dimino. Dimino sounds extremely uncomfortable during the joke, sensing this was over the line.
Sample: "Knock Knock."
"Smother me! Do me a favor!"
You can hear it here:
The dismissal, despite the circumstances, came as "a relief, really," Cellini said. "That station is a sinking ship."
His contract, he said, was up in November and he figured even then, it wouldn't have been renewed.
Cellini has been part of the Zone since it debuted in 1997. He has been working with Dimino that entire time, first in afternoons, then the mornings since 2003. Under Big League Broadcasting, Shapiro co-owned the station for 13 years and made a boatload of money off of it but blew it when he and his partner Andrew Saltzman gambled on purchasing three sports talk stations in St. Louis for a reported $11.5 million in 2004. But the stations tanked. Big League was forced to sell the St. Louis stations for a massive loss, then as the economy fell more, they had to unload the Zone in 2010 to Lincoln Financial, who had a lease agreement with Big League.
Shapiro has been a paid employee ever since. (Saltzman left last year.) Shapiro's contract was up September 8.
Cellini believes since CBS created the third sports talk station at 92.9 called the Game last fall, he sensed the Zone was going to die eventually. He felt Lincoln Financial, which isn't really a focused media company like CBS or Clear Channel, never made a real commitment to find an FM signal for the station. An FM signal, he feels, is a necessity in this day and age where fewer and fewer people are tuning into AM. (Rival 680/The Fan added an FM 93.7 simulcast in 2010.)
Zone ratings weren't off by much since the new station arrived but clearly, ad revenue became much more scarce.
He said he saw the writing on the wall with the lack of advertising. Sometimes, "we had to stretch things out between commercials," he said. And there is no general sales manager.
Ultimately, the tasteless bit was an excuse, Cellini said, for the station to cut salary and insert a cheaper syndicated morning show, Cellini said. UPDATE 6/18/13, 7:20 a.m.: This morning, the Zone has Beau Bock and Sam Radin on air. (They were obviously told not to reference what happened to Mayhem in the AM.)
Later in the evening, Cellini sent a follow-up note:
The comments that I made during the interview about Lincoln Financial were made out of pure emotion, as a result of losing my job after 16 years with the station. They've been nothing but fair to me over the past three plus years since they purchased 790 The Zone.
I'm told by a good source that all three hosts were well compensated for radio jobs - in the low six figures. And they all have other related gigs, too. Dimino, for instance, works at CSS.
Shapiro was more measured in his tones about the firing. "I am not going to disparage Lincoln Financial," he said. (They did bail him out.) "The ironic thing for me is that I'm an afficionado of the Saints and Steve Gleason. The bit was ill advised."
He said that two-minute clip is not representative of what they had done four hours a day for years.
I love the people and city of New Orleans, always have, always will, @team_gleason I will work tirelessly to make this up to you....— steakshapiro (@steakshapiro) June 17, 2013
He hopes to get another sports talk radio gig down the road even while he runs Atlanta Eats, a TV show and web site brand focused on Atlanta restaurants.
I reached Dimino at about 7:10 p.m., but he said he needed to make a couple of other calls before he could get back to me. We ended up missing each other. This is what he posted on his Facebook page:
I deeply regret the ill attempt at humor from this morning’s show. I have personally apologized to Steve Gleason and his wife. The comments were insensitive and offensive and do not represent my personal views regarding the severity of the disease. I also apologize to the fans of the New Orleans Saints, the NFL organization and the families who have struggled with ALS and am profoundly sorry for the hurt I have caused; that was not the intent. I vow to work with Team Gleason in the fight against ALS and support the cause in any way I can.