Monday, January 24, 2011

What's next?

I never told you about my one conversation with Keith Olbermann.

It was back in the early 1980's. Erik Brady of the Courier-Express had written a column about Olbermann. It seemed that Olbermann, then of the RKO Radio Network, like to collect sound bites of athletes saying "you know." Olbermann's current champion was Flynn Robinson, a basketball guard, who had said "you know" six times in one 10-second actuality. That comes out to a you know per second ratio of .6.

Paul Hamilton and I were working at WEBR at the time. Paul read the column like I did and said to me, "I think we can beat that." He had interviewed Dee Hardison, a Bills' defensive lineman in that era, and Dee was obviously a little nervous about speaking into a microphone. We played the tape, and sure enough, Hardison had said "you know" eight times in 12 seconds, including one memorable double clutch ("you know, you know). I called Erik, who wrote another column about how Buffalo was, you know, talking proud about having the record in its midst.

A short time later, the phone rang in the WEBR office. It was Olbermann himself, who had heard about Erik's column and was thrilled to hear about the new champ. We chatted for a couple of minutes, and it was pretty obvious that this was a nice, sharp, funny guy at the other end of the phone. I played the tape of Hardison down the line, and a short time later I received a check for $25 from RKO. I think I bought Paul lunch or something with that check; it certainly was the least I could do.

Ever since then, and it's been almost 30 years, I've been watching Olbermann's career from a distance because of that brief connection. He eventually made his way into television and earned a job as an anchor at ESPN. There Olbermann revolutionized the sportscasting business with his co-host Dan Patrick on SportsCenter. The two were smart and hip, and brought a certain attitude to the show. It not only attracted millions of viewers, but a legion of young imitators who carry on the tradition today without the smarts Olberman and Patrick had. As Olbermann once said, he knows that the show will be in the first paragraph of his obituary no matter what he does with the rest of his life.

I've talked to a few people who knew Olbermann in those ESPN days, and read about others. All agree that Olbermann was brilliant, talented, and not particularly missed, mostly because he didn't suffer fools gladly. And, apparently, there were a lot of fools out there. He seemed on his way to nowhere-ville, in terms of broadcasting, when he left ESPN and landed with MSNBC to do news -- right in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- and later jumped to to jump to Fox for sports work.

Olbermann came back to MSNBC in 2003, and -- low and behold -- carved out a new niche for himself. At a time when his new network was generally nondescript, Olbermann slowly turned himself into a raging liberal on the air. MSNBC became something of a counterpoint to Fox's right-wing tilt, at least during prime time, and gave it an identity. Olbermann's style wasn't exactly in the news tradition of impartiality, but it was tough to look away when he was on. His special comments were filled with rage and big words that were rarely heard on national television.

He also took delight in pinpricking (that might be far too light a word) the actions and statements of people like Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. It did look a little like the upstart trying to raise himself by taking aim at the big kids -- not that those four don't deserve some criticism. I learned that he was starting to make an impact when people started telling me that I looked like him, depending on his hairstyle and glasses at a particular moment.

If anything, Olbermann's major problem on the air was that he was too intense, too committed. Guests who were on the conservative side were almost never booked, and questions were sometimes so loaded that it was difficult for the guests to respond with anything but a repetition of Olbermann's viewpoint. His reputation got to the point where some people didn't know or forgot about his days as a sportscaster. In other words, this American life certainly had a second act.

Olbermann was suspended last year for making campaign contributions to candidates, a decided bad move for most people in the business. Then on Friday, he resigned suddenly and without warning. I always figured it might end badly, particularly after the suspension, and it sure looks like it now.

Many journalists enter the news business because they want to help change aspects of life. When they can't, they often turn quietly cynical. Olbermann was never that, and his exit certainly was right in character.

I'm not sure what's ahead for Olbermann. He has tweeted something vague about baseball, a first love for him. I'm not sure if he'll have a Third Act, but I'm not going to bet against him either.

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