Bob Lassiter (September 30, 1945 – October 13, 2006), also known as "Mad Dog," was a controversial and highly influential American radio talk show host in the 1980s and '90s. He worked in several markets but is best known for his long stint in the Tampa Bay area.
A sales representative from a beautiful music radio station heard Lassiter's voice in a bar in Charlotte Amalie in the Virgin Islands one afternoon and immediately suggested he apply for an on-air job. Lassiter was soon hired as a music disc jockey at the salesman's station, WESP-FM, signing on on September 1, 1970 under the air name of "Ron Scott."
He would move from there to beautiful music and progressive rock stations all over the country: WOUR-FM in Utica, New York; WOWI-FM in Norfolk, Virginia; WEZS-FM in Richmond, Virginia; and WJOI-FM in Pittsburgh. After his first marriage in 1972, he legally changed his name to Lassiter.
In 1981, Lassiter was working as a country music DJ at WKQS-FM 99.9 in Miami under the name Bobby Clifford when he heard talk-radio giant Neil Rogers on WINZ (940 AM). Rogers became Lassiter's mentor and idol, whom he followed into talk radio by taking a late-night weekend slot at Miami's WGBS-AM (710) in 1984. (Lassiter apparently intended to continue as Bobby Clifford on WGBS, but in preparing for his debut the station prepared promos and announcements using the name "Lassiter" without asking; Lassiter was forced to use his real name on the air.) Rogers heard Lassiter on WGBS and liked what he did, urging his own station to hire the newcomer. WINZ did hire Lassiter as a weekend host, but fired him in December 1985 when he uttered a profanity on the air.
Although Lassiter's Miami career was not to be, he soon took Tampa by storm with his confrontational and deliberately offensive style, quickly rising to the top-rated talk program in the market by an enormous margin. He was, in fact, the second-highest-rated radio show in the market, bested only by Cleveland Wheeler and Scott Shannon's Q-ZOO on WRBQ.
Lassiter redefined AM talk radio in Tampa Bay, asserting himself as an on-air bully who targeted Christians, conservatives, the elderly, and virtually everybody else. As he himself would one day describe:
When I came to this town, talk radio was...basically old men talking to older men. Some exciting shows I heard in this market were things like, "If you know anybody famous, give me a call." And that was it! And the guy just repeated it over and over and over again, and got one call in an hour from somebody who knew one of the Harmonicats! Another show that I heard in this market was "What's your favorite vaudeville theater?" Another...was "I own a Corvette. Do you own a Corvette? Give me a call if you do. What do you think about Corvettes? Would you like to own a Corvette? Did I mention I owned one?" And he got two calls an hour. And I came in and sat down and said "Ronald Reagan's a moron! And an idiot! You'll piss on his grave one of these days!" And the old people went berserk. Absolutely berserk!"
Instead of a market for the retirees who formed much of the area's population, Lassiter made talk radio a young listener's medium: kids and young Baby Boomers would listen to hear Lassiter torment the old people. In the process, they would join in on the conversation and find themselves lambasted as well.
Lassiter's ratings and reputation were such that the biggest AM radio station in the market, WFLA, hired him away from WPLP for substantially more money in mid-1987. At FLA Lassiter joined the ranks of the Golden Age of Tampa Talk Radio, with such personalities as Dick Norman, Tedd Webb, and Liz Richards, and maintained his ratings supremacy to that local competition. Indeed, while Lassiter had pulled upwards of 7% shares at WPLP — which by itself made him the Number One talk show in Tampa Bay — at WFLA he rose to 8 and 9 shares, at a time when the entire talk-radio audience in Tampa Bay was roughly a 10 share of the market. (In some quarters he could even manage 12s and 16s.)
Lassiter's tenure at WLS was uneasy from the start: the CapCities executives behind the station micromanaged to an extreme degree, and were anxious to cultivate a friendly, inoffensive image, which ran completely counter to the type of radio that Lassiter did best. Members of management were waiting outside the studio on Lassiter's first night at WLS (August 23, 1989) to give him a laundry list of things he had done that they did not want on their airwaves. Lassiter, however, felt that since CapCities executives had known his work before they even asked for a job interview, they knew perfectly well what kind of on-air personality they were getting, and he deeply resented their sudden desire to rein him in.
Rather than change the style that had attracted WLS to him in the first place, Lassiter asked to be let out of the contract. The station refused, touching off what Lassiter called "open warfare" between WLS executives and their new employee. Their attempts to censor him only intensified his efforts to insult and infuriate his audience (and employers) on-air, and led Lassiter to walk out in the middle of staff meetings off-air. One journalist wrote that
he was at odds with management from the first day. "They'd scream everyday and I'd scream right back at them." Even worse, they put the Mad Dog on a short leash, but he kept breaking the chain. When told to curb his usual vulgarity and verbal abuse, he developed a code of secret insults which sounded like glowing compliments, and made the list available to listeners. When he was forbidden from saying he'd ever lived or worked anywhere other than Chicago, he'd coyly carry on in mock ignorance with the callers that remembered him from Florida.
"Tampa? Can't say as I've ever worked there."
"Oh, Sure you did, remember WFLA?'
"WFLA? I can't say as I've ever worked there."
By late 1991, both parties were exasperated; unimpressive Arbitron ratings did not ease tensions. Lassiter's five-year contract had an escape clause that gave WLS the option to terminate it at the end of 1991, and Lassiter was openly predicting that the station would do exactly that. In fact, they didn't even wait for the end of the year, removing Lassiter from the air following his afternoon broadcast on September 20.
Although he would remember his time in Chicago as "a two-and-a-half-year nightmare," the job did raise Lassiter's profile significantly; in 1990, he appeared on CNN's Crossfire as a representative of left-wing political talk radio. In December 2005, Lassiter would later point out that - more than fourteen years after he was thrown off the air - he was still on the FAQ page on the WLS website. Indeed, as of August 2007, Question 7 on that page is "Why don't you bring back Bob Lassiter/Larry Lujack/etc.?" "Maybe you don’t know much about Lujack, but to be mentioned in the same sentence with him and WLS is more than an honor," Lassiter said. "It is and always will be the highlight of my career."
While the morning time slot saw Lassiter's combative persona reach a peak, as he began an increasingly hostile feud with his old mentor Neil Rogers, he was not a ratings success, and in January 1994 he moved to the mid-afternoon; Sharon Taylor, the newscaster for his morning show, became his on-air sidekick. While his numbers vastly improved, the circumstances forced him to change his approach drastically; in his final month (November 1995), Lassiter famously teased Taylor about her Thanksgiving turkey.
Despite his adaptations and his ratings (he regularly routed WFLA in his afternoon day part ), Lassiter recognized that the station was failing and, as he had at WLS, began publicly predicting that his contract option would not be renewed. Again he was correct; WSUN's parent company Cox Broadcasting fired him before his scheduled showtime on November 27, 1995. Although Lassiter would later recall that no employer had ever treated him better or been more fun to work for, the end of his relationship with WSUN was very bitter: Cox refused to release him from his non-compete agreement (despite the fact that WSUN was changing formats and thus Lassiter would not be competition).
Although Lassiter ruled the talk-radio airwaves, the business had changed dramatically. Rush Limbaugh had transformed the AM band; not only was it now a forum for conservative pundits, but listeners had become used to having their beliefs echoed and reinforced by the radio host, not challenged--and not particularly primed to call the show. In addition, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had deregulated station ownership, leading the industry to trend towards national syndication and away from local personalities with diverse points of view. The contrarian and often left-leaning Lassiter increasingly found himself an anachronism, even as he garnered tremendous market shares of listeners who both loved and loathed him. He rolled with the punches as best he could, provoking his audience more furiously than ever and taking on-air potshots at WFLA’s own conservative host, Mark Larsen, but it often seemed that his real nemesis was the very industry he was part of, commercial radio.
In 1999 WFLA, which had been owned by Jacor, was purchased along with all of Jacor’s holdings by Clear Channel. At the time Clear Channel was building its radio empire and employing a variety of cost-cutting techniques, such as relying heavily on centralized, syndicated programming and eliminating local personalities and technicians from its payroll. Lassiter, disgusted by the changes Clear Channel was making and knowing that his time in radio was not long, began expressing open hostility to their policies on the air; at one point he was even reading employee questionnaires circulated inside the offices, and describing the deeply caustic answers he was filling in.
Management gets very, very, very distraught when I deal with internal things publicly. But for a month now, meetings get postponed, calls don't get returned; little things like that, you know? So we'll deal with it publicly.
My contract expires December 31, 1999 at 12 midnight. I inquired a month ago as to whether or not they had any interest in renewing it. As I said, phone calls don't get returned, lunch engagements get postponed, "Uh, give me another week on that, would ya?" Yesterday I had people saying goodbye to me. I had to read on a local bulletin board that yesterday was going to be my last day.
Well, I'm tired of making phone calls and not having them returned. I'm tired of all this kind of crap, so here's the bottom line: as far as I am concerned--and there will be no further discourse on this--as far as I am concerned, I will do my last show on December 23, because I have a week's vacation coming to me and I'll be damned if I'm gonna get screwed out of it.
So that settles the matter. You don't have to hide behind closed, locked doors anymore; you don't have to avoid me when I'm pulling into the parking lot; you don't have to look the other way when you're walking past the windows; you don't have to fail to return phone calls; you don't have to beg for another week; you don't have to bail out of luncheon meetings. That's it. And there will be no further discussion. This sucks! It sucks big time!
I'll bet you're mad at me for talking about this on the air, aren't you? "Why does he do that?" It's real simple. Treat me like I don't exist, and you don't exist. Thank you ever so much, WFLA. Thank you ever so much.
Predictably, he was told the next day that he need not bother to return to work at WFLA that day or any other. “Most men would have been devastated upon losing a six-figure, cushy job,” Lassiter said later. “I was relieved.” He officially retired from radio. His slot was filled by future radio star Glenn Beck.
During his retirement, Lassiter devoted himself to his longtime interest in futures trading, and in 2002 he started a public journal of his trades on Elite Trader, a popular web site for financial traders. He posted on ET under the username "Tampa" and his journal titled " Tampa's Short Skirt Trades" would go on to become one of the most popular journals on the site. The journal retained Lassiter's wit, wordplay, and love of playing with his audience. Between 2004 and early 2005, Lassiter also maintained a trading blog (now deleted) under the alias of "The Big Cheese."
By 2005, Lassiter was largely confined to his home in the Tampa Bay area. However, his spirits remained good, and in the summer of 2005 he began a new blog—under his own name—whose readership steadily increased. In his writings, Lassiter revisited many memories, but mostly depicted a life in which he was isolated and reclusive, his computer being his only real window on the outside world.
On February 14, 2006 -- his 19th wedding anniversary -- Lassiter revealed on his blog that he had been told that his kidneys were failing. His doctors, whom he had seen that day, had given him a prognosis of six months to two years. He lived eight months afterward, dying October 13, 2006. It was 13 days after his 61st birthday. His death was revealed in a final post in his blog by his wife, Mary Lassiter:
On Wednesday, October 11 he became too weak to get out of bed and remained in a sleep-like condition until he was gone at 9:15 am on Friday, October 13. He was not in pain . . . his life just stopped. His long struggle is finally at an end . . . much quicker than he or I anticipated.
...My thanks to those of you who have followed and shared his struggle over the past months, lending support and encouragement.
Lassiter famously began each hour of his show by giving the day of the week, date, and time (e.g., "Six minutes after the hour of eight o'clock; welcome back, funseekers. It's a Thursday night, September the twelfth, nineteen hundred and ninety six.") He ended each show by playing "Take It To the Limit" by the Eagles.
Lassiter was willing to give equal time to those who disagreed with him, even if he would mercilessly lambast them afterward. Frequently, though, he had to force the opposition to speak their piece, cutting off their attempts at preambles, red herrings and ad hominem attacks and demanding that they answer the question at hand. If there was an exception to this rule, it was with the cranks and extremists: when he received calls from the religious fringe, conspiracy theorists, ideologues, even members of the Ku Klux Klan--he would let them have their say, even encouraging them to make outrageously offensive and marginal statements and thus discredit themselves.
In later years, Lassiter became known for "punishing" his listeners when they didn't call in. If he reached a point in the show at which the switchboard wasn't lit, rather than riffing or starting a new monologue to fill the time, Lassiter would allow dead air to sit in. He might hum "The Anniversary Waltz," drum his fingers on the console, or even be heard quietly dealing himself a game of solitaire. Sometimes he would adopt more creative punishments: one night in Chicago, when nobody would address his topic, Lassiter invited calls from Born-Again Christians who wanted to give their personal religious testimonies, and wouldn't allow any other callers. The message was, it was a call-in show, so it was callers' job to carry the program. Lassiter had no intention of doing their job for them. Occasionally, though, he would reward callers who annoyed him with absolute silence: in fact, on the night of August 2, 1996, Lassiter kept a caller on the air at WFLA without saying a word for 12 full minutes.
On the other hand, despite his unsparingly caustic demeanor and complete frankness, radio with Lassiter was in many respects a kind of free-for-all. At least once a week, Lassiter would do "open phones," letting people call in with whatever they wanted to talk about. At times, he would even bypass the call screeners and answer the phones himself--a format he called "Chat With Bob"--letting prank callers, and anyone who wanted to be on the radio at all, speak (although he would censor them if necessary). This would lead to an inordinant number of people calling in and flushing toilets or holding the receiver up to the radio to hear the show on the six second tape delay; Lassiter would frequently respond to these calls by mocking the lengthy period of time they would wait on hold (typically forty minutes to an hour) just to do something completely trivial.
Lassiter was not shy about airing his personal life on the air: he shared extremely intimate details of his own childhood (including his parents' divorce and his subsequent estrangement from his father); his first marriage, including stories of an abortion and infidelities by both parties; his own history of recreational drug use; and the ups and downs of his radio career. "You probably know more about me than you do about your own spouse, unless you have a better-than-average marriage," he once informed his listeners Listeners were also frequently treated to present-day anecdotes about himself and his second wife Mary (the former Mary Toensfeldt -- nicknamed “Muffy” -- who had been the business manager at WPLP during his tenure there), or his hobbies of astronomy, birdwatching, futures trading, and fiddling with his home computer. Often these were subjects he defaulted to when taking a break from “coliseum-style radio.”
Every few minutes as Lassiter talked, his producer Michael Serio would cut in and whisper a disclaimer: "Pssst! Hey, he doesn't mean a word of it! So don't get any smart ideas about suing us!" Despite this, at least half of Lassiter's callers during his first three hours believed every word he told them and expressed absolute glee at having won $50,000 for doing nothing but calling a radio show. Even when Lassiter explained that to collect their money they merely needed to show up at the station in the morning (though he claimed not to know the address) and ask for it in cash, tax-free, with no need of identification, these "winners" never seemed to think that anything was fishy.
At the end of the third hour, Lassiter admitted openly to his callers that he had been lying all along, pointed out that his promises were absolutely outrageous and unbelievable, and took callers to task for taking him at his word without stopping to think about whether what they were hearing was even possible. Incredibly, even after he did so, calls continued to pour in from people who wanted to win $50,000. , ,
Ironically, the regular news reports during Lassiter’s show featured the story of a car that had backed full speed into a large propane tank at a gas station in nearby Brandon, Florida, killing the heretofore unknown driver in a fiery crash. The irony was that the driver was, of course, Dick Norman. When he was informed of Norman’s death several minutes into the show, Lassiter immediately issued a very emotional, repentant, on-air apology and filled in for the rest of Norman’s timeslot, inviting listeners to call in and share their reminiscences of “Uncle Dickie.”