Sunday, May 13, 2007
John Records Landecker interviews Rick Kaempfer
This week, the tables are turned. Instead of interviewing a radio personality, a radio personality is interviewing me. The focus of the interview is my first novel, "$everance," available now at www.encpress.com. John Landecker got an advance copy of the book to conduct the following interview, which originally appeared in the April issue of SHORE Magazine.
By John Landecker
I’ve been on the radio in Chicago for quite awhile, so when I heard about this new novel ($everance on ENC Press) that satirizes the broadcasting business from the point of view of a Chicago radio personality, I knew I had to get my hands on it. The fact that it’s written by Richard Kaempfer, the executive producer of my morning show in the 1990s, made me want to see it even more.
Of course, Richard is his fancy author name. I’ve always known him as Rick, and as long as I’ve known him he’s been using his sarcastic wit to write some pretty hilarious topical satire. In this book, he takes on the business that employed him for twenty years—the media. I finally got a chance to sit down and talk to him about $everance recently.
John: Full disclosure. We worked together most of the 1990s.
Rick: That’s true.
John: And during those years, broadcasting as we know it, went through some radical changes.
Rick: I’ll say.
John: It’s my guess that those radical changes, combined with your sense of humor, and your sarcastic disgust for life…
Rick: (laughs loudly) Wow, that’s harsh.
John: (laughing too) …have led to this cutting critique of broadcasting morality called $everance.
Rick: You could say that. It’s about a Chicago morning disc jockey who is trying to get fired so that he can collect his severance.
John: But this campaign for his severance starts out as a joke—tongue in cheek, doesn’t it?
Rick: Well…sure…but that’s only because the morning host doesn’t have any weapons. The boss has all the power. That’s why everything the host says is said sarcastically. On the surface his words are positive, but the boss knows their actual meaning—he just can’t prove it. It’s classic passive-aggressive warfare.
John: Aha! I knew something was familiar about this character…
Rick: He knows if he says anything overtly insubordinate, he can be fired for cause.
John: OK, what is this company he works for?
Rick: A Megamedia giant.
John: And why does he want to be fired?
Rick: It’s a mutual feeling. The company wants him gone too, because they have to meet their unrealistic corporate goals. They want a cheaper morning show, but if they fire him, they’ll have to pay his severance. So, they try to make him as miserable as he can possibly be—to make him quit. It becomes a battle of wills—the creative morning guy against the corporate Megamedia giant…both of them strongly motivated, neither of them willing to budge.
John: Now people will read this and think…that doesn’t happen.
Rick: It happens every single day.
John: It does. It didn’t happen to me here in Chicago, but it happened to me in another city I was doing mornings, and the station really did go out of it’s way to literally make me as miserable as possible so that I would get discouraged and quit, which would have relieved them of having to pay what they owed me. What you’re writing about is based absolutely in fact.
Rick: Yes, that’s true. And I think it’s not exclusive to the broadcasting business. Anyone who deals with corporations has dealt with this, especially people working for corporations in industries that have recently been deregulated. Once an industry is deregulated, there are mergers after mergers after mergers, and soon just a few companies or corporations own the entire industry. When that happens, the employees have no choice—no alternative—no power. They can’t go to another employer in their industry, because there aren’t any. So sometimes the battle comes down to this: ‘All I have left is my severance, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give that up too.’
John: So in your story they are trying to make him quit. What does he do about it?
Rick: He sends an e-mail to the CEO of the corporation sarcastically telling him ways that the company can be even greedier. He thinks that this will so infuriate the boss, he will immediately fire him.
John: Tell them what the e-mail says, because that’s my favorite part.
Rick: His main suggestion is getting rid of every single person who doesn’t bring in money to the corporation—he calls them the revenue drainers—and keeping only the salesmen, or the revenue attainers. Oh, and he also recommends hiring armed security guards to watch over the office supplies.
John: (laughs) And ironically enough…what does management do with this e-mail?
Rick: They consider him a financial genius and name him the COO of the company. He still wants to get fired, of course, but in order to get fired now-- he has to make the stock price go down. So he spends the rest of the novel trying to make that happen.
John: Which is the irony of the whole thing…
Rick: The hard part for me was satirizing the business in a way that was more ridiculous than real life, because the business has really gotten ridiculous. There are six corporations that control all the information and entertainment we receive through the broadcast media, and virtually every decision they make is made with only one consideration: money. No other considerations come into play at all. But what makes this industry different from other industries is that they are supposedly entrusted with informing the electorate, and that’s one area they do a really bad job right now.
John: One of the other points of $everance has to do with the conservative and/or liberal slant of talk radio and cable news. Talk about that a little.
Rick: Right. Well, in my opinion there were two decisions made in the last twenty years that are responsible for the transformation of the media into what it is today. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Bill Clinton signed, allowed for this massive media buying frenzy—and let six corporations own everything. Before that bill was signed, Clear Channel owned 43 radio stations. Now they own 1200.
Rick: The other decision was made in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s FCC. They eliminated the Fairness Doctrine. Before 1987, equal time had to be given for differing political points of view. You could spout all you wanted, but you had to allow the other side to spout too. Now it’s all one-sided spouting and people don’t have to listen to both sides, they can just hear what they want to hear. In my opinion that’s directly responsible for the polarizing of the country. You don’t have to give the other side any credit at all if you don’t even know what they’re saying.
John: As the sarcasm seeps through the pages in your writing, I notice that you seem to imply that the political viewpoint, whether it’s conservative or liberal, doesn’t really matter to the company. They can own both kinds of media outlets…as long as they make money.
Rick: They can and they do. Look at Rupert Murdoch, for instance. He owns the Fox News Network, which is undeniably conservative, but he also owns media businesses in Communist China—which aren’t exactly conservative, to say the least. He also came up with the idea of having naked women in the newspapers in England.
John: Are you saying conservatives don’t like naked women?
Rick: (laughs) I’m saying that’s not exactly a conservative idea. And the same is true of the so-called liberal networks. They may have a liberal slant, but they are consumed with maximizing profits, and that’s not exactly the most liberal of philosophies. When you meet these media CEOs, and I’ve read about all of them extensively and met a few of them in person, you realize very quickly that they aren’t partisans. They aren’t ideologues.
John: They’re not even broadcasters.
Rick: Not at all! They’re businessmen. They’re CEOs. They are just like every other CEO.
John: And they’re not interested in viewers or listeners, they’re interested in one thing, and one thing only…
Rick: The stock price.
John: Can you tell that Rick and I have talked about this a few times before?
Rick: Everyone in the business talks about it.
John: But the thing that’s wild about it, and sure we’ve kvetched about it for years, but you actually did something about it. You wrote a book. And I obviously think it’s a great, funny, sarcastic, entertaining, and thought provoking book too—that really shows how broadcasting has changed over the last few years. And you actually got somebody to publish it! Who is this publisher?
Rick: They’re a boutique NY publisher named ENC Press, and they specialize in controversial satires like this. You should check out their website at www.encpress.com. ENC stands for Emperor’s New Clothes. You can buy $everance right there on their website.
John: It’s going to be very interesting to see who picks up on this book, and whether or not they invite you on their shows to tell this story.
Rick: Well, if the thesis of my book is correct…
John: I love it when you use the word thesis.
Rick: (laughs) If the thesis of my book is correct, they will have me on because they aren’t really concerned about a political agenda.
John: And you’re attacking all political agendas by the way…very even handed. It’s not about agenda, it’s about profit.
Rick: That’s right. If you check out the hardcore right wing blogs or the hardcore left wing blogs they read all sorts of political motivations into the actions of these companies. Let me tell you as someone who worked for them for twenty years, that’s just not true. Both sides are wrong about that. The motivation of these companies couldn’t be easier to figure out. It’s always the same. Always.
John: And people might recognize some of the personalities in this book too.
Rick: They might. But they aren’t necessarily real people—they’re composites of real people.
John: And it’s funny.
Rick: Thanks, I appreciate that. That’s the most important thing I was trying to accomplish. It’s not a downer of a book at all. It does have a very hopeful message and offers a way to solve some of the problems of the modern day media.
John: Which are…
Rick: People will have to read the book to find that out.
John: I do have one complaint, though.
Rick: What’s that?
John: There aren’t any sex scenes.
John: You expect the people of this country to buy a book with no sex scenes!
Rick: If it weren’t for you, they wouldn’t have known!
John: Maybe in the next book?
Rick: You got it.
John: I see movie rights down on the road on this one. Great job.
Richard Kaempfer’s novel $everance is available at www.encpress.com. (Listen to an audio preview. Watch a video preview. ) For more information about the author, check out his website at www.rickkaempfer.com, and his daily humor and media blog at rickkaempfer.blogspot.com.
John Records Landecker is the currently the afternoon host at 94.7 Real Oldies in Chicago. After his legendary stints at WIBG in Philadelphia in the 60s, WLS in Chicago in the 70s and 80s, CFTR in Toronto in 80s, and WJMK in the 90s, he was honored by the radio wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for his contributions to the industry.