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.
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.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:
So where to begin. The obvious and rightful place is with an apology. And the reality of knowing that falls short...no matter what I say...is heartbreaking.
The sheer stupidity of trying to put this as a failed attempt at humor is not lost on me.
The words "Should have known better" mean nothing to me. And shouldn't to you right now
I would like to though offer my apology. Knowing that it is everyone's right not to accept it. Or even consider accepting it for now.
My apologies go out first to Steve Gleason and his family. The weight of what he and they are going through did not need to be made heavier or worse by the pure and straight insensitivity of my actions.
I also want to offer up my apologies to all who are not only dealing with ALS..but to those who are dealing with ANYTHING that has made themself or family and friends subject to the physical and emotional heartache of any debilitating disease or condition.
As a father of two girls, I put myself in a position that I have begged...pleaded..DEMANDED..they not put themselves in. That of the bully. The mean kid. The one who thinks what they say or do comes with no consequence. It does. It always does.
I have no illusion as to what 19 years on the radio...30 years of being a grown man..and most importantly almost 10 years of being a father..and what you build up in your name and reputation over those periods of time..should and does mean.
Now I know how quickly a stupid and worse than that non thinking moment can change all of it.
I hope I get a chance to prove this is not who I want to be. It was and is who "I am" today though. That much is not lost on me.
I have spent so long not trying to put other people in a bad place because of me. Today I failed miserably.
I'm very open to any and all dialogue as it pertains to the people I have hurt and disappointed. I've had that dialogue with myself..my wife and will with my kids.