THE MANY SIDES OF WLW’S BILL CUNNINGHAM
Willie “I MADE A SERIOUS MISTAKE.”
That’s Bill Cunningham talking about an interview 24 years ago, in 1993. Roxanne Qualls was in the WLW Radio studio for her first interview after being elected mayor the night before. “I could tell she was apprehensive. I asked her, ‘Do you think it’s ironic that Cincinnati elected a gay mayor on the same day it rejected gay rights?’ “The media wanted me to ask it because they didn’t want to, but I take the blame, it was my question. I wish I could take back my words. The next five seconds were so uncomfortable. I looked into her eyes…” He shakes his head. “I decided I would never use this microphone to destroy someone.” What? “Willie” blew it? The blustering king of talk in Cincinnati, the “Great American” scourge of political correctness, the man who shook up the 2008 presidential campaign by calling the future president “Barack Hussein Obama,” whose daily “Stoooooge Report” is Queen City Sausage for sacred cows—that guy admits he went too far? Yes. Cincinnati thinks it knows “Willie.” He has been in our ears for almost 35 years, talking, talking, talking. He knows everybody and everybody knows him. He has interviewed all the local celebrities, athletes and politicians and every Republican presidential candidate since the first Bush—except John McCain, whose handlers told Cunningham his introduction was the greatest, then ran for cover when the New York media had a coronary. McCain left town abjectly groveling to the press and condemned Cunningham for the disrespect of using Obama’s middle name. “I knew right then he wouldn’t win,” Cunningham says, having the last word. That was vintage Cunningham. So was the reaction during the riots in 2001, when the Cincinnati Enquirer privately agreed
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By Peter Bronson
with a federal judge who said Cunningham should be gagged. Accordng to Cunningham, his dust-up with an Enquirer editor at a local country club that year was gossip gold. Instead of being censored, Cunningham won his first National Broadcasters Marconi Award. He says this was due to his coverage of the looting, store-burning, rock-throwing violence. “I had several guests on who were directly involved in the riots. I was accused of fomenting the hate, but all I did was let them say what they wanted to say.” That’s another Bill Cunningham. There are lots. There’s the “Cincinnata” guy who was surprised at home when he picked up the phone at home and heard, “The president is on the line.” “President of what?” he asked. It was President Trump. “We had a nice conversation,” he says. There’s the athlete who fits like a batting glove in the WLW locker room, where the Reds and Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman reign supreme. “Willie” was named Cincinnati’s top basketball player at Deer Park High School and was captain of the baseball team at Xavier University. As a golfer, he could shoot his age (he will be 70 in December). There’s the courtroom law yer who started out as a public defender, assistant attorney general and partner of pioneering black defense lawyer Les Gaines. His radio interviews sound like Mike Wallace grilling F. Lee Bailey. He works without a script to pry loose the kind of quotes that “real” journalists envy. That Bill Cunningham may be the best reporter in Cincinnati. “I can do 20 minutes with a newsmaker. Nobody else can do that,” he says. “I’m sometimes amazed at what people say on his show,” says Scott Reinhart, WLW program director. “In local media he’s front and center,” says Cunningham’s friend Hamilton
County Prosecutor Joe Deters. “I won’t talk to anybody else. I tell the other media to listen to Bill at 1 and you will get the quotes you are looking for.” Example: During the biggest local story of the year, the shooting of black man Sam DuBose by University of Cincinnati Policeman Ray Tensing, Cunningham’s interviews led the city in breaking news and deep context. Cunningham is good at it. He has a better Rolodex and more local knowledge than most reporters. When he’s not doing Stooge Reports sandwiched between station promos that hee-haw about porn star puns and boogers, Cunningham gives the best “full report” in town. He’s the self-styled Johnny Carson of Cincinnati—humor and information. That’s where talk radio has landed.“The days of lecturing listeners are gone,” says Reinhart. Cunningham gives a quick tour of talk radio history. “When I started in 1983, we talked about petunias and car repair. I gave legal advice and did psychic shows. There was no religion, politics or sex because of the Fairness Doctrine.” That 1949 rule mandated that any controversy had to be balanced by opposing views, so opinions were as welcome as swine flu. “When that was repealed in 1987, it changed 180 degrees. Suddenly sex, politics and religion were everywhere. We were yelling and screaming, talking about Larry Flynt and the KKK. Every night was a show.” Then in 2010, it changed again. “We realized you can’t outdo YouTube and the internet. You can’t shock anyone anymore. Now it was all about information and humor.” Ipso facto: news-breaking interviews and Stooge Reports. “It’s a performance. My public persona is not my private persona. On the air, I can’t be quiet and boring. But in private I am not informative or humorous.” Deters says, “What most people don’t know is that he’s a very good man with a good heart.” Cunningham calls himself the voice of “the common schlub. People tell me ‘You say things I wish I could say.’” In Cunningham’s studio, a sign on the wall says, “Hot Tub Open, Swimsuits Optional.” “Hillary For Prison,” says another. In the corner is an almost life-size cutout of John Wayne with six-shooter, Winchester and pasted-on crazy eyes. Perfect. A Great American with a streak of the stooge. n