By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Laura Ingraham, the most popular woman on political talk radio, has been off the air for two weeks, and not by choice.
Ingraham's syndicator, Talk Radio Network, barred her from her Washington studio after talks about a new contract hit a snag, and some of her fans are mounting a campaign to get her back.
"The fact is, they took her off the air," says Eric Bernthal, her lawyer. "There's no doubt in my mind they did it as a tactic in contract negotiations."
Ingraham said on her Web site: "Rest assured, this absence is not of my choosing, nor is it health or family related. I am ready, willing and eager to continue the conversation we started seven years ago about politics and the culture. (Heck, if cancer couldn't keep me off the airwaves for long, nothing will.) . . . I would never voluntarily abandon you during such a critical time for our country." She declined a request for comment because of a confidentiality clause in her contract.
Neither Mark Masters, chief executive of Talk Radio Network, nor a lawyer for the company responded to requests for comment. Ingraham's five-year contract -- she previously worked for another radio company -- expires in September, and she is contractually barred from negotiating with other syndicators until later this summer.
"The Laura Ingraham Show" is carried by 340 stations, including Washington's WTNT-AM. Since June 2, her voice has been heard only on taped promos and commercials. One week into the lockout, the industry magazine Talkers gave her its "Woman of the Year" award, with Masters standing nearby as she delivered her remarks at a New York party.
Ingraham's allies grew concerned that fans may conclude she suffered a recurrence of breast cancer -- she had surgery in 2005 -- after one of the substitute hosts in her three-hour morning slot, Monica Crowley, told listeners that Ingraham was "doing fine." One popular radio blog suggested that Ingraham "may have at least temporarily stepped away from her program."
The conservative commentator is also a Fox News contributor and began hosting a 5 p.m. show there yesterday on a temporary basis, but friends say that is not related to her disappearance from radio. Nor, they say, is her absence related to her decision to become a single mother last month by adopting a 3-year-old girl from Guatemala. Ingraham took only two days off during that time.
"She's in perfect health and is in no way distracted by family matters," says David Frum, the conservative author and a friend for more than 20 years. "The rumors and suggestions being put out to the contrary are just absurd to anyone familiar with the situation. . . . She's adamant that she wants to continue her radio career."
Ingraham's absence is "a big hole in our lineup," says Dan Patrick, owner of Houston's KSEV-AM and a Republican state senator who is friendly with Ingraham. "Talk radio is built around the relationship between the audience and the host, and it's a very personal relationship. I can't think of any situation where a host has disappeared with such little information."
Michael Gaynor, a New York lawyer, said in an online column: "Let Talk Radio Network's Mark Masters himself know that we Laura fans consider keeping Laura off the air is utterly ridiculous and unfair."
Talk Radio Network is owned by Roy Masters -- a British-born author and commentator who also created the Foundation for Human Understanding, a Christian organization -- and his two sons, including Mark, the company's CEO. Roy Masters moved the foundation from Los Angeles to Grants Pass, Ore., in 1983, sparking fears by some residents that the town would become the site of a religious cult.
In a 1992 open letter, Roy Masters said he was a former Jew who founded a ministry that some unfairly viewed as New Age because of "often mean-spirited media coverage." Masters is the author of such books as "How Your Mind Can Keep You Well," which promotes "a very special form of meditation -- a rediscovery of an ancient science that provides the answer to the serious problems of our time."
The foundation once published New Dimensions magazine, which described homosexuality as an "illness" caused by "trauma-induced conditioning," published photos of aborted fetuses and accused the media of engaging in "hysteria control" by "selectively editing and diluting certain terrifying information" about AIDS.
Masters also hosts the radio program "Advice Line." His 15-year-old company syndicates such personalities as Michael Savage, Tammy Bruce, Erich "Mancow" Muller and Jackie Mason, as well as Ingraham, who has an estimated 5 million listeners. That makes her No. 5 among talk radio hosts, behind Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Savage and Laura Schlessinger.
"She has always appreciated what Mark Masters and Talk Radio Network did for her early in her radio career," Bernthal said. "They bet on her five years ago and invested in her and backed her."
But, he said, "it's disappointing where we are. We've been correcting falsehoods. It's pretty important to have her fans, listeners, advertisers and affiliates all know that she wouldn't walk off the job."