WJFK DJ Mike O'Meara Is Off the Air, but Not Maintaining Radio Silence

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

After 25 years as a "radio god" in Washington, Mike O'Meara is a deity no more. His daily show came to an end yesterday. A blow, he says, but not the last word.

"I've got a lot of gas in the tank," O'Meara said a few minutes before his last afternoon "drive-time" program -- recorded days ago -- was set to air on WJFK (106.7 FM). "I'd like to keep rolling. If you know someone who wants a guy to run their radio program, tell them to give me a holler."

O'Meara, 50, used to be one-half of "The Don & Mike Show," the comedy-and-guy-talk duo that collected a large and loyal audience starting in the mid-1980s. Things went more or less swimmingly for O'Meara and partner Don Geronimo until two things happened: 1. Geronimo (also known as Mike Sorce) left the program last year, turning O'Meara into a solo act; and 2. the economy went to pieces.

Geronimo's departure forced O'Meara into the lead role, giving the program a gentler, less antic edge. The economy, meanwhile, prompted CBS Radio, WJFK's owner, to reconsider the cost-benefit of employing not just the well-paid O'Meara, but also a cast that included newsman Buzz Burbank (a.k.a. Mike Elston), and sidekicks Robb Spewak, Beth Ann McBride, Joe Ardinger and Katie Powers.

When CBS decided to change WJFK's format to all sports talk (starting Monday), there was no place left for O'Meara and crew.

O'Meara says he's not bitter about being dumped, but he does sound disappointed. "Knowing where we were in my incarnation of the show, I feel as though we should have continued," he says. "We'd gotten into a rhythm, especially the last two or three months. . . . It's the culture of corporate radio these days, reacting to everything in the economy. That's the frustrating thing. It sounds like an oversimplification, but I think I was the victim of the recession."

Well, yes, that is a bit of oversimplification. According to people at CBS, the company effectively decided that O'Meara wasn't successful enough to justify keeping him on the air. "The Don & Mike Show" ruled its time slot for years, but "The Mike O'Meara Show" had fallen considerably, based on a new system for measuring audiences in the region. O'Meara's show finished eighth in its 3-to-7 p.m. time period among the most coveted adult listeners (ages 25 to 54) in June and seventh in May. But from January to April, it had reached no higher than 15th. A better showing might have kept it on the air even with the station's move to sports, company executives acknowledged.

WJFK General Manager Michael Hughes wouldn't discuss the station's internal deliberations, but he did offer praise for O'Meara's skill and professionalism. "There are very few people on the radio around the country who have a history of audience popularity and longevity as Mike," he said.

The demise of O'Meara's program (if not his radio career) might be another sign of radio's twilight. In the current economic climate, few stations are willing to take the risk of creating a live, local radio program with a cast of more than one. Outside of a few handsomely paid stars, radio has gone on subsistence wages; nowadays the person behind the mike is broadcasting from a studio hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where the program is heard.

O'Meara came up in a different era. A broadcast journalism graduate of American University, he's spent his entire career on local stations (his first gig was as a DJ on a defunct adult-contemporary music station in Herndon). After bouncing around a series of stations (he once worked for another local radio star, Jack Diamond), O'Meara hooked up with Geronimo at WAVA.

O'Meara says "Don & Mike's" "morning zoo" format was modeled on a then-popular Chicago program hosted by Steve Dahl, with a bit of Howard Stern's irreverence and raunch thrown in. In any case, the two men had their own chemistry and made something uniquely entertaining. Don was the naughty ringleader, a guy who knew his way around a prank phone call or a clever bit of comment and satire; Mike was the affable sidekick, chiming in with a staggering array of characters and dead-on celebrity voices, including such offbeat impersonations as Jack Cassidy, Marion Barry and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. They dubbed themselves "radio gods" in self-consciously over-the-top promos.

O'Meara says he's still on good terms with Geronimo, who's broadcasting at a small station on the Delaware shore. But no reunion is contemplated. "I think that ship has sailed," he says. "Don is doing his own thing. We worked together for 20 years. We don't communicate as often as people might think. When we do it's very pleasant. But I don't think that's in the future. There's a perception, at least on my part, that you move on. Dwelling on the past is not productive."

O'Meara says he's got time to consider his options, which might include some voice-over or cartoon work. He isn't hurting financially, despite the decline of his investment portfolio and a costly divorce several years ago.

So it's the kick of being on the radio that trumps (well, rivals) money among his motivations. "I wish I could be more depressed about this, but I'm not," he says. "We're going out with our heads held high."

To which he can't help adding, "At the same time, I'd love to go across the street and kick" WJFK's behind.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company