John Lyon's 22-year career at personality-oriented middle-of-the-road WMAL-AM (630) came to an abrupt end following his 3 p.m. sign-off Friday, and so may have the station's last-of-a-kind personality-driven, middle-of-the-road format. Two talk shows, including that of nationally syndicated conservative host Rush Limbaugh, will replace Lyon in the midday slot.

Program Director Michael Neff said Lyon's firing and the added talk programming were "a natural part of WMAL's continuing evolution into an issue-oriented, topic-driven radio." Neff said that "our future as an AM radio leader is going to be in issue-oriented information programs," but he refused to describe WMAL solely as a "news and talk" station without emphasizing that the format is "personality-driven."

The ratings-healthy news hour, "Noon on WMAL," anchored by Karen Leggett and featuring Paul Harvey's 15-minute news-and-commentary broadcast, will continue in its time slot.

During a brief meeting following Lyon's shift, WMAL President and General Manager Tom Bresnahan broke the news to the announcer. Lyon recalled yesterday that Bresnahan said, " 'This isn't going to be pleasant. Today was your last day.' -- not 'Thanks for 22 years.' " Then Brendan Burke, Capital Cities/ABC's personnel director, handed Lyon a two-page letter detailing his severance compensation. Lyon has sent the letter to a union attorney and is waiting for a reply. However, it is believed by industry sources that Lyon, 50, will receive more than 65 weeks' severance pay based on a salary reportedly approaching six figures.

Lyon said he knew changes might be made to include Limbaugh's highly successful show on the station, but thought that he would be retained in some capacity. "I always thought I would have a job because I can do anything there." Lyon said he will spend the next few weeks weighing his options and deciding his future.

Bresnahan refused to characterize Lyon's departure as a firing, saying only: "His leaving is something between WMAL and John Lyon. We have no comment." Like Neff, Bresnahan also was reluctant to say that the strongly rated station was changing formats. "I wouldn't see this as a format change. This is a day-part change." However, he acknowledged that "the music is going {off the air} Monday through Friday with the exception of {overnight host} Bill Mayhugh's show. It is the direction that AM radio is going to." Asked about Mayhugh's future, Bresnahan said, "He's solid as a rock."

Staff announcer Charlie Sponsler, who uses the air name "Charlie Warren," yesterday began a new 10 a.m.-to-noon weekday talk show that will include listeners' calls. His Saturday show will extend to 1 p.m. Warren had worked as a talk show host in Providence, R.I., before coming to WMAL three years ago. Limbaugh, whose popular two-hour show is broadcast from New York and heard on more than 220 stations, will air live from 1 to 2 p.m., followed by a taped broadcast of the noon-to-1 p.m. hour.

Limbaugh's program is expected to begin sometime this month, possibly as soon as next Monday. The best of Limbaugh will be heard Sundays 6 to 9 p.m.

Neff said Limbaugh's syndicator, EFM Media Inc., lobbied WMAL for more than 14 months to air the show, but "we wanted to see a proven commodity; now that the research is in we are very confident about the move and are committed to it."

Lyon was highly regarded by his colleagues, several of whom said they were surprised by the news of his firing. The staffers were told about Lyon and the programming changes during a 5 p.m. staff meeting conducted by Neff and Operations Director Jim Gallant. Since 1960 WMAL has been known for its on-air personalities, few of whom have been changed. For instance, afternoon co-host Bill Trumbull celebrated his 30th anniversary with the station Friday, top-rated morning men Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver celebrated their 30th year as a team in March, and Mayhugh expects to begin his 27th year at WMAL this summer.

But as WMAL's audience has grown older and dwindled as AM listenership decreased, staff and program changes have become more frequent in recent years. In fact, Lyon, who for most of his years at WMAL did production and vacation relief, was moved into the midday slot only three years ago when 19-year veteran Tom Gauger was discharged.

Since then, midday ratings have eroded, except during the noon news hour. Lyon presented a folksy, often charming on-air approach. He played records and read lengthy newspaper stories to his audience, occasionally including insightful comments. He also chatted regularly with the Washington Animal Rescue League's Joyce Hanes, book authors and chefs from local restaurants.

But for impatient listeners, Lyon's slow-paced patter, his frequent loss of concentration and the sound of rustling newspapers that filled the microphone were, perhaps, a throwback to radio's bygone era.