Radio Icons at Twilight (Part 2 of 3)

Full disclosure: I have worked for Infinity Broadcasting, CBS Radio, WXRK-FM,  Westwood One, Clear Channel, and SiriusXM.

 Lockdown: While waiting to be admitted to work at SiriusXM,  Gregg "Opie" Hughes  shouts a sarcastic greeting to a departing  Howard Stern . He will be permitted to enter the premises once Howard has passed.

Lockdown: While waiting to be admitted to work at SiriusXM, Gregg "Opie" Hughes shouts a sarcastic greeting to a departing Howard Stern. He will be permitted to enter the premises once Howard has passed.

Gregg "Opie" Hughes was one half of Opie and Anthony, one of the most successful radio shows in modern history. Today he is the host of a podcast on Westwood One, which is called "Opie Radio" but which gives much of the heavy lifting to co-hosts Carl RuizVic Henley and Sherrod Small. Hughes' former on-air partner Anthony Cumia is publicly slamming the show, as he and O&A third mic Jim Norton have consistently railed against Hughes, publicly and viciously, for the past several years. 

In the months leading up to his October 2016 firing from SiriusXM, Opie felt pressured, unsupported, and deeply betrayed. His dream of radio superstardom had been fulfilled, climaxed, and was suddenly evaporating in real time. His friends and listeners were turning on him, and his work days now began with  a humiliating ritual. When Hughes and the staff of Opie Radio arrived at SiriusXM, they were blocked by security guards from entering until Howard Stern and his own security retinue passed by, signaling that he was leaving the building. Opie was forbidden to enter his own workplace when Stern was on the premises, a punishment that was handed down by management in retaliation for greeting Howard, saying "Good morning" as the two passed each other in the halls. Opie would say that enough time had passed, both men were adults in therapy, and that it was time to let it go. It was difficult to miss the sarcasm and bitterness in his voice, though - it seemed, on some level, like Opie was trying to test the waters, and perhaps try to restore something akin to a fair distribution of power. Opie and Anthony had been the first major radio show on satellite, and Opie was still showing up to work every day, working very hard in the face of mounting adversity. Stern, meanwhile, was making more money than any radio personality in history, and he continued to get regular raises even as he cut back on work, only broadcasting Mondays through Wednesdays, and taking frequent vacations. 

How had things gone so wrong? It must have been very easy to blame Stern, a former idol and influence who poisoned the well for Opie and Anthony from the beginning. First he had suppressed O&A during their run at Infinity Broadcasting,  making their tenure miserable and ultimately forcing them out. Then he helped usher in the Sirius/XM merger, all the while embarking a media blitz, telling anyone who would have him that he had been the first major broadcaster to defect to satellite radio. That he had, as O&A mockingly phrased it, "invented the merger."

This publicity tour included multiple appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, who had Opie and Anthony on only once. They made fun of Stern, mocking his tendencies to claim intellectual ownership of every element of modern broadcasting. When Letterman asked if the duo honored Stern as a pioneer of their brand of radio, Cumia responded with a well-rehearsed impression of the man he frequently referred to as "Hoo-Hoo Howie." "I invented everything... the chest, in-and-out, called breathing? That was me, Robin."

Stern allegedly retaliated yet again, and had Opie and Anthony blackballed from ever appearing on the Late Show again. And now thanks to the merger, the feuding radio shows were working together again, this time in the same office space - sort of. Roughly half of SiriusXM's New York headquarters had been closed off to general staff, and its studios and offices were the exclusive property of the Howard Stern Show. Once again, Howard was free to bash O&A on- and off-air with impunity, but if they returned fire they were yelled at and threatened by management, which had by now seen a rogue's gallery of former Infinity staffers come and go, including CEO Mel Karmizan and even Steve Kingston, late of K-Rock.

Opie & Anthony on The Late Show with David Letterman, August 31, 2006

A tense work environment at the best of times, it all came crashing down on July 3, 2014. Anthony Cumia, a hard-working, incredibly talented and funny broadcaster, had become absolutely indespensible to the show - which was problematic for several reasons. For one, Opie became more of a spectator than a host, leaving much of the work to Anthony, who was able and eager. His chemistry with Norton, and the host of comedians that they attracted, were more than enough to keep the show going and the listeners entertained. But this relegated Opie to a background player on his own show, which was all wrong. Anthony had been his discovery, after all, and together they had found Norton and the rest of the show was built on that foundation. But the foundation was cracked at it's core - Hughes and Cumia had been disagreeing for years, and rather than addressing their quarrels they did their best to ignore each other, in the interest of keeping the show alive. Naturally, this marriage of convenience grew more uneasy over time, and the two would often blow up at one another. The stories of their off-air fights are many and probably often exaggerated, but the squabbles were now flaring up on-air too. Listeners noticed, and the dynamic changed. Jim Norton sat between them with the nervous energy of a child, wondering if it's his fault that his parents are fighting and wondering who will take custody of him when they finally divorce. Anthony had also become very vocal about his political and cultural beliefs, which were very different from Opie's and further divided the audience. The dominant voice of Opie and Anthony, the loud and funny voice, the personality who connected with the audience on an authentic level, often expressed views that some considered hateful, conspiratorial, and even racist. His views on race, women, guns and other hot button issues could have been a magnet for criticism from co-workers and some listeners, but ultimately amounted to very little. For both Cumia and his fans, laughter trumped politics. Many of his views, however, contrasted sharply with Hughes, and helped fuel their growing enmity.

Although Opie gave Anthony his first on-air job, Anthony was a natural broadcaster and entertainer, who loved technology. In recent years, as the fighting between Opie and Anthony intensified, Anthont had built a home studio and lately he's even tried webcasting. This was very upsetting to Sirius, and though he tried very hard to hide it, Opie was also angered and frightened. The day was obviously approaching when the dip would split, Opie said as much on air (to Anthony's protestations and Jim's discomfort), and it was very important that Opie emerge victorious, or at least intact. That Anthony was so creatively free and independent, home alone and without Opie, grated on him. Anthony has jokingly referred to this turbulent period in their relationship as "walking on Greggshells."

On a warm Wednesday evening, July 2, 2014, Anthony went for a walk, photographing the sights around Times Square. An African American woman objected to being in the frame of one of his shots, and allegedly punched him several times. Since Anthony was carrying his pistol, it's for the best that he held onto his rage until he got home - but once there, he unloaded his fury on Twitter. He recounted the incident before he'd had a chance to fully process it - he was still angry, and out of control. Some of his language was nasty, rough, and racially insensitive. In light of the pressures weighing on him at work, it's easy to speculate that Anthony knew he could get himself fired on Twitter very easily. Tweets are viral by design, meant to be shared, especially when they come from a celebrity or are vulgar or incendiary. Cumia's tweets ticked off every box and a few more besides, and knowingly or not, that night he tweeted himself out of his job, and ended his relationship with Opie forever. On July 3, amidst public outcry and desperate to avoid a scandal, SiriusXM terminated Anthony Cumia.

Opie was still under contract, and wanted to continue. He launched Opie Radio in October, joined by Jim Norton and featuring large cast of staffers, friends of the show,  and a rotating panel of comedians and other guests. But his relationship with Norton, already strained, was taxed further by Cumia's departure. Although he was brought on in 2001 in large part to ameliorate the tension between Opie and Anthony, the role of anxious child never suited him. For one thing, over the years he had bonded with Cumia on a number of levels. A comic first, Norton had a relationship with the naturally hilarious Cumia that transcended radio, politics and scandal. And then there was the matter of loyalty. Norton is famously loyal, and didn't appreciate feeling as though he was forced to choose between his friendship with Cumia, or with Hughes, who had grown increasingly needy and slightly possessive. As time passed and Cumia took several jabs at Hughes, Opie grew deeply hurt. His stance on Anthony's post-SiriusXM career followed a progression from militant defense, to lukewarm support, to bitter acrimony. 

The tension was compounded by guests, newcomers and old friends of the show alike either chose a side and made it weird, or inadvertently caused a fissure and exposed the simmering dysfunction. Larry King was a canary in the coalmine for life after Anthony; the legendary newsman made an appearance shortly after the firing, and excitedly proclaimed that he was appearing on Opie and Anthony multiple times. After several audible grimaces from all sides of the room, eventually Hughes and Norton explained that Cumia was gone, and why, and walked King through the facts of his dismissal. King may have shown his hand early in the interview; he explained his interview process of not coming at a subject full throttle, but softening them like a "good cop." Getting them to let their defenses down, to trust him, to feel comfortable telling him the complete truth with context that might have previously gone unreported. For instance, he wouldn't ask Osama Bin Laden "Why did you bomb America on 9/11" (he didn't use bombs, but King was seemingly using shorthand to make a point). A better first question, he posited, would be "Why did you leave one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia?" and from there, he would move on to "Where does your anger come from?" Opie responded to this interview description very defensively, as though it were an indictment of the way he had approached his interview with King. It's possible that he correctly identified a passive aggressive dig, or maybe he opened a flank that King had not previously considered. Two minutes later, King flipped the interview around, asking Hughes "How did Opie and Anthony start?" This time the awkward silence was promptly broken by Norton, who responded "More interestingly, how did they end?" 

Larry King asks Opie and Jim Norton about Anthony Cumia (February 17, 2005).

Opie had long wanted to separate his career from Cumia's, but not like this. It was supposed to be on his terms, as amiable as possible, and with everybody on the same page. He was supposed to have had the time to prepare to reboot his career as the host of his own show, not to be left twisting in the wind, battered on all sides. If he defended Cumia, he risked guilt by association, clashes with management, and being branded a racist. What's more, he and Cumia despised each other, and Cumia was taking every opportunity to take jabs at Opie. However fair that might seem when one half of a duo has lost their job, to Opie it was merely a continuation of the digs that he'd experienced in the studio, on-air and off. And now, this interview that began so routinely had taken a turn. Now he had lost control of his show, and all of his struggles and secrets were all being exposed under the probative cross-examining of Larry King. Why hadn't he left with Anthony? Why didn't he hold his ground and defend him more? What were the nature of the personal problems between Opie and Anthony? Hughes was left battered, and too flummoxed to muster much of a defense when King announced his verdict: "Opie evades everything."

King's observation mirrored the perception of nearly all Opie's staff and inner circle; even, in a way, Opie himself. He had been growing acutely aware of talk spreading among his co-workers, and reading to his despair on social media, that he was perceived as the weak link on his own show. That Cumia and Norton were considered the real talent, while he was perceived as a lucky hack who somehow stumbled into discovering them and tripped upwards into success, somehow riding the coattails of people he was directly responsible for hiring. There was betrayal on all sides, and attempting to defend himself only made things worse, stirring the pot on social media and deepening the rift between him and his staff. He began frequently battling with Norton on-air, at times finding himself breaking down in tears over comments he had seen on Twitter, and the growing acrimony from Cumia and his fans. The tension between Opie and Norton, and other key members of his crew including Executive Producer Sam Roberts, degenerated into outright hostility. Everyone was turning on him, even as they embraced Cumia. When they weren't lobbying to get him rehired at Sirius, they were appearing on Cumia's Compound Media, often taking thinly-veiled jabs at Hughes, which were amplified throughout social media.  

As his own camp continued to desert him, he still couldn't escape his nemesis. Howard Stern's enmity and oppression had once been a unifying force, keeping the Opie and Anthony family in solidarity against a common enemy. But now Opie stood alone, and Stern's salary continued to skyrocket, even as he showed SiriusXM the same disregard that management had shown Opie. After establishing a pattern of increasingly frequent, long vacations, Stern had stopped broadcasting Fridays, and then Thursdays. The highest paid broadcaster in the world worked three days a week, some weeks. He had sued SiriusXM immediately after the two satellite giants merged, and though he lost in court he retuned to work unbowed, and unpunished. He was untouchable, and could do no wrong, in the eyes of management, while Opie the best Opie could hope for from his bosses was quiet disdain. When he wasn't being berated, it seemed as though he was being forgotten. While Stern made millions on 12-hour work weeks, the content of which was degenerating rapidly, Opie remained firmly in the doghouse.

As his team continued to splinter, it seemed clear that SiriusXM was not going to allow him the opportunity to develop Opie Radio. It was the kind of enraging powerlessness that is reminiscent of childhood, when you feel as though you've been unjustly ignored and perhaps the only way to get attention is by acting out. And so, the abrasive "Good mornings" began, as mild an offensive as one could imagine, yet one that could only have ended badly for Opie. True to form, Stern retaliated; it's hard to imagine Opie expected otherwise. As his time at SiriusXM began to draw to a close, his rage and frustration against the company and it's biggest star were compounded by an indignity far worse than any gag order: until Stern had been escorted from the premises by his security force, Opie and his crew were not permitted to set foot in their increasingly hostile workplace. Hughes had acted out in the only way that he could, and now he was paying the price. Things would only get worse for Hughes - and his relationships with SiriusXM, Stern and his own team - before coming to an abrupt end.