Relationships and the N-Word

No matter how smart, educated or accomplished you may be, nothing trumps the quality of your relationships with customers, vendors and employees. It is fascinating to think that one event or even just one word can completely stop the machinery.
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I'm feeling a bit sorry for Dr. Laura Schlessinger right now as I gaze at the wreckage left behind after an indulgent and misguided five minutes of spraying the N-Word across the airwaves. She obviously shattered some important relationships with her listeners, advertisers and radio stations. Every small business owners knows that relationships are the plasma in the lifeblood of business. No matter how smart, educated or accomplished you may be, nothing trumps the quality of your relationships with customers, vendors and employees. It is fascinating to think that one event or even just one word can completely stop the machinery.

Dr. Laura has been more successful than most of us, earning a place as a national media figure and being rewarded with what I expect is several million dollars per year from her widely syndicated radio program, books, lectures and other business ventures. But, her professional life changed in just a few minutes in what I feel was a relationship altering lapse in judgment. The relationship that was battered was the one she had worked years to establish with sponsors, stations and listeners. Successful on-air personalities have climbed that mountain by building strong relationships over time with their listeners or viewers. As you probably know, in the business of broadcasting the audience is counted by a ratings service and the advertising time is sold accordingly. That is the relationship chain that leads to electronic media prosperity.

I had a great lesson in media world relationships while working as the Broadcast Standards person for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981-82. One day I was called over to the Tonight Show offices because a young comedian named Eddie Murphy was making his first appearance on the program and wanted to do a piece in his routine which required the studio audience to collectively use the N-Word. I don't even think that we had begun calling the word by that euphemism then. I walked to the studio from my office wondering what would I say to Murphy who was then a rising star on Saturday Night Live. When he answered the dressing room door, I was a bit nervous as a black person on a mission to tell the younger man why it would be a bad idea to get that derogatory term involved in his first appearance on The Tonight Show.

The point I made to Eddie Murphy was one of how relationships were important even for a comedian. Johnny Carson could do many things on the show that guests couldn't get away with because Mr. Carson had a multi-decade relationship with the viewers. Eddie Murphy didn't have years on the air or a strong bond with Carson's audience to allow him a broad latitude of behavior. To my surprise he listened politely and quickly decided to drop the potentially offensive part of his monologue. I'm sure there was a bit of self preservation involved; realizing that if he offended Carson there would not be an invitation to return.

Though I don't know the good doctor Laura, I have met her once in her early career and the exchange we had was an interesting moment of character revelation. Our meeting was back in 1978 when I was working my first job as a producer on a series at a Los Angeles PBS TV station. Ms. Schlessinger was on her way up as a local broadcast personality and was interested in appearing on our program which dealt with criminal behavior. I don't remember the precise reason why, but I had to tell her that we couldn't work with her in that particular instance. The look she gave me and the body language was pretty chilly and is memorable to me three decades later! When her use of the N-Word hit the fan a few days ago, I called a couple of radio people to inquire about her current reputation among broadcast professionals and employees. Gracious and warm were not terms that I heard. If she had to rely on the bank of warm fuzzy relationships, I have a feeling that the account balances would be pretty thin.

So Eddie Murphy and Dr. Laura Schlessinger have briefly touched my world and left me with relationship lessons. Murphy got a career boost from wisely avoiding the N-Word in his maiden appearance on The Tonight Show and was gracious to me in the process. Dr. Laura took a bad turn from using it liberally in a listener call and gave me the impression of being rather brittle in our one encounter. I see irony in the fact that one of her points on the air had to do with African-American comedians freely spraying the word around on a regular basis. These two well known personalities have constructed major careers and businesses based on their own standards of talent and relationship building. Knowing the ultimate limits of our cherished relationships is what helps all of us stay in business. As we've just seen, one careless day can give us the "Humpty Dumpty" experience that changes everything.