Living in Cin: Jerry Springer and Me

I spent two years working with one of the world’s most famous people, but both of us were mostly invisible.

Illustration by Alex Fine

If you watched the original, tame version of The Jerry Springer Show more than once, there’s something wrong with you. It sucked. Not because it was outrageous, but because it was boring.

Recruited to be the next Phil Donahue, Jerry had copied Donahue’s high-road playbook and was getting his ass kicked by the edgier low-road competition (Maury, Montel, Sally Jesse, etc.). Things changed when a new producer arrived, bringing a strategy that can best be described this way: “Everyone is racing for the gutter. Let’s get there first.” The Donahue playbook was trashed, and trash itself became the show’s source material. You know the rest. The Jerry Springer Show ran for 28 years, many of them as daytime TV’s highest-rated show. 

By the time Jerry Springer died in April, he’d become one of the most famous people on Earth. (Infamous, many would say.) Most Americans still know nothing of the earlier Jerry, and never ask. Only Cincinnati remembers his years as a politician and news anchor, committed to helping the marginalized and the voiceless. Everywhere else, the name Jerry Springer has meant the exact opposite—a guy who treated the marginalized and voiceless like circus animals.

Maybe, like me, you are a Cincinnatian who’s recently found yourself explaining the other Jerry to non-locals. In this town we say “the other” instead of “the former,” because we always knew that the Cincinnati version of Jerry Springer was still in there, trying to get out—desperately wanting the outside world to know that he was more than just Jerr-EE! Jerr-EE! He tried several times to break free of that perception, and mostly failed.

One of these doomed attempts included me. I first met Cincinnati Mayor Springer when he was a twice-weekly contributor of commentaries on WEBN radio, where I worked. WEBN was, in fact, the birthplace of his famous on-air essays. They later became his signature “Final Thoughts” during his years anchoring the Channel 5 newscast, and then they pretended to be a respectable closing segment for his TV show. 

I saw Jerry only occasionally after his time at WEBN, but in 2005 I was invited to join a new project he was starting. For the next two years I worked with him almost every day. 

Springer on the Radio was a three-hour syndicated talk show based here. It was structured much like the Rush Limbaugh-type shows dominating talk radio, but was a rare exception that leaned liberal politically—just like Jerry. Pause for a moment and let this career decision sink in: Jerry did his daily radio show simultaneously with his daily television show. 

For two years he flew back and forth from Chicago to Cincinnati in his private jet, spending about $10,000 each way, to work two jobs. When he started appearing on Dancing With the Stars, he worked three jobs. That’s how committed he was to convincing the world that Jerry Springer wasn’t just Jerr-EE! Jerr-EE!

The radio show’s approach was to act as if the TV show didn’t exist. The plan was to start in Cincinnati, where “the other” Jerry was known and loved, and then as the show got picked up by radio stations around the country, the rest of America would get to know the warm and often funny Jerry, the issues-oriented Jerry, the proud liberal Jerry even conservatives could find appealing. 

The show originated from the Kenwood media complex that included WEBN, so when I was asked to join Jerry’s team it was no problem to say yes and continue with my weekday-afternoon radio gig. Hey, if Jerry could handle two jobs in two cities, I could handle two jobs in one building.

My contribution to Springer on the Radio was to provide the kind of material I’d been creating for WEBN’s rock format: comedy sketches, song parodies, and fake commercials. For Jerry’s talk show, though, the content would focus much more on political themes and much less on dick jokes. I even got a budget to hire outside performers and to license karaoke tracks for song parodies. Jerry himself sometimes played Gerald Fearmong, the fake news anchor for “Crock News,” a Fox News satire. He enjoyed that.

I cranked out one comedy module per hour in each of the show’s three hours. Not wanting to work myself to death, I shared part of my salary with my favorite writing partner, Don Goldberg, a long-ago WEBN alumnus and friend who’d moved to Seattle. Out of our long-distance but close collaboration (a nicer phrase than “constant arguing”) came some of the best work of our careers. Stand by for a link that will play several examples.

At our team’s first meeting, I got a sense of what happens when you become as famous as Jerry Springer. Discussion got around to how we’d communicate with Jerry online, and he mentioned that he was eager to upgrade his Mac laptop. I said, “Hey, you’re in luck. The Apple Store is at Kenwood Towne Centre three blocks away. I’ll take you there, and you can choose whatever laptop you need.” Jerry shook his head and said, “Oh, no, I can’t go into a mall.” Hmm. Someone else got the laptop.

When you’ve spent time with an honest-to-God world-famous celebrity, you’re inevitably asked, “What’s he really like?” I’ve met and interviewed many well-known people, and some of them were so full of themselves they could explode. I can say that Jerry Springer, by far the most famous person I’ve ever known, was by far the person least impressed with his own fame. 

At his memorial event in June, a staffer on his TV show said, “I didn’t work for him, I worked with him. He made everyone feel that way.” Same here.

Jerry was all in on his radio show, committing both time and money. He was rich by then, sure, and could burn through as many dollars as he wanted, but extra hours in a day? Those were not available at any price. Still, he somehow got his show prep done each day and spent hours with top radio consultants, getting pointers for a medium that requires vastly different skills than television. He said at one point that he’d had no idea how much work a radio show required.

Despite the show getting a daily slot on Air America, the short-lived liberal talk radio network, Springer on the Radio never achieved enough of an audience to be sustainable. Then, after Jerry said yes to joining the 2006 season of Dancing With the Stars, he was absent from our show for long stretches. It was clear we couldn’t continue. Everything shut down in December. 

Since hardly anyone has ever heard the comedy that Don Goldberg and I worked on, I hereby order you to check out a few examples here.

Ironically, Jerry’s good humor about his bad moves on Dancing With the Stars was just the thing that finally got Americans to notice his lovable side. Surges of fan votes helped him survive for seven excruciating weeks, which were quickly followed by multiple offers to be a favorite guest, judge, or host on many popular shows. The trash-TV version of Jerry had never gotten offers like that, but they never stopped after he danced into the nation’s hearts.

In semi-retirement last year, Jerry started one more Cincinnati radio show, his last project before the diagnosis of his final illness. On Sunday mornings he became a DJ, playing 1960s-era folk music. Before that, he hosted a podcast from a coffee house in Ludlow for several years, which he did for the same reason he did the folk music show: He enjoyed it. 

Jerry’s biggest dreams never came true, but other, smaller ones did, by way of several astonishing detours. Some say that life’s small things turn out to be the big things.

Is Jerry Springer resting in peace, or is Satan throwing chairs at him for all eternity? You, I, and everyone else will someday know the answer to that ultimate question. Until then, take care of yourself…and each other.

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