It looks as if Mark Madden's high ratings trump everything, even the dignity of ESPN, ABC and Disney.
Madden, whose talk show is heard weekdays on 1250 ESPN from 3 to 7 p.m., has a long history of mean-spirited attacks on well-known and usually popular public figures. He outdid himself Wednesday when he went after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who earlier this week was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Taking into account two national tragedies of historical and monumental proportions -- the assassinations of two of Kennedy's brothers, President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 -- Madden said the following early on his Wednesday show:
"I'm very disappointed to hear that Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is near death because of a brain tumor. I always hoped Senator Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated.
"I wonder if he got a card from the Kopechnes."
The final sentence was a reference to Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned in 1969 following a car accident in which Kennedy was the driver.
Astonishingly, this outrageous statement did not merit even a public slap on the wrist for Madden. In what would be a fireable offense at some radio stations, Madden was asked to apologize by his boss, which he did on the air about two hours later, and came away otherwise unscathed by this slashing of common decency.
Keep in mind that 1250 ESPN is owned by ESPN, a network that prides itself on high ethical standards. ESPN is part of the ABC family, and ABC is owned by Disney. It only can be concluded that no one in this steep chain of command, and they should have been aware of it, felt Madden's comment merited punishment.
Asked if Madden would be publicly disciplined or suspended, 1250 ESPN general manager Mike Thompson said, "No. The fact is we took action right away. Frankly, it was a comment that was stupid. He admitted that. I don't think it requires any such thing as [discipline]."
What is particularly remarkable about this is Madden was almost fired last December for off-color remarks and was put on warning. According to several sources, an irate listener sent a tape of a particularly rude Madden remark to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., in late November. Officials at ESPN obviously reacted strongly because Madden told friends and members of the Penguins in December he was close to being fired.
The firing was averted when Madden promised to change his ways. That he hasn't was made clear by his comment about Kennedy.
The only explanation for Madden not being fired, suspended or at least publicly reprimanded for the Kennedy remark involves the blockbuster ratings his show received in the final book of 2007, which came out after he promised to change his ways. Madden had a rating above 8.0, which is extremely high for sports talk and the highest of his career. His numbers in the most recent ratings were not as good, but a decline is expected when the Steelers are out of season.
Thompson seemed satisfied that Madden understands the rules and will abide by them in the future.
"I had a long talk with him after the show, and we went out for dinner," he said. "He clearly understands my position. He was wrong. He knows that firsthand and he also knows that [management] is involved in this process."
Thompson isn't the first general manager or program director to attempt to rein in Madden. Madden has toned down the sexual innuendo on his show over the years, but the character assassination of popular figures continues. Previous bosses talked about taking control of Madden, but he used his high ratings to do pretty much what he wanted to do on the air.
The fact is the station badly needs Madden. It could find no one local to attract the kind of audience Madden draws in the crucial afternoon drive time. In one promo that airs frequently, the announcer refers to 1250 ESPN as "the Mark Madden station."
At the same time, Madden would have no other option in Pittsburgh. Clear Channel, which operates the only other sports-talk station in town, would not tolerate his act.
Madden's calling card has been consistently going after high-profile people, including Myron Cope, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Arnold Palmer and Jim Leyland. It made no difference that his attacks were filled with half-truths. The vitriol drove the ratings and made him sound tough.
Expect more of the same. By its failure to take action this week, 1250 ESPN, ESPN, ABC and Disney have told Madden to keep doing what he's been doing.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .