Prolegomenon. As far as introductions to talk radio and entertainment, Lionel, has a rather fascinating history. As he is fond of saying, he’s a native New Yorker born elsewhere (Tampa) and never imagined or planned for that matter a career in broadcasting or entertainment, or today’s more popular portmanteaus: edutainment and infotainment. But in retrospect, Lionel recognizes the influence that variety show luminaries and entertainers had on him as well as the organic frame of reference that the New York “sensibility” provides in framing his worldview. His heroes were Borscht Belt comics and Ed Sullivan regulars. He worshiped Jack Paar and Steve Allen and remembers well when George Carlin and Richard Pryor exploded on the scene, camouflaging hard-hitting and critical social commentary with humor, whilst channeling Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl. Unconsciously perhaps, Lionel was attracted to and perhaps being led to entertainment and performance as his ultimate platform but it would require a series of happenstance and unbelievable good luck to forge the path.
Lionel the Caller. It was 1981 and Lionel, as a law student in his native Florida (or Flawda, as he’s wont to say, distinguishing the vacation wonderland from the more rustic and earthy as he was more than familiar with), discovered talk radio quite by accident. It was during the nascent period of the medium’s resurgence, pre-Rush and pre-syndication. It was local and familiar and quaint. Innocent, to be most accurate. And what amazed Lionel was, frankly, how boring it was. No fireworks, no heated exchanges. No outrage. It was vanilla, vapid and a tad vacant. Too courteous and too polite. Well, Lionel would change that. Upon calling his first show, Lionel developed three critical rules of engagement that have been his kata: (1) Be the first caller and set the tone of the show; (2) Never discuss the subject the host has presented; and (3) Whenever possible, insult the host. And it was also at that time that he flexed his considerable vocabulary, which immediately became another aspect of the Lionel package. Voila! The sesquipedalian Lionel style was born.
Lionel: One name like God. While establishing his name as a regular caller, by this time most familiar and recognizable to the Tampa Bay radio audience, there was only one problem, Lionel had no name. Yet. Callers then had no means of identification; they were merely called the name of the town they announced they were calling from. This, Lionel realized, wouldn’t do. Based solely (yet again) on happenstance, Lionel had just watched one of his favorite films, Scarecrow starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, whose character was Frances “Lionel” Delbuchi. When he happened to call, with the movie still fresh in his head, Lionel decided that from that day forward, he’d be called Lionel. Just Lionel. Mononymous. Lionel loves to the the story of a New York cabbie who recognized his voice and asked what his last name was. Lionel responded that it was merely Lionel. You know, like Cher, Bono, Elvis. To which to cabbie responded, “Oh, yeah. One name, Like God.” The radio baptism had been finalized. Lionel was born and the radio personality was christened.
The legal Lionel. Lionel then graduated from law school, passed the Florida Bar exam and became an Assistant State Attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in Tampa and Hillsborough County. This was his second time in government work after serving as a District Aide for United States Senator Richard (Dick) Stone while out of college. Lionel as prosecutor served in the intake, traffic, misdemeanor, juvenile and felony divisions, all the while calling in as the mysterious and anonymous Lionel, charming talk radio listeners with full frontal talk radio. Lionel departed from the prosecutor’s office and went into private practice and really ramped up the mysterious and, though by this time, famous Lionel while using a host of voices and accents, thus carpet bombing the Tampa Bay airwaves. Lionel still practices law and is licensed in Florida, New Jersey and New York as well as admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
“Mr. Lionel, I need you.” In 1988, the program director (PD) from 970 WFLA in Tampa was looking for a weekend talk radio show to develop. He learned from others who knew the true identity of the radio-ubiquitous Lionel that he might be available. A meeting was arranged. Now, the radio tyro Lionel had heard that weekend shows usually were based on a barter and trade format, typically where the host pays the station to appear. Lionel was prepared to pay a nominal amount, but nothing exorbitant. Upon meeting with the PD, the topic of remuneration and compensation was advanced. “What do you think is fair?” asked the PD. “What do you think is fair?” Lionel fired back in an example of brilliant negotiating. “A hundred bucks for four hours” was the PD’s offer. “A hundred bucks?!” was the aghast Lionel’s retort. “Yes, that’s all we can pay you,” the PD leveled. “What?! You’re paying me?!” Lionel gasped in delighted relief. He thought he’d have to cough up the dough; this was even better. “It’s a deal.” And Lionel was off and running.
The radio tenure commences. October 1988 marks the date when Lionel hit the airwaves officially on 970 WFLA. Sundays, 3-7 PM. Then in January of 1989, middays (9-noon) was offered and accepted. Afternoon drive followed in August. So, Lionel went from weekends to afternoon drive in the 13th market in ten months. Not bad.
Start spreading the news. And then it happened. In 1993 ABC Radio President Jim Arcara, who enjoyed a pied-à-terre in the broadcast area, had heard Lionel for years and had become a fan. He approached Lionel and asked whether he’d consider taking the helm of WABC in New York. Lionel answered, yes, most assuredly. This was all to good to be true. In fact, when asked what advice I had then to break into radio I said, in part kiddingly, “Don’t worry, just wait. They’ll call you.” Lionel moved to New York and performed mornings on the New York heritage 50K watt flamethrower 77 WABC with the inimitable Bruce Anderson and enjoyed enormous ratings success. The team was (to use perhaps and overused term but most apt) magic. The chemistry, the organic connection psychically was truly amazing. Mornings set ratings records that have yet to be equaled or replicated. And later, after WABC mainstay and legend, Bob Grant was jettisoned, Lionel stewarded both morning and afternoon drive.
The slow speed chase. Then it happened. June of 1994. During the O.J. Simpson case, while the country and world were rapt and glued to the tube and screen, catching every moment of the case, while stations and networks christened court television shows and legal analysis (giving birth to CourtTV), WABC had its own resident analyst with Lionel, the former prosecutor and legal educator, who explained to his audience the nuances and aspects of the trial. And what made Lionel even more unique was while others soft-soaped and hemmed and hawed as to Simpson’s criminal complicity, Lionel bellowed, “He’s guilty!” and quickly became the go-to personality on all things O.J. Many great friendships were forged then. Charles Grodin contacted Lionel immediately and had him on his CNBC show on numerous occasions after, and Lionel still pinches himself over this, Grodin’s pal Jack Paar, a Lionel hero, heard him on WABC and suggested Grodin listen. Thereafter Lionel became great friends with O.J.’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, and they both appeared weekly on CourtTV discussing legal cases of note.
And the beat goes on. After WABC, the Lionel juggernaut continued. Lionel hosted “Snap Judgment” on Court TV while hosting programs at New York’s heritage WOR, Air America and syndicated programming through Premiere Radio Networks. Lionel was one of the original hosts of the pioneering eYada.com, one of the first Internet radio broadcasting platforms ever. During the Clinton impeachment hearings, Lionel provided daily commentary on New York’s WCBS. The Emmy® Award winning Lionel broadened his considerable critical analysis talents by appearing on New York’s heritage and Tribune Broadcasting’s WPIX Channel 11. Lionel anchored the 4-6 AM news show, appeared regularly on the 5 PM broadcast and cemented his place among New York history with his 10 PM legal analysis and news decoder appearances where his valedictory, “Comment as you see fit!” became legendary.
The elusive descriptive. He’s self-described as a renaissance lawyer and media legal analyst, a news decoder and essayist. An author, blogger, pioneer podcaster and (out)spoken word performer. He’s a flatpicker and roots practitioner and celebrates before the altar of the immaculate twang of America’s music: bluegrass. He’s a political atheist and has a blackbelt in realpolitik. He eschews left-right paradigms and rejects whole cloth run-of-the mill trite and usual political analysis through the media’s patented worldview, spectrum and prism. He’s a practicing plant-based vegan and as John Pilger suggested, never believes anything until it’s officially denied. Lionel is a practicing lawyer, admitted in Florida and New York as well as the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States and enjoys myriad practice areas that involve First Amendment, privacy and constitutional law issues and implications.
The day it all changed. The moment of indelible change and ideological recalibration. 9/11 was the watershed moment in Lionel’s life. As with the world and especially those who were present in New York on that horrid Tuesday, the events have been indelibly seared on Lionel’s conscious and it marked a drastic change and course correction in his view of the roles of geopolitics, globalism, central banking, the media’s role in framing issues. It forged an appreciation into the darker aspects of history and has made him, as Gore Vidal suggested, an avowed conspiracy analyst versus theorist. Lionel is an ardent and voracious consumer of alternative and foreign news sourcing and an avowed historian, keeping in mind Tolstoy’s admonition: “History would be a wonderful thing if only it were true.” There exists no label that explains his ideology, certainly not from the quiver of the usual appellations that are used, though he will answer to proud membership in the American School à la List and Carey. He’s long warned against the hyper-militarization of the police, the loss of personal freedoms via legislation and governmental surveillance and is an avowed abolitionist when it comes to all drug crimes and truly victimless, malum prohibitum behaviors of personal volition. Lionel rails against asset-stripping predatory banksterism and the latest version of colonialism: hydroimperialism with water as the new currency of war. He’s an ardent ufologist and believes that the mysteries of extraterrestrial intelligent contact is, as Stanton Friedman calls it, the Watergate of the millennium. Lionel is irreligious and an apatheist yet calls for respect and courtesy when discussing the faith systems of others. While this list is far from exhaustive, it details the difficulty in trying to pigeonholing his ideology into a left-right dualism.
Plaudits, paeans and panegyrics. Talkers Magazine, the talk radio industry journal, listed him in the HEAVIEST HUNDRED: The 100 most important radio talk show hosts of all time. He’s also a pioneer podcaster and was also included in Talkers Frontier Fifty as an outstanding talk media webcaster and is the author of “Everyone’s Crazy Except You and Me . . . And I’m Not So Sure About You” (Hyperion).
Newsweek noted that Lionel is “[a]n intellectual known for his irreverent political and social humor.”
And this quote from the legendary record producer Jerry Wexler perhaps says it best.
He wears the mantle of Lenny Bruce, with Lenny’s own tropisms: The Oblique, The Irreverent, The Tangential, The Concupiscent, The Polymorphous Perverse, The Arcane, The Numinous. And yet Lionel brings to the table his own savory: A love of the mother tongue and a gonzo vocabulary that puts his logo on all his works, whether talk-show hosting, standup-comic spritzing, or hanging out – with himself a minor art form.
Lionel is married and lives in New York with his beloved wife.
The most copied book cover in the history of American publishing.