Marc Rayfield: Boss of the Blowhards

If you think it's tough listening to radio loudmouths like Danny Bonaduce, Michael Smerconish and Angelo Cataldi, imagine being the guy who has to manage them

There’s a cluster of framed photos atop a filing cabinet in Marc Rayfield’s corner office in the Center City building where WYSP and KYW Radio have their studios. Two of the pictures really jump out at you. One shows Rayfield and his family frolicking with former Phillies ace Steve Carlton. In the other, Rayfield is posing with President Obama in a hallway at the White House.

This may disappoint you, but the behind-the-scenes story I’m going to tell is not about the “Lefty” photo, but about the Obama one, because it’s going to help you understand something about Marc Rayfield.

It’s August 2009. Obama has invited WPHT radio talker Michael Smerconish to interview him at the White House. Rayfield is along because he’s Smerconish’s boss, in charge of CBS Radio’s five Philadelphia stations. Rayfield is a Democrat who supported Obama even in the primaries—odd for a guy who runs a conservative talk station, but we’ll get to that.

After the interview, Rayfield gets a moment of his own with the President. Both men are tall and lean. Both have two young daughters, and they commiserate about the joys of fatherhood. (Both men were left by their fathers when they were very young.) Rayfield remembers that in his jacket there’s a blank birthday card he’d picked up for his daughter.

Obama signs it: “To Eliza. Happy birthday. Dream big dreams. Barack Obama.”

“It was an unbelievable moment. A kid from the Northeast having personal conversations with President Obama,” says Rayfield, who often speaks as if he’s excited by his own life.

About two weeks after that meeting, it’s announced that Obama will deliver a national address to students about “the importance of taking responsibility for their success in school.” Naturally, a firestorm erupts; the segment of the media industry built on the suggestion that Obama can’t be trusted begins rolling its assembly lines. Kansas City talker Chris Stigall, guest-hosting on the national Lou Dobbs program, wonders why Obama wants to speak with our children without parents present.

“What other piece of helpful advice could the President disseminate at noon while you’re not around?” Stigall asks. “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Long story short: Not much later, Rayfield hires Stigall to do a talk-radio show five mornings a week in Philadelphia.

Wait—what? I spent a lot of time trying to make sense of this after Rayfield told me about his Obama moment. Yes, I get the idea that work is important. If your job is to make a conservative radio station thrive, that’s what you do. Still, it seemed Rayfield was suppressing something deeper than personal politics.

Obama’s inspirational note to Rayfield’s daughter had stirred him. Then he hired someone who said Obama can’t be trusted to deliver a message to children. It seemed to me the kind of willful mental divergence that could make a guy crazy.