Advice guru Laura Schlessinger said she'd been considering ending her three-decade radio career for the last year, and the furor over racially insensitive remarks she made on-air last week was merely the tap on the shoulder she needed to leave.
Though she announced her plan to quit "The Dr. Laura Program" at the end of the year on Larry King's CNN show Tuesday night, she said she made the decision last Friday — three days after uttering the N-word and other statements about race on her show, and two days after apologizing for the same.
"I was just sitting here, looking over the ocean," Schlessinger said in an interview Wednesday morning from her Santa Barbara home. "It was sort of a peaceful wave of awareness — an inner voice just said, 'We're done with this.' The second it came over me, I felt very energized."
Schlessinger, 63, said she's not retiring but, instead, will focus on her books, TV appearances, blog and YouTube channel.
"There are so many ways to talk with the people who appreciate my help," she said. "I'll have the freedom to speak my mind."
But Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry, doubts that she's so sanguine about her departure from her medium of choice for 32 years.
"I think Dr. Laura really, really cares and is sensitive and suffers great emotional stress when these things happen to her. And I think this one just pushed her over the edge," he said.
"She's a unique personality — strength and fragility all in one package," Harrison added, comparing her to watching Judy Garland trying to hit a note. "When she hit it, it was great. When she didn't, she might have a meltdown right on stage."
The catalyst for her career change came during her Aug. 10 program, when a caller, who identified herself as a black woman named Jade, sought advice about racist comments she heard from her white husband's friends and relatives, including their use of the N-word. Schlessinger cited the use of the same word by black comedians and others and suggested that the caller, and others who level charges of racism, are hypersensitive.
Schlessinger, who has a doctorate in physiology, a branch of biology, and is a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, has drawn fire in the past for her blunt comments and frank assessments of her callers' dilemmas or the issues of the day.
In 2000, for example, gay and lesbian groups were outraged by Schlessinger's characterization of homosexuality as a "biological error" and pressured Paramount in advance of the television talk show the studio was creating with her.
Harrison was unequivocal in his assessment of her place in industry history, calling her "the most important female talk show host of all time. She's quitting at the peak of her career."
"I think it would be a shame for her not to do radio," Harrison said, calling her "an icon." "There are hundreds of radio stations out there that depend on her, and the millions of people who listen to her."
Hers is the third-largest audience in talk radio, at 9 million listeners per week, behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and tied with Glenn Beck and Michael Savage.
For 20 years, her program aired locally on KFI-AM (640), following Limbaugh's, and helped push the station to the pinnacle of talk outlets nationwide. Now she's heard weekdays from noon-4 p.m. on KFWB-AM (980), where she moved last Sept. 8 as the centerpiece of that station's format change, from 30 years as an all-news outlet to talk radio. Station officials didn't anticipate the loss of their marquee performer.
"She didn't discuss it with us beforehand," KFWB program director Andy Ludlum said Wednesday. As for what the station, which bills itself as "The new home of Dr. Laura," will do when she leaves at year's end, Ludlum would only say, "We're looking at the whole situation. We're weighing our options."
On Monday, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Media Matters for America, Women's Media Center and UNITY Journalists of Color issued a joint statement calling out Schlessinger's advertisers, saying their sponsorship of the show was an implicit endorsement of hate speech.
"Her speech is funded by corporations" who advertise on her show, said Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president for research and communications for Media Matters for America. "Those corporations have to decide, is this what they want their dollars funding?"
"People have a legal right to have an opinion, but what is socially acceptable speech has shifted. People are saying enough is enough," he said.
Since the incident, General Motors and Motel 6 have quit advertising on her show. Other sponsors say they're investigating the incident.
Rabin-Havt called her departure "the logical end to a chain of events set off by her rant last week."