For the past seven years, until he signed off with his last show on Oct. 17, John McIntire was the founding host of NightTalk on PCNC, the fledgling local cable news station operated by WPXI. McIntire, who for 15 years before coming to Pittsburgh was a TV news reporter and anchor in markets including Orlando, Providence and Tulsa, had the background to do a predictable news program in the tradition of the Sunday morning networks. What he ended up doing, though, was anything but predictable. Nothing, for McIntire, was sacred. Not his politician guests, whom he dubbed with nicknames (Tom "The Spitman" Flaherty, Kent "Sharkboy" Gates) that he called them to their surprisingly bemused faces. Not his format, which he would shake up with taped segments and increasingly notorious televised anniversary parties. Not the war in Iraq, which McIntire voiced opposition to frequently in his Bush-bashing commentaries. And not his own station, which although he complied with management requests to stop referring to it as the "PiCNiC" channel, he frequently criticized for being "low-rent" and prone to technical snafus.
While his show is widely credited for putting PCNC on the map and for attracting a loyal and influential audience, that audience has nonetheless been small. In a Post-Gazette column, even Mackenzie Carpenter, a regular guest on the show, allows that McIntire's audience was "miniscule," as few as 5,000 viewers. It was a "next-to-nothing audience rating" says Ray Carter, the general manager at WPXI/PCNC, who called McIntire a "very talented individual" whom the station paid "handsomely." Too handsomely, considering the ratings, ruled Carter, perhaps at the urging from executives at parent company, Atlanta-based Cox.
Last month, with his contract up for renewal, the station made McIntire an offer that cut his compensation -- halved it, in McIntire's estimation -- by making his job a part- rather than full-time position. "At times, it was time-intensive and at times it wasn't time-intensive," Carter says. "We absolutely believe that John could have done the job in fewer hours."
McIntire counter-offered, but eventually walked by it. It's open to interpretation whether being offered half his pay constitutes being fired. McIntire has been advised by his lawyer that his departure will be viewed as a dismissal by the unemployment office. ("I wish we could have found a way to save John," Carter counters. "It certainly would have been one of the best part-time jobs in the city.")
What's also open to interpretation is how much McIntire's demise was hastened by the infamous slapping incident involving WPXI anchorwoman Gina Redmond. In August of 2002, in a room full of journalists at a Mount Washington bar, Redmond allegedly slapped Roberta Petterson, McIntire's longtime girlfriend. Redmond eventually pled no contest to the charge, and was sentenced to community service, namely to give three one-hour lectures at area high schools. McIntire was openly critical, both on his show and elsewhere in the media, of both Redmond and of his station's handling of the matter. Still, Carter says that neither the Redmond incident nor -- as some viewers and journalists have speculated -- McIntire's liberal politics and opposition to the war were factors in his demise. "It was a business decision, as simple as it can be," Carter says.
A non-compete clause in his contract prevents McIntire from working for another local TV station for the next nine months, though he could pursue a local radio talk-show gig and will continue writing columns for City Paper and doing commentaries for WDVE. Repeats of NightTalk featuring McIntire will air until the station names a successor, which station officials say could happen by the end of this month.
You did pretty much straight-ahead TV reporting before coming here, right? I was allowed to do commentary in Providence, Rhode Island and Tulsa, Oklahoma, like once a week. During that time mostly I was doing straight so-called "objective" reporting. I guess my favorite thing about reading newspapers was columnists, so I wanted to be a TV columnist, if there was such a thing.
Were you more blow-dried at that point? I've got one framed photo -- red tie, blue suit, blow-dried. I look like I'm 12 years old. I couldn't get a weekday anchor job for a long time because I looked too young. I aged a lot when I was unemployed for a time in Orlando. My hair went gray, I got lines on my face. I was like, "What happened?"
Has anyone tried to get you to dye your hair? I had two other job interviews when I came here. One of them was in Hartford, where I had a week-long on-air trial, which was just bizarre. I'd never done anything like that, like "Hello, I may never see you again but I'm here this week. Good morning." And one of the consultants came and said, "Would you dye your hair?" And I said, "I don't think so. It just seems fake and phony and artificial."
With anchor people -- it's certainly not unusual in this market or any market. But it's a little teeny weensy part of me that's holding out and trying not to be a phony. Which is difficult on television for some reason.
Wouldn't it have been more lucrative for you to stay on the straight-news, network track? We had an anchorman at 'PXI, Kris Long. I don't know if you remember him: Ted Baxter. I mean the guy was Ted Baxter. We were straightening our ties and putting on makeup in the men's room -- that's like male bonding for TV guys. He said, "I don't know if I could work for less than $250,000 -- I don't know if I could live on it."
Is that really how much he was making? I don't know but that's what he said once.
You think anchors in Pittsburgh pull in that much? No, I think now they pull in a buck-something, but he was the last of the high-price anchors. Anyway, he was like, "How'd you get on cable anyway, you poor son of a bitch?" I'm like, "Kris, I did this on purpose." "Right." And I think he didn't believe me.
Did launching the show seem daunting at first? I thought, "How are we going to get all the guests, what are we going to fill all the air time with? Are there that many interesting people in Pittsburgh?" I was scared, even though I wanted to do a talk show in the worst way -- which some would argue is what I ended up doing.
What were the first shows like? We couldn't get anybody. I think everybody was afraid to do it because they didn't know what kind of an animal it was or what kind of a nutball I was. And why be on if it sucks? People used to ask me why I had Cyril [Wecht] on all the time and it was because I could get Cyril all the time. But since I covered a lot of politics at other television stations, that was kind of my forte. And the one thing about a politician is you can get them to show up for a TV camera. Businessmen, forget about it. Any other category of Pittsburgh celebrities, maybe but maybe not.
Didn't you have some sort of mishap with Myron Cope early on? I'd never had him on the show, so I asked the main Channel 11 sports guy who'd been there forever, Sam Nover, "What should I ask Myron?" Well, Sam and Myron despise one another, but I didn't know that at the time. And Sam said, "Did you know he was born Myron Kopelman?" So I had Myron on and I said, "I understand you were born Myron Kopelman." And he said, "That's right, back then the Post-Gazette wouldn't let you use Jewish surnames, you know?" And I said, "Oh, how'd you pick Cope?" And he said, "I just picked it out of a phone book." Clearly he was uncomfortable with it. We go to a break and he says, "Do you know at all what it is to tell your parents you can't use your God-given name for your byline? You set me up, you set me up. Who did this, Nover?" And I'm just sitting there thinking, "I pissed off the icon, I pissed off the icon." And it took him five years to come back on, and that's only because he wrote a book. And he tells the story in the book. Misspells my name, by the way. I never told him that.
Was there a point when you thought the show was on its feet? The first anniversary, we didn't have a [televised] party like we have [had] every year since. We got Cyril Wecht and Jim Ecker to do a surprise control-room appearance as if they were the technicians. And I really thought that was funny and this was the way to go: kitschy, culty, niche-y -- we're not going to get a mass audience on this channel, let's go for funky inside-baseball stuff. And by the time the second year rolled around and we had an anniversary party and a bunch of important people showed up, I thought, "Hey, we've got something."
Where'd the idea come for those anniversary-party shows, where you wander around a party and just rib people? I stole it from Hugh Hefner and Playboy After Dark. Hef would walk around the Playboy Mansion in his smoking jacket with a couple bimbos on his arms and there would be Sammy and you know, whoever. Except instead of Dean Martin it's Sophie Masloff.
I just watched a tape from one of these, a holiday party you called the "healing party" after Bush, as you put it, "stole the election." You'd just returned from a commercial break, and unbeknownst to the teachers' union president Al Fondy -- My cameraman George "The Animal" Parfitt is like, "Mac, Mac, you've got to see this."
You're showing Fondy taking huge bites of this deli sandwich he's holding -- and bits of coleslaw or mayo or something were around his lips and on his chin. This is what you say: "I want to show everybody how Al Fondy is doing his best to heal. You can heal wounds with love. You can heal wounds with comfort. And you can also, as you can see, heal wounds with nutrition. Ladies and gentlemen, there's no better way to recover from evil elections that have been stolen from you than to stuff your face until you can take it no more." You want to know something? I regret that. Because I love Al. But it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I called him at home and apologized afterwards, and that was before he'd seen it. And when he saw the tape, he was not happy, but he forgave me. Al's a great guy, a funny guy, and a great Bush-hater. It was just too irresistible.
Did people think it was funny? It was mean and stupid and juvenile and I do regret it but, yes, people laughed hysterically and couldn't stop. And I'm trying to create buzz on an obscure not heavily watched cable channel.
At that same taping, you grabbed [U.S. Rep.] Melissa Hart's ass and jokingly blamed it on [state Rep.] Jeff Habay. I think I regret that, too. You know what -- it didn't offend her that night. It was just a little tap on her ass. But I told the story to a Post-Gazette reporter, and seeing it in print really freaked her and her staff out. She went on the show one more time, with [U.S. Rep.] Mike Doyle, right before the [Iraq] war, and they had a knock-down drag-out. Melissa was so offended that someone would not be pro-invasion.
Did you start out the show with this fairly strident leftie perspective? You know, I didn't even know I was going to do a leftie talk show when I came. I thought more like Tom Snyder -- general interest. But the Clinton Zippergate really pissed me off. And then onto the stolen election and on to the war.
Do you send your parents tapes? I used to, but my mother saw my last two appearances on CNN and she's a moderate-to-conservative Republican and she was horrified and couldn't take it anymore so I stopped telling her.
Your opinions offend her? Very much. And my Aunt Mary is a Dittohead, so I definitely don't tell my Aunt Mary when I'm on CNN.
So when you go back for the holidays, do you talk about politics? No, I avoid it like the plague.
And where's home? Illinois. A small town 50 miles south of Chicago called Kankakee. It's Indian for, "God, don't let me die here."
Let's play a word association game. I'll say a name, and you say what comes to mind. OK.
Richard Mellon Scaife. Vast right-wing conspiracy. [KDKA and PCNC talk-show host] Fred Honsberger: Vaster right-wing conspiracy.
Mayor Tom Murphy. Poor son of a bitch.
Former Allegheny County Commissioner Larry Dunn. Gopher on Quaaludes. Just because of that campaign ad from a few years ago where they slow him down falling asleep during a meeting.
[Republican campaign manager] Kent Gates. Sharkboy. That's the nickname I gave to him.
Jim Roddey. Hugh Hefner. Mr. Smooth.
[Pittsburgh City Councilor] Bill Peduto. The councilman of the [echo effect] future, future, future. I like him -- he's great.
[Sports and Exhibition Authority Director] Steve Leeper. I believe Leeper when he says this, and he says it all the time: "I am not corrupt, I'm just incompetent." He doesn't mean that he's incompetent. He means that if you see mistakes here, it's because we screwed up, not because there's a deal or because money's going the wrong places.
[City Controller] Tom Flaherty. A classic Irishman. Tommy "The Spitman" Flaherty. I had to nickname him that because he kept spitting on the other guests during [arguments on] the show. And he never says, "John, will you lay off â€˜the Spitman'?" And I love that about him.
Sophie Masloff. Classic old-time Pittsburgh.
George Bush. Chimpanzee-in-chief.
[Former Post-Gazette Executive Editor] John Craig. I love him, but he's one of those guys who I wish would trim his nose hair. I'm doing the interview with him and I can't stop looking at his nose hair, you know what I mean? I did used to make a joke about him that he's one of those old-time journalists who gets the Jack Daniel's out of the desk drawer, and he never said anything about that. And my boss would say, "John, they can sue us for that," and I said, "Don't worry about it. "
[CP Managing Editor] Chris Potter. One of those long-haired ponytail guys who you'd like to take out back and beat the crap out of.
[P-G columnist] Tony Norman. The best human laugh track known to man. Doesn't matter if you're funny or not.
[Author/guru] Richard Florida. His detractors would say, The Rise of the Creative Ass. But I genuinely like and appreciate his intellect and I think he has something to say.
[Talk-radio host] Lynn Cullen. My hero.
Rush Limbaugh. Drug-addict extraordinaire.
Why wasn't Mayor Murphy on the show much? I used to have to lobby three months to get Murphy on, and then it was ho-hum, so I thought, "Why did I invest all of this time?" Sometimes callers would be complaining about stadiums and he'd get all pissed off and his face would get all red and that was kind of entertaining. We have a good rapport, but I think he just doesn't like media people in general. He's a nice guy but I like conversation and he likes to make speeches. You know, "Come on over to Land's Run" -- or whatever it's called -- "and see what we've done. We've got to take John on a tour!" You mean I've got to be trapped with you and your speechmaking for several hours? No thanks.
Viewers saw a different side of [WPXI anchor] David Johnson when he'd drop in on the show. David's very funny -- he does a lot of good imitations and gets to goof, which he doesn't get to do on 'PXI. He does a great George Bush Sr. and he does a pretty good Ed Rendell, and nobody else is doing Rendell. And [management] recently put the hammer down and told him not to do that. At first he wasn't allowed on my show at all, then they backed off and said he could occasionally. That's just a classic example of stupidity, just stick-up-your-butt broadcast anality.
You closed a commentary once with, "What would Jesus say if he was ending this commentary? He'd probably say, â€˜What am I doing on this low-rent talk show? I'm Jesus!'" You joked about this a lot, but the technical difficulties seemed a real source of frustration. With all due respect to the many, many quality technicians I've worked with over the seven years, it has been a major source of frustration from day one. I walked off the set once when the prompt operator couldn't hear me, and I know from the outside it looked like, "Oh, there's another television prima donna." But everyone on the inside knew what I'd gone through and it was justified. We're in Control Room B, which is like the bastard stepchild of control rooms. The audio board has had ridiculous problems for years. The phones have had ridiculous problems for years. There's a good control room: That's where they do the news out of. That's where they do even the [Fred] Honsberger show out of, because it's during the day and the staff's there anyway. Why they never did NightTalk out of it I don't know.
When you'd complain on the air about it, would you hear from management? Yeah, I would hear, "You want to make fun of your show, fine, don't make fun out of the channel."
So are you leaving the station on your own steam, or are you being fired? You can judge it any way you want. Had I been offered a full-time salary or better, I would have stayed, but I [effectively] would have taken a 50 percent pay cut.
What was their justification? I got the impression the bigwigs from [Cox Headquarters in] Atlanta were down here and they asked, "How's that cable station doing?" "Poor ratings." "Well, how much are we paying that guy?" "This much." "Jesus Christ, we're paying this guy that much and those are the numbers on the channel? Is there anything we can do about this?" And I think the guy that hired me said, "But you don't understand. Cult favorite. Niche player. [U.S. Sen.] Arlen Specter comes in to talk to us because he's in the building anyway. It's all good synergy, blah, blah, blah." I think he knows Pittsburgh and thought that I was an asset even if the numbers suck.
Did they think that the show was going to make a lot of money? This is what kills me about this. I think the new management has different standards. Either that, or it's just getting so damn cheap that they no longer want to conduct the experiment. After two years here, I had an opportunity to go interview with WGN in Chicago for the morning news. An old boss of mine was the news director there and he loved me, loved my [audition] tape and the fact that it's ad lib-y and chatty. The job probably would not have been commentary but it would have been fun. And more money, and I'm from the area.
So I go to my boss and say, "My parents are getting on in years and it's an opportunity and I know our ratings aren't good. So I've been here two years of my three-year contract, how about letting me out?" And he wouldn't let me go. So I went to his boss, and said, "If I was Peggy Finnegan, I could see why you wouldn't let me go, but I'm the Cronkite of Shitville here. How about it?" He said, "John, you're the Peggy Finnegan of PCNC. Your job is like Geraldo was on CNBC -- get the channel known, create buzz, establish credibility, you know, and then people will know the channel, maybe they'll buy you, maybe they'll buy other stuff. But at least they'll know the channel."
Do you think the infamous incident of [WPXI anchor] Gina Redmond slapping Roberta Peterson, your girlfriend, and your reaction to it on and off the air, hastened your demise? I don't know whether it impacted it or not because I can't get inside the mind of the managers. I know my relations with the big boss [WPXI General Manager Ray Carter] deteriorated during that time. I perceived myself as somebody going apeshit about something about which I would understandably go apeshit. I think he perceived me as someone who didn't know when to quit and was over the top regarding my level of anger and frustration, and the fact that I was vocal about it including, at times, to the media.
Also, [Redmond] walked into a judge -- you guys were the only people to report this, by the way -- and said, "Roberta Peterson tried to run me off the road last week with her car, and tonight she harassed me at a bar." Now none of that was true. So the person in question lied to a judge. Some people told me it's an interesting strategy -- the best defense is a good offense. But I thought that if this exposes her lie, and you're a public figure, I would think that would be a bad strategy.
So what did you do that particularly irked management? When I started calling around, asking, hey, did anything happen in [Redmond's] last market, literally in the interest of protecting my family -- that sounds like something a Republican would say, but it's the truth. And people would call the GM and say, "Hey, McIntire's calling around -- what's the deal?" And I was more worried about my girlfriend than I am the reputation of the company.
So, did I sufficiently piss off some of the bosses, including the ones in Atlanta, and make it a little easier for them to go, "What the hell are we paying that guy this much for?" Maybe if I had great relationships they'd give me a break. Or maybe it's all about money and that's it. I really don't know.
What now? Just today, I was thinking, "Should I try like hell to get an agent again fast, call everybody and beat everybody's door down until they're sick of me? Or, should I ponder life and think: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What color is my parachute? Do I want to get a penile implant?"
What's the best- and worst-case scenario for you for six months from now? Best-case scenario is I've got leads up the wazoo, options to consider. Worst-case scenario is I'm on unemployment and standing off the Grant Street exit holding up a sign that says, "Will opine for food."
The last time you lost your job, did it end up being for the best? Absolutely, because I got this job. It's the best job I've ever had; it's the most fun I've ever had. I think it's going to lead to something better, whether it's here or elsewhere or both.
Do you want to stay in Pittsburgh? Dozens of people have come up to me and said, "That's Pittsburgh for you. No wonder people don't stay -- they just drive you out." Blaming it not on the station, not on Gina Redmond, not on Richard Mellon Scaife, not on just me getting what I deserve, but just that's Pittsburgh. Somebody e-mailed me right away, the second day after it made the paper: "Get out of this low-rent, second-rate town." But I love it here. I really want to stay.
Because of the non-compete clause in your contract, you can't work at stations in this market for nine months. Does that encompass non-commercial WQED? The first two contracts I signed here just said any commercial stations in the market. But my last one, they changed it, because [WQED CEO] George Miles got in a big pissing match with my old boss over whose talent they were going to use on On Q. And they ended up using KD[KA]'s. So 'QED became an enemy, and now the non-compete includes them.
Less than two weeks before your last show, knowing that you were leaving, Sen. Arlen Specter was on the show, and he said, "John, I've been on your show many times. And I have found you to be the most engaging interviewer I have ever worked with. Well, I have worked with some very good interviewers. But you, John, you loosen up everybody." And without missing a beat, you shoot back at him, "You ever go out with Ted Kennedy and just get hammered and grope women?" [My girlfriend] Roberta said, "You had a beautiful moment, and you blew it." But three other people said, "The thing you asked him about there was worth the price of admission." And that's why I thought it was funny -- the contrast. And I think Specter knows me well enough to know of course I appreciated it.
You're being kind of flip on the air about it so far, but are you emotional about the show ending? Well this is schmaltzy, but when I leave here today, I'm going to go and work on this stupid tape some more that I'm airing on my last show. It's four minutes, the slow version of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My" with clips from the show. That happens to be one of my all-time favorite rock songs. I get teary-eyed if I'm driving down the highway listening to it. And while it's a highly suspect and a ridiculous comparison, I like to think that a sort of a rock-and-roll spirit guided the show. And by that I mean not musical, just reckless and cheap and fun. And making the tape I'm like verklempt, you know? It's the only major project I've been doing for seven years. And I put my heart and soul and blood and sweat into it. I've got to admit I'm going to miss the freedom so much. I don't think I'll ever have this much freedom. I can't sell my soul or lose my self-respect to retain the freedom, but I'll miss it.