Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

John Carney jokes about an advertiser's toupee and gets yanked off the air for a week

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Maybe it would have been better if KMOX's John Carney had tried a different toupee joke on the king of annoying ads, Ray Vinson. In the incessant commercials for American Equity Mortgage, it's Vinson's voice that gives the twangy reading of his company's phone number: 878-nahnty-nahn-nahnty-nahn. He sounds like a bad impersonation of Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, although in Vinson's case there is no failure to communicate.

Maybe if Carney had stood at the podium during the Oct. 12 Advertising Club dinner and said, "Hey, Ray Vinson, is that your hair?" Ray could have been a good sport and yelled back from his table, "Well, I paid for it."

Ray could even have spun it into an ad: "Then I refinanced it. I consolidated all my debt into one easy payment, thanks to the higher appraisal that resulted from my new hairline, which makes me appear 20 years younger."

But that didn't happen.

Carney, one of the three co-hosts of the dinner at the Chase Park Plaza celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Ad Club, was talking about Ron Popeil's selling his aerosol "hair in a can" when he made the offhand comment "Apparently people are buying it, right, Ray Vinson?"

Ray didn't find that funny. By several accounts, he got in Carney's face after the festivities and told him so, asking what the deal was with the "personal assault," and so on. Of course Short Cuts wasn't at the Ad Club dinner -- perish the thought. Advertisers buy ads at KMOX (1120 AM) and the Riverfront Times, thankyouverymuch, but the very idea of going to a dress-up dinner with ad types backslapping each other is enough to make Short Cuts turn on the History Channel and watch that intriguing special on the Hittites. At least those cagey rascals brought us out of the Bronze Age.

Besides, there ought to be a firewall between editorial and advertising, with editorial content not swayed and editorial staff not intimidated by advertisers who make the mistake of assuming they own something just because they buy a few minutes of airtime or a part of a page in a publication. No, they don't own the medium; they just buy access to an audience. That 60-second spot is what they control, or that quarter-page ad, but that's it. At least that's the way it is here at the RFT. It appears that the Ray Vinsons of the world rule at KMOX. Not here. Say, for instance, that the "Brazilian & Black Transsexual" named Taja who advertises on page 76 of the RFT wanted a special favor from Short Cuts. He -- or she -- would be sorely disappointed. 'Nuff said.

After the Ad Club dinner, the story goes, Vinson threw a hissy fit, bitching like a spoiled brat that because Carney had dissed the divot Vinson was wearing to cover his dome, he was going to pull his ads from KMOX. Vinson is so irritating in his commercials, one shudders at the idea of what he sounds like when he's pissed -- maybe Gomer Pyle during a panic attack.

As for the threat to pull those annoying ads, several radio types told Short Cuts they account for about a quarter-million dollars. Jeez, the refinancing bidness must be booming. Well, it appears that was all KMOX top dog Karen Carroll had to hear. She suspended Carney, taking him off the air the week of Oct. 14-19. Whether Vinson pulled his ads or just curtailed them is unclear; Carroll did not return phone calls from Short Cuts. Can't imagine why she wouldn't want to talk about how an advertiser, pissed about a petty personal jab made in public, can tell a station boss to jump and how high to jump, then tell her when to come down.

One possible defense of this whole mess is that the on-air "talent" on the self-designated "Voice of St. Louis" aren't journalists, save for Charles Jaco and the news crew, and therefore the usual questions of journalistic integrity are misplaced. True, the other hosts spend about as much time shilling as they do filling the seemingly shrinking time between commercials. Carney himself is probably better known for his own annoying ads for the Body Solutions weight-loss elixir than for anything else he has uttered into a microphone. McGraw Milhaven shills for a different mortgage company, Charles Brennan shills for a mattress store -- the list drones on.

And that's a decision all those chat jockeys make. Radio is a tenuous field, what with people getting fired and formats being flipped frequently, so grabbing an extra paycheck to brace for an uncertain future is understandable. But once a radio personality wears a price tag, it's not shocking that advertisers believe they've bought more than airtime.

Vinson denies that any of this happened. Yes, he says, he was at the Ad Club dinner, but he doesn't recall what Carney said about his coif. Even if he had, Vinson says, he's a "cutup" who would have gotten the joke. Directly questioned as to whether he wears a wig, Vinson twice told Short Cuts, "I have had hair added to the top of my head." Let's take that for a yes, though it raises the possibility of implants. That he was mad at Carney and threatened to pull his ads off KMOX is "the craziest thing on the face of the earth," according to Ray. "It sounds like it's somebody who is after poor John. Why would they do that to a guy, a guy who's out there working midnights trying to support his family?" says Vinson. "I'm just here to tell you I never had a problem with John Carney, and whoever started that friggin' rumor, I'd like to know."

Suffice it to say Short Cuts confirmed the rumor and, yes, Carney was suspended for offending the mortgage man.

Carney was in Chicago last weekend to accept, on behalf of his father, Jack Carney, induction into the Radio Hall of Fame. Bob Costas, who worked with Jack Carney back in the '70s, introduced John Carney at the ceremony, which was aired on KMOX. So John Carney is both a current marquee name at the station and a link to its storied past. When Short Cuts managed to get him on the phone, Carney refused to comment. But he'd better watch his next wisecrack, or he'll be calling 878-nahnty-nahn-nahnty-nahn to refinance his house. Again.

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