October 17, 2019

Gary v. Shuli

On the March 15, 2017 Stern Show there was a knock-down drag-out fight between producer Gary Dell’abate and show writer Shuli Egar that made my morning 30-minute commute seem like a minute and a half.

In a sentence, Gary blew up at Shuli for constantly nagging him to get on air with Howard. Shuli countered that Gary stonewalled Shuli’s initiative and ideas at the expense of the show. Howard, their boss, sat back like an emperor at the Coliseum and let the two fight almost to the verbal death.

Right afterwards I called my friend and fellow Stern Show fan Drew Kugler. Drew is an executive and leadership coach who works with tech and entertainment companies, non profits and Fortune 500 companies to foster better leadership and communication.   Needless to say, he had a take. Below is our talk, which we did via email:

Rob Eshman:   I guess my first question when I hear a fight like that is, isn’t that all for the show? As raw and funny and real as it seems, I can’t help think they must have more professional ways of hashing out employee conflicts off air.

Drew Kugler:  They’re just like most workplaces, except they’ve figured out a way to make a show out of it.  The place has its dysfunctions and its fears and Howard is astute and savvy enough to have put it out to the world for entertainment. And they’ve have really deep grooves of habits, some created and practiced for 30 years that make them really good at being screwed up.  Just like a lot of their listeners.  Find me a place where people professionally hash out ways for real conflict resolution.  You’ll have a rare find indeed.

RE:  So, let’s assume it was real.  Gary’s central complaint was that Shuli comes to him too much.  Shell’s argument is that Gary’s job is to field pitches and pick the best.  Who’s right?

DK:  Both were right. And wrong. Right because neither of them left the argument with any discernable change to work on.  So they each “prevailed.”

If, though, they had an iota of interest to improve things for, as Gary said on the Wrap Up Show, “real life in the office,” both of them and Howard failed miserably.  And Gary provided the sick topper at the end of Wrap Up: “I just want to act like nothing happened.”  In working relationships especially, that’s the prescription for a slow and painful downward spiral.  It’s the epitome of wrong.

RE:  I want to take Gary’s side for a second.  He’s been the producer for 30 years.  The show is great, maybe better than ever. He must know what he’s doing, right?

DK: For the most part, he, like Howard, Fred, and Robin  is a master at the vocation he’s deeply experienced at: producer of the show. He is integrally responsible for its success.  Does he know what he’s doing as the leader of the office? That’s a tougher one, especially when he got pushed.  His response was to call Shuli a “fuc*%&g c@nt.”  Great entertainment, but don’t you wonder how much all of the dysfunction aka ball breaking has taken  a genuine toll on him, let alone the rest of them?

RE:  So what would you tell Gary?

DK:  There’s nothing that Gary (or for that matter, any of them) does or says that signals he wants any advice.  That’s the mistake so many people make;  giving advice where it’s not asked for.  For all the years they’ve been working on delivering the experience to us listeners and getting such great results, why does he need advice?  He and the others seem to have a pretty singular goal: to deliver great radio.  As Gary said on Wrap Up, for years Howard has worked to balance great fighting with what it does to the office. Listening as we do, we know which is more important to them.  I have no advice for good radio fighting.  They have invested deeply in edgy. Probably too deeply to get out of their own way.

RE:  What about Shuli?  He is talented, funny, but clearly he has an agenda beyond just “helping the show.”  What does he need to hear?

DK:  It’s pretty simple, especially after hearing him goad Gary to let him have it.  He has a thick enough skin developed maybe from stand up and parenting, that he is happy to take whatever Gary puts in front of him as long as he gets to the end of the rainbow in the studio where his hero affirms he’s funny. Like Gary, he feels it’s working.  Professionals who feel that are the last people you want tell that they need to do things differently.  The only question he asked with a shred of real curiosity was to Howard about, did he think he was funny. Howard said yes. At that point, Shuli was done.

RE: It seems to me Howard, as the boss of these two, could have stepped in a lot sooner.

DK: Of course he could of.  But he was (at least seemingly) letting it play for both great radio and a chance (as many people take on a regular basis,) to avoid constructively dealing with the conflict.  By all indications he has offered listeners over the years, he hates it.  Even his verdict at the end affirmed things the way they were before the fight.  His goal never seemed to be to step in at all.  He offered three options rather than a healthy resolution: JD as resolver, Wendy as judge, and the “handcuff for 24 hours” game.  Again, all great radio. All leaving Howard exactly where he wanted to be; quietly conducting the battle.

RE: So Howard doesn’t really want to make things better between them?

DK: It depends.  Does he care enough to create some different conversations that for once would show people how to turn things like simple respect into a more productive working environment?  I admit I have no way of telling for sure, but ball busting, screaming,  fear, and belittling  as acceptable, encouraged behavior at their work has to cost something to the people who engage in it. How can it not?

RE: Howard does have an innate sense of which employee fights make good radio.   But do you think it’s healthy for the organization to literally air them for all to hear?

DK: Maybe it’s like pro wrestling.  Everyone knows it’s mostly fake, but look at the damage it does to the wrestlers.  Worse, this might not be fake.

RE:  When you are listening to a situation like the shuli-gary fight that you have spent your career dealing with, do you scream at the radio?

DK: Nope. My career, like being a father and being married, has taught me that very few things are worth screaming about. This certainly is not one of them.  It has also taught me the incredible wisdom of Hyman Roth in Godfather 2.  As he explained to Michael as to why he doesn’t get upset even when his friend got murdered: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”  Howard and the rest reap the benefits and pay the costs for the business they’ve chosen.