When the original "Star Trek" TV series was threatened with cancellation in 1967 after just two seasons, an estimated 1 million letters from disappointed or irate viewers persuaded NBC executives to keep the U.S.S Enterprise in space.
But when Fort Wayne's version of Capt. James T. Kirk returns to the radio airwaves in January, the people who banished him in the first place won't be around to see it.
“I believe some people were overzealous for dramatic changes to enhance their personal and professional lives,” said Pat Miller, who will resume duties as host of WOWO's afternoon talk show after being fired from the same job seven months ago. “It had devolved to the point where it was close to the tipping point of where the station would lose who it was. Then the broom came through.”
And in sweeping out the old management team, one of whom had publicly dismissed Miller as too evangelically pro-life and “old school” while engaging in heated and personal arguments with irate listeners, the housecleaning reasserted WOWO's traditional role as the voice of a community comfortable with its religious and conservative roots.
“I've only been here for a month, but we think this is one of those 'win-win' situations,” said program director Ryan Wrecker, who said many listeners made it clear they supported Miller, whom Wrecker called “well respected and knowledgeable about the community.”
Miller, who did not publicly respond to his sacking in May, said he has the "greatest admiration and respect" for WOWO's new management team. But even in a business in which change is a constant and controversy is often viewed as a virtue, WOWO's handling of the situation seemed wrong-headed from the start.
Miller's firing wasn't the problem. After all, he had been given the job a year earlier after executives decided to take the show in “another direction” by abruptly terminating Pat White after 14 years. No doubt some listeners preferred White to Miller, but that irritation was not exacerbated by unflattering public comments about White or on-air tirades against his supporters. And the statement that WOWO needed to appeal to a “hipper” audience because its signal is now also on FM never made sense, either. You don't expand the audience by gratuitously alienating the base.
It is probably true, as former executives claimed at the time, that some of Miller's more vociferous supporters were also at fault. But the spectacle of a popular, well-established radio station at war with some of its own listeners – some of whom at one point threatened to boycott advertisers – was unusual, to say the least.
The man who fired Miller and briefly replaced him on the air, Program Director Gregg Henson, was replaced in August. And Mark DePrez, chief executive officer of WOWO's parent company, Federated Media, publicly hoped to rebuild bridges with listeners before he, too, was let go in a move executives said was not connected to the Miller controversy.
“I don't feel vindicated because I never felt I had to defend myself,” said Miller, who called Henson's criticism of his previous show “a poor assessment. Pro-life issues didn't dominate the program. But that's what's great about talk radio. If you don't agree you can call and tell me I'm out of my mind.”
Miller will be on the air from time to time between now and Jan. 2, but when he returns full time he will be free to do the show as he sees fit. In fact, Miller and Wrecker agree, the program will be given more support than before.
“We want to give him the resources to succeed,” Wrecker said – support Miller said will include staffers to help with research and bookings that could help land more-prominent guests than Miller could land on his own while also working at his insurance and financial services job.
As a periodic guest on his previous show, I heard from both supporters and detractors. But whatever one thinks of Miller or the station, there's no doubt he's right to call WOWO a "legacy station. When you go around the country, WOWO's name comes up.” It is a brand worth protecting.
Much has changed in the brief time since Miller's departure. President Obama, with whom he often disagreed, has been re-elected and tea party-supported Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, whom he backed, was soundly defeated. But the conservative cause remains, Miller said – a cause embraced by much of northeast Indiana.
So is he just preaching to the choir? No, Miller said: “I give the choir a chance to sing.”
"Star Trek," of course, returned for just one more season before being cancelled for good. And Miller's reboot will ultimately succeed or fail on the basis of ratings and revenues.
For now, though, sanity and the free market have prevailed. We could use more of both.