It's been a banner week for Laura Schlessinger, radio talk show host, author and media star. On Monday, radio group Jacor Communications Inc. said it was acquiring the rights to "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show," along with radio sales firm Multiverse Networks from Synergy Broadcasting Inc.
The price, an eye-popping $71.5 million, underscores the fact that Schlessinger's program has become the hottest show on radio, at least for the moment.
Analysts and industry observers say that price was almost exclusively for Schlessinger's show itself. It's also thought to exclude the talk show therapist's salary, which sources peg in the mid-seven-figure range. The price is also 40% more than what Jacor paid for syndication rights to Rush Limbaugh's and Dr. Dean Edell's shows earlier this year. Radio industry sources say that has triggered some grumbling from Limbaugh.
But Schlessinger's is the fastest-growing radio show in the country: She's in more than 400 markets. That's behind Limbaugh's 625 but is nearly 10 times the number Howard Stern is in.
Schlessinger and her husband and business partner, Lew Bishop, will profit handsomely from the sale, which is expected to become final within a few weeks. They are equity partners with Synergy on the show, which, in Los Angeles, can be heard on KFI-AM 640. Synergy head John Shanahan, a master promoter who created the "Hooked on Phonics" reading program, made a deal with the couple years ago and shepherded the show through its remarkable growth.
Some analysts think Jacor got a $71.5-million bargain.
"We think it's a very reasonable price based on the success of the show," said Geoffrey Jones of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Jones said the firm estimates Schlessinger's show will generate $10 million in cash flow next year.
Frank Bodenchak, an analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, said Jacor can also use Schlessinger's show to its advantage. Jacor owns 153 stations, so it can pull away listeners by putting Schlessinger on its own station rather than that of a competitor.
The deal also highlights how hot radio has become.
"This is a very big deal; I've never seen anything like it," said Norm Pattiz, chairman of the board of Los Angeles-based Westwood One, a radio programming company controlled by CBS.
For Schlessinger, the sale is the crowning deal of an entertainment empire. Between the show, a syndicated newspaper column in about 60 markets and two best-selling books--"How Could You Do That?" and "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives," with a combined total of more than 2 million copies in print--the 50-year-old is becoming ubiquitous. Like sex therapist Dr. Ruth, she's become known simply as Dr. Laura.
Earlier this year, the on-air counselor--known for her no-nonsense advice to callers--actually incorporated herself as Dr. Laura Inc.
"For tax purposes . . . now, the corporation loans her out to the radio show," Bishop said. The couple live in the San Fernando Valley, with their 11-year-old son.
Schlessinger is still ramping up: She's scheduled to release three more books in the next year, including one about the Ten Commandments, co-written with a rabbi, and a children's book. At her Web site (http://www.drlaura.com), you can buy T-shirts, caps and satin jackets with the Dr. Laura slogan, "Go Take On the Day."
What makes Dr. Laura so salable? Her mixture of tough-love advice laced with sermonizing seems to have struck a chord with her audience as well as advertisers.
"Her show is advertiser-friendly. . . . Nontraditional radio advertisers gravitate toward her," said Steve Lehman, president and chief executive of Jacor's syndication arm, Premiere Radio Networks.
Schlessinger's success is all the more remarkable considering she has been syndicated for only three years. She'd been on Los Angeles' KFI-AM (where she's still heard) exclusively for six years before that, and on other stations for more than a dozen years.
Schlessinger's route to success didn't follow a textbook model. Her doctorate is actually in physiology, from USC; she had originally planned to teach science. While earning her PhD, though, she also got her certification in marriage, family and child counseling. Soon after, she took to the airwaves. She's been on radio ever since, except for four years in the 1980s, when she stayed home to care for her son.
On Wednesday night, Harper-Collins threw a splashy party on the lot of sister company 20th Century Fox for her newest book, "Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives." The initial printing is 350,000 copies.
After the book hits stores this week, Schlessinger hopes to pull off a rare feat: have a hardback and a paperback on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. Her first book is still on the paperback list.