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The lightning-rod life of Dr. Laura

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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Dr. Laura to end her radio show
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Talk-show host Laura Schlessinger often controversial
  • Blunt, straight-talking style means she sometimes offends
  • "Never has been anybody like her," says talk-radio expert, calling her "one of the elite"
  • Schlessinger said she'll be leaving popular radio show when contract is up

(CNN) -- Before she uttered the N-word, before her remarks on cheated-on wives, before the controversies over homosexuality and religion and morality, Laura Schlessinger was considered a breath of fresh air.

"Despite the fact that many consider Laura Schlessinger the dragon lady of talk radio, some of us can't help but admire her," noted a decidedly mixed 1999 consideration of her in Salon. "She is snippish, overbearing and often insulting -- but anybody who has the temerity to call in to her program knows what they are going to get, especially if they plead ignorance or innocence."

Her message: "Stop whining," sometimes delivered in just those blunt words. It was a message taken to heart by more than 18 million radio listeners a week at her peak -- people who looked to Dr. Laura to set them straight in their relationships, ethical disputes and moral conundrums.

But her determination to act as America's conscience often put her at odds with critics, who were quick to question Schlessinger's own life decisions: her nude photos, her perceived lack of compassion, her rocky relationship with her mother, even the honorific "Dr." -- which, they pointed out, was based on a Ph.D. in physiology, not psychology or psychiatry. Schlessinger also has a certification in marriage, family and child counseling from the University of Southern California.

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On Tuesday, she announced on CNN's "Larry King Live" that she was leaving radio after more than 30 years.

"I've made the decision not to do radio anymore," she said. "The reason is, I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what's on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful, without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent and attack affiliates and attack sponsors -- I'm sort of done with that."

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Schlessinger's impact is not to be downplayed, said Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of Talkers magazine, the bible of the talk-radio business, who calls her "probably one of the -- if not the -- most important female radio personalities of all time."

"There never has been anybody like her," he said. "Her message resonates with a lot of people. She talks about morality. She's very judgmental. You may not agree with her, but she stands by her positions. She sets herself up as a target if you disagree. And she's interesting."

She has a unique combination of "strength and fragility," said Harrison.

"She's not boring, and that's a fundamental key to making it in this business."

His magazine currently ranks her third among all talk-radio personalities, behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, with an audience of about 8 million a week.

"She's one of the elite."

Schlessinger's departure was triggered by her use of the N-word on August 10. During a call with an African-American caller seeking advice on how to deal with racist comments from her white husband's friends and relatives, Schlessinger used the word 11 times in five minutes. The conversation evolved into a discussion on whether it's appropriate to use the word ever, with Schlessinger arguing it's used on HBO and by black comedians.

She was immediately assailed by critics.

"That is despicable," the Rev. Al Sharpton said on CNN's "AC 360" last week. "She said the word over and over, and in a very animated way."

"If you listen carefully to the logic of what she was saying, it was that the N-word was not offensive."

It was far from the first time Schlessinger has found herself at the center of a controversy.

She first rose to fame as a local radio personality in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, California, in the late '70s.

She began as a caller herself, sounding off on Bill Ballance's free-wheeling Los Angeles talk show. Ballance became a mentor, an alleged lover and later an adversary.

In the late '80s, a radio executive tapped Schlessinger to replace TV-bound Sally Jessy Raphael and in 1994, Schlessinger's show was syndicated across the country. It was a perfect fit for the increasingly busy talk radio marketplace, which was reaching new heights thanks to Rush Limbaugh and other sharp-tongued personalities.

Schlessinger got off to a fast start: She had her first best-selling book in 1995 and, by the end of the decade, her show was on more than 450 stations. But firm stances on right and wrong provoked cries of hypocrisy from critics. She had been divorced and didn't speak to her mother for years. Nude photos of her were released to an internet site by her old colleague Ballance -- photos she sued to have taken down.

The loudest criticism came after Schlessinger, then an adherent of Orthodox Judaism (she later left the faith), called homosexuality a "biological error." With a new "Dr. Laura" syndicated TV talk show in the works at the time, gay rights groups protested Schlessinger, the show's producers and its advertisers. The TV program, which premiered in September 2000, was canceled six months later.

On her blog, she's toned down her comments about homosexuality, saying that though she's "for marriage as a bond between a man and a woman," she's backed "efforts to encourage openness and acceptance of gays in their own families, much less society."

Schlessinger also suffered a decline after the attacks of September 11, 2001, though Harrison ascribes that to an increased focus on political and military issues in contrast to Schlessinger's bread and butter: relationships. She's since built her audience back up, he said.

And she's still inflaming tempers. Several years ago, when asked by a Salt Lake Tribune reporter about advice for military spouses, she said -- in her Dr. Laura way -- they should be unabashedly supportive. "He could come back without arms, legs or eyeballs, and you're bitching?" said Schlessinger, whose son served in Afghanistan. "You're not dodging bullets, so I don't want to hear any whining."

Some military families complained and she later claimed her words had been taken out of context.

In 2008, after New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer admitted cheating on his wife, Schlessinger said in reference to the incident, "I hold women accountable for tossing out perfectly good men by not treating them with the love and kindness and respect and attention they need." Again, a minor media firestorm arose.

Her strong-fragile duality remained apparent, said Matthew LaPlante, the Salt Lake reporter who interviewed Schlessinger.

"She was genuinely hurt and worried that what she'd said had come across as unduly harsh for military families ... but at the same time, she didn't apologize. She deflected responsibility," he said.

With her latest comments, it appears the public won't have Dr. Laura to kick around anymore -- at least on the radio. But don't count her out yet.

Schlessinger made her departure announcement because "she's very sensitive. ... She really takes it to heart," Harrison said.

"I don't think she needs radio economically, and I don't think she even needs it to get her message out," he said.

"I think she truly loves doing radio. And when radio is in your blood, you gotta do it. I think she's just very upset."

Indeed, audiences will still hear her voice -- even if it's not on the airwaves, she told King Tuesday.

"I'm not retiring, I'm not quitting," she said. "I feel energized, actually -- stronger and freer to say the things that I believe need to be said to people in this country."

 
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