Tangled Webb

Accused of insurance fraud, KIRO-AM's progressive former talk-show host faces a criminal trial. That's not the only quirk of his radio career.

Michael Kenneth Webb had a good thing going. After 35 years in radio, he was a weekday talk-show host from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on 50,000-watt KIRO-AM (710), a once-legendary leader in the nation's 14th-biggest radio market. As a self-proclaimed "liberal with a loud 'L,'" Webb, 50, was by far the most politically progressive radio host in town. Bush administration critic and former Iraq weapons inspector Scott Ritter was a favorite guest, as was U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. Webb's abrasive, confrontational style, particularly with occasional conservative callers or guests, rubbed some the wrong way. But he had a loyal following. (Disclosure: I was a guest on Webb's show a number of times. He always treated me well, but I'm a progressive myself.)

One night in December, Webb was abruptly gone from the airwaves. His listeners would have had no idea why unless they read blogs about radio or caught one of the two articles about him in The Seattle Times. Webb says he's not sure himself why he was fired. You could call that disingenuous considering he's up on a criminal felony charge and faces a trial next month, but this story's not that simple.

On Dec. 6, a warrant was issued for Webb's arrest on suspicion of felony insurance fraud. An additional investigation, of possible forgery, apparently has been dropped. On Dec. 20, Webb was arraigned in King County Superior Court and pleaded not guilty. He was initially released on personal recognizance, then on bond of $5,050. After several postponements, a pretrial hearing is set for April 21. Webb's trial is scheduled to begin May 4.

Those are the seemingly straightforward facts. But the tale that precedes Webb being charged with a crime is a twisty one. It's about a radio talent who alternately impresses and pisses off co-workers, whose work habits have been questioned, whose firing is tangled up in the demise of once-legendary KIRO-AM, and who helped decertify his union. On top of everything else, some question the liberal credentials of this irrepressible talker.

The local, lefty talk-radio blog BlatherWatch (blatherwatch.blogs.com) broke the story of Webb's court proceedings in December. It was great fodder. The Seattle police probable-cause report details a bizarre story. On June 28, 2005, in the Eastlake neighborhood near the studios of KIRO, Webb's black 2000 Lexus was hit by a motorist who ran a yield sign. Webb showed police a proof-of- insurance card from National Merit. A report was filled out, and Webb was left with an estimated $4,000 in damage to his car.

According to investigators, on the next day, June 29, "according to Geico records, the defendant applied for and received motor vehicle insurance for his Lexus. . . . Geico records indicate that the initial payment of $151.00 was debited from his account on 6-29-05 at 15:31 local time. The next payment was debited from his account, again for $151, on 7-4-05 at 19:47 local time."

The day after Webb opened his policy, the police report says, Geico received an e-mail from Webb: "I need to get a copy via email as promised. I signed up day before yesterday and they said it would come same day, can you please check this out? Thank you, Mike Webb." Later that day of June 30, Webb allegedly called Geico to claim damages from the accident two days previous— an event that occurred, according to Geico's records, the day before he bought insurance.

Geico launched an investigation. Webb told an insurance investigator that he had opened his policy with Geico on May 20. He made that claim in taped conversations with both a Geico claims representative on July 5 and at a meeting with the same Geico investigator, Webb, and Webb's lawyer in the lawyer's office on Aug. 1.

The police report continues: "During the interview of 8-1-05 . . . [the Geico investigator] was presented by the defendant with a redacted copy of the defendant's Washington Mutual on-line banking statement for the date range of 5-19-05 to 6-15-05. . . . Highlighted on this copy of the bank statement were account debits on 5-20-05 in the amount of $151.00 from DIRECTDEBIT/ VISA-GEICO and 6-7-05 in the amount of $151.00. . . . The defendant contends that these deductions are proof that the defendant's Geico policy was effective in May 2005 and in effect when the accident occurred on 6-28-05. [The investigator] requested permission from the defendant to view his on-line banking record or to give him consent to get a copy of his banking statement directly from Washington Mutual Bank but both requests were denied."

Police then obtained a search warrant for Webb's WaMu records and found that they matched Geico's timeline, not Webb's: one Geico deduction for $151 on June 30, another on July 8, but nothing in May or early June.

One other damning bit of evidence emerges in court documents: Geico issues 10-digit policy numbers to new accounts. The first nine digits are chronological—the next customer to open an account gets the next number. The 10th digit is irrelevant to the sequence. The initial nine-digit policy numbers issued immediately before and after Webb's new Geico policy were both opened on June 29.

And the insurance card Webb showed the police officer investigating his June 28 accident? National Merit says that policy expired in 2001. Webb claims the policy was "months, not years," out of date.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, Webb continues vehemently to maintain his innocence. "To be accused of something, it's devastating," he says. Beyond that, on the advice of his attorney, he would not comment on the specifics of the case for this story. But Webb told The Seattle Times on Dec. 22, "It would take an absolute idiot to try to defraud someone like that." He reiterated for Seattle Weekly: "Some of this stuff, it would take a moron to do."

In the Times article, Webb offered his first public explanation for what might have happened. Webb "said he believes the charge is a mistake that may have originated from a clerical or electronic error on the insurance company's part," the Times said.

"He also said that he and his lawyer . . . are considering the possibility that somebody who 'hates' his talk show may have hacked into his computer records. 'We are looking into hacking. Some people will do anything to damage you,' said Webb, 50. In addition, Webb said, he's suspicious of the timing of the charge because he's involved in a dispute with Seattle police.

"Webb claims he was assaulted by an officer while he and the officer both were waiting in line at a Seattle fast-food restaurant in 2004." (See "A Radio Host Is on the Err," May 19, 2004, Seattle Weekly.)

Webb says that he, the city, and SPD settled Webb's suit over the alleged assault only two days before the Aug. 1 interview about the insurance claim, and that fuels his suspicion. With regard to the incident, which occurred at Dick's on Capitol Hill, Webb reports that he got SPD to "acknowledge that it was improper for the department to perform that way" and won a "small" cash settlement.

During an extensive recent interview with Seattle Weekly, but stepping carefully around his attorney's admonishment about talking, Webb explained his theory of what happened in the insurance dispute. He doesn't think anyone broke into Geico's or Washington Mutual's computers. It was his computer, he says, that was hacked and used to execute the policy cancellation and purchase. Webb, who refuses to be photographed, fearing for his safety, thinks he noticed other signs that his computer was being tampered with.

Such a theory has serious problems. For Webb's scenario to happen, says a software engineer who works for Seattle Weekly, his computer would have had to be remotely controlled for more than a month—from the time in May he says he bought the insurance until the day in June when he made the claim. Basic virus protection would have prevented this. Any competent Internet service provider would have detected it. More likely, rather than waiting for a car accident he or she didn't know would happen, and rather than wasting time on an elaborate insurance scheme, such a hacker would have simply cleaned out Webb's life savings or some such.

Initially, KIRO stood by Webb, declining to comment on the charges for the December Times story but stating that Webb was still scheduled to return from vacation the following Tuesday. Then on Dec. 27, the day it was announced that Webb would return to the air, KIRO fired him. By telephone.

Webb says he doesn't know the reasons for his firing, but he knows what KIRO parent Entercom told him. His official undoing was the two-week gap between the arrest warrant and the BlatherWatch blog posting that revealed the fraud accusation—during which Webb didn't tell management what was going on. "It had to do with my not being forthcoming about the charges," he says. "I didn't know it would become public." Webb says that at the time of his firing, his contract with KIRO had expired, but Entercom apparently honored the terms, paying Webb a severance, though he won't say how much.

"KIRO did not need to release me," says Webb. "They could have waited this out. If the courts decided that I was proven guilty, that I could understand. But in this country you're innocent until proven guilty. When I had good ratings and sales, why they fired me, I don't understand it."

Entercom's stated rationale raises an obvious question: Why did KIRO fire Webb after announcing to the world five days earlier, two days after the story became public, that he'd be back on the air Dec. 27? Nothing had changed. KIRO management did not respond to Seattle Weekly interview requests.

Mike Webb, apparently, was in the habit of using the 11 p.m. or midnight news and commercial breaks to madly dash to a nearby convenience store. It was on such a run that the accident occurred. Webb left the building just before 11 and didn't return.

The whole story might never have come to public notice but for a tip to BlatherWatch, which is written by freelance journalist Michael Hood ("listening to talk radio so you don't have to . . . "). Two months after BlatherWatch broke the story of Webb's arrest, another tip provided the ultimate punch line: The June 28 accident occurred at about 11 p.m.—during Webb's show.

Webb, apparently, was in the habit of using the 11 p.m. or midnight news and commercial breaks, which each last about 11 to 12 minutes, to madly dash to a nearby convenience store. It was on such a run that the accident occurred. On the night of June 28, Webb left the building just before 11 and didn't return. After frantically playing commercials for more than a quarter hour, Webb's board operator finally found KIRO sports host New York Vinnie, who happened to be at the station, and cajoled him into the studio, unprepared, to finish Webb's show. Webb got back a few minutes before the 1 a.m. shift change.

"Everybody kind of did that," Webb now offers of his ill-fated forays. "It wasn't a regular practice. It was pretty rare." The store "was like two blocks away."

Says one former staffer, "It was common knowledge that Mike Webb would run out and be gone 15 or 20 minutes." Another, Brian Maloney, claims KIRO management "knew about that night and covered it up." Maloney is a former colleague of Webb's at KIRO and an ex-host for KVI-AM (570) who now lives on the East Coast and publishes the conservative blog Radio Equalizer (radioequalizer.blogspot.com). "In the history of broadcasting," says Maloney, "I'm not sure anyone else has been crazy enough to make personal munchie runs during a radio talk show. . . . How does a guy do this and not get suspended or fired? Why was he not fired at 9 a.m. the next day?"

Michael Hood, who writes the BlatherWatch talk-radio blog, broke news of a criminal charge against Mike Webb in an insurance fraud case.

Dan Lamont

Former colleagues—admirers and detractors alike—say Webb's seeming nonchalance about leaving the premises during his show exemplified what they saw as odd, at times maddening, behavior. A number of Webb's former co-workers were interviewed for this story; since major market radio is a small (and ever-shrinking) community, most requested anonymity or to talk off the record.

Webb began radio work as a teenager in San Francisco, eventually working at many of the Bay Area's legendary music stations. By the 1980s, he had migrated to Seattle, and in the early 1990s he was program director at KVI, which at the time was a Top 40 oldies station, and KIXI-AM (880), a station that plays easy- listening oldies.

In 1996, Webb was working at KRWM-FM (106.9) and hosting its weekly public affairs show. His interview style caught the attention of KIRO Program Director Tom Clendening. Clendening recruited Webb to do weekend and fill-in work at then-top-rated KIRO, and Webb had suddenly moved from being a DJ to a talk-show host. Later, Webb left KIRO briefly to join a gay-oriented Internet radio startup, but by 1999 he was back to a fill-in role at KIRO, followed by a regular weekend slot.

"Mike was really tough to work with," recalls a former colleague. "I really liked the man and hated him at the same time. He just did undermining things. . . . You just couldn't trust him. Which was unfortunate, because he's such a character! . . . I feel bad for him, but the lies, the hacking, the fraud—it's like a movie!"

Offers a former KIRO staffer who likes Webb: "I think he's the kind of guy always looking for a fight, both on and off the air. Controversy just seems to follow him around." Says Hood, the BlatherWatch blogger, "He's got an anger management problem, and I always thought that would be his downfall, I always thought he would blow it on-air somehow." Maloney adds, "I think everybody knew Mike would self-destruct, but nobody knew it would be this."

"As a person, I worry about him," says another ex-host. Says a KIRO veteran: "I've never experienced anyone like Mike, anywhere. Especially somebody that could get away with it for a long period of time." Another assesses Webb thusly: "Mike is by far the most insecure person I've ever met in my life. Mike would try to do things behind the curtain. Rather than making friends, he would try to destroy them, tear them down." And yet, "he's always the victim."

Brian Maloney, a former Seattle talk-radio host, now writes the Radio Equalizer blog.

Wesley Ennis

One of the earlier alleged incidents involving Webb at KIRO is cited by three independent sources. On-air hosts' instant messaging was at the time routed through e-mail, and one night conservative overnight host Lou Pate simply stopped getting instant messages. The problem persisted and, the story goes, after two or three days, then–Program Director Kris Olinger had the company's computer expert investigate. He found that messages had been rerouted to Webb's computer and that this had been arranged from Webb's computer. At least one of the sources predicted that Webb wouldn't remember the incident. He doesn't and wonders how Pate would have ever forgiven him had he done such a thing.

Webb does remember his early practice of using snippets of other hosts' shows in the audio montage he used to open his own. He says the practice particularly incensed Maloney and that management eventually asked him to stop, and he did. But he insists that he didn't edit other hosts' comments or take them out of context. Maloney disagrees, citing—as does another source—an incident in which a fairly standard conservative statement by Pate—"I don't like it when black people make themselves out as victims"—was rebroadcast as, "I don't like black people." To make matters worse, it came while Webb was filling in on Pate's own show. (Later, when Webb inherited the full-time shift preceding Pate's, the two became good friends and remain so.)

Maloney lists other irritants echoed by other former KIRO staffers. On the way out at the end of Webb's shift, Maloney says, if he didn't like the incoming host, he might unplug the headphones or shut down the computer or take the entire news break to clear out of the studio chair, leaving the new host no time to set up. Webb denies it. "I would never unplug him from anything," he says.

A person sympathetic to Webb says, "He's done things within the company that were not appreciated: impugning people, [saying] things behind people's back. . . . He can be not very nice sometimes." Others mention e-mail tirades from an angry Webb. Says another former KIRO employee, "When he does stuff to people, he doesn't see it as anything wrong." Even some of those exasperated by Webb's behavior say they like him, found him charming at times. And despite the skepticism of Maloney and others, Webb clearly worked hard. "I admired his skill as a talk-show host," says one former KIRO staffer who worked with him. "He did most of his own production work for the show and was really good at it. Ninety-nine percent of the 'bits' and 'sounders' on his show were produced by him. That's pretty impressive for a talk-show host."

It was in 2002 that Webb snagged the daily 10 p.m.–1 a.m. slot. According to Maloney, Webb's behavior then got worse. "When he got his full-time show, he became a . . . bastard. The minute Mike knew that he had the complete backing of [management], he became a total tyrant. . . . It was like dealing with a different guy." He would consistently show up, Maloney says, seconds before his shift began, or even as his opening theme was playing—or late.

Webb says his ratings and show revenue were good, trending better than KIRO's slowly declining overall numbers. "The biggest numbers I got had nothing to do with the Mariners," he says, referring to the fact that KIRO no longer had the radio rights to popular baseball broadcasts. "We were in double digits after we lost that contract . . . 15 shares at night that dropped dramatically before and after my show. Then it leveled out to a more realistic place—still No. 1. . . . I outperformed the [rest of the] radio station 3 to 1."

Blogger Michael Hood suspects Webb isn't really a liberal at all. He just plays one on the radio. He offers as evidence Webb's tendency to carry a gun almost everywhere, including inside the radio station, and, especially, his war against the now-decertified union.

Maloney, the ex–KIRO and KVI host, writes the conservative radio blog Radio Equalizer; BlatherWatch writer Hood is liberal. Interestingly, both have been among Webb's biggest critics.

Oddly, both also dislike Webb for ideological reasons. "I don't think Webb reflects where most liberals are, and I don't think his personal behavior reflects where liberals are," says Maloney, who describes Webb's show as "Bush, or the world's out to get me because I'm gay, or let's play some music. . . . You could play the same hour three weeks later and nobody would notice." Webb shoots back with his opinion of Maloney: "I just think he's filled with hate. He wanted a full-time gig. He's not a very good talk-show host. He's stiff, he doesn't sound comfortable on the air, and his writing is much better than his radio show. That's a different gift."

Maloney was particularly incensed by a May 2004 broadcast, first reported by the now-defunct conservative Web site Talon News, that had an alleged transcript of Webb discussing the execution of George Bush for war crimes after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. Talon reported it this way:

"If this is proven to be true, that he knew what was going on, it's a violation of the Geneva Convention," Webb stated. "When you commit a war crime, which is punishable by death."

Webb then asked his listeners a question and quickly answers it for himself.

"[S]hould George Bush get the death penalty? I say yes," Webb exclaimed.

Webb flatly denies he said that. "Their transcript is just wrong. I never called for the death of a president." He claims that, in response to an Abu Ghraib story in Newsweek, he simply posed the question to listeners: If Bush is proven to be a war criminal in conjunction with, say, authorizing prison torture, should he be executed? And Webb notes that on a story so widely circulated, the U.S. Secret Service would have come calling had he actually called for Bush's death.

Maloney says he has a tape of the broadcast. But tapes can be edited. And Talon News no longer exists, having imploded in 15 minutes of fame from a questionably credentialed White House reporter named Jeff Gannon.

Hood, in contrast, suspects Webb isn't really a liberal at all—he just plays one on the radio. He offers as evidence Webb's tendency to carry a gun almost everywhere, including inside the radio station; his pricey Lexus; a dubious on-air endorsement deal with an energy drink owned by the son of a noted homophobe; and, especially, Webb's war against KIRO's union, the Seattle local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

Webb's contempt for the union is near legendary inside KIRO. The only time he was ever suspended from his show was when he was forced off the air for three days for failure to pay union dues—a requirement under the union contract for any employee who speaks on the air. Webb defends his role in the incident: "It was determined that they did not give me the appropriate grace period. They had to pay me a whole bunch of money because they pulled me off the air unfairly, for all the time I lost on the air.

"I am a pro-union guy," Webb says. "But this is not a union that represents our best interests." He acknowledges the dues were no strain on his income but cites board operators making $7 an hour who were forced to pay an unaffordable $600 or $700 a year for a union, Webb says, that did nothing. He has particularly harsh words for John Sandifer, executive director of the Seattle AFTRA local. Sandifer says that he is "not free to comment on individual dues issues," but notes coyly: "It is beyond question that Mike Webb was a strong and verbal advocate for getting rid of the union at KIRO radio."

While Webb was off KIRO for failure to pay union dues, he blasted the union on Internet broadcasts. He never mentioned his anti-union crusade to his KIRO listeners.

KIRO has gone from being a dominant radio institution to being one of the city's worst-rated major stations. The most recent Arbitron ratings trends in the critical 25- to 54-year-old demographic show KIRO being beaten at times by a Spanish-language station in Olympia.

Last year, Webb and the conservative Pate led a controversial and ultimately successful drive to decertify the union at KIRO and sibling conservative talk station KTTH-AM (770). The vote came down to three contested ballots, with KTTH host Mike Siegel providing the decisive "no" vote.

"I am very supportive of labor," Webb insists. "This union was predatory. I'm very much pro-labor, but when you have a union that's not pro-labor, what do you do? You get rid of them and find somebody else."

The irony, says Maloney, is that the union would have fought Webb's dismissal in December. "He would have been able to buy at least a year, but he was too cheap to pay his dues."

Webb disagrees. "Nothing would have changed with my relationship with KIRO if AFTRA were there."

The final irony is that Webb, Pate, and Siegel are now all gone from KIRO and KTTH, and it looks like there will be another vote this spring, with Seattle AFTRA poised to be recertified.

Whether the union could have helped Webb or not, there remains the vexing question of why he was fired. Entercom's version doesn't add up. It found out about Webb's "withheld" information two days before it backed him in remarks to the Times, and a full week before Webb was let go.

As with many other mystifying recent KIRO programming decisions, goes one theory, the handling of Webb's firing is an indication that KIRO's corporate bosses at Entercom headquarters in suburban Philadelphia are either pulling the strings or somehow causing indecision here. "It's being run from the East Coast," one former host says flatly. Webb agrees: "I don't believe [Tom's] making the decisions there." Maloney notes of Clendening, "It's not really clear whether he's in charge. . . . KIRO does not look good on résumés anymore. Any agent would steer [a potential host] clear of that station and say that's a dead duck. . . . This current regime is totally, totally incompetent." Another ex-staffer sums it up: "It really is a case study in how to destroy a great radio station."

KIRO has gone from being a dominant Seattle radio institution three years ago to being one of the city's worst-rated major stations. The most recent Arbitron ratings trends in the critical 25- to 54-year-old demographic show KIRO, incredibly, being beaten at times by a Spanish-language FM station in Olympia.

Entercom has also had its hands full lately, first with a failed attempt to buy ABC Radio and more recently with a payola investigation launched by New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The former prize Seattle property has suffered accordingly. There are no permanent replacements for Webb, fired in December; Pate, gone in February; and 9 a.m.–noon host Allan Prell, let go last August. Three of the station's six weekday talk shows have temporary hosts. The two most commonly cited factors precipitating KIRO's slide are the loss of Mariners baseball to KOMO-AM (1000) in 2003 and the departure of widely praised former Program Director Olinger in 2004. But Clendening, Olinger's replacement, knows what the summit looks like, having overseen KIRO during its 1990s heyday before her.

Today, any evening listeners Webb had are long gone from KIRO, driven away by a bizarre choice of temporary hosts to replace him: "Ron and Don," former morning-drive shock jocks at sibling KQBZ-FM, "The Buzz"— which now plays country music as "The Wolf." Ron and Don's shtick is to try to out-testosterone Howard Stern. It seems all but certain that Webb's permanent replacement will not share Webb's on-air politics. With KIRO also having removed Erin Hart's weekend program, Seattle has lost the only local, consistently progressive voices on commercial radio.

And for what? Even if every allegation against Webb during his KIRO days were true, in nearly a decade KIRO never seriously disciplined him. Such antics aren't nearly on the scale of an elaborate attempt at felony insurance fraud. Webb has no criminal history. He's made the income of a major-market radio entertainer for 30 years and seems unlikely to have lacked the money for car repair. And as Webb himself noted, the plot Webb is accused of is extremely crude. Even his harshest critics don't think he's stupid. None of it adds up.

While Webb insists that he hasn't settled or plea-bargained with prosecutors because he is innocent, the evidence against him is compelling. Most of his former colleagues see the incident as tragic but express some variant of Brian Maloney's sentiment: "There's nobody Mike Webb can blame but Mike Webb."

Regardless of what happens on or before his May 4 trial, Michael Kenneth Webb will keep broadcasting. It's all he's ever done. He seems, at times, to miss his KIRO show: "I loved being at KIRO. . . . I wanted to make a difference; I wanted progressive politics to be commercial." But he's also moving on. Each weeknight, he's still broadcasting, from 9 to 11 p.m., holding forth on Bush and Iraq and the outrages of the day over the Internet from his home basement studio. He says that so far, five stations, including ones in Santa Cruz, Calif., and New Haven, Conn., are carrying his show. And in a format whose most legendary icon, Rush Limbaugh, survived a far more serious drug-abuse scandal, someone, somewhere, will give Mike Webb another chance.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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