The Von Haessler Doctrine

Stand Up and Fight For It:
Jeff Clark Deconstructs Atlanta’s Most Rock ‘n’ Roll Talk Radio Show

The world is collapsing around our ears. I turn up the radio, and I can hear it all too loudly. It turns my stomach. It gives a headache. It insults my intelligence to the brink of endless disgust. You yearn for, at the very least, three chords and the truth. Instead you have heaps of mass meaninglessness or Auto-Tuned arrogance or raging rap/rape culture shoveled into your gaping piehole and are told to swallow it and high-five and say “yum!” and beg for more. That’s the reality of current commercial music radio.

Listen, I search out and discover great new music on a daily basis. I still go see amazing, inspiring bands multiple nights a week. It’s out there, if you care to find it. For the most part, however, it’s not going to be heard on the radio. Even college stations are increasingly being downsized or transformed into more NPR propaganda peddlers. So if I’m gonna do the collapse, I’d rather it be something at least anchored in the terrifying reality of the world instead of a throbbing synthetic skull-duller about how much fat pussy some thug’s gettin’ tonight. And if it makes me laugh, hey, all the better.

Which is one of the reasons I started listening almost exclusively to talk radio decades ago. Even when I’ve worked at music stations, I’d get off the air, hop in my car to drive home and turn on the talk stations. Music radio bores me. There’s nothing “rock ‘n’ roll” about it. It’s rarely exciting, entertaining, unpredictable, fun or thought provoking. And increasingly, it has little personality. Most of those elements have shifted over to talk radio. Nearly any given talk host – major or minor, national or local – started in FM music radio. They ended up on the AM dial doing talk because there’s actually far more freedom there, especially for smart people with something to say and a fresh way of saying it.

So, from my skewed point of view, talk radio is more rock ‘n’ roll than music radio. And in Atlanta, The Von Haessler Doctrine is the most rock ‘n’ roll radio show on the airwaves.

The freewheeling, three-hour program, airing Sundays from noon ‘til 3 p.m. on AM 750 and News 95.5 FM, brings a refreshing rush of passionate commentary, offbeat digressions, snappy banter and smart/silly humor to local talk radio. Steered by Eric Von Haessler, whom many of you may remember from his years as half of The Regular Guys over at 96 Rock and Rock 100.5, the show is filled out with the input of his spirited gang of “Doctrinaires”: “English Nick” Parsons, Tim Andrews, Autumn Fischer, Jared Yamamoto and Greg Russ. Armed with their own distinct personalities (not to mention, in the cases of Andrews and Fischer, an enormous talent for voice impersonations), they bounce viewpoints on current affairs off each other, in Von Haessler’s words, “as if Ayn Rand had a merry band of pranksters, [and] didn’t take herself so seriously.”

I met up with half the crew – Eric, Nick and Tim – at the newly reopened and exceedingly bright Manuel’s Tavern on a recent evening to figure out why this little show worked so well. As could be expected, our conversation frequently veered off into numerous fervent tangents and rants about college tuition, left-wing college professors, health care, banks, elitist entertainers and the increasingly blatant leftist slant in the mainstream media before eventually closing down the sacred temple of Atlanta’s middle aged white liberals more than three hours later with a lengthy discussion about our favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands. We also somehow managed to talk about the radio show itself – which in fact the interview sorta felt like being in the middle of. With beer…

“It’s weird being in radio and doing what I do, because I’m mostly a music person,” Von Haessler muses, prompting an Almost Famous memory. “This is where it all starts for me. – it’s 1974, and my older brothers have moved out, and they’ve left all their records behind, an amazing record collection. And I don’t go to school one morning, ‘cause I have a doctor’s appointment at 11 o’clock or something. And so, early in the morning, I’m in my older sister’s room, which is where all my older brothers’ albums were… and I came across Sgt. Pepper’s. It was the original, with all the shit in the middle – the mustaches, all the stickery things – but you know, this is 1974, it’s already happened, it’s already over. But I’m ten. I put it on, with the headphones on, ten years old. And before, that, you know, I’d listened to Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, I’d listened to a few singles and stuff that I liked. But I put that on, and it just totally fuckin’ changed my life. I played the first side, the second side, listened to it again…”

By the late ‘80s, Von Haessler was living in Rochester, New York and trying his hand at doing stand-up. Doing his routine in a local comedy club one evening, he was spotted by Larry Wachs, a radio personality who’d recently arrived in town to start a morning show at a Top 40 station. He took on Von Haessler to help him out with writing material for the show, which developed into Eric becoming Wachs’ producer and eventually his on-air second banana. They ended up briefly in Hartford before landing a gig in Los Angeles in 1995 as an irreverent political talk show team called “The Regular Guys.” They were on the rise, with a partnership that lasted until 2013, but it was becoming increasingly contentious.

“Basically by the time we got to LA, we were always clashing,” Eric recalls. “[Larry] fired me the first time when we were in Rochester because I threw coffee at him at 5:30 in the morning. And that was, like, 1991.”

After both men were dismissed from their LA station – where a rogue’s gallery including Kato Kaelin, Howard Stern, game show host Ken Ober and Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady) also hosted shows (hence the team’s name – they weren’t famous) – they were hired in 1998 by WKLS (96 Rock) in Atlanta, where the program quickly became one of the most listened to and discussed morning shows in the city – a talk show on a rock station, where the hosts played no songs.

“It was, I think, smarter than the average zoo crew thing, but it was sort of based on the same thing,” Von Haessler describes. “There was a lot of shock jockery that went along with it. But I think what made it better than most was that it was a little more intelligent. I think the struggle between me and my partner was how much of that there was gonna be. I thought if we just read the paper every day and go and talk, we’d be fine. And I think the more of that that was in the show, the better it was. There was a period there between ’98 and I’d say 2003 or so where the show was really, really good. I was proud of it. The problem with it was, over the years, then it began to devolve more into the shock jock stuff. So, me and my partner were butting heads.”

By 2008, The Regular Guys had been jettisoned from 96 Rock twice (both for envelope-pushing stunts that went awry), but reemerged one final time at the newly established Rock 100.5. By this time, though, the partnership had grown bleak.

“There was a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming during commercial breaks.” Eric describes. “You know, it’s hard. It’s hard to look at each other every day, and try to do shows, and so you get on each other’s nerves. You get tired of looking at each other. I mean, it was hysterical in the last couple of years. [Wachs] was intense. I used to drive to work, and my gut would just be tight, ‘Ugh, what’s gonna happen today?’ I mean, we had ratings that were insane for a while. And everybody’s yelling at each other! It’s like, if we’re not having fun now, when are we gonna have fun? When are we gonna enjoy ourselves? Life’s short!”

“It was so intense,” confirms Parsons, who worked on the program. “There were times I ran the board for that show, and it’s five in the morning, and they’d walk in, and…nobody ever said a word to each other until the fuckin’ mics went on!”

Von Haessler was dumped from the show at the end of September, 2013, while Wachs was let go 14 months later. Eric kept jabbering, however, with his podcast – something he had started doing several years earlier as The Mad Pundit during one of The Regular Guys’ imposed sabbaticals. (The Mad Pundit even ran for a while on Atlanta talk station WGST, even though an attempt at positioning The Regular Guys there ended after a couple of months). Naturally, these podcasts were more aligned to the direction he always hoped The Regular Guys would go – topical, conversational and humorous, with a very loose sort of structure.

Apparently, Pete Spriggs liked what he heard. The newly appointed Program Director at Atlanta news/talk giant WSB contacted Von Haessler shortly after taking over two years ago.

“I’m conducting my career completely wrong. And it’s working out,” Eric – long married, with two grown offspring – laughs. “I only wanna do this. I’m 52 years old. I don’t wanna go get a job in Seattle and eight weeks later find out that they changed their format. It was either I was going to do the show I wanted to do, or I was gonna go to Florida and relax and not do [radio] anymore. And so, I have actually never sent a demo out to anyone else.”

After occasional but impressive turns filling in for cheery late night weekday host Mark Arum and afternoon drive-time talker Erick Erickson, Von Haessler (who, btw, eventually figured out that The Rolling Stones were always infinitely better than The Beatles) finally got the show he wanted to do. The Von Haessler Doctrine premiered in January 2015 as a two-hour Sunday afternoon show airing “live from Sherwood Forest” (the actual name of the Atlanta neighborhood where the WSB/Cox Radio headquarters are located). This year the Doctrine expanded to three hours. Additionally, Von Haessler and crew produce several 90-minute podcast versions of the Doctrine each week, stage occasional Von Haessler Experience nighttime versions of the show with a studio audience, and he still fills in for Erickson or Herman Cain when needed. “And I can’t say what’s gonna happen next year, because some people don’t know yet,” he hints. “But it’s gonna be good, I can tell you that.”

Divided into thematic half-hour segments – Headlines (news of the day), WTF (weird/bizarre news stories), Outrage Corner (the stupid crap that easily offends people nowadays), More Headlines, uh, Even More Headlines (they like the headlines) – the show is, as I said earlier, a revitalizing delight, an oasis in the midst of the otherwise bleak Sunday Atlanta radio landscape. (Especially since I quit doing The Stomp and Stammer Radio Hour on WMLB in January!) They take no calls from listeners (“It kills the rhythm,” Eric insists), but keep the momentum rolling with the pithy, improvised back-and-forth quips among the entire ensemble. Von Haessler’s clearly the leader and driving force with his rants, but the show would likely be run-of-the-mill talk radio were it not for the bright talents at his side, all of whom save for Yamamoto he’d previously nurtured on The Regular Guys and his podcasts.

“Larry and I used to always talk about the fact that you can’t be afraid to have talented people around you. And you can’t be afraid to let them steal the show,” Von Haessler notes. “Because ultimately, everybody rises… Seinfeld wasn’t the funniest character on [his show].”

Aged 27, Jared Yamamoto is the youngest participant on the Doctrine, and the only one with whom Von Haessler hadn’t previously worked. “He was Erick Erickson’s producer where I got there,” Von Haessler says, “and he’s now Herman Cain’s producer and my producer.” Yamamoto generally fires the more serious, topical news headlines into the ring each week, and also endures the brunt of Von Haessler’s diatribes about those damned Millennials. “He goes out every night, he’s in touch with that world,” Eric observes. “At first, if there was any bangin’ up against each other, it was with him, because he had come from one kind of radio, and it was a learning process for him to be comfortable with what I was doing and what we wanted to do. And there was a moment where I was a little worried about whether it was gonna work, but at one point it just clicked. He really, more than got it, jumped in and on top of it. He’s the youngest, but he’s the adult in the room. Because Jared’s a real producer, so he’s able to come in, and have this solid bulwark underneath all of this improvised stuff that’s going on.”

Now living in Maryland but seamlessly participating in the broadcasts and podcasts via magic (or technology, whatever), Autumn Fischer adds sassy young female flair to the program. She began interning with The Regular Guys when she was 19, and has remained a part of Von Haessler’s ongoing endeavors. She drops the “WTF” stories every week, and sparks some of the biggest laughs with her voice impersonations including Lindsay Lohan, Hillary Clinton and “Melanie the Millennial Blogger.”

“My program director, Pete Spriggs, was telling me that the Millennial Blogger… you know, sometimes the WSB audience doesn’t quite get what’s going on,” Von Haessler laughs. “So they’ll get complaints like, ‘Why would you give a woman like this a show on WSB?’ He’ll come back to me and be, ‘Please make sure people know it’s a character.’”

Speaking of voice impersonations… holy shit, Tim Andrews – who joined the Doctrine in April – is a freakin’ genius. He has dozens of celebrity and politician voices down pat, including Trump, but my favorite is KISS guitarist Paul Stanley, whose show-closing summaries of each week’s program, in that schlubby, effeminate New York greaseball voice, are side-splitting. I mean, I’ve been listening to WSB long enough to tell you that just the fact that someone is talking in a Paul Stanley voice on one of their shows is absurd in and of itself. But it’s genuinely uproarious.

“If I can jump in real quick – Eric saved my mental ability to deal with life,” says Andrews. Previously The Regular Guys‘ producer, he stayed on board at Rock 100.5 after both Eric and Larry were canned, but was increasingly unhappy working on the replacement Bailey and Southside show. “I was at the end of my rope with radio. I was just miserable. And I even heard [Eric] do a show – ‘We gotta save Tim Andrews.’ And I was like, ‘Please stop talking about me, because they’re gonna fire me!’ But the best thing happened – they fired me! So I waited six months, I waited out my non-compete, and then I jumped on doing Sundays [with Von Haessler]. Once a week doing this show is more fun and more rewarding than five days a week doing something I hated.”

“He even adopts the facial expressions!” Nick says of Tim, who also has his own podcast, Radio Labyrinth. “Whenever Eric starts to talk about a certain person in the news, I can glance at Tim, and he’s already getting in character as George W or something. Oh my God, it’s hilarious!”

Nick’s uncontrollable on-air laughing fits at Tim and Autumn’s hijinks make the whole show funnier, like when cast members break character on SNL and start cracking up. Nick spouts off the stories for “Outrage Corner,” and gives the show a dose of wry English wit. A veteran Atlanta radio personality, Parsons also does a shift on sister station The River (classic rock at 97.1 FM) five days a week, hosts the Metalsome live band karaoke at 10 High four nights a week, and can usually be found behind the counter at Dr. Bombay’s, the Candler Park tea shop he co-owns, every Tuesday.

“And it’s still easier than working on the farm!” laughs Eric. For, indeed, Nick, 49, did grow up herding sheep and other animals on a farm in southern England. He discovered rock ‘n’ roll in his teens through metalhead friends into Def Leppard, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, as well as punks and mods who liked Sex Pistols and The Jam. He later started singing for a cover band, which is indirectly how in 1994 at a music festival in England he met Drew Young, who had a band back in Atlanta called Reuben Kincaid. They became friends, and one time while Nick was in Atlanta visiting Drew, he met a girl, who he’d eventually marry after moving here. And then divorce. But by that point, English Nick was well established in the Atlanta rock and radio scene. (In case you ever wondered what this funny little bloke is doing here.)

Of course, no profile of The Von Haessler Doctrine would be complete without a mention of New York-based Greg Russ, Eric’s misanthropic buddy who dominates the final half-hour of most shows with his droll, deadpan, phoned-in observations, or “Stories from Studio B1”

“If we don’t mention him in the article, he’ll pout for a week!” laughs Von Haessler of his best friend, who also interned for The Regular Guys prior to joining the on-air staff at 99X under the name Dekker. “He just is what he is. What you see is what you get with that guy. He’s truly a twisted individual, I think, who’s very talented. There are so many people who are talented, are artists, and they just can’t figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. He’s neurotic to the point that he cannot figure out how to do what he wants to do to make himself happy, because he’ll always talk himself out of it. Which is the old artist’s conundrum. He’s such a wild card, that I thought the last segment of the show was the best place [for him]. Because he does have the ability that he could torpedo me, to the point where it would take me two or three segments to recover. So he’s sort of like dessert…

“I’m not trying to change your mind [with the show],” stresses Von Haessler, a professed libertarian who probably leans right more often than left. “I’m just telling you what I think. And sometimes I get passionate because that’s genuine, and I’m passionate about individualism, freedom, things like that. But I want people who love current events to have a show that’s fun to listen to, no matter how they vote… I was never a fan of The Daily Show. I’m not a fan of what they do on Comedy Central. It’s snarky. It’s completely elitist. To me, I guess the thing is, it has to be conversation. And yeah, at the end of the day, I’m the leader. Somebody has to drive the bus. Everybody can’t drive at the same time. But the idea is to put the bus in really cool places, where people can really shine.

“I think of this [crew] as a band. I talk to Kevn [Kinney] all the time about it,” continues Von Haessler, who made the documentary Scarred But Smarter: Life N Times of Drivin N Cryin, which has just been widely released on DVD. “This was always true of Regular Guys, it’s true now, it will always be true – in my head, when the show starts, I see the curtains come apart, and we’re on stage, and there’s an audience, and my job is to keep people from gettin’ up and walkin’ out. And so I don’t want five minutes to go by without giving somebody [a reason] to stay. And usually it’s humor. I think that that’s the secret sauce. If you make people laugh, they’ll stick around.

“I’m really proud of it. It’s the best work I’ve ever done in my life, and we’re just getting started. I think the future is gonna be just fantastic.”

The Von Haessler Doctrine airs Sunday afternoons from 12 p.m. until 3 p.m. on AM 750 and News 95.5 FM in Atlanta.