Francene, not heard - Just who is Kentucky’s most popular talker?
From the street, a good 20 feet away, you’d never know they were fake. The two flowerpots that flank Francene’s bungalow porch are inviting, domestic, a Midwestern approach of keeping up a put-together façade. But appearances can certainly deceive, and as you approach the colorful lilies and random foliage sprouting about, you realize you’ve been taken. Had. No hose to be seen. No watering canister. In fact, there’s not even much soil to ground these beauties. Plastic. Easy to maintain for someone who confesses a hatred of all things landscape.
If you’re looking to extract other secrets from WHAS-AM radio personality Francene Cucinello, it’s difficult to do, even after a couple of Lambrusco spritzers and a filling American-style Italian meal complete with the unlimited bread and salad, which the New Jersey native wound up packing away for the next day’s lunch. “I’ll take a to-go box, Brian, when you get a chance,” she said to the hurried waiter, using a tone that conveyed familiarity; perhaps they’ve been best friends for years.
Francene has a bad habit of telling most of her secrets on the air, during “The Francene Show,” which enjoys the top Arbitron rating in this market and can be heard city- and statewide every weekday from 9-11:45 a.m. on WHAS-AM radio. It’s a show about news and a show about life, she’s said in her tagline ever since taking over morning host duties in 2003, replacing another controversial WHAS personality, John Ziegler.
The 50,000-watt Clear Channel station was considering several candidates to fill the empty slot. Kelly Carls, regional vice president of programming, said he was immediately struck by Francene’s initiative: While most candidates sent in demo tapes and recorded shows from offsite locations, Francene packed her suitcase and drove here from North Carolina, where she had been doing radio and TV freelance work while staying with her mother.
“I tricked him,” she said. She told Carls that she had friends to stay with in Louisville, when in reality she rented a room at the Quality Inn for a week and rented a car. “It cost me about $1,000, but I knew it was a good fit,” she said. “I just hoped that if I could be in front of them, I could trick them into falling in love with me. And it worked.”
“She wanted to be here, she wanted to see the people, she wanted to see the town, so that was the first thing that impressed me,” Carls recalled. Once he heard her show, he was hooked. “As somebody told me a long time ago, the best qualification for any job anywhere is possessing a strong natural curiosity. That really impressed me about Francene — she was just curious about stuff and wanted to learn new things all the time. That kind of inquisitiveness is very important; you don’t want a host who’s convinced that he or she already knows everything there is to know.”
The subject matter on The Show ranges from fiery political debate — mostly about local and state issues — to sports, whether it be an update on the Louisville Bats, one of her passions, or her thoughts on Tiger Woods dropping out of the upcoming Ryder Cup — she’s decided it’s OK, that the U.S. team will prevail, the event will still be of great benefit to Louisville, and so on. Francene is often criticized for stirring up trouble, for jumping on one side of an issue too soon, for letting agenda-seeking politicians use her show as a bully pulpit. She’s essentially a load-mouthed woman in a male-dominated industry who doesn’t shy away from controversy, and to some that makes her shrill. Others say she relishes it.
“I truly don’t try to stir things up,” she said. “I don’t have to. There are things that make people mad. All I have to do is mention them. I am a news junkie. I like an open discourse, and I really have very little patience or tolerance for stupidity or deception or inefficiency in government. And that’s when this gets fun, because I get to talk about it.”
Controversy is the talk-show stock in trade, so it’s essential for hosts to embrace it. But as a woman, stirring the pot in a male-dominated kitchen of cooks can be a challenge. The B-word is a term Francene is all too familiar with.
“The most controversial thing about me is that I’m a woman doing a man’s job. There’s only about 25 women in the country doing solo, issue-oriented talk shows,” she said. “I know some people think I’m mean. Some think I take myself a lot more seriously than I do. I don’t take what I’ve achieved or what I do for granted, but that’s not the same thing as not taking it seriously.
“I know some people — men, dare I say? — are afraid because they think I’m going to argue about everything,” she continued. “Oh, and I should use the word bitch. I think that goes back to — men who are opinionated and strong who stand up for their opinions are considered assertive, and women are bitchy.”
Francene earned a journalism degree from West Virginia University in 1988, part of a triple major (which included communications and musical theater) that she landed in four years. Since then she’s had myriad jobs in the performing arts, including voiceover work, acting and dancing. She’s also remained in journalism, wearing such hats as TV anchor, newspaper columnist and magazine writer, and she currently works part-time as a TV news reporter for WXIX-TV, the Fox affiliate in Cincinnati.
With a mixed background in entertainment and news, Francene seems a likely emcee for talk radio, where the line between journalism and entertainment is fine. Francene calls The Show “infotainment.” Depending on where you land on the political continuum, that line can get blurry.
“I think she knows she’s in show business,” said Rick Redding, operator of the website The ’Ville Voice (thevillevoice.com) and LEO Weekly’s media critic. “I think she’s good at choosing topics that will get people fired up and presenting them in a way that will get people to react. The fact that she is able to get newsmakers to believe that it’s very important to be on her show is a credit to her.”
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the Louisville Democrat, is on The Show weekly. Yarmuth, a journalist and founder of LEO Weekly, pegged her show “journaltainment,” adding that it’s a viable source of information in Louisville’s media market.
“With the mainstream media falling into the hands of fewer and fewer conglomerates, shows with a unique perspective like Francene’s are becoming increasingly important,” he said.
His regard for Francene, who tends to lean to the political right (a self-identified Republican) but defies an easy label, goes further. “I admire her independence and her ability to adhere to it in an age in which talk-show hosts are very liberal or very conservative. Francene is fiercely independent. She feels very passionately about things, and whether that tilts her left or right never enters into the equation,” Yarmuth said. “She also cares deeply about candor and transparency in government, which I agree is critical.”
“She doesn’t back away from controversy. I think even if you disagree with her, as I often do on certain issues, she brings topics to the forefront of what people are talking about,” he said.
Earlier this year, Francene took heat for siding with Metro Councilman Doug Hawkins, R-25, on an initiative he was spearheading to deny city services to illegal immigrants. The proposal was controversial for the obvious reasons, but the debate took on a new tone when Hawkins — believing Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3 and chair of the committee debating the resolution, was ignoring his idea and, by extension, his constituents in South Louisville — took to the airwaves. He went on The Show, as he’s wont to do when his myriad conservative causes are drowned out by the overwhelming reason of many of his fellow council members, inducing his friend Francene to join the fracas. The Host implored her listeners to call Woolridge’s office and demand that the immigration resolution be considered. At the time, the city had just been pounded by a winter storm, and the extra calls and confusion weren’t appreciated by those in City Hall trying to keep the weather-related mess under some control. The switchboard got jammed. Woolridge refused to take the calls.
Hawkins said he has no regrets over the situation.
“She’s been incredibly fair with me,” he said. “When I need to get my opinion out there to defend my constituents or to work for my constituents, she’s a great place to start. I can take my ideas to her and she can agree with them or disagree with them, but they’re out there and they get discussed. Nobody’s got all the answers, but if you have an idea and you put it out there and can talk about it and work with it, that’s doing something. The issue may not work, but at least you’ve got it out and you’ve talked about it.”
Woolridge declined to comment for this story.
Mayor Jerry Abramson has also been the focus of Francene’s ire from time to time. “Unfortunately, the mayor and I aren’t good friends,” she said. A spokesman for Abramson said the mayor would rather not comment for this story.
Back to the secrets. What drives Francene? Does she carry her pit-bull proclivities with her while grocery shopping or at the dentist’s office? The Francene I observed was cordial. Nice. Curious. Friendly. Patient. Inquisitive. During our first interview at a trendy Highlands bar, she refused to surrender the conversation over to herself and grilled me with as many questions as I did her. Sipping on a pint of Magic Hat #9, an apricot-infused ale, she blushed when revealing plans for an upcoming out-of-town date. She was bubbly and animated when discussing topics nearest her heart — her mutt Monty and Louisville Bats baseball. She was courteous with our waitress, and again, addressed her as if they were sisters.
The secrets came sporadically. She’s bad at math. Needs a watch with numbers, not slash marks or Roman numerals. Once modeled for a sculpture class because the professor said the spaces between her eyes and nose and forehead were exactly proportional. Doesn’t own an iPod. Doesn’t eat out much. Loves Louisville and has, in fact, been here longer than at any other job. In the last 10 years, she’s lived in 12 different places. And she hasn’t checked her MySpace page since Jan. 27, 2008.
She told me the story of how she first met Monty — just after moving here, living in a St. Matthews apartment, she took a walk outside during an ice storm and Monty sort of found her. His collar was made of duct tape and cardboard, so she surmised that he was the pet of a homeless person who probably decided to seek shelter and leave the dog behind. Francene talks about Monty frequently on her show — perhaps he is the constant in her hectic life, the unconditional love.
“My mom gave me this ceramic bone that reads, ‘Let me get this straight, my grandchild is a dog?’” she said, laughing. That leads her into another revelation: She doesn’t date much, but she’d like to. In fact, it’s the one area of her life where she hasn’t been successful.
In a mid-sized Southern city where the tendency is to stay close to the zip code where you were born — and let’s face it, Louisville is famous for this — it’s hard for an outsider to break into cliques that have been formed since high school. And the dating pool can feel as shallow as a birdbath. Especially if the spotlight is on you, whether you like it or not; you are the “local celebrity.”
“It’s tough because this is a small town, and I’ve been here long enough on such a powerful station that there’s recognition, and that’s hard for some people,” she said. “The one time I did date a little, it ended badly and ended rather publicly.”
Francene is referring to a day she’d rather put behind her — Dec. 19, 2006, when she announced on The Show that the rumors were true and she, indeed, had had a relationship with then-State Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, who was running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with Gov. Steve Beshear. The relationship was very much over by then, but she felt the need to give full disclosure to her listeners and chose to out the issue before the rumors caught up. Mongiardo called in that day to explain his side of things; he closed with the ever-so-smooth “Can we still be friends?” Rarely is a more awkward conversation broadcast across an entire region.
“That was really tough, because I had to go public,” she said. “It went very bad, and most people don’t have to play that out in front of 50,000 listeners. He was stupid enough to say, ‘I hope we can always be friends.’ And I said, ‘Thanks for calling, Daniel.’ There are some people who will lie to get whatever they want. So what am I supposed to do? Not go out with anybody?”
At age 40 — or 38 and 24 months, she winks — to be single and female is a stigma. Is she too picky? Not willing to settle? A slave to her career? “I am of an age that being unmarried raises red flags. It’s not true, because a man with my same résumé on paper is a great catch. ‘He’s an eligible bachelor. What’s wrong with her?’”
Added to her weekly talk-show routine, where she’s up at 5 a.m., in the office by 7 a.m. and researching for the next day’s show at 1 p.m., she does freelance TV reporting in Cincinnati on the weekends. And in between those two duties, if there’s time, she loves traveling, visiting her friends who are scattered about the world and, of course, spending time with Monty. Often, dating ranks low on this list, but settling is out of the question.
“I have a very challenging career because it’s not just the show but it’s everything else I do. I’m away a lot. I like my work. I like my life,” she said. “I think anybody who has reached a certain age past your early 30s, you have a way of living your life. It’s hard to interject somebody else and merge lifestyles. I have become the man I wanted to marry. I have a great house. I travel internationally. I’ve got friends all over the world. I have a great job. I don’t need a man, I want a man. But it has to be the right man.”
The more time I spent with Francene, the more I realized she’s just like the rest of us: Angry at gas prices. Unsure of the future. Content to watch it all play out from the safety of this sleepy Southern city. She is The Populist As Heard On The Radio.
It wasn’t until the end of our last interview that Francene finally dropped a secret that perhaps sheds insight into her character, her drive. It’s a bad habit to have, sure, but it’s what motivates her to face forward and try new things.
“One of my worst traits is that I don’t have a lot of patience,” she said. “Part of that is because I don’t know when everything ends. And I don’t want it to end before I get everything I want to do accomplished.
“What I realized is that I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to be dying and realize I haven’t done everything I wanted to do. That’s the only thing that really scares me.”