The Insider

Over Their Dead Bodies
On the evidence of the media feeding frenzy over the past week, editors obviously judged that the public can't get enough detail on the mass suicide of onetime Houstonian Marshall Herff Applewhite's millennialist cult. But we know of only one media outlet with the particular promotional genius to hitch its own ratings ride on the suicide comet. That would be KLOL-FM, the home of cut-rate Howard Sterns Stevens & Pruett and professional newsman and amateur astronomer (or is it vice versa?) Chuck Shramek.

Back in November, Shramek posted on the Internet a photograph he had taken through a telescope of the comet Hale-Bopp that seemed to show another large, glowing object hovering in the comet's vicinity. Shortly after the Heaven's Gate believers shed their containers out in Rancho Santa Fe, Shramek found himself being credited in various media quarters with inspiring the belief that a UFO was hiding behind the approaching comet --the spaceship apparently being the ticket to ride for Applewhite and his followers.

Bleary-eyed and pasty-faced, Shramek looked as if he could've used a stiff shot of vodka and a dose of phenobarbital himself when he met the press last week at the Lovett Inn near KLOL's studios. Accompanied by the Mark Stevens half of Stevens & Pruett, Shramek discussed his very peripheral role in the tragedy from behind a table bedecked with promotional signage for his station and in front of a poster of a prim-looking woman being beseeched to "Admit it, you listen" to Stevens & Pruett.

Adding to the tastefulness of the affair was the presence of Stevens, looking very Vegas in a sporty black jacket and puce V-neck and wielding a fat cigar. Stevens's apparent function was to emcee the gathering of 20 or so ladies and gentlemen of the media. His ponderous producer and factotum -- that would be Tubby, for all you NPR listeners -- distributed a one-page statement by Shramek and bore away Stevens's stogie before the cameras fired up.

Once Stevens's smoke was safely out of sight, Shramek proceeded to unspool a sad tale of an innocent "news anchor" for a shock-jock duo who was victimized by overly sensationalistic journalists.

"It's so strange," Shramek related, "to have my phone ringing continuously, and CNN is on the line, or Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel or Tom Brokaw, all trying to get ahold of me, and frankly I was too frazzled, I was too upset, too dazed, to deal with any of 'em."

You got the feeling Stevens wouldn't have let those promotional opportunities go to waste.

Shramek insisted he never theorized that a spaceship might be following the comet. Of course, he did call conspiracy-monger Art Bell's late-night talk show on November 14 to ask whether anybody out there in radio land might be able to identify the mysterious object near the comet in his photo. In Shramek's telling, a wacky professor then called in to expound on the idea that aliens might be joy riding along with Hale-Bopp. After his call to Bell, Shramek said, the posting of his comet photo on his own web page elicited more than 200,000 hits in one week and a hundred e-mails per hour

"[But] I never, ever, ever used terms like 'spaceship' or 'UFO' or 'aliens' to describe what I'd seen or what I thought I'd seen," he maintained. "Of course, I'm upset and I'm saddened by the cult suicide, but no way do I feel like I caused this tragedy."

Still, Shramek isn't willing to let go of the idea that there's something sinister going on with Hale-Bopp, and that for some reason the government and NASA are not "being entirely forthcoming with the pictures of the comet." He seemed hazy as to just what the government might be hiding about the celestial visitor.

"Well, who knows?" he said. "There might be some anomaly or strangeness about the comet. Maybe they were worried news of this might cause some panic or some events to transpire."

When the question was raised as to whether Shramek's newfound notoriety was good or bad for KLOL, Stevens interjected, "I'd say both." Shramek just looked blankly ahead and muttered, "Yeah."

At one point Stevens nudged Shramek, reminding him to mention that he first discussed the comet weirdness "on the Stevens & Pruett Show." Shramek dutifully complied.

And then there was the matter of the Art Bell show. "Maybe you ought to explain the makeup of the audience of Art Bell," Stevens suggested to Shramek. "Lot of conspiracy nuts on there."

That provoked a sputter from Shramek, who is, after all, a Bell listener and caller.

And maybe that was the big news to come out of the KLOL news conference: There's actually a radio show out there that even Mark Stevens can look down on.

Cap'n Benny's Ship of Fools
It's been nearly a year now since news of the FBI's City Hall sting broke, and with no indictments having been returned and the government continuing to maintain its public silence on the operation, several of the protagonists might be excused for getting the idea the storm has blown over.

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