BAY CITY — Radio show hosts Johnny Burke and Bonnie Holzhei – the latter known on air as “Blondie” – allege radio station WHNN-FM (96.1) discriminated against them in January by firing them because of their age.
WHNN is one of Michigan’s most powerful radio stations. Its 100,000-watt signal reaches from West Branch to Pontiac, according to the “WHNN” Facebook page.
Burke and Holzhei, who hosted a morning radio show for years on WHNN, claim their Jan. 15 terminations were “based upon age and (they were) replaced … with two thirty-something younger employees who were paid less money.” The lawsuits by Burke and Holzhei were filed against station owner Cumulus Media in late March in Saginaw County Circuit Court, but transferred to U.S. District Court in Bay City on Monday. The pair state they were fired “without warning” Jan. 15 from the radio station in Saginaw County’s Kochville Township.
They also allege they were “terminated as a result of the perception of Cumulus that (they) could not relate to younger listeners because of (their) age.” Burke and Holzhei each seek a minimum of $75,000, and demand a jury trial.
Burke, 61, of Frankenmuth in Saginaw County, states in court documents that he held the position of show host for 25 years for Cumulus or its predecessor. He said he has been in the radio business for 44 years, working at stations in Cleveland, Las Vegas and Buffalo in addition to WHNN.
Holzhei, a Bay County resident and Reese High School graduate, states in court documents that she was co-host for 15 years. Holzhei, in a reference to Burke in her lawsuit, also alleges she “was treated differently than her co-host in so much as she was paid significantly less money because of her gender.”
In place of Burke and Holzhei’s show, WHNN has inserted the morning show “My Mornings With Rachel & Will,” featuring on-air personalities Rachel Geddes and Will Harvey. The pair broadcast from 5:30 to 10 a.m.
“Johnny Burke and Blondie will be leaving WHNN with our thanks for their contributions to the heritage and history of the station,” Operations Manager Scott Stine stated in a Jan. 15 press release after Burke and Holzhei were dismissed in January, according to mlive.com.
“WHNN has always kept up with the times and focused on providing the best product to meet the needs of the Saginaw community and to provide our advertising partners a platform to stay connected to the audiences you want to reach to grow your business,” Stine also stated in the release.
“Now, this evolution will provide our listeners with a better variety of music of yesterday and today, a better listener experience, and our advertisers, a more targeted opportunity for success.”
The Advertiser could not reach Stine for comment Friday afternoon, and couldn’t reach officials for comment at Cumulus Media Inc. corporate offices in Atlanta.
Burke declined comment on his lawsuit Friday, deferring any questions to Victor J. Mastromarco Jr., his lawyer. The Advertiser could not reach Holzhei for comment by phone.
Burke and Holzhei maintain in their lawsuits they were “terminated as a result of the perception of Cumulus that (they) could not relate to younger listeners because of (their) age.”
Burke and Holzhei indicate in their lawsuits that in the months before their termination, they gave station management, including Stine, ideas to implement a younger music format but that Stine and others “would appear to shoot down those ideas.”
Burke and Holzhei state that in the fall of 2015 they kept talking about “freshening of the music” on WHNN and creating the concept of a “90s button” in the studio to play ’90s songs, but maintain Stine seemed to ignore any of their suggestions. They claim Stine’s actions were “further confirming that (they were) being set up.”
Burke and Holzhei claim that at an Oct. 29, 2015 Cumulus staff meeting discussing the WHNN audience and the need to bring in younger listeners, various employees made jokes that Burke and Holzhei were “too old to pull it off.”
Holzhei alleges Cumulus administration, along with Stine, “treated (her) in a manner which was different than male (Cumulus) employees.” Holzhei claims her pay “was not commensurate with the performance that she was providing and other similarly situated persons employed by the station.”
Burke and Holzhei now host a live radio show from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and fans can listen to it by visiting their website at JohnnyAndBlondie.com. Burke said fans can view the show on www.periscope.tv by searching under “Johnny & Blondie Live.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org