By Greg Botelho
(CNN) — If he had been listening from his car Monday morning, radio veteran Steak Shapiro knew what he would have thought of a bit mocking a former New Orleans Saint now battling Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I would have been offended.”
Why? The now former host of “Mayhem in the AM” on Atlanta’s 790 The Zone offered up plenty of reasons in an interview Tuesday with CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. And none of his descriptions of the now infamous two-minute radio bit were positive.
Stupid. Not thought out. Offensive. Awful. And not funny.
“You walk a fine line trying to be somewhat on the edge,” Shapiro said. “We blew it. We blew it in a huge way.”
Shapiro and the show’s two other hosts — Chris Dimino and Nick Cellini — were fired Monday evening.
It all started, he explained, as the show’s crew batted around ideas during a commercial break. The Atlanta Falcons are big in Georgia, and the New Orleans Saints are likely their biggest rivals. And it just so happened that Gleason, one of the men most associated with the Louisiana team, had been the guest writer for Peter King’s popular “Monday Morning Quarterback” column this week on SI.com.
But Gleason isn’t just any Saint. He’s a hero in New Orleans not just for his play as a defensive back but, more recently, for his battle against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease also known by its acronym ALS and as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The illness has hindered many of Gleason’s functions, but it hasn’t stopped him. To put together the column, he pointed out, he used technology that allowed him to type with his eyes. Gleason also explained his struggles with, and triumphs over, the disease.
“ALS prevents your brain from talking to your muscles. As a result, muscles die. As a result, every 90 minutes people die,” he wrote. “I am a person.”
The “Mayhem in the AM” crew decided to spoof Gleason’s illness, specifically, the fact he speaks with a synthetic voice. The segment featured punchlines of an imaginary Gleason telling knock-knock jokes, using a would-be synthesizer, with punchlines like “Smother me, do me a favor.”
On Tuesday, Shapiro offered no defense for the segment, which he described as quickly conceived and ill-advised. At the outset, he realized the bit wasn’t funny but wasn’t prepared as it quickly got slammed on social media and beyond.
“The pressure is to try to do a good radio show, and that wasn’t a good moment,” Shapiro recalled. “It was a horrible moment.”
Within hours, the radio station and its parent company had suspended Cellini, Dimino and Shapiro. By day’s end, they were all out of a job.
“790 The Zone, our owners, sponsors and partners in no way endorse or support this kind of content. We sincerely apologize to Mr. Gleason, his family and all those touched by ALS,” Rick Mack, the station’s general manager, said in a statement
All three hosts have apologized on Twitter and personally to the Team Gleason foundation, as Gleason himself wrote on Facebook.
“Received and accepted,” he wrote. “We have all made mistakes in this life. How we learn from our mistakes is the measure of who we are.”
Since the story broke, Gleason said, there’s been a lot of talk about ALS, an ailment he characterizes as being “not (well) understood … and largely ignored.” Hopefully, this unintentional uproar will help change that, he said.
That’s Shapiro’s hope as well. At the same time, he’s personally shaken for his part in offending so many — including Gleason, those fighting ALS and the city of New Orleans. The 18-year radio veteran knows New Orleans well: he attended Tulane University, was married in the city and even has a daughter named Nola.
“It’s a place I understand their passions and their heroes,” Shapiro said, counting Gleason as one such hero. “And to make fun of those, it’s an awful thing. I feel awful about it.”
Outrage over radio hosts’ comments is hardly unprecedented, especially in a “shock jock” age in which some push the line in order to entertain listeners.
And sometimes the hosts get fired. That’s what happened when Gregg Hughes and Anthony Cumia’s “Opie and Anthony” show got pulled in 2002 for a stunt in which they broadcast descriptions of people having sex in public places, including New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral. Five years later, CBS abruptly ended Don Imus’ radio show after his remarks about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball program that some deemed racist and sexist.
Both Imus and “Opie and Anthony” are still in the radio business and have nationwide followings.
More recently, two popular Australian radio DJs made headlines for a prank call targeting a pregnant Catherine Duchess of Cambridge that was followed by the suicide of a nurse fooled by their call.
Those radio hosts were suspended, not fired. That’s what should have happened to Cellini, Dimino and Shapiro, according to Sirius XM radio host Jay Thomas of New Orleans, where he says “Steve Gleason is an icon.” Thomas is an accomplished actor, winning three Emmy awards as Candice Bergen’s love interest, talk show host Jerry Gold, on “Murphy Brown.” He also worked on “Cheers,” playing hockey star Eddie LeBec, husband of Rhea Perlman’s Carla Tortelli.
Thomas — who admits being a “huge Saints fan” who doesn’t like Atlanta — believes 790 the Zone’s management overreacted to “a bad joke.” He noted that TV shows such as “Family Guy” have repeatedly featured caricatures of Steven Hawking, who also has ALS and uses a synthetic voice, in its shows with no equivalent uproar.
The Atlanta saga would have ended better if the fired radio hosts, after being suspended for some time, had returned to talk about ALS with Gleason and raised money for the cause, said Thomas.
“That was a dumb thing to say, but no one is yelling for them to get fired,” Thomas told CNN. “… It ‘s a terrible thing, a stupid thing. But yeah, you make mistakes.”
CNN’s Matt Smith and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.