Veteran sports broadcaster Ralph Barbieri has been an indelible part of the Bay Area's radio landscape for decades. He hosted KNBR's afternoon chat show, "The Razor and Mt. T," with former Golden State Warrior Tom Tolbert for nearly 20 years.
But a few months ago, the 66-year old outspoken animal rights activist was fired from his regular gig.
And the man who famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen nicknamed "The Razor" isn't taking his termination sitting down. He's suing KNBR parent company Cumulus Media for $10 million, citing wrongful termination, breach of contract and age discrimination.
As per a four-year contract Barbieri signed with the station in 2007, the broadcaster was only allowed to be fired for "good cause." KNBR management says that cause was a marked decline in his ability to perform on-air and repeatedly showing up late for work.
Barbieri insists that those arguments obscure the real reason he was let go. In 2006, the broadcaster was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Fearing for his job, he didn't inform the station management about his condition until relatively recently--around the same time he was diagnosed with type-II diabetes.
In his suit, Barbieri claims to have had a series of meetings last year in which station managers repeatedly berated him for a lack of enthusiasm on the air. "You don't have any energy, what's wrong with you?" one station manager allegedly yelled. "What you are doing on the air sucks. This is not going to happen on my watch. I am not going to let [recent competitor in the local sports talk radio market] 95.7 get the best of us."
Weeks later, another manger reportedly wrote Barbieri an email stating, "We noticed in the last few weeks that you were sounding tired on the air...But just want to make sure that when you are on the air you give it 110 percent. You need to ratchet up your energy and enthusiasm, today we have a new challenge."
The following day Barbieri informed the entire staff he had been living with Parkinson's Disease for five and a half years.
A few months later, KNBR management refused to renew Barbieri's full contract, instead offering a one-year extension with a substantial salary cut. These penalties came when, as Barbieri insists, his ratings were the highest in the show's history (the Giants' victory in the 2010 World Series withstanding). It was also around the time when Barbieri was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.
The following April, Barbieri was fired.
"The whole process took about 7 minutes," he said in a statement. "Let's see: 7 minutes for 28 years at KNBR. That's four years a minute. I have to admit that's pretty time efficient--not to mention classy."
"The termination is nothing less than age discrimination, disability discrimination, breach of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of contract," Barbieri's lawyer, Angela Alioto, wrote in a statement to the press released immediately following the termination. "Barbieri is 66 years old and has a slow-developing form of Parkinson’s disease, which he spoke publicly about for the first time last October, 2011. As a result of this wrongful termination, Barbieri has lost his entire salary and all health benefits."
"If you look at the ratings, Mr. Barbieri and Mr. Tolbert were No. 1 or 2 until the day he was terminated," Alioto added in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "The fact is, before they knew he was sick, those excuses didn't exist--and they renewed his contract."
KNBR officials have disputed Barbieri's account of his termination. The San Jose Mercury News reports:
Shortly after Barbieri's firing in April, Bungeroth issued a statement calling Barbieri attorney Angela Alioto's version of the dismissal as "filled with inaccurate statements and baseless accusations."
"The simple fact is that Ralph refused to honor some of the most basic terms of his contract," Bungeroth wrote. "As a result, KNBR exercised its right to terminate the contract."
"One of his endearing qualities--frustrating and endearing at the same time--is that he was a bulldog," said Tolbert of his former co-host during an on-air tribute. "When he had his teeth into something, and he felt like he was in the right, he wasn't going to let it go."
Having worked for KNBR since 1984, Barbieri was the station's longest serving on-air personality and was instrumental in its transformation from a music format into a 24-hour sports talk station during the early 1990s.
Take a look at a video of Barbieri in action below: