Larry Nager sits at a table at Kaldi's on Main Street, orders a glass of ice water and talks with passion and much animation about the music scene in Cincinnati, a scene he covered for eight years as a journalist with The Cincinnati Post in the 1980s and the past eight years with The Cincinnati Enquirer.
"Cincinnati has been a hugely musical town and it's almost never been recognized,'' Nager says on this snowy morning. "One of my missions has been the whole King Records thing. The concept at King is where you had Blues and Bluegrass and Rock & Roll and Jazz and Rhythm & Blues and Funk all under one roof in Evanston. That's kind of a Cincinnati sound. We're a black and white city, we're an urban and rural city, we're a northern and southern city, and we've got this wild mélange of music.
That is still true today. Talk about bringing together the different threads in the Cincinnati tapestry. There's a great Bluegrass scene in town, there's an authentic Blues in town, there's incredible Jazz in town."
His career began as a professional musician, then entered the world of music criticism.
Between his two Cincinnati stints covering music, Nager spent four years at The Memphis Commercial Appeal covering the music scene there. He authored a book, Memphis Beat, about the music scene in that musically rich city.
He's won more than his share of awards for his writing, criticism and reporting, including an in-house Enquirer award for best commentary in 2000. He wrote and co-produced a documentary film on Bill Monroe and is nationally recognized as an authority on Pop music. He created and produced the Enquirer Pop Music Awards (Cammys), honoring local musicians.
'You're too old'
So why is Larry Nager out of work? The Enquirer fired him Jan. 9.
"This is devastating, this is unimaginable to me,'' he says. "I'm completely devastated professionally, financially. Emotionally, this has been a nightmare.''
He says he was told he was not doing his job, not showing initiative, not being aggressive. His take was different.
Nager, 50, talked with a law firm, and two weeks following his dismissal filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming he was the victim of age and gender discrimination. He's asking for an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and reinstatement to his job.
"Initiative and enterprise — these are buzz words for 'You're too old and we want someone younger and female,' '' Nager says. "It was obvious I was railroaded out of there.''
It's been no secret that The Enquirer is trying to target a younger, female audience — there were signs posted in the newsroom telling reporters to be mindful of that — and his termination has left some staffers in a state of paranoia and shell-shock, much as had radio/TV critic John Kiesewetter's reassignment a few months earlier (see Enquirer Tunes out, Turns off Broadcast Coverage, issue of Jan. 7-13).
"Mr. Nager believes that The Enquirer is making a concerted effort to replace older reporters and columnists with younger, mostly female, writers, in order to accomplish its stated goal of capturing a younger, female audience,'' says Sheila Smith, Nager's attorney. "My opinion is age discrimination motivated the firing. We believe there is something very, very wrong here. Larry's record speaks for itself — the awards he's won, his immense knowledge of the music business.''
Tom Callinan, Enquirer editor, says he can't comment on the firing.
"I just can't talk about that,'' Callinan says. "That's an individual personnel matter and now it's a legal matter, so I'm in no position to comment.''
Callinan did say he didn't agree with the notion that the paper's mission is to replace older reporters with younger ones.
"I don't read it that way at all,'' he says.
Callinan didn't deny the paper is trying to hire more female writers.
"I don't know that's necessarily a bad thing," he says. "I don't think we're trying to change the makeup of the staff at the expense of any one gender or age group. I think we're trying to make sure our staff reflects the diversity of our community.''
'A couple steps back'
Reaction outside The Enquirer staff has been one of surprise.
Musician Peter Frampton issued a written statement to CityBeat: "I am shocked to hear that Larry Nager has been fired. ...He is truly one of the paper's greatest resources. His relationship with artists and his wealth of knowledge of the world of music is irreplaceable. If there were ever a person who was born to write about music, it is Larry. Cincinnati is the big loser here.''
Jon Sparks, who was Nager's arts and entertainment editor at The Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1991-95, says he was surprised as well.
"While he was here, he showed what I would call an effortless brilliance in covering the music beat,'' Sparks says. "And, of course, in Memphis, music is one of the life lines of this town. He hit the ground running. He was really aggressive. There was not much need to assign him stories, because he has such extraordinary knowledge. He broke stories. He has an exceptionally readable style, very engaging. We were definitely sorry to lose him.''
Sparks says he understands why Nager left — he wanted to be closer to his two children, ages 10 and 8, living here with his first wife. Nager acknowledges that. When he learned The Enquirer was in search of a Pop music critic, he made himself available.
"The Enquirer snapped me right up,'' Nager says.
Bill Donabedian, an organizer of the annual MidPoint Music Festival here which showcases new, original and independent bands from around the world says Nager championed their festival.
"When I heard that he'd been fired, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,' '' Donabedian says.
Nager's asset, he says, is that he held no bias against certain kinds of music.
Although local musicians held differing opinions of Nager's and The Enquirer's dedication to covering them, no one is happy that his departure comes at the same time 97X is changing ownership. The Dallas-based firm buying WOXY (97.7 FM) hasn't committed to keeping its local-music-friendly format (see Bam! 97X Is Sold, issue of Feb. 4-10).
This is the first time Nager has been out of work as a music critic in 20 years.
"The things I couldn't give them (The Enquirer) is I couldn't be young and I couldn't be female," he says. "But sometimes age does bring wisdom, and youth is not always a guarantee of hip."
Reporter Tony Cook contributed to this story.