Blabber Mouths and Radio Egos

I used to relax by listening to the radio talk shows. That was before they started taking themselves seriously.

I'm still an avid listener. But I'm no longer able to relax while doing so.

There was a time when stately, plump Pat McMahon was content to interview the west side's busiest plumber or prattle on about how he'd just had another plate of poached salmon at Vincent Guerithault's on Camelback or Le Relais.

Like most lace-curtain Irish, McMahon has long since stopped going to restaurants where normal people eat.

In those carefree days, Preston Westmoreland was the boy enthusiast. He was always so eager to please. Westmoreland's chief problem, then as now, was an inexact knowledge of basic grammar and a tendency to overrate the quality and importance of his own dreary life experiences.

For the listening audience at KTAR-AM, it was all down-home and folksy. Nobody's feelings ever got hurt; not the callers and certainly not the talk show hosts or their guests.

There were appearances by Senator Dennis DeConcini or Congressman Jon Kyl or Mayor Terry Goddard. They came as regular as clockwork, and each of these politicos was treated with the utmost respect.

It was just the kind of programming that made barrels of money for the station. It was also the kind of talk you might expect to hear in Eureka, Kansas, or Humboldt, Iowa . . . places where Paul Harvey's still the king of corn.

Then something happened to change it all.
I guess you could pick the election of Evan Mecham as the start-up date for confrontational radio here in Phoenix.

Tom Leykis was program director at KFYI-AM, a station which few people knew was still on the dial.

The station run by Fred Weber, a small-time beer baron from Detroit, was just starting to make its move. As part of this thrust to gain listeners, the innovative Leykis struck a deal with the Mecham gang for Mecham to appear on KFYI regularly to answer questions.

But KTAR got wind of the idea. They already had the Phoenix Suns, ASU, and the Phoenix Cardinals. Why not have Mecham, too? Certainly, Mecham couldn't be any more boring or sleep- inducing than an ASU baseball game.

So KTAR stole the Mecham show away from KFYI. And all they had to do was promise that Pat McMahon would conduct the interviews and that the governor would be protected from the worst of the calls.

Mecham and his gang took the bait. The weird, little governor went to KTAR and his appearances made for the most compelling radio of the year. McMahon was tougher than anyone expected he would be. Surprisingly, outrageous calls got through. They provided Mecham a platform from which he made a total ass of himself.

My favorite was the caller for homosexual rights who warned Mecham there were more than 100,000 gay people in the state who would be ready to vote for his recall.

Mecham, ever the optimist, urged the caller to get them all together, and he'd be glad to speak to them.

Losing the Mecham deal lit a fire under the innovative Leykis. He became not only Mecham's sworn enemy but also KTAR's. Each afternoon, during his drive-time show, Leykis heaped scorn on Mecham, his followers and the cast of characters at KTAR, all of whom he treated as nerds of the first water.

Mecham's followers played right into Leykis' hands. They began lighting up the switchboards at KFYI, attacking Leykis as a Communist, a liberal, a homosexual and worse.

Leykis reveled in the confrontation. Quick-witted and brash, he provided us with hours of some of the most compelling listening ever heard here as he joyfully jousted with the Mechamites.

I would hope some tapes of a few of those broadcasts have been preserved. More than anything, the afternoon shouting matches between Leykis and the Mechamites reflect the way we were. They also demonstrate how easy it really was to make fools of Mecham's dedicated band of zealots.

Somewhere during this period, Leykis reached out to Palm Beach, Florida, and hired Barry Young as a morning talk-show host.

This was a mistake.
Young is one of those smarmy conservatives who's always willing to bow and scrape to political figures from the far right.

Young, at first, attempted to become an ally of the Mechamites. Even they would have nothing to do with him, because he, unfortunately, has a personality that reeks of insincerity.

The Mechamites rebuffed Young, leaving him with no recourse but to go on the attack. And he proceeded to do so with gusto.

Young pulled one of the cheapest stunts of the year on Sam Steiger. The station had contacted Steiger and asked him if he was interested in doing a talk show.

But Young went on the air and made it look as though Steiger was begging for a job. To embarrass Steiger further, Young began asking his listeners to call to say what they thought of bringing Steiger to work.

Clearly, Young knows nothing about Arizona and the tremendous following Steiger has.

The calls came pouring in and everyone wanted Steiger on the air. Of course they did. Later, when Steiger went on the air for KOY, his show quickly and predictably developed a strong following.

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