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.
Bob Mohan, who does the late-morning show for KFYI, is the darling of the pickup-truck set. He likes guns, cleaning the rust off his old car and all the good old American virtues. He still thinks the Japanese got off too easy and that blacks get too many breaks from the federal government.
Jamie McFerrin fills in the midafternoon spot. She's just right for the siesta crowd. McFerrin's always deeply concerned and alarmed. She specializes in those issues that worry divorced women over forty. When not exploring these issues, she's bleating about drunk drivers or the drug menace.
The avuncular Earl Baldwin is KFYI's night man. Baldwin went on a diet that lasted so long that he must have looked like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by the time his contract for the diet commercial ran out.
Baldwin never loses his cool. His show is relaxing. His reactions are honest. He continually bills himself as the talk-show host with the highest nighttime rating. Since Baldwin has no competition in his time slot, the billing is unnecessary.
KFYI is clearly a station where no one has job security. Weber must be the most fearsome employer in America.
Leykis was fired. Mark Williams, another part-time talk-show host, was fired.
And finally, Victoria Jones was given the axe.
The Victoria Jones story is particularly piquant.
A citizen of Great Britain, she didn't have a green card to make her employment legal. Jones, I have been reliably informed by people inside the station, worked without pay for almost a year.
When Jones finally informed Weber that her green card was being issued, he sent her a note telling her she was fired.
The issue that sent talk radio over the edge was the congressional pay raise. Both KTAR and KFYI hammered on this issue for weeks.
It was perfect for them. They were all so irate. The congressmen were such easy targets.
By this time, Leykis was long gone. Of course, Weber fired him, too. But he has become a phenomenal success at KFI-AM in Los Angeles.
Leykis is a near genius at self-promotion. He found out his wife was having an affair shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. Rather than suffer alone, Leykis went on the air and unburdened his soul with his listeners for four hours.
When Cat Stevens, the old folk singer turned Muslim, said that Salman Rushdie should be murdered, Leykis announced that all Cat Stevens records should be banned.
Later, Leykis followed up by bringing in a steamroller and destroying Cat Stevens records in a parking lot. The stunt made the network news and forced the station's morning man to quit in disgust.
Leykis has been replaced by Jack Cole, also from Palm Beach with a previous stop in Boston.
Cole's specialty is singing parodies from Gilbert and Sullivan. Cole performs the same function as an entertainer in a brothel.
He is clearly a one-man band. Cole doesn't need guests or callers. For Cole, they appear to be mere vehicles for him to talk over, step on or browbeat.
He has attended West Point, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, and has a brother who he says is a homosexual. His father is a retired general, and Cole himself claims to have worked as a young, snotnosed conservative for crazy old Barry Goldwater way back in 1964.
Cole is a man who seems bent on creating a libel suit or getting himself immolated by a car bomb, so he's perfect for attacking congressmen.
During the hassle over the Dennis DeConcini land deals, our dimwitted senior senator made the mistake of keeping a guest date with Cole.
Cole turned DeConcini into a late-afternoon snack and then spit him out. Cole succeeded in doing the same thing at a later date to Senator John McCain, who considers himself the very picture of rectitude.
One day, McCain apparently thought he could control Cole better if he only talked to him over the phone.
Cole humiliated McCain with a totally contemptuous ploy.
To the tune of "Easy Street," Cole sang his own parody with Buddy Weems accompanying on the piano: "Sleazy Street."
With the congressional pay raise defeated, KFYI's Mohan demonstrated his own monumental megalomania.
For a week, Mohan patted himself on the back for halting the pay raise. Every time he was brought up short, Mohan issued a disclaimer that he really was crediting "The People."
But it's clear Mohan has gone over the edge. By now, he actually is overcome with his own importance as well as what he considers his power to direct the course of human events.
There even has been a discussion--on the air--by Boston talk-show host Garry Williams of creating a national network of talk-show hosts to direct current events.
But why wouldn't Mohan think he now has this much power? He is, after all, the same public-spirited citizen who thinks the AK-47 is a recreational weapon.
And last week, the defeat of the amphitheatre was the final straw.
Barry Young, by now certainly North America's most slippery and hateful morning talk-show host, believes he turned the tide.
So do Pat McMahon and Preston Westmoreland at KTAR. So do Mohan and Cole at KFYI.
Finally, Jack Cole, the expert on Ted Kennedy, General William Westmoreland, and Jack Ruby, seems to have flipped his lid.
Cole now has taken to conducting his own Friday evening round table with a panel of local thought manipulators.
From time to time, the panel has included Ed Buck, Leon Woodward, E.J. Montini, Joe Abodeely, and even Evan Mecham's former right-hand man, Max Hawkins. Unintentionally, it is a wonderfully humorous and zany show. By now Cole has become totally berserk with power and ambition. It is a role that could have been assayed only by the young Sid Caesar.
No one gets to talk on this show but Cole, who continually shouts everyone else down.
Once in awhile, you can hear the guests protesting in the background. Once I even heard Max Hawkins' muffled voice shouting: "Cole, you're a jackass."
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It reminds me of that powerful soliloquy Eric Bogosian does in the movie, Talk Radio.
"That's where I come in, isn't it?" Bogosian says. "I'm here to lead you through the dark forest of your own hatred and anger and humiliation. I'm providing a public service.
"What do you want to talk about? Baseball scores . . . your pet . . . your orgasms. . . . You are all pathetic. . . . I despise each and every one of you. I come in here every night, and I tear into you. I abuse you. I insult you. And you keep coming back for more. What's wrong with you? Why do you keep calling?"
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang but a talk show.