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Somebody's Gotta Say It
By Neal Boortz
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Neal Boortz
All right reserved.
Death Knocks—Along with Opportunity
There was a time when I would have killed to get into talk radio. As luck would have it, I didn't have to.
The name Herb Elfman probably doesn't ring a bell, and there's no reason it should. His name is but a small, sad footnote in the history of talk radio, but a very important one in the history of yours truly. In fact, it can fairly be said that I owe my entire career to this long-forgotten pioneer.
Bear with me, now, while I put you through a short course in radio history. Don't worry, it'll get interesting.
Elfman, like many of us who eventually landed our own shows, actually started out as a caller. Way, way back in the 1960s, Elfman lived out in Los Angeles. For years he worked as a salesman, apparently for a portrait photography company. And he loved listening to a local blowhard on KABC named Bob Grant.
Yes, that's right, the Bob Grant—the one who's been called "The King of Talk Radio."2 Controversial, opinionated, and wildly popular, Grant went on to become a living legend at WOR in New York, blazing a conservative yet independent trail for more than a quarter-century before retiring not too longago.3 Grant was years ahead of nearly everyone else in the business. Even Howard Stern has credited him as a strong influence. WOR's website goes so far as to call Grant "the inventor of controversial talk radio"—which is somewhat truer than Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.
But still, I must humbly set the record straight. The fact is, Grant learned the ropes from the meanest guy in the business.
Grant had been working as a radio newsman since 1949, but it was when KABC hired him as sports director in 1962 that he met Joe Pyne, the station's headliner. By all accounts, Pyne was a miserable guy, on and off the air, and his show was a train wreck: People listened because they just couldn't help themselves. This guy was so nasty, he used to tell callers, "Go gargle with razor blades!"
From time to time, Joe Pyne allowed Bob Grant to substitute for him. Then, in 1964, when Pyne left KABC for an equally noxious television gig that lasted several years on NBC,4 Grant eagerly stepped in to fill his footprints.
Isn't it nice when things work out like that? I couldn't tell you from experience—my own big break wasn't anything like that. Which brings us back to Herb Elfman.
Elfman was one of Grant's devoted listeners in L.A., and became one of his infamous "pest" callers.
Now, you've got to understand, talk radio in the 1960s wasn't what it is today. It just wasn't a very popular format; the hosts literally had to beg for calls. So even a pest like Elfman had no trouble making it on the air.
For a while, at least.
Eventually, Elfman grew enamored of his status as a minor celebrity, and became increasingly strident in his opinions and on-air arguments with the host, until Grant finally had to ban him from the show.
Undeterred, Herb Elfman then decided to become the host of his own talk show.
As fate would have it, Atlanta was one of the last major cities in the country to come around to having an all-talk radio station, and nobody was expecting much when it finally happened in late 1967. WRNG—"Ring Radio," as it was known—was located at 680 AM, the last available spot on the dial.
"Radio does so many things bad that it is hard to know where to start," columnist Paul Hemphill wrote in the city's evening newspaper when the news was announced.5 And, fact is, he was right. Given what had come before, who was really expecting much from a new talk-radio show?
"There will be no music, just talk," explained another article in the Atlanta Journal just before the station's inaugural broadcast. "On-the-air personalities will discuss news events, feature interviews with people in the news, offer household hints, sports analysis and the like."
By then, Joe Pyne was a household name—and not a good one. "A lot of people have the idea that all-talk radio features a great deal of syndicated shows of the Joe Pyne caliber," the article continued. "But this is something that WRNG will steer clear of."6
And so it did.
For a while, at least.
WRNG tried hard to play it straight—so hard that two of its hosts, Micki Silverstein and Teddy Levison, actually won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for a documentary on police brutality.
Then, in February 1970, Herb Elfman came to town.
Until then, the closest WRNG had come to genuine controversy was a guest appearance by famous LSD advocate Dr. Timothy Leary—a hippie-era nutcase who would have come across as sane and reasonable next to Herb Elfman.
Yet, somehow, Elfman ended up on the morning show on Ring Radio. Not as a caller—as the host.
I was out there listening. I can't quite remember what I was doing at the time—either selling chemicals or writing speeches for the governor—but I was an Elfman fan. I was completely fascinated. So were a lot of other people.
I recently came across an old newspaper clip saying that Elfman "wooed his audience with conservative zeal," which explains, I suppose, why he appealed to me. "A churchgoer with a patriotic passion, Elfman castigated critics of the nation's institutions."7 But that hardly captures it. Elfman was a wild man on the radio—driven and unpredictable.
One day I picked up the phone, dialed the number for WRNG, and Elfman put me on the air. Before long, I was a regular caller.
There was always something in the news, something to talk about—one side or another to argue. Richard Nixon, still in his first term, was struggling with the war in Vietnam abroad and rebellious youth on the home front. William Calley was being court-martialed in connection with the My Lai massacre. NASA was trying to figure out just what had gone wrong on Apollo 13. A grand jury was looking into Senator Edward M.
Excerpted from Somebody's Gotta Say It by Neal Boortz Copyright © 2007 by Neal Boortz. Excerpted by permission.
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