This article originally appeared in our February 1997 issue.
Atlanta’s millionaire consumer guru Clark Howard never aimed to be a media star, much less the darling of the public and the object of beautiful women’s attentions. The bespectacled Howard is a self-described nerd, a dweeb, or as he expresses it, “a complete flake,” whose idea of a fun Saturday night is sitting at the computer searching for best buys.
His notion of a thrilling dinner is a Burger King Value Meal (a double cheeseburger, medium fries and a medium diet Coke for $3.17 including tax), which he’s perfectly content to eat twice a day until, finally, his wife puts her foot down. Or he’ll go for Shoney’s burger and salad combo, which gives a buyer a salad for just $1.49 versus ordering it separately for $3.99. “I mean, it kills me to spend too much,” he says. “Just kills me.”
His legend consists not of nightclub escapades, like so many celebrities, but of tales of exceptional frugality: How he’ll drive 10 miles out of his way just to save a penny a gallon on gasoline. How he works out at a fitness center at Piedmont Hospital because if he ever has a heart attack, he jokes, he won't have to pay for an ambulance to take him to the emergency room. How he's furnished his elegant Buckhead home with damaged and repossessed furniture. How his favorite place to shop is Sam's Club, and he can't fathom his wife's fondness for malls.
Yet Atlanta's consumer guru is far from scorned for his tightwad ways. He's made himself a millionaire and a cult figure, a local celebrity besieged by fans when he ventures into a restaurant, recognized by radio listeners while honeymooning in Hawaii. Teens love him, travel agents quake at his pronouncements and beautiful women fawn over him.
His face is everywhere, in every important media outlet, as familiar as Ted Turner's, as trusted as Monica Kaufman's, as he admonishes Atlantans how to live and save and travel—with his consumer news on WSB-TV, travel tips and a daily three-hour consumer awareness show on WSB-AM, two travel columns and a consumer column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It hardly matters that he has none of the "sophisticated cool" expected of television newsreaders or that his lilting Southern drawl was never meant for radio. Who cares if his newspaper columns can be reminiscent of "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essays? He tells Atlantans what they want to know.
His fans love bargains, but even more, they love Clark, and even more important, they trust him, He has an endearing Jimmy Stewart-like sincerity that makes it seem inconceivable that he could tell a lie or put on airs. Kim Curley, executive producer of his radio show, sums up his appeal this way: "People believe in Clark."
It is minutes after 2 o-clock, and Atlanta’s consumer guru is in the WSB-AM studio gleefully relating to his nearly 300,000 listeners how he found gasoline over the weekend for 89.9 cents a gallon. To look at him is to know his joy is no put-on. He's clad in a generic polo shirt (sans alligator), scuffed-up off-brand sneakers (why pay extra money for the privilege of wearing a company logo?) and nondescript white tennis shorts. For lunch he had a cheeseburger, and he teases his first caller by telling her that she must not be a "rock-gut cheap buyer like I am."
But he grows serious as he listens to a phone call from a listener named Diane, who is explaining how she bought a used car and financed it through her credit union. She had checked and knew she had 21 days to get it registered and buy a tag. Simple enough, right? Until you throw into the equation the bank that held the original owner's title. Diane waited two weeks for the bank to do the paperwork transferring the ownership. Then three weeks. Then four. Finally it arrived, about six weeks after the fact. And when Diane went to get her tag, she was hit with a $21 late fee.
Twenty-one dollars. No big deal to anyone. Except Diane. And, now, Clark Howard. "The first thing I want you to do is contact the director of the tag office, explain what happened and see if they will waive the late fee," he tells her. His voice is soothing and compassionate: friend, not radio talk show host. "Try to reach them this afternoon and call me back to let me know what happened. Okay?"
Despite his soft tones, Howard's dander is raised. He has received call after call to his radio show about the bank, problems arising out of its recent acquisitions. He has resolved to pound them on the air until they clean up their act—not only are customers encountering problems, but he thinks the bank's attitude is rather cavalier. Without mentioning the bank's name (he cautiously won't name a company on the air unless he believes he's really got them nailed), he talks about a previous caller who wanted to pay off her car loan, but no one could find the loan documents.
"Now we have Diane, who ends up a victim and a money loser," he says, habitually emphasizing certain phrases in many of his sentences as a teacher might, "She was not even a customer of this giant monster bank, and she loses. The people at this giant, monster out-of-state bank say there's no problem with this merger, that they just acquired assets. Then why are we getting all these phone calls from people who are having problems? Could it have something to do with the fact that the bank is also buying customers who are people?"
Howard hits a button and goes into a commercial break. Off the air he says one listener claimed to have actually reached the president of the corporation in Charlotte, who insisted there were no problems in Atlanta.
"Oh yeah?" the person retorted. "You must not be listening to Clark Howard." The president was baffled. "Who's Clark Howard?"
It’s a question he likely won’t ask twice.
Clark Howard, 41, may well be the best consumer advocate in the business and the most trusted figure within earshot of WSB.
His radio show receives so many calls that Howard convinced WSB to start a consumer action center to help the hundreds of people each week who couldn’t get through. The center opened in 1993 with a staff of one. Howard went on the air, asked for volunteers, and the center is now overrun with 120 loyal disciples who donate their time and field more than 2,000 distress calls a month from people victimized by everything from shady used-car salesmen to botched surgical procedures. And the calls come in from as far away as Taipei.
Howard's top-level staff is a mostly female club, and they clearly mother him. "On one hand, he's so savvy and so worldly," says Beverly Molander, the center's director for the past two years. "And then he's so eggheaded and so naive; there's really this innocent quality to him."
Adds Kim Curley, "He loves to come in and make fun of himself: 'I'm such a flake, I'm such a goof-off.' It's so cute."
If you want to see him flustered, just ask Howard about his reputation for attracting some of the most desirable women in Atlanta prior to his marriage (his second; he has a daughter from a previous marriage) in October 1995. He starts to answer, then abruptly stops. His face turns crimson, and he looks terribly uncomfortable during a very long, 20-second pause. Then, finally: "Boy, I'd better be careful what I say."
That's followed by another pause. "Being single was a lot of fun," he says, carefully measuring his words; at the same time, he seems ready to burst out into embarrassed laughter. "I did seem to meet a lot of wonderful women. I really had a great, great time. Some people think I'm nuts to have gotten married, but I'm nuts about the woman I did marry, and that's what made me settle down."