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Neal Boortz: Have Mouth, Will Talk
How a smart-ass white nerd from Texas rose from obscurity to become our town’s top radio talker with his politically incorrect rants. Today Atlanta — tomorrow the world?
Neal Boortz’s feet are upon his desk. The talk radio host sits , munching animal crackers, under a sign that reads WHO ELECTED HER? The jawbone of an ass, a real one, is mounted on one wall, a bright red Soviet flag on another. Photos, off-color signs — HE DOESN ‘T INHALE, HE SUCKS — and goofy posters — Slick Willie, Hooters Guys (a bearded male bimbo holding a plate of chicken wings) are plastered everywhere. This is not an office, it’s a boy’s room and Boortz, all sly grins and mischief, is an overgrown kid, Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, if you will, in the ’90s. “I was your quintessential nerd in highschool,” he says. “A geek.” He swallows a handful of crackers.
“Still am to some degree.”
Photograph by Jason Maris
No kidding, Neal. How many men driving red Mercedes SLs wear saddle shoes? And harlequin sweaters? How many grown men pose for photos hugging blue airplanes? The answer: It doesn't matter. Neal Boortz is far and away the most talented and popular radio host in Atlanta, trouncing everyone save occasional slivers of the bubble gum and hip-hop market. He draws more than twice as many listeners as Rush Limbaugh does for WGST, pulls down a salary well into six figures, has advertisers begging to be on his show. And yes, he owns the plane, a Mooney 201.
At night, his acid-tongued, anti-government rant — rebroadcasted as ReBoortz on News/Talk 750 WSB's powerful 50,000 watt signal — reaches 38 states. The Internet — the Boortz show is carried live — is generating followers, if not fans, from Brooklyn to Moscow. A home page — http://www.boortz.com — gets 150,000 hits a day (16 million in its first year). How is all this happening to a guy who once sold rugs at Rich's?
''I'm an entertainer," Boortz says. "Not a journalist or spokesman for anybody. Truth is a lot of my listeners absolutely hate what I have to say." No kidding, Neal. Talk radio is supposed to be a conservative phenomenon, a crie de coeur from America's great Gap-wearing, feminine hygiene spraying middle class, those heartland millions who distrust the government and its lackeys in the media. Here's Boortz playing that violin: "People listen to my show. They hear things that they never read in the newspaper and never see on TV news. And they say 'Well damn! Why didn't I read that in The Constitution this morning?' "
Could he be referring to the following information exchange that took place while Bill Clinton was battling to save his presidency?
Boortz: Why is Chastity Bono wearing a neck brace in Lake Tahoe? She didn't run into a tree. Could she have smacked into a bush?
Female caller: She got up lickety-split!
Know what talk radio really is? Revenge of the nerds. Remember the kids who were awkward, shy or unfashionable in high school? (Most of us were those kids.) Kids lacking athletic ability or social grace; kids born without a silver BMW in their garage. Kids who went to community colleges, not elitist universities; who bagged groceries at the A&P; who didn't smoke much marijuana, but inhaled when they did; who joined the ROTC even when the war was over. Baby boomers whose adolescence was not eternal, but fixed; who lived not in mythic, moneyed America, but in another America, a land of endless opportunity — if you were willing to fight and scrimp and struggle up.
They're doing quite well now. And they're mad as hell. Suspicious, scared and resentful of anyone who isn't exactly like them.
Neal is their paragon. Not Rush Limbaugh, that pudgy crusader who lost his way and a chunk of his audience in a cloud of cigar smoke and bestsellers, who readily surrendered his virtue for a table at the 21 Club; not Newt Gingrich, stymied by the perks and politics of being Mr. Speaker. That's right, Neal Boortz —military brat, graduate of John Marshall Law School, and Homer Simpson look-alike — is becoming, for god's sake, an icon.
"Who wouldn' t want to be Neal Boortz?" says Belinda Skelton, Boortz's producer. "He gets to play the leading role in a movie every day."
To the 500,000-plus men and women who tune into WSB every morning, Boortz is more than mere celebrity. He's St. George skewering all of Nerd-dom's dragons , making the big bucks, pounding like the Sixth Fleet on the Power Elite, getting away with jokes and innuendo that would make Lenny Bruce cringe. "If I'm tapping anything," he says, "it's the frustration of people who have something to say at work or home or in some social setting and just can't do it. I do it for them. I don't take prisoners."
No kidding, Neal. Last September, during the broadcast of Princess Diana's funeral, he fires a wadded piece of paper at the TV monitor in his studio. "Guess what folks," he shouts. "She's dead! And she's not gonna come back to life! Okay! And guess what else? In the grand scheme of things in this world she is relatively unimportant!" He rants on, labeling Diana's marriage to Prince Charles a "pile of whale squeeze," Charles a "flounder," the Windsors inbred cretins, does sound effects (Dodi and Diana having sex), mocks Diana's interest in banning land mines, then roars, 'This country is on a water slide to hell, and we're worrying about Princess Di!"
Funny thing is Boortz was ahead of the curve: The cycle of macabre Di jokes didn't kick off for another week. Truth is, those high school nerds were really pretty clever and very salacious. Grown-up, they love the lesbian and gay jokes, celebrity bashing, character assassination and sexist balderdash Boortz spoon-feeds them between massive doses of libertarian politics. Neal has gotten so much mileage out of Bill Clinton he should put him on the payroll. His hilarious skewering last spring of Monica Lewinsky (" ... in a low-cut dress, her mammary glands flopping around like two sweat socks full of sand") lit up the phones for hours.
Boortz, remember, is an entertainer. Like Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia, he's got these brooms and slop-buckets going and can't tum them off. "Sometimes I just roll my eyes," says former UGA football coach Ray Goff, a good friend. "I can't believe what the guy's saying ... about friends of mine."
Boortz is regularly accosted in restaurants by folks wanting to continue a radio debate, tell a joke, sit down and have dinner. ''I'm flattered by the attention," he says, "it's troubling when they try to act upon it." He recalls sitting in his north Fulton house one afternoon, "when all of a sudden I hear somebody I don't know screaming for me to come down and engage them in conversation." It wasn't an assassin, but a particularly argumentative real-estate woman.
"These people think they know me," Bo'ortz says. "They think I'm this writhing, raving lunatic 24 hours a day, driving down the road with my head out the window yelling, 'Clinton Sucks!'"
Hey! How many Neal Boortzes are out there?
This one has a personal trainer. He's into race-walking, a sport guaranteed to vouchsafe his nerd credentials. Hates cats, loves hot-air balloons and airplanes, lives with his wife in the white-flight suburbs, failed his army physical back when Vietnam wasn't a tourist destination. This guy, says Goff, changes the decor in his house every time he picks up a new furniture sponsor. He lives large: takes ski trips, goes white-water rafting in Colorado, catches the shows at Las Vegas.
He has a good heart: Boortz, an Angel Flight volunteer, uses his plane to ferry cancer and transplant patients to hospitals around the Southeast. His wife, Donna, does volunteer work in hospices; she's part of an organization, the American Leprosy Mission, that delivers medicine and hope to the afflicted.
Boortz is well-read, hyperinformed. This guy gets up at 5:15 a.m., spends 45 minutes reading e-mail, then races like Icarus across the Internet, scanning the front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times, Investor 's Business Daily. He absorbs the Drudge Report, the electronic rag that broke the Lewinsky story when Newsweek blinked, trolls through USA Today and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Does the same thing all over again at night. "People think I run my mouth for three hours and make a good living," he says. "Pisses 'em off."
Take away this guy's microphone and he's scared. The old fears resurface and Boortz is once again the shy, gawky outsider, the eternal stranger, uprooted every few years as the Marine Corps played hopscotch with his father's career. Watch him at a remote broadcast. He'll talk and kibitz you silly until a commercial break, when the thin line separating him from the flesh-and-blood world crumbles. Then he can act like the main attraction in an Elizabethan bear pit. "Sometimes that comes across as arrogance," he says. "I hate that it comes across as arrogance."
The public Neal Boortz wants Bill Clinton impeached. The private Neal Boortz likes Clinton. He's been with the president on Clinton's annual Renaissance Weekend retreat on Hilton Head Island. The two have corresponded. "If I was gonna go to The Gold Club and sit there and swill beer and stuff $5 bills into garter belts," says Boortz, "Bill Clinton would be a great guy to do that with. A marvelous guy."
Reporter: So you don't have a moral problem with Clinton?
Boortz: Oh yeah. I think he's a whore dog.
The public Neal Boortz's heroes very much resemble the private Neal Boortz. Not nativist yahoos or Dr. Strangeloves, but bootstrap successes like Benihana founder Rocky Aoki. "The guy worked in New York City as a parking lot attendant until he had enough money to buy an ice cream truck," says Boortz. "He drove it through Harlem. Then opened a restaurant with four tables!"
When Boortz arrived in Atlanta in 1967, he had his folks (his father, a retired Marine, worked at Lockheed) and "nowhere to go." He had studied journalism and aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, but he landed a sales job at a department store, made the rounds of local TV and radio stations, careful not to let, as they say, the slamming doors hit him in the rear. At Rich's he rose from hawking jewelry to rugs, became a devotee of WRNG radio's Herb Elfman. Boortz, desperate as a drowning man for air, bombarded Elfman with calls, read him little scripts he'd scribbled. "One day I'm watching TV," Boortz recalls, "there's a story that Herb Elfman has committed suicide. Guess who's at that station at daybreak the next morning saying 'You need somebody to do his show?' "
He hung on until 1974, when WRNG – its 1,000-watt signal a penlight among radio stations — dumped him. Boortz drove to Schenectady, N.Y., won a job with a 50,000-watt station, quit when Donna, his wife, took a look at the place. Back in Atlanta, he enrolled in law school, worked alongside Donna — by Ray Goff's account the "backbone" of the Boortz family — loading mail trucks until he graduated, went back on the air at WRNG. "Donna," Boortz says, "busted her rear end to come up with the money to keep me in law school."
Boortz jumped to WGST in 1983. Ronald Reagan was king; talk radio sounding its rightwing drumbeat. Boortz, a drum major, pounded away, but was still unable to support himself doing radio: "I'd go to the law office at 5 a.m. and work for two hours, then do the radio show, then grab a hamburger on the way to the law office, then work there till 11 p.m., go home and fall asleep."
Along the way, Boortz met a guy pumping gas at DeKalb Peachtree Airport. A guy "no one would give the time of day." Another outsider named Evander Holyfield. Boortz became the young fighter's attorney. The job was not without its stresses and Boortz resigned in 1990. ‘Evander Holyfield is one of the finest people I've ever met' is all Boortz has to say on the subject.
No, Don King didn't eat Neal's lunch. Those familiar with the situation suggest that leading members of Atlanta's black power structure — former mayors Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson — arriving late but hungry at Holyfield's table, decided no right-wing, honkie, talk-show yahoo was gonna represent their champion. Evander's new lawyer was a black man with Ivy League credentials.
Holyfield, who could not be reached for comment, later sued Boortz and other members of his management team in the aftermath of a failed Subaru dealership investment. "It had nothing to do with representing him as a boxer," Boortz says. "It was settled and disappeared."
But the sensitivity surrounding his representation of Holyfield lingers. It emerged during Boortz's volcanic eruption last year with Mayor Bill Campbell in WSB's studio — clearly the angriest moment of Boortz's career.
It began when Campbell walked into the studio after Boortz had attacked him on the air for mismanaging the Atlanta Empowerment Zone:
Campbell: What's so sad is how preoccupied you are with me, Neal. You must have a picture of me on your pillow.
The two spar, shouting each other down.
Boortz: Your credibility is going into the toilet just like your campaign.
Campbell: The last time I ran, you did this same shtick and I only won with 73 percent of the vote. Let me ask you a fundamental question. Where is the Empowerment Zone?
Boortz: It's over there ...
Campbell (cutting him oft): Don't stutter ....Where is the Empowerment Zone? How many people live there?
Boortz: Don't know.
Campbell: That's the trouble.
Boortz: You gonna ask me something or you gonna run your mouth?
Campbell: You've run your mouth for a long time, so you gonna listen to me today ... There's a news break. After it, Boortz does a recap, then:
Campbell (sarcastically): By the way, Neal, Evander Holyfield sends his regards ... We talked a little about how good he's doing now and the fact he's getting ready to open up his 57,000 square-foot, $20 million home. How he's fighting for $35 million a fight. I was sorta thinking about when you were representing him. He was living in an apartment over on Lenox Road. He was fighting for about $20,000 a fight. It's sort of interesting how your great legal skills have transferred into financial well-being for Evander ....
Boortz (goes ballistic): Hold on! Wait! Wait! Shut the hell up for a second! Mr. Mayor, are you an attorney?
Campbell: Not a practicing one now.
Boortz: Are you a member of the state bar?
Campbell: I'm still active.
Boortz: I think you're being an unethical son of a bitch!
Campbell: Oh, Neal, come on . . . you're not taking this seriously?
Boortz (shouting): Shut up for a damn minute! I am taking it seriously. When you come on the air and take it upon yourself to talk about my representation of some of my clients, something you don't know a damn thing about . . . you owe me an apology! ... You're being a real son of a bitch and I want a damned apology!
Campbell: Let me ask —
Boortz: I want a damn apology!
Campbell: Neal, it's a —
Boortz: Apologize or leave the studio!
Campbell: You have slammed my character and yet I come on and ask you questions ... and now you feel hurt and horrified.
Boortz: You want me to start asking you questions about your private life?
Campbell: I have not talked about your private life.
Boortz: My representation of my clients is my private damn life; it is not a subject of this radio show!
Campbell: I ask you, in the future, to respect the job I've done ...
Boortz: I don't respect the job you've done as mayor. I think you've been a miserable failure.
Campbell: You are ranting and raving like a lunatic. You're doing the same thing you've done to people over and over and over again. When someone challenges you, you get upset, you lose control ... I speak for everyone who's been gored by your ranting and raving. Stick to the issues ...
Boortz: This shows you to be totally without class.
Campbell: That kind of comment — you think it's not a personal attack?
Boortz: No, it's an observation.
Looking back on the episode, Boortz says, "Bill Campbell sat there and wondered whether I was physically going to jump over the table. It's the only time I've ever been on the air that I lost control." Then, he adds, unrepentant, "There has been terrible, terrible mismanagement of this city by Bill Campbell." Campbell declined to comment on the exchange.
Boortz's move to WSB in 1992 was a triumph for him professionally and financially and helped drive a coffin nail into WGST. That was the year when Boortz asked his bosses at WGST for a raise. Intending to give up his law practice, he laid out five years of income tax returns and demanded the station pay him what he was already making practicing law and broadcasting. Once again the prospect of a closing door whacked him in the butt. "They offered me a virtual cut in salary," he says. When his contract was up, Boortz jumped to WSB. A lawsuit was filed — WGST demanded the right of first refusal — then dropped. The animosity remains. "It's like what the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto said after he attacked Pearl Harbor," insists Boortz. " 'We have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.' "
Eventually, WGST went into the tank. "PlanetRadio! We beat them 3-1, 4-1," Boortz chortles. "If they're a planet, it must be Ur-Anus!" According to the latest Arbitron ratings, now planetless WGST has tumbled to 18th place among metro area radio stations, and WSB, with Boortz, Dr. Laura and Clark Howard, is No.1.
“I’m not shy about talking about racial problems or anything else.” — Neal Boortz
No kidding, Neal! Last January when Laura A. Lawson, a public housing resident, was named chairperson of the MARTA board of directors, Boortz went ballistic, denouncing MARTA, the welfare system, and Lawson ad nauseum. ("Imagine this woman going to Cobb County and trying to get them involved in rapid transit.") A month later, he's still riled up. "She's on welfare for god's sake," he tells a reporter. "She lives in welfare housing. If she's, by God, so qualified, let her get a job and stop pilfering my pocket!"
Boortz's personal attacks on Lawson so outraged Lee Haven, editor of the Atlanta News Leader, a black weekly, he wrote an editorial headlined GET BOORTZ OFF THE AIR, asking readers to complain about the Lawson diatribes to Neal's advertisers. The real problem, insists Haven, is that Boortz's credibility among middle-class white listeners legitimizes the "real sickos" out there. "Boortz knows better," says Haven, "but he's willing to do it anyway. It's so easy to pick on people who are down already.”
"Aren't you guys winning?" Haven asks rhetorically. "It's not enough that you have millions, but I have to have nothing?"
"Nothing I say on the air is the result of animosity or hatred or bigotry or prejudice," Boortz insists. "It's honestly-felt opinion arrived at without any of that baggage."
Another oddity: Neal Boortz has a sizable black audience. Go with him to a ballgame or shopping mall and folks rush over to greet him. Hosea Williams, the old civil rights tub-thumper, treats Boortz like a long-lost soul brother. Listen to the calls pour in — pro and con — when he hits a nerve among black listeners. "There is no black monolith," insists Boortz. "What there is is a code of silence. Black people agree with a lot of what I say. They're tired of the civil rights professionals, but they're not going to stand up in their own community and take the heat."
See, Neal Boortz takes the heat for black folk. He takes the heat all the way to the bank.
Boortz: What does Ted Kennedy have that Bill Clinton doesn't have?
Belinda Skelton: I give up.
Boortz: A dead girlfriend. Do you realize how little trouble Mary Jo Kopechne was to Ted Kennedy after she was dead!
In February, Boortz was stirring up WSB listeners with a crackbrained legislative proposal that would allow the use of deadly force against burglars, car thieves, maybe even uninvited real estate women. "If it's 2 a.m. and you wake up and see some guy walking across your lawn with your TV," he railed, "Drop him!"
Then he was ranting about an "important national issue" he'd uncovered. Child pornography? Illegal immigrants? No. Involuntary servitude! Well sort of. One of Boortz's faithful alerted him that a teacher at DeKalb College was demanding that students spend 10 hours a month doing community service work under the guise of service learning! From the stink Boortz made, you 'd think Karl Marx was selling cabbage at Your DeKalb Farmers Market, in the booth next to Che Guevara: "The sovereignty of the individual is under attack!" he roared.
A week later he's still at it: "On Monday, a bill will be introduced in the Georgia Assembly, as well as a constitutional amendment, outlawing a requirement for community work as part of class work in any state-supported school or institution."
Now Boortz has written a book — The Commencement Speech You Need to Hear — that sold so well in Atlanta a revised edition is being distributed nationally as The Terrible Truth About Liberals. Like all masterpieces of Nerd literature — Rush
Limbaugh's turgid diatribes leap to mind — Boortz's work is fueled by frustration with the liberal establishment. "It happened because I started complaining about being in radio for 29 years and I've never been asked to give a commencement speech," he says. "Damn Kermit the Frog has given a commencement speech!" So he gave one — over the air one morning. It proved so popular he added his thoughts on race relations, gun control and libertarianism.
His work is not always so well received. Former Mayor Sam Massell acknowledges that "Neal's one of the best at what he does. It's just a shame that there's not a law against it." Liane Levetan, DeKalb County CEO, says Boortz has come after her on the air many times. Yet, she says "sometimes he's had the good judgment to give me credit. When people tell me Neal Boortz is making positive comments about me, I worry a little."
Such celebrity is not without cost. And talk radio, like nuclear fusion , is not easily controlled. Even more than television's third wall, talk radio is intimate, emotionally charged, voyeuristic. "I'm in the bathroom with these people," Boortz says. "I'm in bed with them, taking showers, eating breakfast. This personal relationship gets built up. They think I'm talking to them one-on-one."
Not a good idea, perhaps, but necessary to keep the relationship — and the ratings — at full boil. In 1984 a Denver talk radio host named Alan Berg so infuriated a band of Neo Nazis, they murdered him. While Boortz's enemies aren't that extreme, his program draws strongly felt calls.
"People tell me I put on some weird callers," says Belinda Skelton. "Imagine what I don't put on." In fact, 90 percent of Boortz's callers don't make the cut. "Scary people," says Skelton, "can make some great radio."
Until this year, one thing had always eluded Boortz. It was always out there, shimmering at the silvery edges of his consciousness — the one thing the Mercedes-Benz motorcars, ski trips, fawning fans and free-spending advertisers cannot provide. The Holy Grail of talk radio: syndication. "I hear Dr. Laura's syndication deal brought her $70 million last year," he tells a visitor who arrives at the end of his show. "Who the hell wouldn't want to be in the position of having something like that happen to them?"
The truth is, syndication is vindication, proof positive that Neal Boortz has made it to the Show; that he can hit and run with the Rush Limbaughs, the Dr. Lauras, yes, even the Bill and Hillarys.
"I will be syndicated with Clark Howard by the end of the year; ' says Boortz.
"Damn," he says. “I’d love to see how this dog and pony show would work in Topeka."
All things considered, contributing editor Vincent Coppola listens to National Public Radio.