Screaming at KFI’s ‘Verbal Combat’
As usual, Tom Leykis is screaming at his radio audience.
“I’ve been married two times, and I have told my best friends, ‘If I ever tell you I’m getting married again, PUT A BULLET IN MY BRAIN! Don’t let me do it. KILL ME FIRST!’ ”
Leykis, KFI-AM’s new afternoon talk-show host, pauses to take a breath.
“Looking at the way the divorce law works, I can’t see any good reason for men to get married. Let’s find out what you think. Let’s go right to the telephones. And, BOY, are they full!” he says, delighted.
The third caller is a woman who takes offense at Leykis’ attitude.
“I don’t think it’s right for you to say that women only want to marry men for their money,” she complains. “No wonder you’re getting divorced.”
Leykis tries to interrupt the woman’s tirade by shouting over her voice. “All you care about is listening to yourself talk,” he scolds. “You don’t care about anything else. YOU DON’T CARE, DO YOU? WELL. . . .”
With that, he pushes a button in the studio, and the airwaves are filled with the sound of an explosion. The woman has been “blown up,” Leykis-style.
This “verbal combat” is what KFI (640) is billing as its latest experiment in talk radio. Others see it as an obnoxious, exploitative and possibly even irresponsible attempt at grabbing ratings.
“In my opinion, on some things he has not been responsible,” asserts George Green, general manager of the king of L.A. talk radio, KABC-AM (790). “I don’t think that kind of blue radio will sustain itself in this marketplace. To do it, the broadcasters end up caring more about ratings than they do about their community.”
Leykis “is controversial, very opinionated and also volatile to some degree,” agrees Howard Neal, vice president and general manager of KFI, which in July switched to an all-talk format with Leykis as its centerpiece from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. “But he is also a fresh approach to talk radio.”
But is he? Obnoxious talk-radio personalities are no strangers to Southern California. The best known was the late Joe Pyne, who quit both radio and TV in 1969. And, of course, there’s Wally George, who’s on KLAC-AM (570) on Monday nights.
Leykis’ style most closely resembles that of professional loudmouth Morton Downey Jr., whose syndicated TV talk show airs locally on KABC-TV Channel 7. But Downey is a rabid conservative while Leykis is a flaming liberal--pro-choice on abortion, against the death penalty, pro-gun control and in favor of the legalization of all drugs.
The number of flamboyant and combative talk-show hosts who also are liberal is small in the extreme. The most famous was Denver’s Alan Berg, whose slaying in 1984 was the work of white supremacists.
Is Leykis picking up Berg’s mantle? “I’m not going to go on the air and change the world. It’s not my job to,” Leykis says.
So-called “verbal combat” seems to be a growing trend in talk radio around the country. New York, Miami and Boston all have Leykis-like hosts, and Downey used to appear on Chicago radio before moving to television. Leykis claims that more stations would switch to the format, “but the problem they have is there’s a shortage of people who know how to do this. If there were 1,000 controversial talk-show hosts, there’d be 250 new talk stations.”
KABC’s Green isn’t convinced it’s a bona-fide trend--yet. “If I see that kind of radio and TV sweeping the nation and getting acceptable with the public, then what’s happening is (that) the social consciousness is changing and I’m out of step with what’s going on. I could be very old-fashioned with smaller numbers. But I’d rather have a smaller rating with a stable of fun, responsible and community-oriented performers.”
In person, Leykis isn’t an obviously crazed maniac or an intellectual gray eminence. Instead, the 32-year-old Leykis resembles a grown-up Spanky from “Our Gang”--dough-faced, pot-bellied and surprisingly unthreatening.
A college dropout, Leykis is perfectly capable of giving a low-decibel, level-headed interview that belies KFI’s well-publicized image of him as “that lunatic.” But put him in front of a studio microphone and Leykis starts pacing back and forth, waving his hands wildly and snarling at even those callers who agree with him.
Which leads to the question of whether Leykis’ offensive manner on the air is the real thing or just a well-rehearsed bit of acting. “My controversy is not contrived. All the opinions I express on the air are my opinions, and I don’t change them,” he contends. “I don’t shout as much as people think. It’s a perception. Anyway, the reason I’m very low-key right now is because you and I aren’t arguing about anything.”
Leykis readily acknowledges that the raw appeal of his show comes from his abusing callers. “Callers think they can knock your block off and it’s a challenge for them to keep trying. And listeners want to hear the next caller who dares to abuse me because they’re going to get it worse than they gave it to me.”
Still, to Leykis, being a talk showman is more important than being a talk intellectual. “Sure, like some other talk-show hosts, I could read 100 magazines and 50 newspapers a day and know every world leader,” he says. “But when I did an appearance at the L.A. County Fair, the people out there were rooting for me to blow up callers.”
Have any tried to blow him up? He says he hasn’t been physically threatened since coming to Los Angeles. “But it has happened to me in my career and it’s part of the job,” he notes, refusing to give details. “I don’t talk about it because it encourages more of the same.”
Leykis, like most radio personalities, has kicked around quite a bit, most recently at radio stations in Phoenix and Miami. But it was in 1981 at an Albany, N.Y., station that he came up with his blowing-up gimmick “to get people who are abusive off the air” and wound up improving his ratings. Before that, he held jobs ranging from cable TV columnist to stand-up comic. He even sold real estate over the telephone.
He wasn’t well-known until this year when he was asked onto four national TV shows--”Oprah Winfrey,” “Geraldo!,” “The Morton Downey Show” and CNN’s “Crossfire”--between January and June to discuss the subject of controversial talk-show hosts.
Boasts Leykis: “I heard from lots of stations who wanted to hire me after that.”
“Why am I here? Because I can draw an audience. And in this business--and it is a business--my job is to deliver audiences to advertisers,” he says.
However, general manager Howard Neal acknowledges that “there have been some advertisers who have expressed a concern about the show. To my knowledge, there have been only one or two who’ve said, ‘I will pull out until I can be assured it is going to work.’ However, we knew going in that Tom will turn some people off.”
Is Leykis’ “verbal combat” just another version of “shock radio” favored by disc jockeys on FM radio stations around the country?
“No, because I haven’t mentioned my male organ on the air once,” he quips. “First, shock radio has no give-and-take with the audience, really. And then it’s just deejays sitting down with consultants to figure out what dirty words and double entendres are going to get the biggest ratings.”
Leykis is hardly a household name in Southern California as yet, despite KFI’s far-reaching, 50,000-watt clear channel. For one thing, KABC continues to dominate talk radio here, placing No. 3 among all radio stations.
By comparison, KFI’s share of the audience is minuscule. The latest ratings, for June 22-Sept. 13, don’t accurately reflect Leykis’ impact because his show didn’t start until July 11 when KFI changed over to an all-talk format. But among listeners aged 35 to 64, KFI garnered 2.3% of the audience, up from 1.8% last year.
Leykis maintains that the purpose of his show is to “present opinions” and his job is to “be a catalyst for other people to stake their claim on their point of view.”
But a view of what? So far, Leykis’ topics have ranged from the snide to the ridiculous, with only a few really serious subjects like wife beating thrown in for appearances. Otherwise, it’s the head of the Flat Earth Society claiming the whole U.S. space program is a hoax. Or tantalizing details of his divorce-in-progress.
The rest of the time Leykis is asking listeners (1) if their lives are more interesting than soap operas, or (2) if they’re “getting any lately” in the age of AIDS or (3) who they think is the stupidest anchorperson in Los Angeles. (KABC-TV’s Tawny Little won handily.)
“It may be a cynical attitude, but it’s realistic and I’m a pragmatist. I’m not here to tell people what they should be interested in. I don’t have an agenda,” he says, noting that he chooses most of the topics.
“This is what people really talk about when they go to the office in the morning, and I think that’s what people are more interested in.”
And if they’re not, then maybe they’ll pay him back for blowing them up on the air: They’ll tune him out.
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