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The Word on ‘Talk Radio’ : Mixed Reaction to Film From Real Talk-Show Hosts

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Times Staff Writer

And what do talk-radio show hosts say about “Talk Radio”--that movie where off-the-wall chatter between listener and host bounces back and feeds on itself and where, from the very beginning, the viewer knows that the man at the mike will be assassinated?

Some seemingly speak non-stop about it. Others are not talking at all. Still others have resisted seeing it. And KABC-AM (790), which likes to call itself the “talk radio” station, has banned any advertising or even discussion of the film on its air.

“I’m angry about it,” said KFI-AM’s Tom Leykis, “because there was no need to kill the main character. Using the shooting of (Denver radio show host) Alan Berg was, I think, a smarmy attempt to capitalize on all the publicity that that murder got. Alan Berg was a far more interesting character than the character in the movie. . . . What really troubles me is that this is the second movie in less than a year where a radio host is killed. Remember ‘Betrayed,’ where a liberal talk-show host got shot by a right-wing extremist? It’s real convenient for Hollywood to use radio talk-show hosts as fodder.”

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“It scares the hell out of me,” admitted deejay Jay Thomas of KPWR-FM, who worries about “Talk Radio” prompting copy-cat murder attempts.

“Some nut goes up there and shoots the hell out of him. Early in my career in Los Angeles, I was chased by a nut with a knife. I guess he thought my face was incredibly ugly on the bus. . . .,” Thomas quipped, referring to KPWR’s ads plastered across the sides of Los Angeles buses with his face and the slogan, “We apologize for Jay Thomas this morning.”

“The movie was so dark and depressing,” Thomas said. “That’s not the kind of radio I do. I play records; I make jokes. They threaten me, I take it back.”

“Talk Radio” is loosely based on the life of Berg, a liberal who was gunned down by white supremacists in 1984. Like Berg, whose show was on station KOA, the character of Barry Champlain (played by Eric Bogosian) had been in the men’s clothing business and had a quirky yet close relationship with his ex-wife. Berg was killed in the driveway of his condominium after arriving home from a dinner date with her.

“It’s a terrible film,” fumed George Green, president and general manager at KABC-AM. “It’s a misrepresentation of what this business is all about. I told them (the hosts of his station’s programs) not to give any publicity on the air to that movie. Of course, what they say in a newspaper is up to them.

“We’ve spent 25, 30 years portraying talk radio as being a quality medium with quality people,” Green added, “and they (the movie makers) took one small piece of talk-radio history with some murder in Denver and took a tremendous director, Oliver Stone, and concocted a picture that misrepresented what people listen to. They portray sickies who may be listening to other stations--but very few (stations). Very few managers would tolerate that kind of personality.

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“This is Hollywood at its worst,” he said. “This picture is not doing this community any good. There’s enough hostility in a community without reaching down for an incident uncomfortable to people in our business. . . . The real world is conversations. Do you think there’s any semblance between the motion picture and our radio station?”

Larry King said the fact that he was the only actual talk-show personality mentioned in the movie--”you’re going to be another Larry King,” Champlain is told early on--”makes it embarrassing not to like the movie. Alan Berg was very liberal. Morton Downey is very conservative. This guy (Champlain) really had no opinion. I would not listen to that show. It’s a kind of one-note show. The caller calls in. He’s going to get angry. You didn’t learn anything at all. I was bored. Mostly I was bored. . . .”

“I’m not racing out to see it,” said Lee Larson, vice president of KOA in Denver, who had been the general manager at the time of Berg’s murder. “I raced to read the book, and I found it very good and enjoyable. It captured the complexity of Alan, and it also helped you see where he was serious and where he was being a good entertainer. But since the movie was not a true reflection on his life, it’s not the first thing I want to see.

“People tend to exaggerate the talk-show host,” Larson added, “especially right now with what’s happening in television talk, with the debate as to whether some of the talk shows are trash television or a responsible form of entertainment. And Alan was certainly one pioneer in that area, being somewhat outrageous in the topics he chose to talk about, some of the opinions he expressed and the vehemence with which he expressed them.”

Not all the talk about “Talk Radio” was negative.

KGIL-AM’s Carole Hemingway deemed “Talk Radio” “a very powerful movie. Oliver Stone wanted to point out just where all the hate leads. It leads to a dead-end street, and we’ve been sort of inundated with the Morton Downeys, the Geraldos and their imitators on radio. . . . I’ll tell you something that doesn’t ring true. You never ever get that plethora of sick calls, one after another, but if a talk-show host spews and breeds hatred the way this one does, anything can happen.”

Despite concerns that the movie “puts all of us in danger,” Leykis said he found “Talk Radio” to be the “most realistic portrayal of radio” that he’s seen.

“The relatively dark studio in which he paces around. He calls people names. I do. He hangs up, which I do, and (the idea that) talent is nothing but meat. . . . And the board operator, the engineer, was a carbon copy of the engineer I had 10 years ago in Phoenix. . . .”

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What sounded particularly false to several talk hosts was the fact that Bogosian’s character would be told his program was being picked up for national syndication with just three days’ notice.

In New York, where he has been on WMCA for 38 years, Barry Gray said he hadn’t seen the film.

“It must be psychological because it played here in New York, and I didn’t go see the play either. The Alan Berg kind of radio is not what I do. Michael Jackson (of KABC-AM) and I are much more alike. Today I talked with a local Washington bureau chief about (Michael) Dukakis’ announcement he was not going to run for governor (of Massachusetts) again, and whether that meant he was running for President again. That’s the kind of radio I do. I’m not into insulting people.

“I think shock radio is going to shock itself out of business in another year. Like the Enquirer, there are just so many three-headed monkeys you can write about.”

And in New York, where disc jockey Howard Stern of WXRK has made a splash with sharp jibes and put-downs, agent Don Buchwald explained that “quite frankly, he (Stern) hasn’t been commenting on that (movie) at all.” Then, interrupting a reporter’s question, Buchwald hung up.

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