The Word on ‘Talk Radio’ : Eric Bogosian Finds Story in the ‘Fringe Element’ of the Media

Once upon a time, “Talk Radio” was a small play that writer-performer Eric Bogosian and Portland, Ore., artist Tad Savinar developed at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, and then moved to Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York in 1987.

It gathered attention to itself, but it was benign fame, scaled to the intimate, often insular theater world.

The attention--centered on Bogosian, whose reputation was reaching a zenith after cultivating the New York borderland between performance art and the stage for 10 years--was enough to get producer Ed Pressman interested in making a movie out of what was basically a monologue by a guy behind a mike.

And now, just as Oliver Stone’s film version (co-scripted with Bogosian) has changed the play, so the reaction has changed. “Talk Radio,” the movie, is controversial stuff--especially on the airwaves.


In the film’s opening weeks, it’s been difficult to turn on a talk show and not hear on-air exchanges about it. And it’s often the talk show hosts themselves who issue the most cutting attacks on “Talk Radio” (see Judith Michaelson’s accompanying article).

For Bogosian, a lot of it is hot air.

“To slam a movie about hate radio for fostering hate is like saying that a movie about the Ku Klux Klan will foster the Klan,” he says, adding that the death threats against Barry Champlain, “Talk Radio’s” shock jock, are not the imaginings of a feverish, Hollywood-inspired imagination.

“A radio host in Pittsburgh showed me written threats he received.” Yet to be completely authentic to all facets of a radio show, Bogosian notes, “would turn the movie into a stiff. Most radio stations are pretty uneventful.”

What about complaints that a Champlain-type host would never get a three-day notice, as happens in the movie, before getting launched on a national network?

“OK, they got me there,” he admits. “We also didn’t use the seven-second delay.”

What really raises Bogosian’s temperature, though, is the perception that “Talk Radio” is meant as a representation of all radio.

“Look, part of the media--TV and radio--is dominated by self-centered big-mouths. The Morton Downeys, the Howard Sterns. Those were the guys who inspired Barry Champlain. But they’re a fringe element. We’re not talking about the strait-laced hosts like Michael Jackson or Toni Grant.”

Bogosian couldn’t resist getting on the “Talk Radio” thumbs-up-or-down survey trend, and based on what he in half-jest called his “poll,” a minority of radio people are critical of the movie.

“If you poll guys like Barry,” he says, “they hate it. Besides, the movie’s not just about radio. It’s a portrait of the lost, soulless show business personality.”

Eric Bogosian is in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, and he’s trying very hard to get comfortable. New York-based, he likes to get the material for his performance works (“FunHouse,” “Drinking in America”) by, among other things, dropping in on transvestite bars and Bowery coffee shops filled with hookers and pimps. His life, he’ll tell you, has had its wild passages.

That’s the past. He’s 35 and married and has a young child. Home is no longer Little Italy, but the New Jersey countryside. No more the hustle of performance art gigs in downtown lairs. Now he picks his movies and prepares pieces for HBO broadcast (such as his upcoming “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”).

He roams the suite, pointing his guest to a sofa chair (“You want to sit here?”), unsure where he wants to sit, circling around the room (“Or how about here?”). With curly hair, tight jeans and pointed shoes, Bogosian looks like he’s in alien territory, wondering how he got here.

“It’s important for my life to run on a few separate tracks,” he says, “and one of them has to be dangerous.” He was referring to his visits to deepest Gotham, an adventure where theater and anthropology meet. “Too many of these hotel suites, and I’ll go soft and run out of things to write about.”

Such a crisis seems inconceivable at this point. Bogosian says he has felt such a “charge” from doing the “Talk Radio” publicity tour that he’s finding himself writing every day--"something I’ve never experienced before"--and sure enough, there’s an electric typewriter next to the room phone.

He has reason to write. As well as “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he’s working on “Blue Smoke,” a screenplay for Universal about New York’s jazz underground in the ‘50s. He’s also looking ahead to an ensemble play based on his youthful years in middle-class Woburn, Mass.

Bogosian, then, can’t be counted among those amazed at Oliver Stone’s work pace--editing “Talk Radio” while preparing his next film, “Born on the Fourth of July,” for instance.

“He does push it harder than me, though,” he adds. “And I found that the element Oliver and I share is answering the question, ‘What do I want to do?’ The work is the important thing.”

Stone and he also veer apart in a classically generational way.

“While Oliver was entrenched in the ‘60s, I came up in the ‘70s. I’m suspicious of the Establishment and the anti-Establishment. I’m also not of a school with a message to send, but of a smaller school which has something on its mind to talk about for an hour or two.”

Bogosian follows up on this, perhaps thinking like the exposed performer on stage: “My view is to look at yourself, the individual. Oliver’s is to look at society. And there’s that conflict in the film.”

Stone agrees with this assessment. However, Stone, talking by phone from Dallas, where “Talk Radio” was filmed and where he is editing “Born on the Fourth of July,” remarked: “I’ve never worked with anyone who was more intense than I am. Eric seems to know no limits.”

“Talk Radio’s” Barry Champlain uses the airwaves as a kind of blunt weapon and a shield to ward off what really is on his mind. Like shockmeister Howard Stern, he uses callers as cannon fodder for listeners’ entertainment.

The late Alan Berg’s biography, “Talked to Death,” written by Steven Singular, was used by Bogosian and Stone as narrative ballast in “Talk Radio’s” stage-to-screen transfer.

Like Berg, Champlain antagonizes the white supremacist group The Order. In real life, two Order members were given 50-year sentences in December, 1987, for Berg’s 1984 murder in Denver.

That was after Bogosian and Savinar molded “Talk Radio” for the theater. Even after Pressman became involved and bought the rights to Singular’s book for expanding the screenplay beyond the stage script, Bogosian says that it was voices such as Stern’s and Bob Grant’s that remained the key sources for Champlain’s character.

He’ll also reveal that Champlain’s real father was an outrageous punk-like persona, named Ricky Paul, whom Bogosian adopted during his days in the ‘70s playing tough New York clubs as well as the alternative art haven, The Kitchen.

“I did a verbal assault on the audience, like the punk groups did, only with words and action rather than guitars.”

Bogosian credits, as well, certain artist-friends of his, such as painters Robert Longo and David Salle, for their various techniques of juxtaposing seemingly incongruous images. They taught him, he says, “all sorts of secrets for writing.”

Another source was movies--particularly Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s masterfully caustic tale of TV’s early days “A Face in the Crowd.” The “Face” was Lonesome Rhodes, played by then-newcomer Andy Griffith, who turned from a humble country bumpkin into a monstrous video megastar.

“What disturbed me more, though,” Bogosian says, “was Kazan. He wrote, directed, liked to do it all. I sometimes see myself--the dark side--in him. He ruined his and other’s lives more than once. I wonder about the ambitious artist, devouring everything.”

This awareness, he suggests, has come about through a combination of two factors that ultimately made “Talk Radio”: his growing ability to discipline himself and get down to work, and looking at mass media.

“Our society thinks by way of mass media,” he observes, sounding a little like Oliver Stone. “It isolates us. Yet the good thing about talk radio is that it brings companionship. I know when I was out alone on the road, that voice coming over the air was a comfort. Then is mass media destroying relationships? I don’t know. And I don’t want to analyze it too much, because my creative needs come out of emotions, not theories.”

On disciplining himself, he digs deeper: “My wife, Jo Anne, used to say about me that she never knew anyone who did less in a day than I did. I’d get up at noon because I’d been up all night. And, of course, before writing, it was essential to hang out with my pals sipping coffee. By the time all this was done, there was no time to write.

“I hit the saturation point when I married Jo Anne (in 1980). We married right after we met, and I went right out on a European tour. I had to get it together.”

The next saturation point was when he was performing “Drinking in America” at Lincoln Center eight times a week. “I thought I could slide like before. No way. I had to be on . It was like having to perform terrific sex every night at 8. You have to develop an area of calm around that. Now I’m able to write at will--almost.”

Bogosian admits to enjoying the small storm kicked up by “Talk Radio,” and he isn’t shy about acknowledging that he would like to wield some creative power in Hollywood.

Then he catches himself: “It’s not that fame and attention can be temporal. They are temporal.”