Veteran Host Softens Style for Day Show
The croaking voice of the permanently cranky leftist rises slowly to its bursting point: “You make me sick to my stomach. You must be monitored, for the sake of civilized people everywhere!”
It’s the type of comment that used to be red meat for veteran right-wing radio talk show host Ray Briem, who, during his first few decades at KABC-AM (790), regularly chewed up such arch-nemeses as the cantankerous Lefty Louise.
These days, Briem likes to cue up her immortal voice to kick off his afternoon show at Glendale-based KIEV-AM (870). Louise is long gone, but her cracks serve as a nod to Briem’s old snapping and growling days, and as a farewell to that harsher brand of late-night radio.
Some of Briem’s late-night callers have followed him into the blazing light of day. They’ll hear Briem praise Republican efforts to shrink the federal government and balance the budget as well as condemn Clinton administration policies, foreign and domestic--from Bosnia and NAFTA to immigration and health care reform.
The host also continues to offer Whitewater updates and alternative medicine tips. But after nine months, Briem knows that his 3:30-5:30 KIEV job is unalterably different than the nocturnal show that made him a radio institution.
Briem, 66, dresses like he talks: very conservative. Silver-haired and decked out in coat and tie, Briem walks into the all-purpose office KIEV provides for its hosts. He leans back in the office chair and reflects on how he arrived here.
The late Joe Pyne, the radio’s original shock-jock, served as Briem’s mentor at KLAC-AM (570) in the early ‘60s. Pyne’s hot blasts of rhetoric, which would sometimes compare callers to lower members of the insect family, helped turn KLAC into L.A.'s first full-time two-way talk station.
At first, Briem says, his own skills were limited to song intros and spinning records. “Joe would say, ‘Briem! Get rid of those records! Sit there and talk with the people!’ ‘About what?’ I asked him. He said, ‘Oh, you’ll think of something.’ ”
When he started the overnight gig at KABC, Briem started to find his own voice. He provided a home for such firebrand activists as Howard Jarvis, who used the show as the launching pad for Proposition 13.
The anti-tax movement became a talk-radio turning point, confirming the airwaves’ power to change politics. The result, Briem notes proudly, belies the notion that conservative radio “plays only to the fringe. We spoke to the people, and the people responded.”
A heart attack in 1979 prodded a deeper passion for nutrition and health matters, and dramatically softened his tough on-air style: “My body was telling me, ‘You’re gonna expire one of these days if you don’t cut this crap out.’ ” Thus, the ‘80s version of Ray Briem touted Linus Pauling and vitamin C as often as Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics.
At KABC, Briem dominated the post-midnight time slot, his listeners numbering as high as six-figures--a pattern maintained by his replacement Art Bell.
At KIEV, Briem’s numbers average under 18,000. His reach is additionally hampered by KIEV’s FCC license, which requires lowering its broadcast power after sundown to avoid interference with other AM stations.
Briem laments: “During winter, I can’t even be heard in Orange County,” one of his longtime bastions. Still, Briem’s show beat syndicated KMPC talk host Tom Leykis head-to-head in the winter ’96 Arbitron ratings period. Leykis was canceled by KMPC in May.
Given his training in Pyne-radio, it’s ironic to hear Briem freely denounce most of the shockmeisters and anger-jocks filling today’s talk airwaves. He can barely get out the words Howard Stern without wrinkling his face in disgust.
“I may like a lot of these people politically, but not professionally. I don’t like to bad-rap people, but (KMPC-AM morning host Bob) Heckler stinks. He’s awful, and same with most of that KMPC crew, including Xavier Hermosillo. (New York shock-talk host) Bob Grant calling blacks ‘savages’ is just garbage, not my cup of tea at all. (Talk hosts G. Gordon) Liddy, (Don) Imus, they all turn me off. Imus really made an ass of himself in front of the president. I don’t care who the president is, you don’t do that.”
Briem also doesn’t disguise his distaste for KFI’s afternoon drive team John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou or any radio psychologist. He’ll tip his hat, though, to pros such as Michael Jackson and Rush Limbaugh--and even his replacement at KABC, Art Bell. “‘He gets into weird stuff I’m not interested in, but . . . I admire his ability to sell (sponsors’ ads) on the air.”
Most important for a station, he says, is a variety of voices--something not found on Disney-owned sister stations KABC and KMPC. “It’s insane to have a steady flow from just the conservative end--Heckler, Dennis Prager, Larry Elder, Michael Reagan--and only Michael Jackson on the liberal side. What makes talk radio work is getting people with ideas from the whole range.”
As he was approaching 65, it looked like life after KABC for the single, long-divorced Briem would be filled with his other passions: flying, HAM radio and gardening. No way was he headed for a rocking chair, but he didn’t see a future in L.A.'s ever-changing radio market.
Other major talk radio stations--KFI, KABC and KMPC--focused on the always-coveted 18-49 age group and not on Briem’s key audience of over-fiftysomethings.
A phone call last year from KIEV owners Ron and Fred Beaton changed Briem’s active retirement plans. It seems fellow KIEV host and longtime friend George Putnam kept invoking Briem’s name on air.
“He was interviewing Pat Buchanan one day and asked him if he had thought of a running mate, and he said no. George said, ‘Well, I nominate Ray Briem!’ He kept praising me. I guess the guys in the front office started believing him.”
The handshake deal for a two-hour show was sweetened with bonuses (including ad sales percentages). But when pressed for what really lured him back to the mike, Briem ranks three reasons: “Money is third, working daylight hours is second, and, first, proving something to George Green.”
Briem says he’s had a sometimes rocky relationship with Green, KABC’s now-departed president--a claim Green denies. Though Briem expresses gratitude at the lavish farewell Green and the station arranged for him in 1994, “it was sometimes knock-down, drag-out with George.
“He intervened from time to time with my program content. I was once interviewing a history professor about the federalism era--this was 4:30 a.m. mind you--and George called my engineer and told us to get this guy off the air. It was boring, he said. That sort of thing.”
Green doesn’t recall the incident, adding that KABC’s policy was not to intervene. “Though if it happened once or twice with Ray in 27 years, he’s lucky. I rarely had to correct him. He did a great job for us, and he was one of the great performers of all time in late-night radio.”
Finding himself in the glare of daylight hasn’t fundamentally changed Briem. He calls himself “rigid,” adding that he knows his listeners and they know him. But occasionally there’s a shocker. A caller during a recent show, responding to the airplane crash in Croatia that killed Commerce secretary Ron Brown and more than 30 passengers, termed it “divine justice.” Briem--his silence speaking volumes--said nothing to contradict the caller. Limbaugh’s sport of Democrat-bashing is one thing; dancing on a Democrat’s grave is another.
Some opinions on the same issues uttered on Briem’s two hours are echoed on many shows on liberal, Universal City-based KPFK-FM (90.7). From holistic health to attacks on NAFTA, Briem’s diatribes regularly illustrate the blurring of political boundaries.
As Briem settles down before the mike in KIEV’s roomy studio that afternoon, he thumbs through a copy of “The Hot Zone” by Marc Lappe, an expert on drug-resistant diseases. Briem, a frequent critic of environmentalists, then interviews Lappe, an ardent environmentalist himself whose book is published by Sierra Club Books.
Contradictory? Perhaps. But such odd bedfellows, in Briem’s view, is what keeps him surprised about his job. “Talk radio plays to the extremes,” he states emphatically. “That’s stimulating. If you had just moderates on, how dull. This way, you have the listeners in the middle, mostly moderates, being bombarded by all of this.”
“The Ray Briem Show” airs 3:30-5:30 p.m. weekdays on KIEV-AM (870).