Bill Handel’s program is now the top-rated morning show in Los Angeles, but the feat is not the zenith of a lifelong dream to be a broadcaster. Nor is it even what he hopes people will remember about him once he’s gone.
Handel, 51, who just celebrated his 10th anniversary as morning man at talk station KFI-AM (640), also is founder and co-director of an Encino-based organization that facilitates surrogate parenting. It was his expertise in that field that got Handel -- a lawyer by trade -- on the air, first as an interview subject, then as host of a legal-affairs show that still airs Saturdays from 6 to 10 a.m. on KFI.
Those experiences led to his morning program, which airs weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m., and which pulled away from the tight race in a.m. drive-time. Handel and his crew snagged the top spot in the most recent Arbitron ratings, from March to June, as the market’s most popular morning show, combining outrageous humor with thoughtful discussions of current events -- sort of Don Rickles meets Dan Rather.
“One of the reasons the show is as popular as it is, within the entertainment is real information. And I’m immensely proud of that,” Handel said. “We’re doing a better job today than we ever have.”
Al Peterson, news/talk/sports editor of the industry magazine Radio & Records, said “the type of show that he does is pretty unique. It’s issues, but it’s not always heavy and serious. It’s Bill’s personality -- he’s part curmudgeon, part news analyst.”
The show has long won its target audience, adults 35 to 54, but now is tops among all listeners, ages 12 and older -- a change that KFI program director Robin Bertolucci credits to the show’s combination of news and humor.
“It’s not just spamming you with a lot of information,” she said. “It’s really taking the time and using the research. We have a smart audience, and they want to hear that.”
When she first came to the station at the end of 2001, Bertolucci knew Handel’s reputation as “a really big, loud, boisterous guy,” with a “unique, larger-than-life personality.” His outlandish humor and diverse personal politics grab attention and confound some listeners.
Handel says he’s staunchly pro-gay rights, pro-choice and pro-gun control. He’s also anti-illegal immigration, and thinks “the Santa Barbara channel should be lined with oil wells, because I don’t live anywhere near the Santa Barbara channel.”
When he gets different listeners to the same show calling him a communist and a fanatic right-winger, “I know I’ve succeeded that day.”
Peterson described Handel as “an equal-opportunity offender.”
Not everyone sees the humor, though. In 1995, Latino groups said he was insensitive about the death of Mexican pop star Selena. And the following year, Asian American groups demanded an apology for comments he made about figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan; Handel insisted he was being sarcastic, to expose the absurdity of racism.
He’s received several death threats, and takes them seriously enough that an armed guard accompanies him at public KFI events. He also won’t reveal the gated community where he lives, or where his twin 8-year-old daughters go to school.
The way Handel sees it, the complainers aren’t seeking justice for all; they just don’t like their group being made fun of.
“I’ve never had one complaint from a Korean [regarding] what I say about Hispanics,” he said, and insists that his biting jokes are accompanied by a live-and-let-live attitude. “I’m probably the farthest person from being prejudiced I know. Enough people obviously get the humor.”
During its 10-year run, the morning show has evolved from featuring mostly callers to now being a forum for Handel and his cohorts -- newsman Ken Gallagher, sports reporter Rich Marotta and engineer Paul T. Wall.
Handel also credits his producers, Michelle Kube, Jennifer Keller and Emiliano Limon, who spend hours scouring broadcast, print and online news sources for show fodder.
“We work very hard. But a lot of shows work very hard,” he said. “Any successful radio show is lightning in a bottle.”
Handel’s own career proves the point. He fell into radio after graduating from Cal State Northridge and the Whittier College of Law. In 1980, Handel was one of the first attorneys to specialize in the legal aspects of surrogate parenting, and founded Center for Surrogate Parenting to help shepherd couples through the legal and emotional hurdles in the process.
He said he was interviewed so often on the subject that reporters suggested he go on the air himself. He lasted a year at KABC-AM (790) in 1986, then did guest spots on KFI. He got his Saturday legal show in 1989 -- the program director who hired him was fired himself before Handel’s first day, so Handel simply showed up anyway, and kept doing so week after week. The Saturday show led to a weeknight slot in March 1993, and management moved him to mornings four months later.
In addition to reaching the top of the ratings and the 10th anniversary of his morning show, Handel will celebrate another milestone later this year: The center will celebrate its 1,000th baby born via surrogate parent, in-vitro fertilization and/or egg donation.
“When I die, I’ll probably get more press for doing this,” he said, gesturing around the KFI studio. “But that is the important stuff I’ve done.”