Tearing it up

Times Staff Writer

Operating from his private radio studio on the 15th story of a San Francisco luxury apartment building, Michael Savage, host of the nationally syndicated "Savage Nation" talk show, is on a tear. A scandal at the Air Force Academy was in the news; several female cadets had complained of sexual harassment, including an alleged rape.

Savage, leaning into the microphone, decides to blame the victim, who said she had been drinking with her male classmates and playing strip poker when the incident occurred.

"If a girl gets drunk and plays strip poker with high-testosterone guys, what does she expect is going to happen," Savage rages, breaking into a mocking falsetto. "My gawd, I was raped."

In Savage's opinion, that scandal and the earlier Tailhook incident involving Navy pilots, is "all part of the antimilitary strategy of the far left." By desexualizing fighting men, Savage rails, the left is neutering America, sapping the country's vitality on the eve of what he sees as a looming war against "Islamo fascism."

This is typical Savage style. Take a current issue, mine it for possible political correctness, and recast it as a left-wing conspiracy. It is a formula that works.

After an earlier career as a writer of homeopathic medicine and folk-remedy books, Savage has emerged as one of the hottest radio hosts in America, reaching 6 million listeners in a network of more than 300 stations nationwide, including KPLS-AM (830) in Los Angeles. His book, also called "Savage Nation," has been atop the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

MSNBC has hired him to host his own live TV show, which is to be seen for the first time Saturday. That news sparked an immediate wave of protest, led by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Organization for Women and the liberal media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

In the past, the GLAAD has blasted Laura Schlessinger and the rap superstar Eminem for what it calls their homophobia. In 2000, the alliance targeted Schlessinger's plans for a TV talk show and launched a high-profile protest that culminated in the cancellation of her short-lived show.

GLAAD spokeswoman Cathy Renna says Savage -- who peppers his radio commentary with terms such as "cripples" "mental defectives" and "perverts" -- represents a troubling trend for a national network like MSNBC, which purports to be a 24-hour news channel but is changing some aspects of its programming to compete better with a top-rated network like the Fox News Channel, which is unabashedly political. Besides Savage, MSNBC has also created shows recently for former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former Republican Congressmen Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough.

"The key issue," said Renna, "is the extremism and the name-calling. There is a journalistic standard that needs to be upheld here. There is a fundamental difference between political debate and a person who calls people names."

Savage claims to have many gay and lesbian listeners. "On a sexual level I'm a libertarian," he said. "I care about national identity but sexual identity isn't my business." In what he described as a sign of his tolerance, Savage said he hired a "nice big strapping lesbian" as his personal security guard.

In its push to get the Savage TV show canceled, the GLAAD Web site (www.glaad.org) features audio clips of what the group considers offensive Savage on-air comments.

So far, at least, MSNBC is not budging. "We are encouraging people to watch the show before they make any judgments," said Alan Winnikoff, vice president, corporate communications.

Savage, meanwhile, is furious, trashing his opponents on his radio show. "They are making me sound worse than Saddam Hussein," he bellowed in a recent interview. "They have more sympathy for Saddam than they do for me. They send inspectors into Iraq but they won't let me disarm."

All this from a base in San Francisco, one of the last great bastions of the American left and undisputed pillar of P.C. According to the Arbitron ratings, Savage is the leading afternoon drive-time talk show host in the Bay Area, averaging more than 226,000 listeners a week. Clearly, he has tapped into a long-neglected niche.

In fact, some contend that Savage's success here has a lot to do with the desperation of conservatives in the Bay Area, who have seen Republican registration dip to an all-time low. In the recent governor's race, the GOP was outpolled by the Green Party. "Republicans have a very rough time here," admitted Arthur Bruzzone, a longtime San Francisco Republican Party leader. "We are under siege and so we have to be stronger. I think that is why Michael Savage has been so successful and so unrestrained. Savage has great style, like Lenny Bruce only much, much angrier."

In reality, Savage confided, he is basically a nature-loving family man, married father of two who likes nothing better than to take his Bayliner 38-foot twin-diesel power boat out into San Francisco Bay, anchor off Angel Island and "observe waterfowl and the seals."

Savage, whose real name is Michael A. Weiner, began his radio career in 1995 at San Francisco's KSFO, a Walt Disney Co. all-talk station that detractors have dubbed "seig heil on the dial" because of its steady stream of conservative programming, led by the gravel-voiced 60-year-old shock jock, who lives in Marin County.

By dwelling on his pet peeves -- illegal immigration, multilingualism and cultural diversity -- Savage trails only Rush Limbaugh (14.5 million listeners); Sean Hannity (10 million); Howard Stern and Dr. Laura Schlessinger (8 million each) at the top of the national talk radio heap, according to Talkers Magazine, the authoritative industry publication.

Not since the days of the late Los Angeles-based radio demagogue Joe Pyne has California produced such a bombastic right-wing voice, say radio veterans. In fact, many compare Savage's confrontational style to that of the percussive Pyne, a former Marine who died in 1970. Pyne's KLAC trademark was to tell irritating callers to "go gargle with razor blades."

Talkers Magazine editor and publisher Michael Harrison describes Savage as "the edgiest of the current mainstream big-time talk show hosts. He is a brash, right-wing, controversial host ... who doesn't worry about political correctness."

For those who feel alienated by San Francisco's rainbow-hued, left-wing tilt, Savage seldom disappoints, seizing every opportunity to bash San Francisco icons. When famed liberal San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen died in 1997, Savage celebrated the occasion by using sound effects to simulate urinating on Caen's grave. When rival talk show host Michael Krasny, a liberal whose popular morning show airs on public radio here, delivered the commencement address at a Marin County High School -- an event attended by both men's daughters -- Savage jeered him from the audience.

His book, "Savage Nation" (WND Books, 2003) is replete with derisive references to his adopted hometown, which he sometimes calls "Sicko-Frisco." In its pages, Savage describes several ventures into seedy neighborhoods where he inevitably encounters a hostile reception or a depraved scene. On one such walk he meets a "street bum, one of the plagues of America, drunk, whacked out of his mind on crack."

"San Francisco," Savage writes, "is filled with human plague like this because of the ultraliberalism that is killing the city. I'm convinced it's the only city left in America that permits eels like this to crawl around.... It's the city of, well, not tolerance, but of hatred.

"Hatred for anything normal.

"Hatred for Law and Order.

"Hatred for decency.

"Hatred for mama and apple pie and the roses in your hand."

Savage said he is not surprised by his success as an ultra-conservative talk show host in a predominantly liberal town.

Despite his constant criticism of the city, Savage says he still loves San Francisco. He keeps an apartment here, and he revels in the panoramic view from his studio that takes in North Beach and Alcatraz Island. He loves his nightly strolls and frequent dinners at Fisherman's Wharf. "Where would Voltaire have been without his Paris?" Savage asks.

"My numbers are not all rednecks in pick-up trucks," Savage said in one of several interviews arranged between his hectic broadcast schedule. "Certainly liberal Democrats are listening to me in great numbers too. Not because they agree with me. I think many have come to like me if not my politics. I'm like the uncle who always came over on Saturday who you couldn't wait to argue with and then you couldn't wait until he left."

During a recent broadcast he fielded a call from "Jose in Los Angeles."

"Are you a senor citizen?" Savage joked derisively.

Listeners, he said, appreciate his quick wit, puns and heavy sarcasm.

One section of his book, in fact, includes a hilarious account of Savage trying to order his ahi tuna "well done" in a tony San Francisco restaurant, where the fish is generally served blood rare or at least pink in the middle

When the prideful chef refuses, Savage launches into a tirade. "What attitudes they have in these liberal cities -- imagine the nerve? You're paying and he's telling you how to eat his fish."

Some people appreciate these screeds like a recent one in which he referred to the late Indian leader Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi as a "diaper-wearing moron," then, using dubious historical arguments, blamed him for the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. (In fact, Gandhi opposed the partition.)

"It's kind of a pleasure to see someone like Savage take over San Francisco," said writer and conservative publisher Peter Collier, owner of Encounter Books. "It is as though the regime of political correctness has become so formidable that saying the unsayable becomes an attractive option."

Savage is a short and dapper man, with a large head and a neatly trimmed goatee. Sitting with a loyal assistant in his darkened Embarcadero studio, it is hard to believe that this rather gentle person, with delicate hands, is the source of the booming voice and relentless radio assaults that are punctuated by soaring heavy-metal riffs from Metallica. The image conjured up is of the little man pulling the thunder-and-lightning levers behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."

Savage, who said he has received numerous death threats and who carries a loaded handgun, appears almost fragile, professorial.

Who knows how things might have turned out if just one of the 50 colleges Michael A. Weiner applied to for a job beginning in 1978 had responded positively. Weiner, father of two young children, had just received his PhD in epidemiology and nutrition from UC Berkeley.

Instead, the grandson of a Jewish immigrant who grew up in the Bronx and who worked previous jobs as a social worker and a high school teacher, met rejection on all fronts. A five-year hunt for a university job ended in failure.

"I was heartbroken. Here I was, Manchild in the Promised Land, grandson of an immigrant and I was told, 'White males need not apply.' This was my primary cauterization. I started to analyze what was going on. I decided it was pure social engineering."

This turned Weiner into a bitter man, frothing with rage against a system he sees as stacked against white American males like him.

While his rage gestated, Weiner supported his family in Mill Valley by writing 17 nutrition books, including "The Complete Book of Homeopathy" and the "Herbs That Heal."

By 1995, Weiner had turned into Savage, the vengeful radio talk show host and voice for San Francisco's beleaguered conservatives.

"There are a lot of people who are not heard from in San Francisco who resent what has happened to their beautiful gem of a city," said Savage. "Many of them do not vote because there is no Republican Party left. I speak for them."

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