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Pushing buttons with no apologies

Times Staff Writer

Bill Handel’s small personal office in Burbank doesn’t have a window, but he still revels in the view. His desk faces what the KFI-AM (640) morning drive-time host calls his “wall of hate” -- a jumbo-sized bulletin board writhing with red-faced and flaming letters that essentially wish he’d go straight to a very hot, uncomfortable place.

The Post-it note-like, chaotic vista, regularly updated by culling through the hundreds of communications that pour in weekly, often brings a wide smile to Handel, who knows that he is really looking at a wall of congratulations. All the sound and fury simply mean the 55-year-old attorney matters to a huge radio audience, estimated at 1-million-plus per week.

Handel’s pull on listeners makes him by far the most popular local talk show host in the country. His audience, who cheer his acerbic, often comical rants on politics, current events and pop culture, is surpassed in size only by about a dozen of the most successful nationally syndicated radio shows.

“He has broken all the records for a local show in the modern era. It’s an amazing feat,” said Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers. “He’s done it by being very smart, very funny and by being very much a part of Los Angeles, which is a nation unto itself. He almost single-handedly proves the vitality of local radio.”

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In one of the nation’s most dynamic markets, Handel has dominated his 5 to 9 a.m. time slot, finishing first among English-language stations for listeners 12 and older in 10 of the last 11 quarterly Arbitron ratings. Earlier this year, the Cal State Northridge and Whittier law school graduate helped vault KFI to the top spot -- among both English and Spanish stations -- marking the first time since 1987 an AM station had captured the overall No. 1 spot in the Los Angeles market.

Handel is pleased with the figures, of course, but he likes to measure his success listener by listener. He understands he’s in the entertainment business and that he has to hit people’s buttons every day or else they will be hitting the ones on their radios.

“I know I’ve really done my job when someone punches out their windshield,” said Handel, a San Fernando Valley resident and the father of twin daughters. “We’re always trying to find new people to offend. I’ve offended every race, every creed, every color, every religion, everybody.... Because you know what? They’re all crazy.”

Even his apologies are a kind of pre-emptive insult to those he is allegedly trying to placate. Every show ends with an apology from the day’s topics. A recent example: “We would like to apologize to the following: President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, radical Muslims, evangelical Christians and the Jews, painted elephants ... Pete Rose, Chinese men with transplanted penises that have to have them cut off, necrophiliacs, Marine deserters, Iranians, Iraqis and Afghanis, kids who go to Jesus camp, anyone who wears a toupee, gay governors that release their erotic memoirs, Indian givers ... and astronauts who release noxious gas in an enclosed environment.”

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Sincere apologies are rare, but are occasionally issued. In January, after 345 people were trampled to death at the annual hajj Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, Handel performed an on-air skit about hiring a traffic reporter to avoid the carnage in the future. Arab American groups protested and Handel, although defending his right to satirize even tragedies, eventually said he was sorry.

“They said I wouldn’t joke about the Holocaust, but I told them I have,” said Handel. “And they said you wouldn’t have done it the next day. And I said, you know what? You’re right.”

Still, when it comes to giving offense, the Brazilian-born immigrant and son of a Holocaust survivor has few rivals. Among other names, Handel has been called racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, a fascist, a left-wing kook and despite, his Jewish heritage, an anti-Semite.

Handel has been the target of death threats, which are taken seriously enough that he always travels with an armed security guard when making public appearances. “Bill jokes that they’re trained to shoot anyone who dares to speak to him,” said the show’s executive producer Michelle Kube, who has worked with Handel for the last 11 years. “He’s kidding, of course.”

Handel calls himself a centrist, but his current events-heavy show generally leans to the right. In recent months, he’s devoted considerable programming to bashing President Bush, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others over what he sees as their facile stand on immigration reform. He’s a staunch supporter of Israel, believes the United Nations is a “waste of time and money,” and isn’t going to lose sleep over offshore drilling on the California coast.

Still, Handel openly supports classically liberal causes. He backs gay marriage, gun control, abortion rights and stem cell research. “Rush [Limbaugh] people think I’m a left-wing, wacko commie,” said Handel, whose show precedes Limbaugh’s on KFI. “Unless you say Democrats are evil and Republicans are the savior of the day -- across the board -- Rush listeners think you’re whacked out.”

Oddly enough, his parents once thought a career in radio was crazy too. Had he not gradually eased his way into the business, Handel might not have stuck with it.

“I had Jewish parents and I really had no choice,” said Handel. “It really was a management decision. It was either three years of hell in law school or 40 years in therapy explaining why I did this to my parents. I figured it was cheaper to become a lawyer.”

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In 1980, just out of law school, Handel founded the Center for Surrogate Parenting Inc., one of the first of legal practices of its kind in the nation. His legal expertise in the then hot-button topic of surrogate parenting earned him repeated invitations on the morning television news and talk radio circuit. What became clear from these many appearances was Handel, love him or hate him, had a knack for galvanizing listeners.

In 1985, he developed his own weekend radio show, “Handel on the Law,” which is still one of the highest-rated weekend programs in Los Angeles. Syndicated in about 120 markets, the KFI show airs locally on Saturdays from 6 to 11 a.m. The show’s website carries this quintessential Handel boast: “Abusing callers, giving marginal legal advice and telling callers where to go is still probably the most enjoyable thing I do other than having intimate moments with my wife.... No.... It is the most enjoyable thing I do.”

Handel’s consistently high ratings have made his show an attractive platform for politicians. His guests over the years would make for an enviable round table of officeholders and office-seekers. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been on repeatedly, and Handel has also interviewed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, along with such prominent national leaders as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But he says, “Politicians are usually horrible interviews. You ask them a question, they ignore it and go straight into their political agenda. I hate that.”

Even with that impressive list, Handel still groans about the difficulty of drawing certain nonpolitical and celebrity guests who prefer the boutique cool of cable television to the great unwashed quality of local radio.

“Radio is the poor stepchild of America,” said Handel, who wore jeans, a short sleeve blue shirt and sandals during a recent show broadcast from Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s studios. “It’s hard to book people because of that, even though we blow away most of those little cable shows.”

Handel does television too. He pops up one or two times a week on Glenn Beck’s CNN Headline News show and logs regular appearances on “Good Day LA” and “Fox 11 Morning News.” But compared with radio, television just doesn’t have the same charge for Handel.

“TV is so micro-managed,” said Handel. “In radio, as in no other medium, you are free to be who you are. Irreverent. Insane. Obnoxious. Over the top. It’s probably the only place in the world I could get away with what I say.”

Few of Handel’s views have drawn as much fire recently as those dealing with illegal immigration -- something that in his view has ruined Los Angeles and has endangered the nation’s solvency and security. He admits he is harsh, but his reasons are rooted in personal experience. His father, a Holocaust survivor, applied to come to the United States just after World War II. He was refused, forcing the elder Handel to emigrate to Brazil, where he waited 11 years before the U.S. finally granted him entry.

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“That is why I’m so fanatic. He waited in line and followed the rules -- which is why I’m so thrilled that our president is now saying, ‘Hey just come over illegally and we’ll make you citizens as quickly as possible,’ ” said Handel. “Los Angeles is going into the toilet because illegal aliens have poured over the border, this town has gone to hell in a handbasket over the past 20 years.”

That’s the kind of talk, day in and day out, that fills up his wall of hate. And that, Handel adds, is part of the point.

“You don’t listen to my show back in the corner at work or leave it on in the background,” said Handel. “You listen to it with your face pressed right up against the radio. That’s what AM radio is.”

martin.miller@latimes.com


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