The radio on my nightstand usually played classic rock, but 1994 was my summer of talk radio. During those heady days of populist-conservative backlash, the medium was a near constant companion. Lunch with Rush, drive time with the indefatigable Beacon Hill-basher Howie Carr and a full five hours a night with David Brudnoy.
Anyone who has ever cruised up and down the static-and-blather-filled AM dial knows that few hosts are capable of providing five hours of meaningful discussion, but rarely did the “David Brudnoy Show” disappoint. So every weeknight, unless the Bruins rudely interrupted, I and some 3 million others in 38 states and Canada tuned into WBZ, Boston’s 50,000-watt superstation, to hear the master at work.
There were plenty of hosts who could effectively mock the Clinton administration, rail against Hillary’s health care power grab, and attack the day’s legislative outrages (remember midnight basketball?). What set Brudnoy apart, aside from eloquence and polemical skills that put most of his peers to shame, was his ability to go beyond such well-worn subjects. His show was no less interesting when he was interviewing antique collectors, obscure academics, and authors of books on subjects that would have otherwise made my eyes glaze over.
Many libertarian pundits praise liberty and excoriate the state, but talk about nothing except politics and government. Brudnoy celebrated life — films, theatre, travel, wine, classical music, literature — and demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of virtually all subjects, with only one notable exception — he was charmingly ignorant of professional sports and relentlessly tweaked Boston for its obsession with athletics.
Which is not to overlook how scathing he could be in his political analysis. Brudnoy’s position on welfare payments to unwed mothers was, shall we say, Charles Murray-esque. He skewered multiculturalism by insisting, “One culture, one country.” He derisively referred to the Clintons as “Bubba and Evita” and was equally critical of the “Almost Lifelike Al Gore.”
Not all his barbs were directed at Democrats, however. He didn’t think much of conservative hero Jesse Helms (I vaguely recall him once describing the North Carolina Republican as “morosely grotesque”) and occasionally crossed swords with the religious right, though friends with such socially conservative Boston newspaper columnists as Jeff Jacoby and Don Feder.
Such friendships cut across the political spectrum: He was also personally fond of such Massachusetts Democratic Party barons as Billy Bulger, Tom Finneran and Boston Mayor Tom Menino. While most talkmasters stroke their audiences’ political predilections, Brudnoy was unafraid of offending either his conservative fans or liberals who listened to him despite their ideological differences.
“Boston’s most informed talk show” wasn’t just some slogan cooked up by WBZ’s crack marketing team. After all, Brudnoy had degrees from Yale, Harvard and Brandeis, was on the faculty of several colleges, most recently Boston University, and had been a contributor to the pages of National Review and the Saturday Evening Post before he ever slid behind the microphone. But he did intelligent talk radio without the pretentiousness of staid NPR. It’s hard to imagine the South Boston retirees and late-shift workers who called into Brudnoy’s show similarly enjoying “All Things Considered.”
And Brudnoy’s show had some excellent regular callers: Cheryl, Cookie, libertarian Lou from Baltimore, Eddie from Allston. They consistently raised the level of discourse and gave guests as much reason to be on their toes as the host, who seemed expect such quality. The only time I ever heard the genial broadcaster lose his temper was when ill-mannered callers would seize the show as a platform for their incoherent rambling. There was no speaking out of turn in Dr. Brudnoy’s class.
It was only a few months after I became a devoted fan that Brudnoy’s battle with AIDS was publicly disclosed. He struggled to keep working throughout a persistent illness he described only as the flu. His deep, firm voice had slipped into a labored, breathy rasp and his guests often seemed concerned about his health. He was near death when he was finally hospitalized and many listeners wondered whether he would ever again return to the airwaves.
But return he did, in a show that featured his old friends William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ted Kennedy as guests. Both interviews were upstaged by Brudnoy’s opening monologue, a detailed account of his illness in which he for the first time gave his predominantly conservative audience a frank glimpse of his life as a gay man suffering from AIDS.
I remembered that monologue last week when I learned that Brudnoy had succumbed to a rare form of skin cancer. In a final interview with his longtime WBZ colleague Gary LaPierre from his hospital bed just a day before he died, he joked and reassured his listeners. ”If you accept, as everyone must, this stage in life,” he said, “then I do not complain about my 64 years.”
To some, his illness was just another in the long list of paradoxes that were David Brudnoy: the gay, Jewish agnostic right-winger with AIDS and a top-rated New England talk show. But this catalog of apparent contradictions misses the point. The courage in the face of suffering and imminent death, the commitment to the students whose grades he spent his final days completing and the devotion to his fans — these were the characteristics that made him one of America’s most beloved radio figures.
And, without question, one of Boston’s finest.