As If Limbaugh and Beck Weren't Bad Enough, the Granddaddy of Hate Radio Is Back on the Air
Answer: Both find echo and inspiration in the career of Bob Grant, the granddaddy of conservative hate radio who this week announced his return to New York's 77 WABC for one last go-around. Starting September 13, the frail octogenarian will host a Sunday show between noon and 2 p.m.
It's hard not to wonder if Grant's return to terrestrial radio is a bid to reclaim his identity. Not only has Glenn Beck borrowed Grant's two trademark catch phrases—"Get off my phone!" and "Sick, twisted freak"—this month Beck even reprised Grant's former role as the tallest whipping post for organized liberal outrage.
When colorofchange.org launched a campaign on August 4 targeting Beck's sponsors after he called the president a "racist" who hates "the white culture," the organization followed a path first blazed by Bob Grant's opponents during the mid-90s. It was then, on the cusp of the Internet age, that Grant became the first conservative broadcaster to trigger a sustained campaign against him with incendiary racial rhetoric. That campaign contributed to the eventual firing of Grant from WABC in 1996. It also made him a martyr for an entire generation of conservative talkers.
Grant was not the first conservative broadcasting firebrand. That distinction falls to Grant's mentor, Joe Pyne, a tough-talking one-legged ex-Marine who built a radio and tv career during the 50s and 60s on screeds against liberals and hippies, famously telling many of them to "go gargle with razor blades." But the bluster was largely an act. "Pyne was all shtick, a total gimmick," Larry King, who knew Pyne, has said. "He'd make fun of his guests and then go to dinner with them."
Grant's politics were less gimmicky. He studied Pyne closely while the two worked together in Los Angeles during the 1960s. In 1970, the year of his mentor's death, Grant relocated to New York. It was a propitious cultural moment for Grant's snarling Nixonian worldview. He arrived on the heels of the infamous "hard hat riot" on Wall Street, where 200 construction workers injured dozens in an attack on a student antiwar protest. Upon hearing the news, Nixon famously exclaimed, "Thank God for the hard hats!"
And thank God for Bob Grant, Nixon might have added. Grant's show became New York's megaphone for blue-collar white rage. He railed against the welfare state and slammed liberal politicians, peppering his insults with earthy southern Italian slang. He called blacks "sub-humans" and "savages" and invoked an earlier New York that never existed, "where everyone spoke English."
During his first months in New York, Grant's anger at the world around him was compounded by the fact that he despised the city and yearned to return to California. He found New York loud, filthy, and too crowded with non-whites and immigrants. Grant would later write that he hated New York so much that he "subconsciously wanted to get fired." Toward that end, Grant cranked up the hate in every direction. "I was becoming irascible on the air. Argumentative. Feisty. Impatient with the callers… I didn't care what anybody thought of me or my manners… I was telling people off left and right."
By the time New York started to grow on Grant, he realized something: not only had his spitfire persona failed to get him canned, his ratings were through the roof. So he kept up the act. For the next three decades, Grant's vitriolic rants against liberals and immigrants, originally fueled by self-hatred and disgust with New York, would inspire the next (and currently dominant) generation of conservative talkers. This includes Sean Hannity, who listened to Grant in Long Island during the 1970s, to Glenn Beck, who listened to him in New Haven during the early 1990s.
Grant's power and influence peaked during a 12-year run on WABC that straddled the Reagan and Clinton eras. Between 1984 and 1996, The Bob Grant Show owned the city's afternoon-drive slot. More than just a local media celebrity, Grant emerged as something of a conservative kingmaker in regional politics. With a huge following among the tri-state area's white working class, he was sometimes credited with swinging close elections. Dozens of gracious politicians and candidates called Grant's show to kiss his ring. The list includes presidents, senators, governors, and mayors. Rudy Giuliani was a frequent guest, who chuckled along with Grant when the host referred to Giuliani's black predecessor, David Dinkins, as "the men's room attendant at the 21 Club."
Then, in 1994, Grant learned that the world had changed on him. His years of dumping on blacks and immigrants had generated quietly mounting opposition. Unbeknown to Grant, angry listeners had begun recording his shows and passing the most incriminating tapes to journalists and media watchdogs like the New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), founded by Jeff Cohen in 1986. Seemingly out of nowhere, Grant's vast archive of bile was thrown back in his face in the form of a coordinated campaign that he would later describe without irony as a "low-tech lynching."
The first salvo came in October, when New York magazine, under the editorship of Kurt Anderson, published a cover story by Philip Gourevitch. The cover showed Bob Grant wrapped in a WABC banner; below, the teaser read, "Why He Hates Blacks." The piece collected bits from Grant's regular rants and riffs, including those promoting eugenics and mandatory sterilization for women on welfare. Gourevitch not only quoted Grant's descriptions of blacks as "sub-humanoids" and "savages," he did so in so many contexts that there was no way Grant could claim he was being selectively or creatively quoted. "His show sounds like outtakes from the dialogue in a Spike Lee pastiche of Bensonhurst Neanderthals," wrote Gourevitch. New York's case against Grant was so comprehensive that even its subject conceded to his boss at WABC, "It's devastating."
After decades of fawning and winking media coverage, the New York story put Grant on the ropes for the first time in his career. Former political allies began to backpedal from Grant as if he were carrying all of the diseases he had long accused immigrants of bringing to New York. Local black ministers, led by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, organized press conferences and call-in campaigns urging Grant's sponsors to drop the show.
As the boycott gathered steam, a January 1995 cover story in FAIR's bimonthly magazine published fresh quotes to ballast the case that ABC's flagship radio station was daily broadcasting a show that sounded like something produced by German state radio in 1939. The article, entitled "50,000 Watts of Hate," quoted Grant wishing Magic Johnson would develop full-blown AIDS—along with the entire population of Haiti. It quoted Grant denying a caller's charge of racism in 1993, saying, "If they did allow it, the thugs, the savages, the refugees from the Kalahari would tear the place apart. But I guess our group has evolved too far. I guess that's the price we pay for being a little higher up on the evolutionary scale."
Then there was the transcript of a call in which a listener asked, "What could I do as a citizen of this country, which I believe in and have seen fall apart as I've been growing up?" To which Grant calmly replied, "Get a gun and go do something then, OK?"
Grant survived the controversy following the New York and Extra! stories, but the pressure never let up. FAIR would continue its campaign against Grant, including an open letter to Disney CEO Michael Eisner printed in the Sunday New York Times. Finally, on April 3, 1996, Grant hanged himself when he expressed hope that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had died in a just-announced plane crash. Two weeks later, following a renewed media campaign led by USA Today, Grant was fired from WABC. Grant's faithful media ally the New York Post dutifully marked the day of infamy with the full-page headline: "Grant's Tomb."
But the campaign's victory was Pyrrhic. Grant was immediately snapped up by WOR, the city's #2 talk station, which promptly plopped Grant into his old afternoon-drive slot. Still, the campaign had demonstrated that the scope for what is acceptable on public airwaves had narrowed. Grant mellowed somewhat after the demonstration of liberal power.
The campaign against Grant was a long time coming. For years his openly racist and incendiary calls for "action" had been a source of chuckles in conservative New York circles. On YouTube, there survives a clip from a September 15, 1991 Friar's Club roast in honor of Grant, years before his public unmasking and condemnation. Among those in attendance are Al D'Amato and Joe Piscapo. In the clip, Grant protégé Rush Limbaugh delivers the keynote, which includes some good-natured ribbing about Grant's well-known racial views. "To protest Apartheid, when he does his laundry, Bob Grant doesn't separate the colors from the whites," jokes Limbaugh. "I'm not saying Bob is a racist, but he wanted to go see Boyz in the Hood because he thought it was a KKK training film."
Behind Limbaugh hangs a giant banner, on which are emblazoned the words revived this summer by Glenn Beck in his not-so-subtle homage to Grant: "Get off my phone!"
To which progressives have the right to respond, "Get off my public airwaves." As the encouraging early results of the colorofchange.org campaign indicate, this needn't always be an idle threat.