After 42 years of poking, scorching and otherwise entertaining the eardrums of metro Atlanta, Neal Boortz is fixin’ to get ready to retire.
The longtime conservative voice of 750AM and 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB on Monday put listeners on notice: A talk show career that stretches back to the days of President Richard Nixon and Gov. Jimmy Carter will end at precisely 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21, with either a loud celebration, or a final rant of King Lear proportions.
That’s Inauguration Day, you see.
“If it’s Barack Obama, then I’m going to disappear into the mountains and come out after he has destroyed this country. If it’s Mitt Romney, we’ll start drinking as the show begins,” Boortz told listeners.
Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, will inherit Boortz’ chair, microphone — and a syndicated audience that reaches 6 million listeners weekly over 200 radio stations. Boortz, 67, will continue to check in daily with a brief tirade.
But otherwise, “the Talkmaster” has a bucket list that next year alone will take him as far north as Alaska and as far south as Antarctica. One of the most influential voices of the American right, who has declared public education to be a plague and speaks of Democrats in nothing but withering italics, will hit the road without a thought of any void left behind.
“I’ve always tried to push that thought away. Once you try to give the impression that you’re a political force, then your head starts getting big. All I’ve ever wanted to do is just get ratings,” Boortz said in a telephone interview before his announcement, from his phone in Naples, Fla.
Boortz joined WSB Radio — which shares corporate ties with this newspaper — in 1992. Only afterwards, when President Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky, did the radio talk show host realize the clout that he and his chattering colleagues were building, led by Rush Limbaugh.
“Limbaugh did for talk radio what Arnold Palmer did for golf,” Boortz said. “If it wasn’t for Rush Limbaugh I would have quit talk radio a long time ago, and I’d have been practicing law.” (Limbaugh read Boortz into the National Radio Hall of Fame three years ago.)
In the six months you now have to ponder Boortz’ departure, let me suggest some areas of study. First, while detractors of talk radio might paint all the genre’s voices with the same brush, Boortz indeed has brought something different to the table.
He is comfortable with being called an entertainer. And unlike Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, Boortz has never positioned himself as the voice of Republican orthodoxy. No GOP politician has ever called his show to apologize for an incorrect thought, as U.S. Phil Gingrey of Marietta did three years ago, after speaking his mind about Limbaugh.
“In most presidential elections, up until George [W.] Bush’s second term, I voted Libertarian. WSB and Cox Radio didn’t hire me to be a political strategist,” Boortz said. “I’m much more in interested in pushing policies than pledging allegiance to a political party.”
Does Boortz have sharp edges? Oh, yes. There are few places he hasn’t been willing to go. “You’re not going to outright lie about people for the purpose of destroying their reputation. Actually, you usually don’t need to. The truth will suffice,” Boortz said. “I will promote derision about somebody, but not hatred.”
Younger listeners have no way of knowing, but Boortz has actually mellowed over the years. “I was much more doctrinaire conservative in those early days. I was stringently anti-abortion and [for] prayer in schools. The Libertarian outlook basically evolved out of years of conversations with listeners,” he said.
At least by talk radio’s measure, he has become a social liberal. “Gay marriage doesn’t affect me at all,” Boortz said. (He and his wife Donna have been married 39 years.)
Another thing worth considering: Boortz, and thus talk radio, have their roots in the terrarium of Georgia politics. Though born in Pennsylvania and raised in Pensacola, Fla., Boortz’ first job when he came to the big city of Atlanta was as a speechwriter for Gov. Lester Maddox. His boss was Maddox’ chief of staff, a young fellow named Zell Miller.
Something like an itch of those days remains. “Lord, would I like to write speeches for Mitt Romney. That man needs some help,” said Boortz, who had two friends in the GOP presidential contest — not just Cain, who then as now substitutes for him on the program, but Newt Gingrich.
Boortz stayed on as a Maddox staffer until 1970, when he landed his first job in Atlanta’s radio market, on talk-radio pioneer WRNG-AM, after the morning host committed suicide.
“Every once in a while, in the RNG radio days, I would drive to a news stand in Atlanta, and I would buy eight or 10 newspapers from cities across the country. Maybe I’d do that two or three times a month,” said Boortz, who now does his broadcast in front of four computer screens and a pair of TV sets tuned to CNN and Fox.
The WRNG gig led to brief stay WATL-FM, then to a more substantive, nine-year tenure at WGST-AM. Which leads to another thing about Boortz that you’re likely to hear about between now and January.
Boortz would like you to think that he tosses live cats out of airplanes. He does not.
You may think you’re living through the heyday of talk radio. But syndication has homogenized the medium, and — despite the constant shouting — tamed it.
In 1988, during his WGST days, Boortz (now a fixed-wing pilot) was an amateur hot-air balloonist inspired by a magazine article about small animals dropped by parachute.
On the air, he invented the fictional sport of cat-chasing. A feline would be thrown from a plane, quickly pursued by a gaggle of skydivers. “Whoever lands with the cat is a winner,” he said. Ballooning buddies were brought into the studio as phony participants. The sound of a plummeting cat was required.
“We finally just got on a ladder and dropped about five pounds of wet paper towels on a microphone,” Boortz said.
He and his staff promised live coverage of the Georgia finals, which would feature a cat dropped from a Cessna at 12,000 feet over a mythical airfield far from Atlanta. The winner was to proceed to the national championship in New Mexico.
On the day of the broadcast, Boortz said he was stopped by Fulton County Sheriff Richard Lankford, who demanded to know the location of the cat drop. Fellow sheriffs in Georgia’s hinterlands were determined to stop it.
Boortz stayed mum, and only after the broadcast did the talk show host tell listeners that they’d been scammed. “I remember Home Depot had called and cancelled all its advertising,” he said.
Boortz said Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, which owns WGST, has given him permission to replay the vintage hoax sometime between now and Inauguration Day.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider