After Neal Boortz was named to the National Radio Hall of Fame, the print folks assigned a profile story about the radio host to my colleague John Kessler. Kessler is one of our best writers but he isn’t a talk radio listener. Nonethless, he did a great job capturing the basic essence of Boortz with quick, neat brushstrokes. I just spoke with Royal Marshall, his show engineer, and he said Neal was cool with the story but was wondering why it didn’t make it online. I have no clue. But belatedly, here it is Neal!
You see the name, and you hear that voice. That clear-as-a-bell baritone with its flat intonation and ever-present edge of barely contained … what? Irony? Exasperation? Contempt?
He makes you laugh out loud. He makes your blood boil. He tells the painful truth.
Neal Boortz. The name says it all. Boor? Perhaps. Bore? Never.
After 40 years on the air and answering more than 180,000 callers, the WSB (AM 750) radio host will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame — the highest honor a radio host can achieve.
“People outside our industry have no idea how big a deal this is, ” says Boortz’s WSB colleague and close friend, Clark Howard. ” It’s bigger than an Academy Award would be for an actor. Instead of honoring one piece of work, it honors a lifetime.”
“I was almost in tears, ” says Boortz, sounding (yes) humbled by the news. “What could be better than to be in the Hall of Fame?”
In person, Boortz is … Wait.
Wait just a moment.
Before we get to Boortz the person, let’s put away any notion of Boortz the performer, who attracts more than 5 million listeners on 230 radio stations nationwide. Though he is often lumped in with other conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, he considers himself — adamantly — a Libertarian.
Like a ‘puppy dog’
Forget about it all for a few minutes — forget about his suggestion that Atlanta’s “urban outdoorsmen” (the homeless) should be shipped off in a freight train in the middle of the night; that certain Katrina victims were “worthless parasites”; that the parents of an incoherent 9-year-old were raising a “worm farmer.”
Forget Boortz’s more measured positions, as well: His support for the FairTax plan and former President Bush’s War on Terror. Turn off that hectoring radio voice for a moment, and …
“Are you sure I can’t get you a cup of coffee?” Boortz asks a visitor, making another of his many daily trips to the coffee pot in the cafeteria at WSB Radio’s Midtown Atlanta headquarters. He seems a little like Mr. Wilson — that gruff softie from the old Dennis the Menace cartoon.
He smells like coffee and cream, walks with an ambling gait and wears a loose-fitting print shirt over a small potbelly.
“I don’t look like it, but I do work out a lot, ” the 64-year-old Boortz jokes with self deprecation. “I do it so I can remain vertical.”
Sitting across a table, Boortz has an open, friendly face and a gentle — almost hangdog — demeanor that shows he’s listening. (”People don’t realize he’s a puppy dog, ” says Howard. “He’s actually pretty shy.”)
But there’s something more — a wary mischief in his eyes at all times, a smile always curling at the edges of his mouth. A Boortzism about to erupt …
Maybe. Not quite yet.
First he has to deflect a few questions politely. He and his wife, Donna, whom he calls “the Queen” on air, live intown but, no, he won’t say in which neighborhood. His one daughter, Laura, is in the medical field and close to getting her Ph.D. That’s it for personal talk. Sorry, but he’s protective of his family.
OK. What can we talk about? Naples, Florida? Doesn’t he broadcast frequently from an affiliated station there, where he has a second home?
“Yes, I’m more and more there, less and less here, ” Boortz says. “Down there it’s just much more relaxed and calmed down. You know, I can’t get off the air here and lay under an umbrella on the beach.”
As his listeners and more than 20,000 followers on Twitter know, he usually flies his own plane to Florida, a Mooney Ovation 3 that he calls “a little piston-powered propeller-driven rocket ship.” When the weather looks bad, he takes AirTran. Always AirTran. “I like their spunkiness. I like their marketing and their people.”
Any other airlines he favors?
“I like Singapore Airlines, ” he says with a smile spreading across his face and his voice blooming into its radio timbre. “It’s all about their flight attendants. You know, they fire them when they’re 23!”
Yep. There’s Boortz.
Left law, saved heart
A military brat with a checkered college career, Boortz arrived in Atlanta in 1967 and got his first job at the old Rich’s department store downtown grading diamonds. He soon talked his way into a hosting gig on WRNG, an early talk radio station based in Atlanta. His career as a talker didn’t pay well, but it flourished and soon landed him in a more prominent position at WGST radio, where he first encountered Howard.
He concurrently worked his way through several “real jobs” — loading trucks, selling carpet — before enrolling in the John Marshall School of Law, graduating with a degree in 1977 at the age of 32 that led him to a career as a commercial real estate lawyer.
“I was traveling around the country as a specialist in financing hotel renovations, ” Boortz says, deadpan. “If I continued doing that I’d be dead of a coronary or in a straightjacket.”
In 1992, his wife persuaded him to stop practicing law despite the loss of income. In 1993, he was hired by WSB, which is owned by the AJC’s parent company, Cox Enterprises.
As a radio performer Boortz says he learned to “walk as close to the edge as I can.” As soon as he espies a sacred cow, he wants hamburger.
But surely he regrets some of the more outrageous things he has said. Of course, he says, with a ready answer.
“I’ve been on the air for how many thousands of hours, and during that time there’s no scripting, ” Boortz says. “It’s all just stream-of-consciousness stuff. The Pope couldn’t talk that many hours and not say something he’d wish he could take back.”
Over those years, Boortz has noticed the callers have grown “younger, more informed, more reasoned and less combative.”
“I like more of a tussle, ” he admits, adding, “I love callers who disagree with me if they can keep it straight. If they call us and say, ‘You’re a Nazi, you’re a racist, ‘ then I’m less interested. I want callers who attack my ideas and my philosophy.”
Boortz claims to be a sucker for thoughtful dialogue of any form, which is why his current favorite television show is HBO’s psychotherapy drama, “In Treatment.”
“The dialogue between these people is so great, ” Boortz says, his eyes signaling a joke. “It’s a shrink and a deranged patient. Sorta like my radio show.”
Other television favorites include “Drop Dead Diva” and “COPS.” Boortz says, “The whole time I’m watching [a police interrogation on 'COPS'] I’m thinking, ‘Please beat the snot out of him right now!’”
Honor was a surprise
Boortz says that he was “completely blindsided” when he found out he was up for the National Radio Hall of Fame in the “Nationally Syndicated Radio Host” category — a process that involves a nomination followed by a popular vote. Though he repeatedly encouraged listeners to vote for him, he felt that his 230 stations didn’t present a robust enough set of listeners.
Boortz plans to take as many of his colleagues — including longtime producers and sometimes on-air sparring partners Royal Marshall and Belinda Skelton — up to the induction ceremony in Chicago in November. Boortz will be one of five live and three posthumous inductees this year.
“I’m so honored by this, I really am, ” says Boortz in a moment of humility. Yes, humility — not something one associates with Boortz the performer.
Boortz the man sounds almost moved to tears when he comments, “I’m going to be up there on the wall with the greats in this field. Legendary names like Paul Harvey and Edward R. Murrow.” Then a devilish look crosses his face. Boortz the entertainer emerges. “And Dr. Demento!” he says with a taunting laugh, naming his fellow inductee.
The radio host who cavalierly walks the line — the big line, which is that painful suture of American politics and culture — will go down for all posterity with a radio host who squeezes bike horns and sings novelty songs. This is an outcome that both Boortz’s fans and detractors should relish.
Neal Boortz’s top 9 pet peeves
1. Children in first class on airline flights — or children in bars
2. Hyphenated Americans
3. Dealer stickers on the back of cars
4. Minivans in the fast lane
5. Fat men in tank tops
6. Fat people on scooters
7. People who smoke in their car with children
8. Restaurants that automatically include the gratuity on the bill
9. Customer cards at grocery stores
Compiled from Royal Marshall and Belinda Skelton