By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Left to his own devices, Hendrie was free to explore the world around him, unfettered by parental supervision. This led to his American Graffiti moment, when he rode his bike to the KRLA studios in nearby Pasadena to meet “Emperor” Bob Hudson, a Top 40 DJ whose broadcast booth was reputedly lined with exotic animal skins and populated with languid beauties who fanned him with ostrich plumes and peeled him grapes. What the 12-year-old Hendrie found instead — like Richard Dreyfuss with the real Wolfman Jack in George Lucas’ coming-of-age story — was a middle-aged man in a sweatshirt and house slippers, spinning stories out of thin air.
After halfheartedly pursuing an English degree at Pasadena City College, Hendrie dropped out in the mid-’70s and made his way to Orlando, Florida, where he briefly worked construction on the burgeoning Disney World, presumably picking up tips firsthand on how to build his own magic kingdom. He landed his first on-air disc-jockey job at WBJW AM in Winter Park outside Orlando, “spinning Robert Goulet records” at an MOR station (“middle of the road,” later sanitized to “adult contemporary”). This began a 15-year radio career in which he hopscotched between time zones and formats — from Orlando to New Orleans to Miami to San Diego, doing morning zoo and drive time and overnight, FM rock and golden oldies and shock jock, without his heart in it. By the end of the ’80s, he had completed what he thought was a circle, hosting his own single-guest weekend talk show on KFI, but which turned out to be merely the first loop of a double helix. When the program was canceled, he managed to find a berth on KVEN AM in Ventura, just up the 101 freeway — a staid, sedate “heritage” station with a core demographic of over 50. Ostensibly hosting a call-in show where no one ever called, he resorted to a kind of boneheaded provocation: He would present sports-trivia questions like “What professional football team operates out of Denver?” and then insist the answer was “Dolphins.” Through a great deal of trial and error, much of it “extreme and experimental and tongue-in-cheek,” he managed to sketch out a rough understanding of what lit up the phone lines.
“My career was an utter failure up until I got to Ventura, to be honest with you,” says Hendrie. “I didn’t do anything on the air I was proud of.”
The tipping point, like many great discoveries, came not so much by accident as from outright boredom. During the first Gulf War, he impulsively introduced a character named Raj Feneen, an Iraqi national who counseled humility and submission on the part of the American people. Then he staged a mock “Celebrity Lettuce Picking Day” and a live, two-hour home invasion that culminated in the death of the Tooth Fairy. The retirees and veterans of Southern California went ballistic. After just 18 months, the station announced its “brief experiment with real controversy” had not paid off. But at age 37, after two decades in his chosen profession, Hendrie finally had an inkling of what he might do when he grew up.
Four weeks later, he had a night show at WSB AM in Atlanta. The same day he got canned from there, he was hired at WCCO in Minneapolis, which he describes as “like walking into a mausoleum.” Despite a plaque behind the front desk commemorating the station’s many 30-year employees, Hendrie lasted only a year, bailing for the warm weather and built-in insanity of Miami and the comedy-talk format of WIOD. One of his targets there was Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox, who became so miffed at Hendrie’s constant needling that he greeted the station’s locker-room reporter with the exhortation “You can suck my dick!” Hendrie responded by announcing that Cox, in a bold and courageous gesture, had just outed himself. Cox, in turn, filed a $15 million lawsuit against both Hendrie and the station. (The matter was resolved in arbitration.) Remarkably, Hendrie insists this is the only lawsuit his antics have provoked in a 30-year career. “I think it’s a dicey thing when you sue a guy like me,” he says. “It’s like a little barking dog and you’re walking by the fence. If you stop and bark back, the little barking dog has won. It’s better to walk by the fence.”
When the Miami station was sold in 1996 to Paxson, a Christian broadcasting company, the network put Hendrie’s contract up for open bidding. He closed up shop in Miami by killing off many of his favorite characters: Dyspeptic attorney Harvey Wireman (then spearheading a class-action suit against Hendrie by all his characters) died in a fiery helicopter crash, and blue-blooded do-gooder Margaret Grey (author of the nationally syndicated column “A Little Birdie Told Me”) tried to outrace a rising traffic drawbridge on the way to Wireman’s funeral. When general manager David G. Hall invited Hendrie back to Los Angeles and KFI, Hendrie repaid the favor by making Hall a recurring character on his show, the drunk and abusive “vice-president of syndication,” for which the real Hall had to field frequent angry phone calls. (“Hall” once suggested Hendrie do a show on women’s health issues, such as “the frequency of their bathroom use,” to attract a more female demographic.)