By Hillel Aron
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A year into his L.A. tenure, Hendrie married Maria Sanchez, co-host of KFI’s weekend Bitchin’ With Sanchez and Walker, and the wedding was broadcast live from the Queen Mary. (Sanchez now operates Siempre Inc., the couple’s private corporation.) “I went through my career going from one girlfriend to another and blasting through all the dough I had,” says Hendrie. “So I was sort of living like a bum, even though I was building this career. And then, all of a sudden, something popped in my head, or maybe it was all the therapy, but I got married seven years ago and it seems to be going okay.”
Like his father before him, Hendrie also inherited a ready-made family with four children relatively late in life. And after being fired five times over the course of his career, he found himself in the belly of the beast — at the number-one talk station in the country.
Although there is room for debate, the general consensus is that the first all-talk radio format was established at KABC in Los Angeles in 1959, followed shortly by KLAC. Figures like Joe Pyne, Alan Burke and, later, Bob Grant developed followings on both radio and TV doing confrontational talk shows, often hanging up on callers. As music formats left AM for the improved fidelity of the FM spectrum, and AM-station values plummeted, talk radio became a cheap programming alternative. But it wasn’t until 1987 that talk shows adopted an overt political content, when the Fairness Doctrine, which stated that any political position broadcast on the public airwaves must allow for an opposing viewpoint in the interest of fair and balanced coverage, was jettisoned by the FCC as part of the deregulation of the communications industry under Reagan.
“Dropping the Fairness Doctrine just made more people comfortable with doing it,” says Perry Michael Simon, former program director of KLSX and the creator of AllAccess.com, a radio-programming site, “and it made it less difficult to program and produce shows, because you no longer had to worry that an offhand comment would trigger a complaint.” In 1988, Rush Limbaugh was syndicated nationally out of WABC in New York, followed by countless clones (Michael Savage, G. Gordon Liddy and Morton Downey Jr., who Limbaugh initially replaced at KFBK in Sacramento in 1984). KFI — at 50,000 watts, the most powerful talk venue in America — became Limbaugh’s first national affiliate, where today he is joined by conservative paragons Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Matt Drudge, and the quasi-libertarian John and Ken.
“Phil is one of the few people on the air right now that you can say invented the kind of show he is doing,” says Simon. “It’s a parody of talk radio that actually airs in the midst of talk radio. He has a tremendous ear for that kind of absurdity. That he’s not a household name is probably because he does such a good job of a talk-show parody that a lot of people don’t realize it is parody.”
Working from the day’s headlines, Hendrie has never been one to shy away from the slaughter of sacred cows. Like Chris Rock, he has always espoused a common-sense, post-partisan politics, even though off the air, he maintained a staunchly progressive persona. Interviewed before 9/11, he could still claim, “My politics are pretty far left, but I try not to grind that political ax on the air,” and as recently as June 2001, in a New York Times magazine cover story, he described his politics as “socialist.” Never one to suffer fools gladly, he routinely lit into The Drudge Report, referred to Dennis Miller as “Mr. Coulter” and nursed a long-standing feud with the loutish Tom Leykis, forever memorialized in the character of Combover Boy, a pompous twit with a ready-made radio swell in his voice. (Leykis left KFI in 1992, before Hendrie’s arrival, in an acrimonious departure.) Hendrie was opposed to the first Gulf War, once co-hosting a film with the Ojai peace group Operation Brainstorm, and is highly critical of recent saber rattling by the FCC, which has seen at least one industry titan — Howard Stern — go from reactionary Republican apologist to hard-left freedom fighter at the speed of narcissism. He is a practicing Buddhist — Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, if you ask him — and still frequently quotes Frank Zappa.
Moreover, for someone whose livelihood is words, Hendrie’s actions really do speak louder. A case in point is My Friend’s Place, a charity that has assisted roughly 1,000 homeless youth each year for the past 15 years, providing free meals, clothing, hygiene and toiletry needs, a medical clinic, HIV testing, legal counsel, therapy, a computer lab, and education in such diverse areas as employment opportunities, parenting, health and cultural diversity — as well as 20 hours a week in “circus arts,” sponsored by Cirque du Soleil. Hendrie came across the youth group when a prominent Latino charity declined his original charitable offer after listening to his first “best of” CD. He solicited willing beneficiaries on the air, and something about the group’s mandate appealed to this veteran of a broken home. “It’s easy to work with a 4- or 5-year-old from a crack family,” says Hendrie. “But when a kid hits 15 or 16, and he’s got pimples and his hair is spiked and his breath smells, nobody wants to cuddle them.”