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Radio Provocateur 

Phil Hendrie conquers the AM dial one deluded caller at a time. So why can't he get his mug on TV?

Thursday, Jun 10 2004
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Page 7 of 9

Since 9/11, however, Hendrie has grown increasingly vocal about his support for the war and, by extension, for the Republican president who prosecuted it. His character Dean Wheeler, for example, a Bay Area activist, urges Kerry supporters to bomb the railroads so that, like Spain, our electorate will turn out the current administration. To Hendrie these days, it seems that all anti-war protesters are as ridiculous as Wheeler.

But where his politics have really come to the fore is in the 7 o’clock hour, when Hendrie delivers rants about the state of the world and the events of the day. Consequently, this newfound political stridency does not just threaten to alienate his large, liberal outsider following — it’s starting to do weird things to the emotional terrain. Culled from the soapbox derby of conservative talk radio, outraged callers used to be left pumping furiously in free fall, like Wile E. Coyote once the ground below him drops away.

But if Hendrie now finds himself in common cause with the most excitable of his respondents, it subtly begins to shift the show’s point of view. When a woman calls up in response to Eastside LAPD wannabe Dave Oliva’s plea not to fly our flags, lest we “piss off the Taliban,” and screams in self-righteous anger for five solid minutes, it’s hard to delight in her indignation. These days, Hendrie is more likely to appear on Dennis Miller’s new MSNBC comedy news show, or even to be booed at the recent Aspen Comedy Festival, at a Saturday-morning panel on “Who’s Funnier — the Left or Right?” “I’m delighted to be counted among Phil’s admirers,” says Harry Shearer, “although he’s hopelessly wrong about the war . . . Long and short of it — he’s way too good for KFI.”

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“Ever since 9/11,” says Hendrie, “as the days tick by, I wonder if I’m insane. I wonder if I’ve overreacted, because I’ve seen the country drift back to this blasé attitude: Maybe 9/11 was this isolated thing, and maybe we should just cool out. And sometimes I doubt myself — should I be as shocked as I was? But I remember those days. Everybody felt it. And it’s changed me a lot. I feel like I need to say this. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind, but I’ve got to get it off my chest. And I’m not a Republican; I am a Democrat. I know I’m a Democrat, and I know what the Democratic Party stands for. I think the president is wrong-minded on certain domestic issues such as gay marriage. I think he’s being badly influenced by, once again, the thing that’s going to tear the Republican Party apart, the religious right. But that said, I don’t think I need to turn my card in just because I don’t hate George Bush. I know war is bad, but this is not the generation that’s going to end it.”

“I wish Phil hadn’t been so spooked by 9/11,” adds Groening. “I could see being pro-war — I think there are thoughtful people who are, even though I’m not. I just wish he wouldn’t align himself with people who, if they had their way, would take him off the air.”

“God’s Favorite Radio Show”

At 3 o’clock every day, Hendrie huddles with Janice Ungaro, his producer, to brainstorm possible bits for the day’s show. Ungaro relies on her seven years as a morning radio host and standup comic in Vancouver to serve as a sounding board for Hendrie and pitch him ideas. She also maintains a detailed show log that functions as a character bible, and keeps notes on the various voices, should Hendrie ever start to slide midcharacter (e.g., “Dean Wheeler always talks through a smile”). Nothing is scripted, although in three hours of face time, they will generally compile two pages of notes per interview, each broken down into three acts.

As an experiment, I’ve brought in five bits for Hendrie to consider using on tonight’s show. For example: Doug Dangger, a no-nonsense entertainment writer with the unsettling habit of prefacing everything with the phrase “As a gay man and a gay journalist,” advocates a constitutional amendment banning straight divorce. “The only problem is you might have a lot of people agreeing with you,” says Hendrie. “And when you have a lot of people agreeing with you, it doesn’t make for much conflict.” Taking the gay-marriage ban in a different direction, I suggest that God’s gift to women Chris Norton (“Are you hot? I’m hot!”) compete on a Fox reality series where a woman chooses between three eligible bachelors, and the two losers have to go to San Francisco and get married. Once again off the mark, this time because the premise is too complicated. “Whenever you start a bit with something that’s unfamiliar,” says Hendrie, “you’ve already got one foot in a hole. Like we say, we’re KIIS in the Morning, we play the hits.”

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