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All Mock, All the Time

KFI-AM's Phil Hendrie is waging a war of the words with callers to his decidedly offbeat talk show. Hint to anyone who takes offense: It's all a joke.

October 26, 1997|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

The woman calling Phil Hendrie's evening radio program on KFI-AM (640) is furious. Sputtering on the verge of apoplexy, she fumes about Hendrie's guest for this hour, an elderly woman on the phone from Florida calling for a boycott of the Christian group known as the Promise Keepers.

It's not just the guest's argument--that by holding their all-male meetings in stadiums rather than churches, the organization is unchristian--that has the listener in her state, but the increasingly insulting put-downs and counterclaims the older woman has been using against those defending the Promise Keepers.

"You've got me so angry I'm shaking," says the listener, trying to fend off the insults being hurled her way.

But as the exchange goes on, with Hendrie's refereeing seeming only to escalate matters, the caller thinks she smells something fishy about the whole thing and suddenly takes a wholly different tone of anger.

"I can see this is so phony," she says. "A Christian woman would never talk to another human like this."

Still, the conversation goes on, increasingly heated, until the caller exasperatedly declares: "You can't get my goat, because I know this is phony."

Hendrie cuts the caller off. "We already have, ma'am," he chimes, with a sense of smug satisfaction.

See, the caller was right. This bit of radio was fake, a total charade. The Christian crusader was actually Hendrie himself, doing a character voice through a phone receiver (complete with fuzzy long-distance effects), with light-speed shifts back and forth between that and his "real" character, the resonant-voiced host at the radio microphone.

Meanwhile, Jonah Weiland, the show's young producer, plays his role in the farce, sitting in a neighboring studio separated from Hendrie's by a glass partition, screening the incoming calls for both people who can't get their thoughts out well enough--and those who might know too much about what's really going on.

"No, it's not the same woman who was on last week," he tells one caller. "How do I know? I'm the producer of this show and I booked both guests. I have both their home phone numbers. This one is named Viola, last week's was Margaret."

But for the woman who sensed what was up during the Promise Keepers discussion, it was too late. She'd already become an unwitting player in Hendrie's theater of the air: four hours (7 to 11) each weeknight of standing the whole concept of talk radio on its ear--and then stomping all over it in madcap glee. Every "guest" he interviews is phony: It's always him doing both voices, trying to rile unknowing listeners so they'll call and amuse everyone else with their anger, frustration or perplexity.

"People need to understand that when they're on the air, they're on a stage," Hendrie, 45, says the next day while sitting in his "smoking lounge"--a couple of junked chairs in the garage of KFI's Wilshire district offices--before his show. "They're not the reason for this show. This is not about hearing their opinion. This is about entertaining an audience, and they become actors in that drama."

But the truth is that Hendrie's callers often don't understand that they're mere foils. In fact, the very nature of the show relies on them not realizing that the show is staged. They have to buy the "guests" as real people, no matter how absurd it gets. And sometimes it gets very absurd:

* One recent show featured two hours of an unfolding "news" story that had the Tooth Fairy shot and killed by a Hollywood man who mistook it for a home invader. Hendrie, doing all the voices, went back and forth between newsroom reports (from incompetent intern Bud Dickman), a news copter pilot and the Tooth Fairy's attorney, prompting calls from listeners who, if not exactly accepting that the Tooth Fairy was real, still thought perhaps someone masquerading as the character had been shot.

* On another, Hendrie voiced a grandmother claiming to have just knocked out and robbed a gas station attendant in order to feed her starving grandchildren. Listeners called offering to help her if she'd give the money back, but her demands became increasingly ridiculous. One concerned woman even called The Times, quite distressed that one of the grandchildren was said to have fainted from hunger while the show was on.

* In the guise of the author of a book about how to get around L.A., Hendrie had callers engaging in heated trades of insults with the "guest," who proved to be a font of gross misinformation, in one case abusively insisting that a caller was crazy to say that Claremont (the caller's hometown) was anywhere near Pomona.

* On his very first night on KFI, just over a year ago, Hendrie pretended to have Program Director David G. Hall on the phone, defending Hendrie's hiring to replace the fired Mr. KFI. Hendrie's Hall character, sounding perhaps inebriated, outright insulted callers complaining about the switch and has remained an unpleasant presence in regular subsequent appearances.

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