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Defying Expectations

Throw out the labels. KABC's Al Rantel is not all that you might expect in a conservative.

October 08, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Al Rantel, the new host on the local talk radio block, airing weekdays at midday on KABC-AM (790).

About to turn 43, he's handsome in a rugged sort of way, more amiable off air than on, and has spent the last 18 years in radio in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, primarily as a host. For nine years, he ranked first at midday there among listeners in the coveted 25-to-54 age demographic.

Rantel's arrival on Sept. 15--whether by coincidence or the quiet design of station management who want to boost ratings against rival KFI-AM (640)--also seems to signal a certain rightward turn at KABC.

He is a conservative who does one of the better Clinton imitations. And he's gay.

"You know, if you're a gay and not a liberal, a traditional liberal, it freaks people out," Rantel says on a recent afternoon, after finishing his 12:15-3 p.m. show. "I guess in a way I always thought [being conservative] did more for gay people, because it shows us not to be all one color or stripe. There are Jews who are not liberal. . . . "

Indeed, such as KABC's Dennis Prager. The erudite Prager, who holds the old Michael Jackson 9 a.m.-noon slot, calls himself a "centrist" and says he comes at issues from a moral and ethical, common-sense perspective. Then from 3 to 7 p.m. there's Larry Elder, who defines himself as "libertarian," though he's commonly referred to as conservative.

Perception, of course, is its own reality. Last weekend, a female caller to Jackson's show complained: "I don't like listening anymore [to KABC] in the morning. . . . Next they'll hire [KFI's] Rush Limbaugh."

Was it also coincidence that Marc "Mr. KABC" Germain--while filling in for Prager last week on the day after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley died--had as his first guest conservative former Police Chief Daryl Gates? Or that a producer on a KABC show was told this summer to present more critics of President Clinton? Or that another employee with a liberal point of view was tagged as someone with "an agenda"?

KABC Program Director Drew Hayes insists he didn't know Rantel's politics until he was on tryout for two days in August, but that wasn't the reason he was hired. "He's funny and he's smart," Hayes says. "He sat down at that microphone and sounded like he had been here forever. People won't find his views lock-step in any way."

Actually, Rantel had heard of the KABC opening through the rather liberal Tom Leykis of KLSX-FM (97.1), whom Rantel had hired in the mid-1980s when he was program director at Miami's WNWS.

Although Rantel will mention that he is gay when it fits the topic, it is his conservatism that he wears on his sleeve. That runs from the $70-billion government surplus he feels ought to go back to the people to the current Clinton crisis.

Rantel debuted here just after the release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton. Noting that the report has been "analyzed to death, analyzed by morons," he opined: "You know who the morons are? The morons are the ones who say"--his voice went into a whiny mimic--" 'Well, it's all about sex, and it's $40 million.' Those are the people who think, 'You know, if someone gets raped, it's only about sex. . . . ' "

As for Clinton, Rantel said there's "not a sincere bone in his body," adding: "I told a listener in Miami once, 'Look, if he were not president, [he'd be] selling time shares in South Florida.' " And he compared Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband to outlaws "Bonnie and Clyde."

Rantel also lit into Clinton supporters, from Rep. Charles Rangel to Rep. Maxine Waters--"an odd couple, one from New York, one from L.A. here"--to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Hollywood.

"I'm watching the Emmy Awards, OK? Here are these people coming out of their limousines and walking up the red carpet, and reporters asking them what they think about this affair. Here are people who you know would be incredibly outraged if it was someone they didn't like--i.e., a conservative or a Republican--and I forget which actress it was who said, 'I'm standing by my man, Bill Clinton. Isn't it wonderful he's so good to women?'

"Especially his own wife," Rantel said. "What a bunch of shameless hypocrites. Shameless!"

Unlike Prager, who displays precision of thought and language, Rantel occasionally messes up the facts. That first day and since, he mentioned Clinton's now-famous letter on his draft status. Rantel said Clinton has been doing the equivalent of selling time shares "since he was 18 with Col. Holmes."

Actually, Clinton wrote the letter on maintaining his "political viability within the system" when he was 23.

Rantel later concedes his error, suggesting that he probably was thinking that Clinton had wanted to be president since he was 18.

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