Johnny Wendell is stretching his wings on an unlikely perch for a passionate liberal Democrat: KFI-AM (640), home to conservative talk radio giants such as Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The weekend slot occupied by Wendell, whose job history includes stints as a punk rocker, actor and journalist for publications such as the LA Weekly, is a plankton of liberalism in the sea of conservative radio commentators nationwide. We asked Wendell what talk radio sounds like from the other side of the mike.
KFI programming is predominantly conservative. Its owner, Clear Channel Communications, is the dictionary definition of big corporate media. Are you a ghost in the machine?
How dare you quote Sting to a musician! Although better that than Rage Against the Machine.
But what's a liberal doing at KFI?
I want to pry open their closed minds and stick in an ice pick to make them see that there is more than one way to look at something. Look, 52% of talk radio listeners define themselves as moderate. They can be moved by a good argument. You just have to make your case. For example, if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq since the war, the most logical explanation is that they were never there. You will never hear that on talk radio because it runs contrary to [what] the occupants of the government want to put out. But the most logical explanation is that if they weren't used and you can't find them, they didn't exist. And that's what I say.
Rush Limbaugh, the king of talk radio, was a music disc jockey when he started his show in 1988. What qualifies you to talk?
What qualifies him to talk? What qualifies you to talk? Why does someone get an acting part in a movie? Because for some reason, they are believable. Nine months ago, KFI called and asked if I [wanted] to try out. At the interview they peppered me with questions. One was, "What would you do about Palestinian suicide bombers?" I laughed and said, "There's nothing you can do about them, they're already a loss. When someone has decided that their desire to survive is no longer important, you either kill them before they blow you up or you figure out the root cause of what has made them so angry and you rectify it." This was a Thursday. They put me on that Saturday night.
With no experience?
I had never listened to talk radio before. I'm a musician; I listen to music more than news. So I took a crash course. At first I just didn't like it. It was wacky, it was strident, it was bizarre, and it was hard to fathom why it was appealing. Then I started to get it. It's performance art. It's a jam, where you strike a balance between being incendiary and having absolute command of your subject.
Do talk radio audiences think it's performance or do they think it's journalism?
It's not journalism. You don't have to back up everything with absolute facts and sources. I try to be as much of a journalist as I can, but my job is to be an entertainer and keep them from turning the dial.
In 1994, when the Republicans retook control of the House, a Republican commentator called it "the first talk radio election."
Talk radio is the jungle drum of the Republican Party; it is how they get their message out. It is fully orchestrated by the Republican National Committee. The talking points are sent out to their friends in the medium. I know. I get them every day from GOPTeamLeader.com. It's a huge Wurlitzer. Now, here's the thing. Regardless of what the average person thinks, it's not an organ that has his or her best interests at heart.
Do you need your audience to like you?
I want them to either like me or be so enraged by me that they're speechless. What I can't stand is nothingness. Look, I'm obviously a leftist. It's obvious that I loathe the Bush administration and the Republican Party. It is obvious that I regard the powers behind them as destroyers of civilization, wreckers of the environment, soulless, bloodthirsty, priggish ciphers. And I know people aren't going to agree with me. KFI is their town. I walk into Conservativeville and I know they're going to want to throw spears at me. But I'm not trying to be ordinary. I want to be like a car wreck. You have to look.