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Pushing buttons with no apologies

Bill Handel knows why he's the nation's top local talk show host. And he's got the hate mail to prove it.

October 21, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Bill Handel's small personal office in Burbank doesn't have a window, but he still revels in the view. His desk faces what the KFI-AM (640) morning drive-time host calls his "wall of hate" -- a jumbo-sized bulletin board writhing with red-faced and flaming letters that essentially wish he'd go straight to a very hot, uncomfortable place.

The Post-it note-like, chaotic vista, regularly updated by culling through the hundreds of communications that pour in weekly, often brings a wide smile to Handel, who knows that he is really looking at a wall of congratulations. All the sound and fury simply mean the 55-year-old attorney matters to a huge radio audience, estimated at 1-million-plus per week.

Handel's pull on listeners makes him by far the most popular local talk show host in the country. His audience, who cheer his acerbic, often comical rants on politics, current events and pop culture, is surpassed in size only by about a dozen of the most successful nationally syndicated radio shows.

"He has broken all the records for a local show in the modern era. It's an amazing feat," said Michael Harrison, editor of the trade publication Talkers. "He's done it by being very smart, very funny and by being very much a part of Los Angeles, which is a nation unto itself. He almost single-handedly proves the vitality of local radio."

In one of the nation's most dynamic markets, Handel has dominated his 5 to 9 a.m. time slot, finishing first among English-language stations for listeners 12 and older in 10 of the last 11 quarterly Arbitron ratings. Earlier this year, the Cal State Northridge and Whittier law school graduate helped vault KFI to the top spot -- among both English and Spanish stations -- marking the first time since 1987 an AM station had captured the overall No. 1 spot in the Los Angeles market.

Handel is pleased with the figures, of course, but he likes to measure his success listener by listener. He understands he's in the entertainment business and that he has to hit people's buttons every day or else they will be hitting the ones on their radios.

"I know I've really done my job when someone punches out their windshield," said Handel, a San Fernando Valley resident and the father of twin daughters. "We're always trying to find new people to offend. I've offended every race, every creed, every color, every religion, everybody.... Because you know what? They're all crazy."

Even his apologies are a kind of pre-emptive insult to those he is allegedly trying to placate. Every show ends with an apology from the day's topics. A recent example: "We would like to apologize to the following: President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, radical Muslims, evangelical Christians and the Jews, painted elephants ... Pete Rose, Chinese men with transplanted penises that have to have them cut off, necrophiliacs, Marine deserters, Iranians, Iraqis and Afghanis, kids who go to Jesus camp, anyone who wears a toupee, gay governors that release their erotic memoirs, Indian givers ... and astronauts who release noxious gas in an enclosed environment."

Sincere apologies are rare, but are occasionally issued. In January, after 345 people were trampled to death at the annual hajj Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, Handel performed an on-air skit about hiring a traffic reporter to avoid the carnage in the future. Arab American groups protested and Handel, although defending his right to satirize even tragedies, eventually said he was sorry.

"They said I wouldn't joke about the Holocaust, but I told them I have," said Handel. "And they said you wouldn't have done it the next day. And I said, you know what? You're right."

Still, when it comes to giving offense, the Brazilian-born immigrant and son of a Holocaust survivor has few rivals. Among other names, Handel has been called racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, a fascist, a left-wing kook and despite, his Jewish heritage, an anti-Semite.

Handel has been the target of death threats, which are taken seriously enough that he always travels with an armed security guard when making public appearances. "Bill jokes that they're trained to shoot anyone who dares to speak to him," said the show's executive producer Michelle Kube, who has worked with Handel for the last 11 years. "He's kidding, of course."

Handel calls himself a centrist, but his current events-heavy show generally leans to the right. In recent months, he's devoted considerable programming to bashing President Bush, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others over what he sees as their facile stand on immigration reform. He's a staunch supporter of Israel, believes the United Nations is a "waste of time and money," and isn't going to lose sleep over offshore drilling on the California coast.

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