Attention insomniacs and late-shift workers: Turn your radio to WXNT-AM (1430) between 1 and 4 a.m. any night and you'll be treated to one of the radio’s most inventive and irreverent entertainers. His name is Phil Hendrie, and I guarantee you’ve never heard anyone quite like him.
A little background first. For 16 years, Hendrie did a nationally syndicated radio show where he served as both the host and the guests. Hendrie would interview his “guest,” who would say increasingly outrageous things — like the guy who joined the National Organization for Women because it was a great place to meet chicks — to rile up callers.
This ingenious send-up of talk radio lasted until 2006, when Hendrie tired of the time and effort required. “The climate in radio isn’t favorable to highly stylized, satirical presentations,” he says.
In June 2007, he returned with a somewhat different show. He still has the occasional characters — just recently, a “caller” watching the fires in San Diego told him Fox News purposely hired a “stupid liberal,” Alan Colmes, to make liberals look bad while at the same time she was getting off sexually from the majesty of the planes dousing the flames.
But Hendrie, 55, says he doesn’t take calls from infuriated listeners anymore because it’s “easier to be funnier when you’re not thinking about trying to get callers to believe your character is real enough to call in and talk to them.”
The show, heard live here Tuesdays through Saturdays and prerecorded on Sundays and Mondays, relies instead on Hendrie’s monologues, presentation of news, free-flowing sketch material, characters and commentary that can be humorous or serious. On a recent show, he mashed up a Britney Spears performance with the frantic Sept. 11 recordings between the control tower and United Flight 93. His point: Society is more obsessed than ever with celebrity, and we’re using them as noise to cover up our fears.
“We seem to be more obsessed than ever before with celebrities and their peculiarities because we have a century ahead of us that is going to be extremely challenging,” Hendrie says. “I see so much hiding under the bed going on, and putting the pillow over the head and turning up the music to drown out the news.”
Now here’s the confounding thing: Hendrie describes himself as a liberal Democrat who voted for Al Gore in 2000. But since Sept. 11, he’s become a George W. Bush supporter who, as you’ll see in this interview, can spark just as much outrage as his “guests” did and sometimes still do. Unless you happen to agree with him, of course.
NUVO: Did you quit the old show because it got to the point where you couldn’t fool people?
HENDRIE: No. Even today I have people calling the show, wanting to talk to the characters. What really did not succeed in my mind was not the show; it was the support in the radio industry. It’s so invested in straight-ahead political talk and has so compartmentalized humor into morning drive that it’s lost its ability to promote stylized, satirical radio. You’ve got a lot of people in sales and marketing and affiliate relations who are only used to the liberal-conservative paradigm. They’re not at all familiar with placing a show that’s a satirical show, not a humor show.
What had reached critical mass for me was the amount of effort going into producing a show like that and the return I was getting in terms of affiliates and advertiser response. It was no longer worth it to do a show. I had comments from a lot of program directors about the old show: “Well, I don’t really get it.” If you’re a program director in radio and you don’t get what I’m doing, what do you think the listener is going to be thinking? But I think the listeners got it a lot faster than program directors and general managers did.
NUVO: From what you’ve told me about the new show, it sounds different from the old show.
HENDRIE: You know the old saying: The only way you grow as an artist is by challenging yourself. I didn’t want to be necessarily a 65-year-old man doing [high school student and regular character] RC Collins’ voice and making all these marvelous points that were sailing over the heads of listeners — and, more to the point, sailing over the heads of program directors. I’d rather try to do what Jack Nicholson once said: What I do is try to find the very best possible script that’s going to appeal to the most people.
That’s a commercial formula you have to reckon with, and it’s the way to be happy and to be successful with the audience. Bring them the best material you can find, but make sure they’re going to want to hear it.
NUVO: There seemed to be a time about a year ago where it looked like television was trying to figure out what to do with you.
HENDRIE: There were two TV pilots. “Phil at the Gate” for NBC was written by Peter Tolan, who’s a damn good writer. “Phil Hendrie,” the animated pilot for Fox, was produced by Steve Levitan. But neither of those projects was under my control. If I were ever to do another TV pilot, I would do it only if I had total creative control. I’m not sure that is likely. I’m not sure I’d like to do episodic sitcom television. I’d just like to continue to do the radio thing and get it as good as I can get it.
NUVO: Your bio describes you as a life-long Democrat who voted for Bush and thinks he’s going to go down in history as the greatest president ever. Is that correct?
HENDRIE: I said one of our greatest. One of the indicators of that is how many people hate him. It’s amazing the parallels that can be drawn between Bush and Lincoln. Lincoln was despised to the point where he lost his life. He was a man who had eliminated habeas corpus as well, and he was a man whose draft call-up produced the most serious urban violence we’ve ever had in this country, in New York City. And he was a man who, like Bush, was encouraged to see the light, to give up this hopeless idea of this war he was prosecuting in favor of cutting the losses and “Let’s let the South be a country and we’ll be a country.” I see both of these men eerily similar in the way their contemporaries viewed them.
Say what you want against Bush: He took action against a country that became a ward of the international community, took out a dictator who had made an assassination attempt against a United States president and, if there was a question about weapons of mass destruction, we certainly found out whether there were any in there or not. It’s interesting to hear people say there were no WMDs, so we never should have gone in. But those people would never have found out had we not gone in. This idea that he misled people is beginning to backfire because we’ve got a number of people running for president who claim to have been misled. I don’t know how much I want to trust an individual who was so easily fooled by “such a stupid president.”
I don’t buy that the concern over Iraq has anything to do with concern over American soldiers or Iraqi citizens. I don’t see any sincerity in the anti-war faction that claims they care about dead soldiers or dead civilians. In fact, they celebrate the death of soldiers by putting their faces up on Web sites. I think what’s happening is, there is a post-traumatic stress that’s happening to the country — the avoidance of this pain that’s so deeply embedded itself in us that we want it to go away and we don’t want any reminder of it anywhere and we don’t want to face the frightening facts.
Bush, for his part, has been consistent and he even said it after Sept. 11 — people are going to forget, but I’m not going to forget. And that’s exactly what’s happened. He has stayed the course — even to the point where the Democrats who are running for president recognize the value of keeping troops in that part of the world, the value of setting up military bases in that part of the world and protecting that resource for as long as we can while we’re trying to get our shit together over energy in a country that doesn’t want a war for oil and yet will not drill in Alaska because caribou are going to die.
This is a terribly self-indulged and spoiled generation that is putting off the inevitable as long as they can. I thank God we have a president who’s willing to keep shoving our face in the reality as long as he can.
I say this as a liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-affirmative action John F. Kennedy liberal Democrat. I remember when Kennedy stood down the Russians. I remember Franklin Roosevelt. I remember a time when our party fought fascism, and if ever there was a fascist presence, it is there in the Middle East, exporting it to Europe and attempting to export it to our own country. I cannot believe the party that stood against fascism in the ’40s and on into the ’50s and the early ’60s has suddenly backed away from the challenge.
NUVO: Wow, Phil, you were like one of your characters there for a minute. I thought I was going to go apoplectic. The one thing I would agree with you on is, if these presidential candidates were so easily duped by this guy, who they say is so dumb, then I don’t want them as my leader. One serious point I’ll argue with you on is, Bush did nothing to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil. And he had the nation in his hand. If he really wanted to do that, he could have done it.
HENDRIE: When he had the nation in his hand, that was not exactly the time to be talking about alternative energy. The nation at that time wanted to go out for blood, and the argument there was whether he was going after the right blood. But the alternative energy thing? You know as well as I do, this idea of getting off foreign oil has been argued into the ground by countless administrations.
NUVO: But if he really wanted to, right then and there, he had the bully pulpit to try.
HENDRIE: That’s a good point. But if you’re looking for a way to power this country other than using foreign oil, is the time to do that when the supply itself could be threatened?
HENDRIE: What if all of a sudden, there’s momentum in the Middle East as a result of al Qaeda’s strike, there is an empowerment of the more terror-leaning regimes there to go ahead and manipulate the oil supply? It’s going to be a number of years before we get ourselves off oil.
NUVO: But why not start?
HENDRIE: That’s not the time to start.
NUVO: I disagree with you.
HENDRIE: It’s like saying, “I really ought to begin to invest in gold as opposed to cash,” right after somebody has busted into your house and tried to rifle through your safe and tried to get all of your greenbacks. You’ve got to safeguard the money first. Then you can start to talk about transferring your assets over to something else.
NUVO: Why can you only do one thing at a time?
HENDRIE: Welcome to America, man.
NUVO: I know. They don’t get you. What are the chances we’re going to have alternative energy, right?
HENDRIE: If you can prove to me we can chew gum and walk at the same time, brother, I’m in favor. But I couldn’t agree more. I want out of that region as much as you do. It’s a despicable area of the world in terms of how people are led, and of course there’s all that black gold under the sand we seem to need. But why can’t we be drilling in Alaska? Right now in Florida, they’re talking about protecting their coastline from oil drilling. Do we have that luxury anymore?
NUVO: Let’s say you didn’t support Bush. Would you have a radio show right now?
HENDRIE: I would, because I’m a broadcaster. I’m an entertainer. I know the medium, I know how to use the medium, I know how to delight people with humor, I know how to have fun with them and inform them. I do piss them off, but at the same time I make people laugh. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are almost iconic now. Look at the fun they have. I think they’re very funny guys.
The key is this: The reason Rush Limbaugh is successful is because he’s a broadcaster first. God knows, we have plenty of conservative talk shows. Why are they not pulling down the numbers Rush does? The reason is, those people are not professional broadcasters in terms of their original training in life. Rush is a radio entertainer, and that is the key to his success. I would be doing a show as well because at the heart, I’m a professional entertainer. Liberal Democrat doesn’t matter, as long as you’re good at what you do.