Michael Savage is angry. He’s angry at the president of the United States. He’s angry at Time magazine. He’s angry at CNN. And he’s super-angry at Congressman Jack Murtha.
The object of the San Francisco-based radio talker’s wrath is a fresh report out of Iraq about the US military’s detention of several Marines suspected of massacring Iraqi civilians last October. A caller to his nationally syndicated show who purports to be the father of one of the soldiers is convinced his son is being railroaded and claims that he is being held in “shackles” in a US military jail near Baghdad without formal charges brought against him.
Savage is ballistic.
He contemptuously replays a sound bite in which President George Bush, after weeks of silence on the issue, can be heard saying that if crimes were committed, those responsible will be brought to justice. To Savage, Bush is “pandering” and “selling out our boys.” Tim McGirk, the Time journalist who first reported the story, “should be arrested,” he declares. The same goes for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who has also covered it, and for Murtha, the “despicable” Pennsylvania Democrat and war critic, who has decried the incident.
“If I were running things, [McGirk] would be in shackles; Wolf Blitzer would be in shackles; Jack Murtha would be in shackles,” Savage bellows. “I’d make them prove that they’re not working for the enemy, taking the enemy’s word for everything and putting our poor boys behind bars.”
As the frenzied monologue nears a close — after all, it’s time for a commercial — Savage concludes that the “traitor” Murtha, a decorated ex-Marine whom he has previously likened to human excrement, is “either a communist or insane, or both.”
It’s the opening salvo of The Savage Nation, which may be the only radio show in America that comes with a disclaimer: “Warning: This show contains adult language, adult content, psychological nudity. Listener discretion is advised.”
Those who dare disagree with Savage on-air are apt to be dismissed as “vermin” and get the treatment reserved for the caller with a Brooklyn accent who — rather mildly — suggests that maybe the host is being too harsh on Murtha. For that, he’s berated as “street slime from the gutters of Brooklyn.” Then there is Dejon from San Francisco, whose infraction is having broached a subject that the moody Savage isn’t in the mood to talk about. “Dejon Mustard, go put yourself on a hot dog and devour yourself and leave me alone,” he intones.
Three years ago, after Savage was canned by MSNBC for telling a caller to his fledgling cable TV show to “Get AIDS and die, you pig,” some people were saying that the combative, archconservative talk-show host and author of red-meat political diatribes was washed up. But that was four New York Times best-sellers ago. His latest book, The Political Zoo, a kind of walk through the jungle of mostly liberal political animals that this unlikeliest of San Francisco provocateurs loves to hate, hit bookstore shelves in the spring.
Having just reupped as pontificator-in-chief at KNEW (910 AM), the retooled talk station owned by Clear Channel Communications — and his radio home-base — Savage and his anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, antigay, anti-Muslim, anti-Democrat, anti-liberal-media message appear never to have enjoyed more street cred among the faithful.
His syndicated show, which has nudged past four hundred stations coast-to-coast and claims eight million listeners, places him in the vanguard of an increasingly crowded field of conservative talkers, behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (or, in Savage-speak, Hush Bimbo and Sean Vanity).
Unlike them and other “Bushbots,” as he calls them, whose stars have dimmed along with W’s fading poll numbers, Savage can never be accused of toeing the administration line. For one thing, Bush is too liberal for him. Although Limbaugh and Hannity command larger national audiences, Savage cleans their clocks in his hometown market, making him by far the most listened-to — not to mention acerbic — radio talker in the Bay Area.
It’s a neat trick for a once mild-mannered botanist and North Beach hipster who counted none other than Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the late Allen Ginsberg among his pals when he was still using his real name: Michael Weiner.
Few things about Savage’s pre-radio past could have presaged his rise as perhaps the far right’s most vocal on-air ambassador. Not his adulation of Ginsberg. Not the fact that he once trolled the streets of Greenwich Village and, later, North Beach, in a beret. Or that the staunch anti-abortionist’s first wife had two abortions during their marriage. And certainly not the fact that he was once Timothy Leary’s gatekeeper at the LSD experimenter’s farm.
“Love him or hate him, Michael is absolutely at the top of his game,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which chronicles the radio talk-show world.
Savage’s daily three-hour program has added dozens of new stations in the last eighteen months. His screeds continue to fly off bookstore shelves. Sources say that his unique syndication deal through Talk Radio Network — the Oregon outfit that also produces talker Laura Ingraham and a bevy of lesser-known conservatives — enables Savage to rake in several millions of dollars annually from the radio show alone.
With all of that going for him, one might conclude that the reclusive and media-suspicious former beatnik lover and author of herbal medicine books would be a happy camper. But Savage, 64, appears to feel too underappreciated to be happy for long.
As is clear after a few minutes talking with him, he believes he gets less respect than the late Rodney Dangerfield. The man who has called ABC News “Always Bolshevik Crud” and who had labeled MSNBC the “More Snotty Nonsense by Creeps” network even before he briefly worked there, is convinced that big media is against him.
“Roger Ailes hates me,” he says of the Fox News chief. CNN’s Blitzer had him on the air a couple of times after The Savage Nation and The Enemy Within, his first two books as Savage. But ever since 2005’s Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder, neither Larry King (aka “Garlic Breath”) nor anyone else at CNN will touch him, he says. He claims that Bill O’Reilly had his scheduled appearance on fellow host Neil Cavuto’s program nixed at the last minute.
But nowhere are his apparent sensibilities over not getting enough love more pronounced than right here in his hometown. Sure, he lambastes San Francisco as “San Fran Sicko,” mocks Mayor Gavin Newsom as “Any Twosome Newsom” (a reference to the mayor’s gay marriage initiative), and each weekday afternoon spends time on the radio espousing views that are largely anathema to the city’s body politic.
Yet Savage is clearly sore over not having received the local recognition he feels he deserves. “I love this place, but there’s a lot of provincial jealousy here,” he says. “In many ways it’s like a small town or a gigantic high school. … There are people here who can’t stand that I am who I am and that I’ve achieved success.”
That this archconservative radio icon should be based in America’s most famously liberal big city is largely an accident of circumstance. Back in 1994, irked over his inability to find a publisher for a controversial book he had written called Immigrants and Epidemics, which sought to link the spread of infectious diseases to US immigration policy, Savage recorded a mock radio talk show on tape. He sent it to four hundred stations nationwide. Of the three that responded, KGO in San Francisco offered him a job.
After a brief stint filling in on sparsely-listened-to weekend late-nights, Savage was tapped by management to do similar fill-in work at sister station KSFO, which, in the infancy of political talk radio nationally, was about to become San Francisco’s first full-blown conservative talk station. His first broadcast, in which he slammed affirmative action, was nearly his last, he says. “Incredible anger, incredible hatred,” he recalls, describing the audience reaction. “I went home and swore that I would never go on the radio again. I’d had enough.”
But before long Savage had his own show on KSFO that became a big hit, and within a year he was in syndication.
In 2003, the year of the MSNBC debacle, and after concluding that he wasn’t being treated with enough deference by executives at Disney-owned ABC, which syndicated his KSFO show, Savage jumped ship to KNEW and Clear Channel. In a huff, and undoubtedly to get under his skin, his old employers programmed conservative titan Sean Hannity against him locally in afternoon drivetime and plastered the city with billboards containing pictures of both of them, under which were written, “Out with the old, in with the new.”
Savage, however, had the last laugh.
By all accounts, his radio success and books have made him a wealthy man. He and his wife Janet, whom he met in 1967, live near the water in Marin County, where in his off time Savage is said to delight in tooling around the bay in his 45-foot yacht. The couple has two children, a daughter who is a schoolteacher in Southern California, and a son, Russell Goldencloud Weiner, founder of the Las Vegas-based company that makes Rockstar energy drinks. Janet Weiner is the company’s chief financial officer.
The intensely private Savage steers questions away from his personal life and declares his family off-limits to interviews.
Indeed, the mercurial radio host is something of a mystery even to the people who work with him. Sources at KNEW who insisted on anonymity say that he rarely comes into the station’s state-of-the-art broadcasting studio on Townsend Street in Mission Bay to do his show. In a nod to his star status, he usually broadcasts from one of three “personal studios” in “residential settings,” according to a station insider. Savage doesn’t divulge their locations, except to say that each offers a window with different views — cityscape, bayscape, and rural — that he gravitates to “depending on my mood.”
Savage’s take-no-prisoners style, while occasionally witty, can also be mean-spirited. And unlike other conservative talkers who often parrot White House talking points, his self-described “independent conservatism” (he claims to have coined the phrase “compassionate conservative” before W began using it) makes him an equal-opportunity basher. “He panders to the extreme right of the extreme right,” says Cindi Creager of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has long been at odds with Savage. “He’s not shaping the opinions of the movable middle; he’s preaching to the choir.”
He also has conservative critics. “He goes too far,” says L. Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group. “To me, Michael Savage is to talk radio what Jerry Springer is to talk television.”
If such criticisms faze Savage, he doesn’t let it show. “There are people out there who don’t like what you say,” he says. “You don’t let it bother you.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of the vitriol he generates: “I’ve had death threats and I try not to let them bother me either.” All the same, he has a license to carry a firearm and concedes that he has packed a pistol since 1998. One of the reasons he doesn’t do book tours is that hotels are “too high a security risk.” He sometimes travels with a bodyguard. “That’s the world we live in,” he says.
Long before he became Michael Savage, the radio honcho was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens as Michael Alan Weiner, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Ben, whom those who knew him describe as gruff and profane — and who died of a heart attack in his fifties — was a socially conservative street vendor who worked his way up to owning a small antiques store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“Benny had a chip on his shoulder and was always mad at the world, and he was tough on Michael. There was nothing Michael could ever do to please him,” recalls Alan Zaitz, who has known Weiner since the two of them were in Hebrew school together as second-graders.
Benny Weiner verbally abused his son and didn’t hesitate to embarrass him in front of his teenage friends, Zaitz says: “Michael would have on tight black jeans and a boat-necked sweater and his dad would say, ‘I don’t like the way you’re dressed. You look like a fag,’ stuff like that.”
The father would have surely disapproved of Weiner’s interest in beatnik culture once he enrolled at Queens College. Zaitz recalls weekends when he and Weiner slipped away to Greenwich Village to hang out in coffeehouses, smoke pot, and troll for women. In those days, he says, the future Michael Savage kept a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in his pants pocket.
Weiner’s fascination with the counterculture scarcely abated after he settled into his first marriage, to Carol Ely, in 1964. The whirlwind union lasted less than four years and was marked by “Michael’s incessant dreaming and his impulsiveness,” says Ely, a retired advertising copywriter who lives in Florida.
She volunteers that she had two abortions during the marriage.
Shortly after the wedding, Weiner decided that the couple would go to the Bahamas, where he hoped to “strike it rich” working for someone he knew who owned a casino there, Ely says. He enrolled in medical school in France, an experience that lasted “barely a week” before he concluded that it wasn’t for him. Next up was Majorca, where the couple spent the better part of two months after Weiner “talked his way into the compound” of expatriate British poet and novelist Robert Ranke Graves.
Once, during a time when the couple lived in Queens — Weiner had taken a job as a high school biology teacher — he made a spur-of-the-moment suggestion that they visit Timothy Leary (whom neither of them knew) at the psychedelic drug advocate’s farm in upstate New York, Ely says. Leary took a liking to Weiner and made him a “gatekeeper” at the farm, “since Michael was maybe the only person there who wasn’t into psychedelic drugs.” On a trip to Los Angeles, she says, Weiner once left her at a hotel while he made an unannounced visit to the widow of author Aldous Huxley, whose work he admired.
“Michael was unpredictable and could be tyrannical, but the one constant about him was his desire for success and to find fame and fortune,” his ex-wife says.
Journalist and author Ira Rifkin, another of the radio host’s former pals from his New York days, saw the same ambition, plus something else. “He has a very strong need for public adulation,” he says. “He wants to be loved.” He recalls the time that Weiner, who was a big admirer of comedian Lenny Bruce, bombed mightily during an open-mic night at an East Village club: “It was painful, like watching your son strike out four times in a row. But I could see then how motivated he was for public affection and how determined he was to pursue it.”
By his account, the man who became Michael Savage had decided that his future lay in academia when, with new wife Janet, he set out for Hawaii in 1968. Weiner ended up in the botany department at the University of Hawaii. He earned master’s degrees in botany and anthropology while traversing the jungles of Tonga and other South Pacific islands collecting exotic plants with medicinal qualities.
Although no one could have known it at the time, the experience, and the knowledge Weiner gained from it, would help launch his career in the ’70s and ’80s as a successful author of more than a dozen books on herbal medicine.
Hawaii was also a crossroads of a different sort. Ever fascinated by the counterculture, he began writing letters to Allen Ginsberg, whom he had met briefly while living in New York, cajoling the poet to come to Hawaii for a reading. Weiner offered to make all the arrangements. The correspondence, consisting of ten letters and three postcards — and preserved as part of the Ginsberg collection at Stanford University — spans four years. In 1973, after having passed on Weiner’s invitations several times, Ginsberg, along with friend and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, accepted his offer and stopped over in Hawaii on his way to Australia.
The next year, with his wife and young son in tow, Weiner arrived in the Bay Area to take up doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. Having hosted Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in Hawaii, he enjoyed instant credibility as he burrowed in among the bohemians of the North Beach cafe scene. “He went around showing people a photo of him and Ginsberg swimming in the buff in Hawaii,” says Stephen Schwartz, an ex-Chronicle reporter and former leftist turned conservative scholar, who was a North Beach regular at the time. “It was like his calling card. He traded on his association with Allen to get a toehold.”
Savage’s North Beach bohemian period remains a sore spot among his old pals. “I always took him as a pretender, a BS artist,” says actor Gary Goodrow, sounding a refrain familiar among those who knew him from the Weiner days. “I think a lot of people felt betrayed as the result of what he became,” poet and writer Neeli Cherkovski says.
Part of their chagrin stems from the fact that Weiner didn’t merely walk away from his former North Beach friends. Rather, as Michael Savage, he mercilessly repudiates them every chance he gets. For instance, in his book, The Savage Nation, he refers to City Lights, the iconic bookstore Lawrence Ferlinghetti cofounded, as “San Francisco’s once-famous communist bookstore.”
Savage recounts walking past the store one evening to discover a photo of Ginsberg in the window shortly after the legendary Beat poet’s death in 1997. Although not naming Ginsberg directly, he refers to “one of the last reigning Beatnik poets” — whom he once adored — as “latrine slime,” and writes, “I clasped my hands together and prayed to God. I said, ‘Thank you, God, for answering my prayers. One of the blights of the human race is gone.'”
It’s a far cry from Savage’s apparent eagerness to impress Ginsberg in the early ’70s, when he sent the poet press clippings about his work as a student doing botanical research in the South Pacific, and repeatedly implored him to come and visit. Some of Weiner’s purported communications with the openly gay poet, as contained in the Stanford collection, seem strangely homoerotic.
Among them is an undated postcard, signed “Michael Weiner,” that reads, “Watched a tourist from New Zealand taking pictures of Fijian people in the marketplace [and] thought of inserting my camera’s lens in your A-hole to photograph the walls of your rectum. I really do apologize but the thought did occur.”
Savage says he doesn’t even recall writing to Ginsberg (“although I may have”) and dismisses any document suggesting homoeroticism on his part as a forgery, citing gay detractors who have long sought to smear him. “That’s all that’s on their minds,” he says. “They’re obsessed with sex, sex, sex.”
Savage’s disdain of Ginsberg puzzles those who knew him from the North Beach era. “It really is a mystery,” Ferlinghetti says. “I have no idea what happened to Michael Weiner. We were his friends, and as far as I know we never did anything to him.”
Ferlinghetti says the two brief encounters he has had with Savage in the last decade left him “flabbergasted.” He says the talk-show host shouted “Dirty beatnik!” when their paths crossed in North Beach in the mid-’90s. About two years ago, as Savage was getting out of a limousine in front of a North Beach restaurant, Ferlinghetti says he tried to say hello but that Savage abruptly turned and walked off.
Savage exhibits irritation when asked about “that beatnik shit, which I hate,” but that doesn’t keep him from expressing his disdain for the old crowd, even if he is less clear about the reasons for it. He refers to Ferlinghetti as a “jealous little man,” dismissing the octogenarian publisher and bookstore owner as “a nothing even when he was something, if you know what I mean.” And he is practically apologetic about his past association with Ginsberg. “He was famous,” he says. “I was a kid. I thought poetry was wonderful. I got to know him very briefly.”
Pressed about the “latrine slime” comment, Savage erupts. He says he “only found out years later” about Ginsberg’s “lifelong communism” and his affiliation with the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA (whose controversial credo is to end oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships). “I looked at [Ginsberg] almost like a rabbinic figure. Little did I know that he was the fucking devil.”
Even when he was hanging out among the anarchists, communists, and assorted leftists at Caffe Trieste in the heart of North Beach, Savage says that, despite what some may claim, he never had a leftist political point of view. “I was more into having a good time and drinking a lot of wine,” he insists. “I didn’t go there to meet Copernicus.”
Two experiences appear to have helped speed along his transformation from counterculture aficionado to conservative radio pontificator. The first was after he earned his Ph.D in ethnobotany from UC Berkeley in 1978 and saw his dream of a professorship go up in smoke after no one would hire him.
“I would have liked nothing better,” he says of his one-time academic ambitions. He blames reverse discrimination: “I soon found out just how corrupt the academic world was. It was a case of ‘White men need not apply.'”
(Much later, in 1997, Savage filed a reverse-discrimination lawsuit against his alma mater after being rejected in his quest to become dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. This, despite the fact that at the time, his “journalism” credentials consisted solely of two years as a radio talk-show host. He later dropped the suit. But it didn’t keep him from disparaging the winning applicant, China expert Orville Schell, as someone “whose claim to fame was managing an organic cattle farm” and “who was certainly no more qualified than I was.”)
To his former North Beach pals, he had begun to change. Neeli Cherkovski recalls that in the mid-’80s, during the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, Weiner went around passing out leaflets that bemoaned sex in the city’s gay bathhouses. He had made a name for himself in the ’70s with such titles as Earth Medicine — Earth Foods, and Weiner’s Herbal, both of which remain well-regarded contributions to the literature of herbal healing. But with his 1986 book, Maximum Immunity, in which Weiner called on the gay community to accept the blame for the AIDS crisis, both his interests and his tone had shifted.
Stephen Schwartz, another of his old colleagues, contends that Weiner’s behavior became “increasingly bizarre,” and believes that his resentment over his being rejected in academia had a profound effect. By the time Immigrants and Epidemics was turned down for publication — the other catalyst in Weiner’s transformation — his ex-associates say he was a different person.
“I remember one day sitting in the Caffe Trieste and him screaming at me from out on the sidewalk about how I was nothing and he was something,” Schwartz says. “I had to call the police.”
Once he landed on the radio, word spread quickly in North Beach circles that Michael Weiner had become Michael Savage.
Cherkovski recalls one of the first times he heard Savage. “I was driving home from Sonoma, flipping through the dial, and what he was saying was so utterly shocking, and sad, that I actually had to pull over to the side of the road to compose myself,” he says.
Savage delights in aggravating the chums from his beret-wearing days.
After bolting from KSFO for Clear Channel’s KNEW three years ago, a huge likeness of him sprang up on a billboard on a building at Vallejo Street and Columbus Avenue, a few steps from his old hangout at Caffe Trieste, where it remained until recently.
“I told them [the Clear Channel advertising people] to put it there,” he confides, with typical in-your-face impishness. “I thought that would make a great spot for my picture.”
Savage is just as willing to throw barbs at “San Fran Sicko,” a city whose streets he frequently walks in the evenings to decompress from high-octane hours at the microphone. “I really do love this city,” he insists. “I just can’t stand the vermin who are prominent here. The left-wing scumbags are the only forces you ever hear about.”
Those forces most assuredly include the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, whose members he chides as “a bunch of narcissistic egomaniacs who think they’re bigger than they are.” Their antics, he says, are why “much of the country” thinks of San Francisco “as a relatively sick place.” Yet he claims such disdain isn’t personal. Even after deriding Any Twosome Newsom, he confesses that he likes the mayor “on a personal level.”
With Michael Savage, that could be blessing or curse.