Talk Rodeo

WIOD's Phil Hendrie hears voices in his head. They tell him what to do. They tell him what to say. And right now they're telling him to make you laugh.

During the great spring shakeup at WIOD-AM (610) -- including a shuffle of the talk-show lineup and the hiring of a new program director -- afternoon personality Phil Hendrie was, after just a few weeks on the air, suspended for vandalizing the studio. Then he took sick. The station's hopes for bolstering its ratings and reasserting itself as the market's leading talk outlet -- goals that to a large degree hung on Hendrie's talent -- began to fade. Management was counting on Hendrie to come in and, following the firmly entrenched Neil Rogers at 2:00 p.m., solidify daytime programming.

Hendrie, unfortunately, turned out to be about as reliable as South Florida's weather forecasts. Just days after hiring him, WIOD yanked Hendrie off the air, recruiting a competitor to fill in. That replacement was Rick Seiderman of WFTL-AM (1400) in Broward. Seiderman, the victim of a nasal inflection that at times makes his on-air chatter indecipherable, gave it his best shot. A sample encounter with a caller:

Seiderman: "Whup wou you like to di-cuss, thir?"
Caller: "I want to know how you got on the air. You're terrible!"
Seiderman: "Usyl mrr tosu?"
Caller: "Huh?"
Seiderman: "Said usyl momosly fijho?"
Caller: "You're Sick Riderman, not Rick Seiderman!"
Seiderman: "You like gray po lu mokky?"
Caller: "Sorry, I can't understand you."

Seiderman: "Ell, I'm glad you call and told us that you enjoy other women. That's a fine thing."

Caller: "I didn't say that!"
And neither did Rick Seiderman. Because if you want to know the truth -- and apparently few people do -- Seiderman was never on the air at WIOD. Hendrie wasn't suspended, wasn't ill. He was simply pulling the wool over his listeners' ears. What's remarkable is that he gets away with it every weekday, from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. Fibs. Lies. Just plain makes stuff up. And day after day, show after show, South Floridians fall for it, allowing themselves to drop headlong into the psychopit where nothing, and therefore everything, is real.

Hendrie both relies on and wreaks havoc upon the inherent credibility of radio broadcasts, which he tosses out the window. That leaves the irony -- those who know it's a put-on call in to testify that they've nearly wrecked their cars while laughing hysterically. The big question is how long Hendrie, an excellent mimic and master of a thousand voices, can get away with pretending to be Donald Wildmon (the raging censor and right-wing religious kook), Michael Dorn (the actor who played a Klingon on Star Trek: The Next Generation), or George Gephart, a powerful horseracing expert who "guested" during this spring's annual Triple Crown series. Gephart called from his vice president's office at Belmont Park, on Long Island, to reveal a dark secret of high-stakes horseracing -- namely that many of the horses that finish out of the money will be quickly "rendered" for use as cat food, glue, and fertilizer. And, damn it, if one of his horses loses, he puts the bullet between the animal's eyes himself. Yeah, the animal-rights folks lit up the phones on that one.

On a recent afternoon, driving around South Beach ("These people are just too goddamn cool for me," Hendrie says sarcastically while off the air) in the WIOD van for a remote segment, the talk-show host giggles while recollecting the best call of the day: a woman horse owner who grew irate -- beyond irate -- while talking to the fictive Mr. Gephart, who rated the Belmont entries in two categories: "Good horse, great future" or "dog bowl." After ranting that Thoroughbreds are far too valuable to be turned into Elmer's, the woman vowed revenge. As soon as she hung up, she growled, she would be calling Belmont to check Mr. Gephart's credentials. "If it's not true," she wailed, "then you're maligning our industry, conducting a fraud on the air!" To which Hendrie, pretending to be Gephart, responded, "And do you know what they do with the jockeys?"

In the van, Hendrie remarks that "you know you're doing something right when they threaten to sue."

Or when they threaten to blow up the place. Inside WIOD's on-air studio, where Hendrie sits before his best friend, the microphone, stands a life-size cutout of Barney Fife. In the flashing-light technodome that is the control room, Hendrie's producer, Andrew Kalb, answers the constantly ringing phone lines -- "Bob on a car phone? Turn your radio down and speak clearly. Hold on, buddy" -- while punching buttons and sliding levers. When a listener asks to speak to Hendrie off the air, Kalb says, "No, you can talk to him on the air. C'mon. Just be yourself. It's exactly like talking to your neighbor over the fence."

Mounted in a ceiling corner of the control room, next to a T&A poster, is a small TV monitor, currently tuned to the station's security channel. Kalb points up at the screen and tells Hendrie, "The cops are here. I think I know these two guys."

On the other side of the glass that separates the studio from the control room, facing Kalb, Hendrie is hollering through a hookup that allows him and Kalb to communicate without their voices going on the air. "I need a police siren [sound effect]." You simply can't do an O.J. bit without sirens.

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