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.

The talk host has had even more fun in WIOD's own back yard. Because the radio station and WSVN-TV (Channel 7) were both once owned by Cox Enterprises (Cox eventually sold Channel 7), the stations share space on the North Bay Causeway, along with Hot 105 (WHQT-FM 105) and the Coast (WFLC-FM 97.3). Though technically not affiliated, Channel 7 and WIOD enjoy a neighborly closeness. Employees of both share the same parking lot, if nothing else.

As a result, Channel 7 makes a perfect target. As if the colorful TV station didn't have enough problems. A few months ago a number of local hotels announced that they would block Channel 7 from TV sets in their guest rooms so as not to terrify tourists. In short order, some poor receptionist at Channel 7 received a call from a man staying at the Clorin Inn in Homestead:

Caller: "Channel 7? How come I no get your station? Is my favorite station!"
Receptionist: "There's an 800 number you can call. They'll answer all your questions about the tower."

Caller: "Who's this tower? My favorite newscast, Channel 7, I can't get! How come I can't get?"

Receptionist (referring to Channel 6, not Channel 7): "Well, because of the hurricane. Channel 6 put up a tower, and the tower blocks other channels. They're fixing it now."

Caller: "Oh my God! Oh my God! Channel 7 with Rick Sanchez is my favorite! I want to see!"

Receptionist: "They didn't do it on purpose."
Caller: "I'm going to call Channel 6 and tell them not do like they do. Can you call them up and tell them to take it down? Pleeeease." At this point, the man breaks down, crying and screaming incoherently.

The receptionist never did realize that the call was about the hotel boycott and not Channel 6's tower troubles. But Phil Hendrie certainly wouldn't let that spoil his gag.

What Hendrie specializes in is gags, bits, skits -- not the malicious profanity of ubiquitous "shock jocks" such as Howard Stern. Much of Hendrie's material works on several levels, dipping in and out of reality, screwing up the natural order of things, confounding talk-radio's drudgery. One day Hendrie telephoned his own station. "I want to talk to the general manager! I want to talk to the program director! What do you mean they're both in a meeting? I want to know who this jerk is who's on the air right now."

The WIOD employee who answered the phone explained that it was Phil Hendrie. "Who?!" She spells Hendrie's name -- incorrectly. He notes this while waiting on hold, adding, "Goddamn it, I have a complaint to make about this station, and I can't get through!"

During WIOD's 4:30 newsbreak on the day that Channel 7 announced the departure of news director Brian Greif, Hendrie is trying out different voices while off the air. "How's that?" he asks Kalb. "Does that work for a news director voice? Hey, by the way, how does this guy pronounce his name? Is it Greef or Grife?"

No one seems to know, so he goes with Greef, learning later he made the wrong choice. Kalb feeds Hendrie more ideas for the Greif interview A noting how Kelley Mitchell once wore red pumps on the air while reporting the O.J. Simpson case and recalling a few other classic Channel 7 moments. As the concept builds right there in the five-minute break, Hendrie continues to bounce ideas off Kalb, like the kid who never got a date to the prom, self-doubting, or at least slightly unsure of himself. Sometimes, while watching this radio revolution spin round, one has to wonder if Hendrie's relentless -- he creates voices and does bits even while off the air -- and often outrageous humor is some sort of shield or self-defense mechanism. You'd think the funniest man on local radio would have more confidence, or at least a bigger ego.

Then again, Hendrie, who's 41, has been in talk radio for only five years. During his shows, he drops in pieces of his biography, but because they often contradict -- he mentions having worked construction one day, then talks about how wealthy and privileged his family was on another -- it's hard to figure how much of it is true. As it turns out, all of it is.

Sitting at a picnic table behind WIOD (the building recently went no smoking, and Hendrie enjoys his Marlboro reds) on a bright early evening, he drops the characters, the voices, the frantic hilarity that typically surround him. He grew up in Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles. "My old man made a lot of money, then he lost it. I really did work at McDonald's, bagged groceries, worked as a veterinarian's assistant. Early on, from age eight to about thirteen, we were wealthy. During high school I slept on a couch." His parents split up when Hendrie was fourteen.

He began creating voices when he was four. A couple of years later, after seeing a movie, he discovered he was able to knock off a James Mason impression that was pretty good, at least for a six-year-old. "That's when my mother started to worry," he says.

After high school, Hendrie and a buddy traveled to Orlando to help build Disney World, a place Hendrie recently returned to for live remote broadcasts of his show. (He ran into trouble announcing a fake soccer game; the Disney folks complained, essentially attempting to censor him.) While mixing cement in Orlando, Hendrie decided to make some attempt at fulfilling his ambition to be on radio. He sent a tape to a small station in Winter Park, where he was hired as overnight DJ. "The format was called MOR back then, a lot of Robert Goulet, Percy Faith. I'm nineteen, twenty years old, and I'm playing this shit."

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