David Brudnoy, the radio-talk-show host who dominated the evening airwaves of Boston on WBZ AM 1030 since 1986, died Thursday of cancer at the age of 64. Brudnoy joined what he called the "National Review family" in the late 1960s; the Boston Globe this morning called him a "protege of the magazine's founder, William F. Buckley Jr." Brudnoy attained a certain degree of national fame, about which he was never entirely comfortable, in 1994 when he nearly died from a viral infection and spent nine days in a medically induced coma in a Boston hospital. As rumors swirled about the source of his illness, he admitted that he was gay and had AIDS. He recounted much of this story, in his typically self-effacing manner, in a piece for NR a few years back.
While I was still living near Boston in the 1990s, I had occasion to be a guest on David's show two times. But I was a listener and fan long before I was a guest. In fact, it was my mother who lives in Maryland and could hear WBZ's powerful signal at night all the way from Boston who first got me hooked on Brudnoy.
Brudnoy was simply the best radio host I've ever heard in any market or on any part of the AM or FM dial. In most markets, FM talk is National Public Radio, where guests have an opportunity to develop their positions at a leisurely pace and where there tends to be little in the way of heated exchange and little listener interaction. AM talk is loud, fast-paced, with a lot of give and take between host, guest, and callers. It's a caricature to describe NPR shows as inducing somnolence and AM radio as generating headaches of the sort caused by having too many teenage siblings in a car at one time. But there is a kernel of truth in each description. Brudnoy combined the virtues of both styles of radio talk while avoiding their vices.
In most major markets, talk radio is increasingly dominated by the national shows, such as NPR, Rush, Hannity, and Ingraham. Brudnoy could and did devote a great deal of attention to national politics, but he spent as much time on local issues and seemed especially to relish the personalities and political and cultural intricacies of Boston. Brudnoy's insatiable curiosity made him one of the most informed Bostonians; he seemed to know everything about the city, everything except sports. He regularly mocked the Bostonian and American adulation of sports figures. Hockey was a particular target of his withering wit, especially on those nights when his show was delayed so that WBZ could cover the "moronic" Bruins games.
I'm not sure Brudnoy would have welcomed the description "public intellectual." Anyone who strikes that pose invites ridicule, but what Brudnoy did for the life of the mind in public was exemplary. He took books, ideas, movies — he was also a film critic — seriously. He was a model of the way to hold one's own position, to argue vigorously on its behalf, and yet to engage other points of view with tact and seriousness. And listeners found themselves caught up in the argument, agreeing or disagreeing with Brudnoy on any number of topics. A libertarian who articulated his views with rigorous clarity, Brudnoy did not feel the need to score ideological points at every step in the conversation. Besides, one never had to agree with him to profit from listening.
Brudnoy had a great radio voice and an ability to string words together in such a way that listeners had an experience of language — here a reflection of a remarkably vibrant and supple mind — as a drama unto itself. Perhaps in this, he most resembled Mr. Buckley, if anyone can be said to resemble Buckley. Before his illness, David was indefatigable, conversing with as much energy when he signed off at midnight with his trademark, "Good Night and Good Morning," as we was when he opened the show at 7. In fact, I had to break my habit of listening to him after getting into bed at night because I repeatedly found myself listening until midnight and then so awake from the discussion that immediate sleep was a near impossibility.
In addition to cutting back on the hours of his nightly broadcasts, Brudnoy began after his illness to broadcast from his home, an apartment overlooking Commonwealth Ave. in Boston. Guests were greeted at the door by one of David's student assistants — he was a popular teacher at Boston University — offered a beverage of their choice and a comfortable seat in an elegant living room. What is most memorable about the setting is not the elegance but the shelves and shelves of books, so many books that they overflowed into piles on end tables.
One of the great pleasures of doing a Brudnoy show was that authors knew he had read their books. The subject did not matter: philosophy, politics, literature, biography, whatever. He was always on the top of his game, always ready with the sort of penetrating questions that one might expect of an expert in the field. During a break in one of the shows I did with him, he complained a bit about how tough it was to do a lot of interviews based on books. He paused, then said, "well, it is difficult if you're committed to reading the books." I can still recall Brudnoy's copy of my book, with folded pages and scribbles of notes in the margins.
Brudnoy was still holding classes at BU in recent weeks. Chemo and imminent baldness led him to ask his students, "Do you want bald or in a cap? Which do you want? I can either do Rapmaster Bruds or I can wear a cap. I'm not going to wear any wig." As his prognosis worsened in recent days, he was reported to have been hurrying to finish grading tests and papers. Ever the teacher, Brudnoy was never more so than when he was on the air, where he could become impatient with rambling or ill-spoken callers. As every teacher knows, a discussion cannot succeed unless there are standards and accountability. With his guests, however, he was always generous. He was in that respect a consummate host.
Good night, David.