When it comes to scandalous tidbits, the conspiracy of silence surrounding talk-radio host Tom Barberi is impenetrable. If there’s any dirt to be had on him, no one’s talking—not even his own staff.
“He’s a great guy to work for, a lot of fun,” says Paige Bradford, producer of Barberi’s KALL 910 AM morning talk show. “Even outside of the studio. He invites us over to his house for barbecues, and we go and hang out. He’s really kind of a legend, but he doesn’t let it go to his head.”
Daughter Gina Barberi (of X96’s Radio From Hell) is no help in the gossip department, either: “Um, he instilled in me a love of Utah and radio, and he gave me my sense of humor,” she says, carefully considering her words. “He also gave me my whine and my facial hair. Thanks, Dad!”
It’s a writer’s worst fear confirmed: Tom Barberi is a nice, normal guy. It doesn’t make for a juicy hook, but it’s the truth. After 30 years on Utah’s airwaves—on the same station and in the same timeslot, a major feat in itself—the anointed Voice of Reason’s tale is more of a PR-friendly Celebrity Profile than a muck-racking True Hollywood Story. Less National Enquirer, more People.
“I live in mortal fear that the public will find out that I really don’t do anything for a living,” Barberi laughs, trying to offer up at least a morsel of intrigue. “I’ve had them all fooled for quite a while.”
Now older, grayer and possibly crazier (“I went insane a long time ago, trust me,” he quips), Barberi stepped into his cake morning job on July 5, 1971, when he arrived from San Francisco for a fill-in slot on KALL, a music station at the time. For a DJ who thrived on cracking wise about his surroundings, Salt Lake City may as well have been Mecca.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says. “The radio station manager picked me up at the airport, then took me up by the Capitol to see the valley. I expected a desert, but I saw this green valley with snow-capped peaks, the air was crystal clear, it was about 80 degrees—just a beautiful place. Then he drove me downtown to the KALL studio on South Temple, and I noticed there were no cars on the streets, none. I asked him, ‘Where is everybody?’ He said, ‘It’s Sunday—they’re in church.’ I said, ‘All of ‘em?’ That was my introduction to Salt Lake City.
“I came to KALL because I liked the format. I figured I’d hone my skills, and then go back to San Francisco. Well, here I am 30 years later, still having too much fun.”
Barberi would spin a couple of records per hour, spending the rest of the time gabbing with partner Mike Runge (now Fox 13’s TV sports anchor) between traffic reports. When KALL made the switch to full-time news and talk in the early ’90s, music was dropped and on-air callers were brought into the mix. Not surprisingly, they didn’t all share his sense of humor about the pretty, great state.
“I still get the love-it-or-leave-it callers,” Barberi says incredulously. “I really do love it here; Utah’s a wonderful place to live. But it does have its quirks, obviously. Once you understand the structure of the state and you accept it, then you can enjoy it. Unfortunately, there are people who hate it. They love the state, but they hate how it functions. It grinds on them, and it makes their lives miserable. They blame the LDS church for everything.”
Sensing a pot-calling-the-kettle-black retort, Barberi quickly clarifies: “Yes, I’m called a Mormon-basher, but I just have a problem with what I see as stupidity or a lack of common sense. I’m an equal-opportunity critic. When you have a state that’s dominated by a pseudo-theocracy, just admit it. Saying there’s no separation of church and state, that’s not bashing—it’s acknowledging reality. In what other state would you have legislators go to the headquarters of the local church and present them with potential bills? They do that here. Am I angered by that? No. Am I shocked? No. Do I think it’s right? No. It’s just the way it is. Besides, doing what I do, where else could you find so much material to work with?”
Watching Barberi at work probably isn’t what you’d imagine if you’ve listened to the show for any length of time. On the radio, it sounds as if the studio is jam-packed with a bustling crew, moving things along at a pepped-up morning pace. That scenario is half-right: The show does move, but Barberi—KALL’s only live and local weekday occupant, as the rest of the schedule is syndicated—is all alone in the studio. Newsman and comic foil Bob Hendricks is isolated behind a soundproof window, poring over computer monitors for headlines and updates; producer Bradford is behind another, screening calls and running the technical end of the show. (“If it sounds like we’re all together in one room, then we’re doing our job right,” she says proudly.)
The view from the studio to the outside world is none too inspiring, either. Years ago, KALL moved from its heart-of-the-city South Temple location into national owner Clear Channel’s corporate Utah digs in the middle of a nondescript West Valley office park that’s so deserted, every day looks like Sunday. How does a lone talk host in the middle of nowhere get ready for a four-hour gabfest?
“When people ask how I prepare for the show, I have two answers: One is, I don’t prepare. The other is, I’m constantly preparing. Both are accurate,” Barberi explains. “Everything I see, read and experience, like talking to you, going to the store, seeing a billboard, could be usable in the show. As far as formal preparation, I’m a newsaholic, a news junkie. I read everything I can get my hands on. I subscribe to 30 different magazines, and I read all of the local papers. It’s very interesting to read both the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, because you get very different perspectives on the same story, different spins. They’re night and day, which I think is great—I can bounce one off the other all morning.”
Depending on whom you talk to, the Clear Channel mega-media corporation (which owns 1,170 radio stations nationwide) is either the Great Satan of Broadcasting or a highly successful company that’s somewhat cool to work for. As an employee for five of his 30 KALL years, Barberi falls in the latter camp, but he hasn’t entirely lost sight of the “good old days” of local independent radio.
“Yes, they really were good old days,” he says, smiling fondly. “When KALL was owned locally by George Hatch, it was like an only child. We were the focus of everyone working in the building, and we could do more things because we had management’s attention—we were the sole product. Now, I’m on one of eight stations in this building, so I’ve got kind of a sibling rivalry with all of these other stations. On the upside, we work for this huge corporation that allows us to have access to concert tickets [from promoter SFX, another Clear Channel property], interviews with people we wouldn’t normally get, a great variety of national syndicated hosts [see sidebar], and I can call any company affiliate in the country and have access to whatever’s going on there instantly. It’s two different worlds.
“Clear Channel also gives me complete freedom. I’ve never had anyone come sit on me and tell me ‘Don’t ever talk about that again.’ This isn’t KSL, programming provided for a specific audience by a specific ownership. For what KSL is, it does a very good job. They are the monster call letters and they will always dominate, because they also have the TV channel and, of course, because of the [LDS] ownership. For any other station, it’s like going into the game and the other team already has two touchdowns on the scoreboard, so you just concede that and let it go. We do things they can’t do, talk about issues in a way they won’t—we’re really the alternate voice.”
And what about those constant promos for Clear Channel’s FM music stations running during his AM talk show? “That’s a corporate thing,” Barberi sighs, holding his annoyance in check. “They’re supposed to be running promos for my show on the FM side, but I don’t know if they are or not. The success of all the stations is important to Clear Channel, obviously, so they’ll take the opportunity to promote all the properties on all the stations. I may not appreciate the concept, but I understand what they’re doing. If I’m getting equal time on Rock 99, that’s great. If not, I may have to go slap around Mick & Allen.” [Laughs]
A Clear Channel-issued sign hanging in the KALL studio reads “Remember, It’s Just Entertainment,” but quite a few old-time Utah talk-radio addicts who’ve been listening since before Barberi hauled his briefcase of noisemakers and knick-knacks into the valley believe otherwise. If he doesn’t let the little old ladies ramble on for 20 solid minutes about an obscure house bill or allow the gruff conspiracy theorists to repeatedly warn of the Jews’ alleged control of the planet, Barberi’s a “sell-out” who doesn’t care about rallying the people, Braveheart-style. It’s a situation he finds as laughable as it is sad.
“Talk radio never solved anything—anyone who believes otherwise is out of touch with reality,” he says. “I’m an entertainer. I’m not a political activist, not a leader. What I do is no different than Leno or Letterman doing a monologue, talking about current events and making jokes about it—except my monologue is four hours long. I’m always looking for the cheap laugh at anyone’s expense; I don’t care who. If you’re the mayor, the governor, a Utah County commissioner who just can’t stay off the sauce, you’re on my radar, and I’m going to have fun with it.
“These people who think they’re going to change the world have such a narrow vision of the world—you’re a talk show host, and now you’re suddenly an expert on the environment, global economics and politics? Everything is black and white to them; there’s no gray. They have to create a bogeyman to maintain their Us-vs.-Them mentality. In any group, you’re going to have the fringe, the goofy ones, the Gayle Ruzickas. Maybe I can influence people to think and participate more, but that’s it.”
Sometimes, just getting anyone to phone in at all is the problem. “It amazes me how few calls we get,” Barberi says. “Other talk shows live and die by the phone calls, but I don’t sit there and stare at the lines hoping someone will call in. It’s my show, my opinions, and if you want to join in, great. If it’s someone who disagrees with me, even better. As soon as a caller gets on the air, he or she ceases to be a listener and then becomes part of the entertainment, part of the show. It’s like playing records: If it’s a good record, it’s going to be a long cut. If it’s a lousy record, it’s going to be a short cut.
“I want everything going on the air to be the best it can be, but I don’t screen my calls to the nth-degree like Rush does, getting only those Dittoheads who fawn all over him. ‘I love you Rush, thanks for taking my call.’ That’s bullshit—just tell me what’s on your mind. When the phone’s not ringing, I like to believe it’s because everyone’s too captivated by my brilliance to call [laughs]. I know it’s delusional, but that’s what I like to think.”
Aside from a few minor peeves about his Host for Life radio gig (“Every month, I have Gov. Mike Leavitt on—I ask him the same questions, he gives me the same answers, I learn nothing,” Barberi grimaces), the talker handles the inevitable question of “When are you going to quit?” with typical aplomb. (For those in Utah County, that means “self-assurance.”)
“When it stops being fun, when I stop looking forward to Mondays,” he says, stepping into his ’51 Ford pick-up. “Right now, there’s never a dull moment—I hate to even take time off, because I’ll pick up a paper and say, ‘Shit! Look what they’re doing! I’ve got to get back on the air!’ It’s just what I do.”