SAN FRANCISCO — The humbling of Don Imus last spring over his remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team has done nothing to quiet Michael Savage, a radio host with a far bigger following and far more checkered track record.
Mr. Savage, whose program reaches an estimated eight million listeners a week on nearly 400 stations, suggested over the summer that a group of college students on a hunger strike in support of easing immigration restrictions should “fast until they starve to death.” In October the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, the city from which Mr. Savage often broadcasts, took the unusual step of passing a resolution condemning him for the remarks.
Then, a few weeks ago, Mr. Savage uncorked a cascade of invective about Islam. Among his on-air comments: the Koran is “a book of hate”; some Muslims, at least, “need deportation”; and adherents of Islam would do well to “take your religion and shove it up your behind” because “I’m sick of you.”
In response the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose stated mission includes correcting mischaracterizations of Islam, tore a page from the playbook of Mr. Imus’s critics. It made Mr. Savage’s comments widely available on the Internet and called on advertisers to boycott his program, which is behind only Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s in number of listeners, according to Talkers magazine, an industry publication.
At least two of his major sponsors — Citrix, which sells remote access to computers, and Trusted ID, which provides protection against identity theft — have pulled their spots. Thus far, Mr. Savage said in an interview last week, the boycott had cost his program more than a million dollars in advertising revenue committed for next year.
On Dec. 3 Mr. Savage fired back at his critics in a way Mr. Imus never did: He filed a lawsuit in United States District Court against the council, not only for taking his comments out of context — he says they were made within a broader discussion of the president of Iran — but for then making audio of them available on its Web site, cair.com.
With his suit, Mr. Savage has put himself in an odd position for someone who makes his living talking and is a fierce advocate for free speech: He is complaining about others quoting him.
But in the interview Mr. Savage contended that the council had violated the copyright protections on his broadcast by using his words, in effect, to raise money. He cited the bright orange button labeled “Donate” that appears on the council Web site just to the right of the “Action Alert” it put out against him.
“If they are trying to hang me by my own petard, they have no right to use my petard,” Mr. Savage said after Monday’s show. “It’s my petard, not theirs.”
A spokesman for the council, Ahmed Rehab, said, “We think the suit is a P.R. ploy.” (A spokeswoman for Citrix would not discuss the reasons for the company’s decision; the chief executive of Trusted ID, Scott Mitic, said it had abandoned Savage’s program because his audience wasn’t buying the company’s product.)
Mr. Savage likened his remarks about the San Francisco protesters to those of a father frustrated with a child who won’t eat his peas: in other words, “Suit yourself, you can starve to death for all I care.”
“Remember, I’m a New Yorker,” he said. “I grew up on sarcasm and satire. People are too literal, No. 1, and they don’t have a true sense of humor, No. 2.”
Mr. Savage proudly calls himself conservative, even right wing, and his audience has proved to be both enormous and loyal, sticking with him after MSNBC pulled the plug on a simulcast of his radio show in 2003. The action came after he said he hoped a caller to his radio show, who had identified himself as gay, would die of AIDS.
Mr. Savage has always been regarded as a bit of a maverick, if not a loose cannon, in both Republican and talk-radio circles. In the interview he singled out two Republican presidential contenders, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, for refusing to be on his show.
He also lamented that other conservative titans with microphones — Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — “won’t lift a finger to help me” fend off the council boycott.
That is not much of a surprise to Michael Harrison, the founder and publisher of Talkers.
“Michael Savage is one of the few high-profile conservative hosts who is politically independent and does not hesitate to criticize the superstars of the Republican movement,” he said. “As a result he is not the most popular host among his conservative peers.”
Mr. Savage agreed last week to allow a reporter to sit in on his program, but only on the condition that the reporter not reveal the location of the waterside house where he was broadcasting that day, or of two other homes where he has studios and which he treats as virtual safe houses. Mr. Savage, who is licensed to carry a pistol and does so, said the secrecy was warranted by his fears for his life, based on the sheaf of death threats he says he has received over the years.
Mr. Savage can be surprisingly unintimidating in person, standing 5-foot-7 and looking, on this day, like he had sprung from an L. L. Bean catalog in a bright orange corduroy shirt, black fleece vest and tan chinos, with a miniature poodle at his feet. He can also project charm, insisting that a visitor just off a cross-country flight pause to have a turkey sandwich with potato salad.
“Drew, did you get pastry?” he later asked his assistant, Drew Bader, sounding more like a grandmother than a firebrand.
“Yes,” Mr. Bader assured him wearily, “I got a hamantaschen and a piece of kugel.”
At one point Mr. Savage — who was born Michael Weiner, and who still is, legally, Michael Weiner — led a visitor to a glass case that included a photo of him as a boy wearing a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. Asked if it was his bar mitzvah photo, he said it was, adding, “Tell that to my Muslim friends.” (Mr. Savage said later that when he became a talk show host 14 years ago, he took a “nom de voix,” as he referred to his pseudonym, to blunt any potshots at him as “a Jew from the Bronx,” which he happens to be.)
But whether on the air or off, Mr. Savage delights in being provocative.
He told his listeners last Monday that he had attended a boxing match in Las Vegas the previous weekend, which he characterized as between Floyd Mayweather, “the black guy,” and Ricky Hatton, “the white guy.”
“I rooted for the underdog, who was the little guy, Hatton,” Mr. Savage said. “I didn’t root for him because he was white.”
Mr. Savage insists that such comments aren’t just shtick. “I couldn’t do this for 14 years as an entertainer,” he said. “I’m not really a stealth liberal off the air.”
He readily acknowledged, though, that during his 20s and 30s he was “super left-wing,” including the times he worked as a welfare worker on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine.
But he turned sharply to the right after, among other things, finding that his welfare clients were often living better than he, and that despite a Ph.D. he couldn’t get a college teaching job after five years of trying. “I was the wrong race,” he said. “I was the wrong sex.”
Eventually he made a demo tape and was hired by KGO, a San Francisco station.
These days Mr. Savage can be heard in San Francisco on a competitor, KNEW, as well as on WOR in New York City. Though none of his affiliates — a number of them owned by Clear Channel — has publicly expressed any intention of dumping him, à la Mr. Imus, he said he has lately been contemplating retiring. (Though he wouldn’t comment on his current deal, it pays him several million dollars annually and ends sometime in 2008, according to an industry executive who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the deal publicly.)
But in the same breath Mr. Savage acknowledged that he wasn’t sure he’d know what to do with himself without a microphone. And then there’s the prospect that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, two favorite Savage foils, could win the 2008 presidential election.
“It’s going to be the golden age of radio, at least until they pass the fairness doctrine,” he said, savoring the thought of a Clinton presidency in particular. “What fun we’re going to have, till they get around to that.”
“Then it’ll be Venezuela,” he predicted. “They’ll close down the opposition stations through legislation.”
Copyright © 2007, The New York Times