A former bad boy of local radio finds no difference on the right


Here's the trouble with talk radio, according to Brian Wilson: "It seems to me that the vast number of talk show hosts don't understand that this is not a pulpit."

Stay tuned, he's just warming up.

"I'm not willing to believe the audience is so stupid to care about what I think. What's your opinion? I'm just an ex-disc jockey, my opinion doesn't matter."

He's building.

"This is just a BS session here, the great American BS session. The bottom line is this is show biz. This is aural voyeurism," he concludes with a grin, making sure a visitor has appreciated the pun.

You expect a rim shot here, or a horn, whistle or soundtrack of laughter and applause. But it's just Brian Wilson doing what he has always done best -- shooting off his mouth.

And here's the surprise: The 49-year-old personality, sitting in a tacky, rose-painted office is a talk-show host. And here! -- WCBM-AM (680) is a station whose voice reaches so far to the right it finally comes back around to the loopy left -- from Alan Keyes, Tom Marr and Les Kinsolving to New Age dabbler Zoh Hieronimus.

In the most recent Arbitron ratings, WCBM ranked 12th overall, with a 3.0 share of the local audience. (Each share represents about 3,600 listeners in an average quarter hour.)

"I'm just one of the many variables the station offers," says Mr. Wilson discreetly, when asked if he feels himself an oddity in the WCBM lineup. He's been on full-time since the first week of January, and part-time before that. His show airs daily from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Mr. Wilson does not find his role as a talk-show host nearly as odd as do listeners who remember him as the bad boy of Baltimore radio a decade ago.

With partner Don O'Brien, Mr. Wilson and the "Brian and O'Brien Show" shook up advertisers and listeners on WBSB-FM (104.3) with an always raucous, frequently tasteless morning program that drew top ratings for B-104 for a time.

It also drew attention for behind-the-microphone difficulties. The hosts were said to dislike each other. Insults, suspensions and firings were all part of the scenario.

"Talk, music, whatever. It's what I do," says Mr. Wilson now, asserting that his show for Talk 680 is not that different from what he has done in 30 years on the air.

He has done talk radio before, including most recently with Bob Madigan at WRC-AM in Washington. He did both talk radio and talk TV at WGST-AM in Atlanta in 1991 and 1992, and even had a show at New York's WABC-AM way back in 1981.

Whatever a station's format, his one constant is irreverent, suggestive and topical humor. Of the callers to the current show, for instance, he says "they're the records," taking the place of the music he used to spin as a deejay.

He says he is "a lowercase-'l' libertarian," but doesn't see himself occupying any particular place on the radio political spectrum. And he laughs when asked if he aspires to be another Rush Limbaugh. "I don't have the interest to do what Rush does. I just happen to be an entertainer with a brain and an education," he says.

Raised in northern New Jersey "before they paved it," Mr. Wilson attended a private boarding high school and then went to Louisiana State University. While a student in Baton Rouge, he was asked by the manager of a small suburban station to try out for a radio job because of his resonant voice.

He went in on a Sunday afternoon, read the news and got the job, launching a career that has taken him along this itinerary: Baton Rouge to Houston to Atlanta to New York to Baltimore, back to New York to Atlanta to Washington and back to Baltimore.

He was often fired along the way. "If you say you've worked in radio and you haven't been fired, then you haven't been in radio," he says.

Mr. Wilson says he honed his verbal skills arguing with his older brother, Craig. "He was four years older and bigger and I couldn't outrun him. So I learned to punch him with words."

"I was always good at mouthing off," he concedes, and proved it opening his show on a recent afternoon.

He invited all listeners to call, "even if you're one of those rich folks who runs around with a cellular phone and annoys people in movie theaters when it rings." Soon he was suggesting listeners could get out of debt "by changing your name to Ron Brown," the Clinton administration Department of Commerce chief who is under investigation for his financial dealings.

"This guy does nothing and makes millions," marveled Mr. Wilson, suddenly sounding right at home on WCBM, where the Clinton crowd can do no right. He also directed a verbal slap at Dr. Henry W. Foster, the Clinton nominee for surgeon general, for practicing "situational ethics."

He quickly moved on to joking about Al Cowlings' Ford Bronco being for sale -- "Isn't this a tad over-priced for a car that doesn't go over 45 miles an hour?" -- criticized the Tom Clancy miniseries "Op Center," questioned the accuracy of Elizabeth Taylor's "63rd" birthday, and declared the Postal Service's 3-cent "G-rate" stamps should be known as "G-spots."

To a caller named Darlene, he blurted, "Weren't you one of the Mouseketeers? I always thought you were prettier than Annette."

And during a news break, Mr. Wilson confided, "See? It's just that overriding theme of entertainment . . . I couldn't sit here and be solemn all the time."

Jokes about Dundalk

Respectful, either. In his short time back in Baltimore, Mr. Wilson has renewed an old antagonism with some residents of Dundalk, the east Baltimore County community.

In a January editorial, the weekly Dundalk Eagle decried Mr. Wilson for his tendency to make derogatory Dundalk jokes, and recalled that the "Brian and O'Brien Show" had done the same thing.

"It's really not so funny when you're on the receiving end of his nightly nastiness," said the editorial. The newspaper listed advertisers for the program and suggested readers should write and protest.

Mr. Wilson dismisses the concerns, saying he makes jokes about many area communities, such as Linthicum ("the town that sounds like a drug"), Arbutus and Cockeysville. When he worked in Atlanta, the target was Snellville.

"If you live in Dundalk and are embarrassed about the place you live, you've already got the self-image problem. I'm not even exacerbating it," he says, recalling that in the 1980s he and Mr. O'Brien appeared before the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and came away feeling "they finally realized we were just joking."

Not everyone remembers the earlier controversy that way, however. Chamber of Commerce director Pat Winter says the meeting was intended to open a dialogue that would tone the team down. But, "it only made it worse."

"I don't think people understand being made fun of," she says, but adds: "To tell you the truth, I don't listen to him so I don't know what he's saying now."

"I must say that I did see a marked change in what he was saying on the air" after the January airing of complaints, says Deborah Cornely, managing editor of the Dundalk Eagle, who wrote the editorial.

And Thomas Toporovich, of the Greater Dundalk Commission on Excellence, which made its concerns known to the radio station, says "we think the controversy's resolved. . . We know that WCBM has no desire to make Dundalk a scapegoat."

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