Clinton R. Coleman peeks into the room of City Hall reporters gathering for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's weekly news conference when a broad smile sweeps across his face.
"Is somebody missing?" the mayor's spokesman asks while lifting his eyebrows with mischievous delight.
Fat chance. "Somebody" is conservative radio personality Les Kinsolving, who rarely misses an opportunity to plop down wearing his trademark red blazer, slide his microphone across the table and ask Schmoke the most outrageous question of the week. While the rest of the television, newspaper and radio reporters pepper the mayor with queries on crime, schools and taxes, Kinsolving lies in wait, bound to send the perpetually composed Schmoke stammering for an answer.
"Mr. Mayor, St. Joseph's Medical Center in Towson is observing 'Take Your Child to Work Day' today," Kinsolving begins in his incredulous, booming tone. "But a Baltimore City memo that has come into our hands mentions your proclaiming 'Take Your Daughters to Work Day 1998.' My question is: What does the Schmoke administration have against boys?"
Eyes roll, and the room erupts in laughter. Schmoke tries to treat the question seriously, but after all, this is Les Kinsolving.
The license plate on the WCBM-AM (680) talk-show host's gold Marquis says it all: "UNINHIB." The letters refer to Kinsolving's weeknight radio program from 7 to 10, called "uninhibited radio." At every opportunity, the 70-year-old throwback to radio yesteryear tries to shock, outrage and prod the world around him with his commentary.
Three weeks ago, Kinsolving kicked off his show by singing the Notre Dame University fight song, changing the words to ridicule a campus priest protesting the school's failure to create space for gay and lesbian groups.
"Shame, shame on old Notre Dame," Kinsolving mocked, using a slur in referring to homosexual males at the school.
Such efforts have led to Kinsolving being named one of the 100 "Most Important Radio Talk Show Hosts in America," according to Talkers magazine. The survey covered 4,300 talk-show hosts, putting Kinsolving among the top 2 percent.
"Les' daring demeanor makes him dangerous to his foes and unpredictable to his audience," Talkers publisher Michael Harrison said after bestowing the honor last year. "And that's what great talk radio is about."
But Kinsolving is more than a radio talk-show host. He is a bona fide Baltimore character. From the loud red jacket to his blustery delivery, Kinsolving guarantees a scene every time he walks into the room.
He has made getting under people's skin an art form, annoying subjects to the breaking point. After Kinsolving, then an Episcopal priest, gave a passionate homily in support of right-to-work laws in a heavily unionized Washington state railroad town, a congregation member burned the church down.
After Kinsolving pressed Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening about a $500,000 economic development award to a radio network, Glendening replied, "If we give you $500,000, will you leave?"
Said fellow WCBM host Tom Marr of Kinsolving: "He'll ask anybody anything. He's brutally honest."
Kinsolving even debates his wife, Sylvia, whom he refers to on the show that he often broadcasts from his home in Vienna, Va., as "the Berkeley Democrat." On Election Day, Kinsolving marches into his polling place proclaiming: "I'm here to save the commonwealth and cancel my wife's vote."
They've been canceling each other's votes during 46 years of marriage after meeting in church on Passion Sunday in Berkeley, Calif.
"I thought I was going to live the quiet life of a preacher's wife," Sylvia Kinsolving said. "Now it's the death threats that worry me."
From clergy to columns
Radio turned out to be a second choice for Les Kinsolving, who became a priest, following in the footsteps of his father, Episcopal Bishop Arthur B. Kinsolving, once the chaplain at West Point.
The junior Kinsolving ran a prison ministry in California while writing newspaper articles for the San Francisco Chronicle before gaining a syndicated column in 250 newspapers. But he eventually lost interest in the church, protesting its doctrines, including one that banned women from the ministry.
He first proposed talk radio in Baltimore in 1956, while coaching the St. Paul's School football team. After hearing Joe Worthy's call-in radio program while visiting his father in Phoenix, Kinsolving tried to talk a local radio station owner into doing the same.
"I told him, 'You know, the most incredible thing is happening in Phoenix, and there is a program, and anybody in the public can call up and say anything they want on the air as long as it's not obscene or libelous,' " Kinsolving said. "I said, 'It's the most outstanding thing I've ever heard.' "
"The owner said, 'We'll have to give this some serious thought,' " Kinsolving recalled. "And he did -- for 36 years."
For 11 years, Kinsolving has been blurting out his "special reports" following the grand crescendo of blaring trumpets that introduces him over the airwaves. The erudite Kinsolving reads six newspapers a day and 50 magazines a week, trolling for discussion material, and still writes for three weekly newspapers.
Although labeled conservative, he supports abortion rights and opposes the death penalty. Known for vehemently protesting affirmative action, Kinsolving carried the California flag during the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala.
Through his rantings, he has collected an impressive list of critics, ranging from U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who refers to Kinsolving's program as "the purgatory hour," to a regular caller named "Hostile Jim" who traditionally starts his calls with: "Well, Les, you've made an ass of yourself again."
Kinsolving sees himself as no different from the bad guys in professional wrestling, playing a role to provoke reaction and discourse.
Kinsolving backs away from his characterization of gays at Notre Dame. "I just thought the priest was being silly," he said.
"Most talk-show hosts are vain, let's face it," Kinsolving added. .. "In show business, modesty is not a virtue."
Are groups offended by his tirades?
"We dismiss him," said Michael Linnemann, director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore. "But our worry is that there are people out there who believe this stuff, and that's when it hurts."
Origin of the red jacket
One area Kinsolving takes seriously is his role as a member of the press. When Schmoke aides recently listed the City Hall political rally for Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, a candidate for governor, as a press conference, Kinsolving protested.
"When will the mayor be available for questions?" Kinsolving shouted over the pounding soul band entertaining the crowd.
"This is the press conference," Coleman replied.
"The hell it is!" Kinsolving shouted.
He spent 15 years as a radio reporter at the White House, where he obtained the red jacket. During Ronald Reagan's presidency, Kinsolving noticed that women reporters wearing red outfits during news conferences were getting called on more often.
So the Philadelphia radio station where Kinsolving was working purchased him the red blazer to stand out, and he has ever since. It worked. Once Kinsolving jostled for Reagan's attention with Sam Donaldson, ABC News' famous shouting journalist.
"The president said, 'Wait a minute, Sam, I have to call on Les because I know he's got to get that jacket back by tomorrow morning,' " Kinsolving recalled. "A lot of people seeing me in this red blazer ask, 'Would you please seat me, I'd like to get a good table.' "
Yet every once in a while, Kinsolving's curveball questions score big. When Reagan listed Cabinet members who objected to the administration's Iran-contra plan in 1987, Kinsolving snared then-Vice President George Bush. As the news conference broke up, Kinsolving asked Reagan whether Bush -- who denied any knowledge of the scandal -- objected. Reagan said no, a story that broke across the nation.
Theatrics come easy to Kinsolving, whose hobby is acting in community theater. His top acting credit was playing a Confederate general in the movie "Gettysburg." Kinsolving will return to the silver screen, joining Albert Finney in Lisbon, Portugal, this year to film "Joan of Arc."
The role? Kinsolving will play a member of the Holy Inquisition.
Pub Date: 5/31/98