February 19, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


He's loud. He's controversial. And he knows he's right. 

Michael Graham is out to enlighten the world.

Graham, at a lanky 6-foot-4 with right-parted hair and a floppy demeanor, wades into the discourse in his usual counterintuitive manner.

Just after lunch, Graham sits at a computer in his office, working the phones and surfing the Web, doing what radio hosts often do a few hours before their programs begin, and what many of his colleagues across the nation surely also are doing right now — lining up the show.

Graham has two guests in mind. He wants an abortion-rights defender and an expert in medical biology, the latter to furnish an "objective" nonpolitical explanation about what exists inside a woman's body after the moment of conception. And, he adds, "I want local."

On a windowsill behind Graham, a gray radio is tuned to 1140-AM, blaring Rush Limbaugh, who is arguing against the court's reasoning in Roe. Limbaugh and many other pontificators have it all wrong, Graham says. The only question that matters is:

"When do people think it's OK to kill other people?" he says. "Once you answer that question —When is it OK? — that solves the abortion question."

In typical fashion, Graham approaches the subject in a manner that he believes transcends conventional wisdom, and in short order he'll have an opportunity to make his case when he follows Limbaugh on WRVA for the station's coveted "afternoon drive" slot from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The slot was wiped clean Dec. 27, with the swift ouster of host Allen Price and the immediate on-air announcement that Graham would replace him Jan. 13.

"He's incredibly bright and well-informed," the station program director Randall Bloomquist says of Graham. "He's a fabulous entertainer" — an unpredictable conservative, a former stand-up comedian, a Southerner who tried to escape his Southernness and eventually came to embrace it.

"And already," Bloomquist says, "the hate mail is pouring in."

Graham, 39, grew up in Pelion, S.C., population 552. His handling of the abortion topic today, in his second week on the job, reflects his upbringing and his politics — staunch conservatism coupled with stances typically unpopular in the South, such as opposition to the Confederate flag.

It is an unusual mix that has helped propel Graham onto the national stage as a rising star among an increasingly crowded chorus of political chatterboxes in America. He's written for National Review, has appeared on such TV shows as "Politically Incorrect" and most recently published his third book, "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War."

This week (Feb. 21), marks the premiere of HBO's "Real Time," a live show moderated by former "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher. Graham, one of several thousand guests on Maher's former show, was chosen to be a recurring guest on the new show.

Today Graham is focused on Richmond. He lands his first guest in about 45 minutes. Via telephone, in a radio-smooth voice, he speaks with the director of the Richmond chapter of the National Organization for Women. He sets a time to call her during his upcoming show. Then he places a call to the biology department at the University of Richmond. An hour or so later — less than an hour before his show begins — Graham's expert is locked in.

By 3 p.m., Graham has everything in order for his four-hour program, "The Michael Graham Experience." Wearing white Reeboks, khakis and a blue Polo sweatshirt over a striped dress shirt, he stands in front of a microphone. The mike, fixed to a swiveling arm, protrudes from a table in the middle of the studio adorned with all manner of broadcast equipment: a Web cam, other microphones, a computer screen and a digital clock with large, red numbers.

At 3:06, after the news and weather at the top of the hour, Graham launches into his show with unbridled fervor. He nearly yells into the mike, speaking loud and fast in sentences that almost always end with exclamation points. "Hello!" he says. "I am Michael Graham and today I'll be talking about what's known as the third rail of talk radio!"

The self-described "loud, obnoxious and frequently fired" host explains that a cardinal rule of talk radio is to avoid the subject of abortion because of its accompanying emotions and politics. But today is the anniversary of Roe, Graham says. What's more, he says he intends to cut off the tangents, strip away the ancillaries and get down to the heart of the matter: When is it right to kill other people?

"I'm a true pro-lifer," he says. "I believe it's only acceptable in self-defense and war, which is another form of self-defense."

At commercial breaks Graham punches a yellow "off" button and performs air guitar while advertisements play. His body language is exuberant. He stands up for the entire show, gesturing with his arms, bending his knees, bouncing. "It's like comedy," Graham says. "If it were up to me I'd have one of those Madonna mikes. I'd be roaming the room."

The calls start rolling in. The computer screen in the studio displays names and talking points. From Karen: "A woman's choice is whether to have sex and use protection." From Dwayne: "Liberals are anti-death penalty but pro-choice."

The callers might be missing Graham's point, but he sticks with it.

That's what Graham does. It's what he's always done, ever since he and his family moved from Los Angeles to Pelion, S.C., when he was a child.

"He was the salmon that went upstream against the current, no matter what it was," says Graham's high-school English teacher, Ann Neal. "He was extremely religious, and he was extremely critical of everything, as he still is." She grins big, adding, "His ego is matched only by his height."

Pelion pokes along as a speck of a town about 25 miles southwest of Columbia, S.C. Just off the highway heading into town sits a barbecue restaurant owned by one of Graham's favorite targets — Maurice Bessinger, who flies Confederate flags above his eateries.

Bessinger personifies much of what spurred Graham to flee his native land. As lost as Dorothy in the land of Oz, Graham tells a life story of feeling completely out of place in the South. For him, a culture clash of huge, and sometimes hideous, proportions began not long after he landed in Pelion.

"When I was 13 years old I heard a cassette tape of myself talking," he says. "And I had a very strong Southern accent like my father did. And I decided I would not have a Southern accent anymore. So I stopped. I willed myself and practiced myself out of having a Southern accent.

"When I was in high school and I would meet people at band camp, and they asked me where I was from, I would tell them, 'I'm really from L.A.,' " he says. "Hadn't lived there since I was 7, but I just did not want to be a Southerner, because of what I saw around me, which was this race-obsessed, antirational, fists-first, you know ... idiot attitudes. You know, people who thought that biting heads off tobacco worms was high entertainment. Whoever these people were they were not me."

Graham attended church as many as five times a week with his parents, who were devout evangelicals.

"And the evangelical church, particularly in the 1970s and '80s, I give them so much credit for never bending under the race fight," Graham says. "I mean these people that I went to church with, I never heard, 'What about them Jews?' You know, 'What about them blacks?' … It was really all about the gospel. So it really gave me a different center of gravity. So I would go to church and get this, you know, 'Love everybody, Christ's blood is shed for all.' And then I'd go to school and people would say, you know, 'Screw them n----rs.' And I'd say, 'Nope. Sorry, I've got another vision out here that I can still hold onto.' And it gave me a different way to see the world that also kept me from integrating."

After graduating from high school in 1981, Graham's religious center of gravity took him to Oral Roberts University, where, he says, he merely encountered "a bunch of other loons who were wrong from another direction."

"Three or four times they tried to kick me out of school," he says. "They dragged me down to the interrogation room, aka the prayer room, and they'd surround you, four or five guys. And they had these bright lights on you, and they'd walk around and, you know, 'Why do you do this and why do you do that?' And I never cracked because I was used to being the only guy who thought what I thought. And the fact that everyone else disagreed with me had no impact on me whatsoever."

Graham was an avid reader as a child, he says, and within weeks of finishing college, he resumed his quest for the enlightened America he'd read about — the America he knew existed somewhere beyond Oral Roberts University and the Mason-Dixon line. He traveled through 41 states.

As a stand-up comedian.

"It was a blast," Graham says. "But I discovered that, no matter where I went in America, people would laugh at me for being from South Carolina. I don't know why every comedian isn't from South Carolina. Our headlines are America's punch lines. … So people would just come up to me and say, 'Man, that thing you did is so funny. How did you write that?' I said, 'Write it? I lived it. That was my life.' "

While disillusionment with Southern culture drove Graham away from the South, a similar feeling toward the nation as a whole brought him back.

The night the Gulf War started, he says, he found himself at the Funny Bone in Columbus, Ohio. "And I just assumed that there wouldn't be a show that night," he says. "I mean, America at war the first time in my lifetime. My peers at the time were going into war. So I was watching TV and CNN like everyone else, you know — glued to the TV, and I get a call from the hotel: 'Hey dude you gotta come on down. We got a show.' And I went, 'A show?' And sure enough there were 35 people in the club, all of them in their 20s. In other words, all of them with their ... high school peers, et cetera, in this war, and they want me to tell them jokes about my groin.

"And I was so mad that there'd be anybody at a comedy club the night the war started. And that night I said, 'You know, as much as I like doing comedy, as much as I like making fun of what's going on in the world, it's not enough of the conversation. You know it's only at the kid's table. It's how many fart jokes can you tell about the president. And I wasn't satisfied with that.'"

So he returned to the unlikely place where he felt most comfortable, he says — the South. "Because there's a community of us who are, I guess, expatriates who haven't moved, people who've said, 'You know what, I get the problems of the South.' I'm not gonna be a Confederista and pretend, 'What? What racism? The Civil War had nothing do with slavery.' "

Graham made peace with his Southern heritage by redefining what it meant to him personally. He returned to the Palmetto State, where he enrolled in a journalism master's-degree program at the University of South Carolina. It was then that he had his first run-in with the South Carolina General Assembly.

To "get his name out there," Graham says, he volunteered to write and record material for "Dateline Carolina," a current-events program on the state's Educational Radio Network. "Oh man, it was 30 minutes of just a toothache," Graham recalls. "Just the worst kind of press coverage: House Resolution 127 is now in the third subcommittee meeting."

He found a way to spice things up, taking aim at a bribery scandal that had recently rocked the legislature. "Until 1991 there was no Ethics Act," Graham says. "It wasn't even a crime to get caught. It was great. So I did my little commentary and made fun of the legislature. Apparently the line that got them upset was that if you got all the criminals out of the legislature, there wouldn't be enough people left to convene a quorum, much less provide us the entertaining campaigns we've become used to here in South Carolina."

The radio network had preapproved Graham's script, but lawmakers weren't amused. Two legislators promptly phoned the station and ordered Graham off the air. "And then they banned me," he says. "What did I do? There was no trickery. I wasn't Elvis Costello on "Saturday Night Live" switching songs at the last second. That's when you find out it's not public radio, it's government radio. It's Pravda."

Graham turned to political consulting, taking an offer from a friend to work on Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign in South Carolina in 1992. "In '92 he hadn't gone insane yet," Graham quips of Buchanan. The job led to a position as communications director for South Carolina's secretary of state. Once again, Graham's irascible nature ran afoul of state lawmakers.

While working for the secretary, Graham wrote a newspaper column for several papers in the state, often featuring satirical musings on the General Assembly. He was fired, he says, by an act of law.

"What happened is, the Legislature actually wrote a budget eliminating me specifically," Graham says. "They eliminated every unfilled full-time job slot in our office, and then one more. So the only way I could stay would be if someone else were fired. They had every angle covered. Every slot. Every dollar. And they eliminated my position by name — communications director."

The experiences of being "banned" from the radio and fired from state government motivated Graham to write his first book, "Banned from Public Radio."

"He's got a penchant for being fired," says John Wrisley, a retired radio talk-show host who became something of a mentor to Graham.

Graham's third termination unfolded in 1999 after two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., went on a rampage, shooting and killing several classmates, and creating a national outcry. Working as a talk-radio host in Charlotte, N.C., Graham joked that a "minor benefit to this otherwise horrible story" involved the teen gunmen targeting athletes.

"In context, it turned out to be a terrible error," Wrisley says. Graham was swiftly booted from the station.

(Graham's current boss, Bloomquist, was a program director at the sister station in Charlotte at the time and says Graham's general manager overreacted to what was a passing comment. Bloomquist had tried to hire Graham for a nighttime radio slot at his station — but was unsuccessful.)

Graham's newspaper column has managed to raise some readers' ire, too — like when he tackled the topic of Islam after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001.

"Well I didn't say it wasn't a legitimate religion," Graham says. "I said it's not a religion of peace. There's no definition of Islam under which you can call it a religion of peace. The root word for Islam is not peace, as has been misquoted widely by the Bush administration. The root word for Islam is submission, and through submission to Allah you will theoretically find peace. It is the only world religion that has in its sacred text, explicitly, that killing people because of their faith is an acceptable practice of your faith.

"Secondly, there's no other religion in the year 2003 that does. And yet millions and millions of Muslims today go into the mosque every Friday ... earnestly reading the Koran, and will stand up and tell you, 'Yes, God says kill the Jew.' Millions, not just some fringe. You know this isn't like the snake handlers in the Appalachians. ... You have entire nations like Iran. There's no other religion like this. They are uniquely dangerous."

Graham continues: "What is the No. 1 American value? Tolerance. So you don't want to be judgmental and say, 'Hey, your religion has a problem.' But the Islamic religion has a problem. What's gonna happen — and it may not be in my lifetime, it may be next week — is there's gonna be a Mormon moment."

Graham says he believes that Muslims inevitably will disavow violence much as Mormons reversed course and denounced polygamy. "The Mormon church, in essence, kind of scratched that out for a greater value," he says. "I think the Islamic faith is gonna have to have a similar thing. They've got a problem, and they're gonna have to solve it."

After Graham was fired for his Columbine remark he returned to South Carolina, helping to launch a talk-radio station in Charleston that became popular with his antics like broadcasting a show while wading hip deep in the Atlantic Ocean during a shark scare off the Eastern Seaboard.

From there it was on to WTNT in Washington, D.C., to help get another station off the ground. But WRVA's Bloomquist nabbed him for Richmond. "They have a round hole up there," Bloomquist says of the D.C. station, "and Michael's a square peg." Bloomquist hired Graham to replace Price.

So far, Graham has plunged right into Richmond radio. He's dissed the "Confederistas" who protest the erection of a Lincoln memorial here. He's chided "chick legislators" at the General Assembly for being too sensitive to a fellow legislator's controversial antiabortion campaign. He's taken up the issue of state senators and delegates parking on the Capitol Square lawn by placing homemade "taxpayer tickets" on the politicians' cars — and getting asked to leave by Capitol Police. He spent a recent hour in a heated exchange with former city councilman and convicted drug felon Chuck Richardson. And already he's locked his teeth into what he says is Richmond's No. 1 problem, the city's public officials: "I haven't found anyone who's willing to put Richmond first," Graham says. "[Their attitude is], It's all about me."

"It's very important to be connected to your community," Bloomquist says. And Graham illustrates his points. "He's great at showing people, not telling them."

Working with Graham takes a speedy sidekick. That is Mikenna, the show's producer. "It's definitely a million miles an hour," Mikenna says, while preparing for a recent show. He cups his hands around an imaginary sphere of air, describing Graham as a "mass ball of energy."

Since the show's launch, Mikenna says, Graham has shown that he is prepared, too. He will take on an issue with a listener rather than push them aside. He will engage callers rather than cut them off if they disagree. But he will always leave himself a way out, Mikenna says: "He's got four-wheel drive. His tires will never spin."

And he's not inclined to take the easy calls, either.

On the day Colin Powell delivers his speech to the United Nations about Iraq, Graham has several callers waiting on hold. On a monitor, Graham's call screener lists their points. Mike and Don both want to talk about the "great job" Powell has done. Pat wants to talk about "what Powell says on nerve agents." Graham chooses Pat.

It's about moving the conversation forward, Graham explains during a commercial break. Sure, he could talk with the easy callers, he says, but "that's not really compelling radio."

"If I could wave a magic wand and make everyone believe one thing," Graham says, "the one thing I'd make them all believe is that it is better to be smart than to be dumb." As it stands, he says, people don't necessarily believe that.

"Last year you had reviewers in prominent national magazines saying, 'The Ozzy Osbourne television show is great; it's quality television.' It's a piece of crap! It's a piece of moronic, drooling, F-word crap! We've just come around this turn. You know, the Enlightenment was the celebration of reason over nonreason, emotion, religion — whatever — all the other things. And yeah I think we are in the period of disenlightenment."

Graham seems to have found a formula for success — and he loves it. "I didn't realize it before I started doing it," he says, "but this is probably the job I was born for."

The only questions seem to be whether his stinging tongue will again clash with hypersensitive America, and where his against-the-grain journey will take him next.

One thing's for sure: He says it won't be overseas to escape a redneck nation. "They asked [H.L.] Mencken one time why he lived in America," Graham says. "He bashed it all the time. And he said: Why do people go to the zoo? You know, it's the same thing. Why would I leave the greatest show on Earth?" S

Eric Ward is the news editor for the Free Times, a Columbia, S.C.-based alternative weekly. Style Managing Editor Jason Roop contributed to this story.


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