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Late-night radio talker Jim Bohannon leans across the remains of a steak lunch and outlines his career goal.
“I want to be a pint-size Larry King,” he says. “I want the television show, which I’m working on. I want the newspaper column. I want to write a book.
“I want to be Larry without the personal messiness. I want to be Larry without all the baggage.”
That’s an understandable and worthy dream for the man who succeeded Larry King nearly three years ago as host of radio’s equivalent to The Tonight Show. But it’s also a dream that Jim Bohannon will never realize.
In the world of talk radio, as in other forms of personality-driven entertainment (think stand-up comedy), the best performers seldom travel light. They are complex individuals who cart enough insecurity, fear, anger, and quirkiness to fill several steamer trunks, a couple of hanging bags, and both pieces of carry-on luggage. Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Don Imus, G. Gordon Liddy, and, yes, Larry King are textbook examples of excessive personalities. Jim Bohannon is a stable, friendly, thoroughly professional guy, which in this curious profession constitutes his obstacle to superstardom.
The Jim Bohannon Show, which originates from the Westwood One radio network studios in Crystal City, airs weeknights from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. While the program is currently broadcast on some 353 stations—roughly the same number that were carrying The Larry King Show when King bailed—it is heard in just four of the top 10 radio markets. (Washington’s WWRC [980 AM] dropped Bohannon earlier this year, and no other local station has picked him up.) According to Westwood, Bohannon’s ratings are also about the same as King’s.
Like his famous predecessor, Bohannon hosts a guest-driven show that offers an endless stream of interviews with authors, politicians, policy makers, think-tankers, entertainers, and experts of every stripe. A veteran journalist, Bohannon generally keeps his opinions out of the show, allowing the guests to stand or fall on their own. The Jim Bohannon Show has more in common with noncommercial WAMU’s (88.5 FM) eggheaded Diane Rehm Show than it does with Rush Limbaugh.
“We don’t have any ideological ax to grind,” says Bohannon. “I’m not in the studio reading off stone tablets. We don’t shout at people and we don’t preach at people.”
But then, that’s not surprising given his vanilla politics. “I’m a militant moderate,” says Bohannon. “My idea of political reform is to ban people named “Jesse’ from the process. That way you get rid of both Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson. I really think the extremes are over-represented in this country.”
Unlike King, who is famous for refusing to prepare for interviews, Bohannon comes to the studio prepped to the gills. If his guest is touting a book, Bohannon reads it and marks it up. If he’s interviewing a newsmaker, Bohannon thoroughly briefs himself on the guest and the issue. The resulting difference between Bohannon and King: Jim asks informed questions that often come with a long stage-setting preamble. Larry asks the kind of questions you get from the guy sitting next to you on an airplane: “So, you’re a U.S. senator. What’s that like?”
This difference lies at the heart of why King is a nationwide celebrity and Bohannon isn’t. Every great talk show host sells the world his point of view. They’ve all got their shticks: Stern experiences the world as a sex-obsessed teen-ager. Liddy offers the Spartan warrior perspective. And King is Larry from Brooklyn, a regular guy hangin’ out with the big shots.
And Jim? Well, he’s, you know, a reporter—a just-the-facts guy. If Howard, Gordon, and Larry are kaleidoscopes, Jim is a microscope.
Bohannon, who is 51, got into radio in the early ’60s with the clearly defined career goal of meeting women. After knocking around his native Missouri as a rock ‘n’ roll jock for a few years, he turned to radio news for a fresh challenge. His nascent career was interrupted by a stint in the Army that carried him to Vietnam and then dumped him out in Washington, where he returned to radio in 1968 as an announcer on beautiful-music WGAY (99.5 FM). After four years of dispensing audio Darvon, Bohannon returned to radio journalism at all-news WTOP (1500 AM), where he and his then-wife Camille co-anchored the morning broadcast. After a subsequent stint at crosstown WRC-AM (now WWRC), the Bohannons took their act to Chicago’s WCFL-AM, which was then owned by the Mutual Broadcasting System—Larry King’s network.
Bohannon got his network break in 1981 when King’s regular back-up, who was also Mutual’s space reporter, got stuck at a delayed space shuttle launch. Bohannon happened to be in D.C. for a convention and got the call to fill in. For the next 11 years, Bohannon played Jay Leno to King’s Johnny Carson, stepping in with increasing frequency as the burned-out star steadily pared his workload.
By all accounts, Bohannon is Lenolike in his loyalty to the network and hard-working professionalism. In addition to his talk show, Bohannon hosts Westwood’s America in the Morning, a daily early-morning newsmagazine, and America This Week, a weekly news-roundup program. He does a daily 90-second human interest feature, and he’s Westwood’s pinch-hit news anchor.
“Jim is a radio man’s radio man,” says Westwood One Senior Vice President Gordon Peil. “When he’s not on the air, he’s [recording commercials] for affiliates or doing some other favor for them. He’s always on the road somewhere, shaking hands and kissing babies for the affiliates. He’s like a politician.”
Despite his corporate good citizenship, however, Bohannon continues to live in King’s shadow at Westwood One. More than two years after King abandoned daily radio to focus on his CNN show, Larry King Live, visitors to Westwood One’s studios are still greeted by a huge color portrait of Larry. Jim’s picture hangs in the same lobby—way down past the elevators. The network’s green room, where guests are stored until air time, looks like King’s den. It’s filled with aging newspaper clips about Larry and photos of the Suspendered One schmoozing prominent politicos and Hollywood luminaries. A small black-and-white picture of Bohannon hangs low in one corner.
Ever the company man, Bohannon tries hard to wave off these seeming slights, along with the fresh irritation of President Clinton’s agreement to do a radio interview with King after ignoring Bohannon’s overtures for three years. Larry’s prominent lobby photo is justified, Bohannon says, by the fact King does a daily two-minute commentary. The Clinton thing? Oh, well, he’s just glad Westwood landed the interview.
But occasionally, his true feelings seep through the filter. Waving an outstretched arm around the green room, Bohannon sarcastically says, “And this is our shrine to the blessed virgin Larry.”
Not that Bohannon wouldn’t like a little shrine of his own. Bohannon is trying to develop his own modest cult of personality. Bohannon often tells people that King partially owes his success to masterful self-promotion. Based on this insight, Jim confides, he has hired the crack flak firm of Brotman Communications to peddle his story.
But the question is: What story? Even Bohannon admits that King’s life is intrinsically more interesting than his own. After all, Larry’s bio is highlighted by an impoverished youth, serial matrimony, excessive gambling, and heart trouble brought on by too much fun. Jim’s even-keeled ways have given him a bad case of midlife contentment marked by an ample belly, a quiet home life in Gaithersburg, and a very satisfying long-term relationship. Larry’s pastimes include hitting on barely pubescent women and partying with the Jack Kent Cooke crew at RFK. Jim’s hobbies are reading science fiction, shooting baskets alone (he doesn’t like competition), and playing the trombone.
To his credit, Bohannon really does understand the role that personality plays in his chosen profession—and how his lack of it limits his career. Still, Bohannon rages against his machine.
“I just don’t think you have to be a flaming psychopath to do a successful talk show—current trends aside,” he says. “There are shows out there that just grind, that are like fingernails on the chalkboard to me—shows that are basically waving their genitalia at the audience. I’ve often wondered if I’d be making $2 million a year if I asked Sandra Day O’Connor if she was wearing panties. But I wouldn’t do that kind of show.”
“The fact is that even if I became a real Type A person and worked 18 hours a day on my career, the reality is that who I am would keep me from ever [being as big a star as] Rush Limbaugh,” he says. “The moderate approach will never be that dominant and exciting, and will never attract that kind of audience.”
And, he says, that’s just fine with him. Yes, he insists, he really would like to be as successful as Larry. But if it doesn’t happen—hey, that’s the way it goes.
“If my career stays where it is—or even if it were to go down a little—I’d be happy,” says Bohannon. “I have a wonderful life.”