Getting on Jim White's nerves doesn't seem like that much of a challenge. The late-night radio-talk-show emcee surfed the edge of irritation on KMOX (1120 AM) for more than 30 years. He continually seemed one exaggerated reaction away from taking somebody's head off. Wednesday, April 7, is the last night for White's 10 p.m.-2 a.m. show, and a big send-off will be broadcast live, from the Summit restaurant, 8-10 p.m. April 8.
Tom Kelahan probably won't be there, though he's been listening to White for close to 20 years. He's been doing more than listening: He's been calling White -- in the early years just to chat, in the later years to argue. And he's been taping these calls, to White and to other talk-show hosts, for years. He has 20 cassette tapes, each 90 minutes long -- that's 30 hours of call-ins spanning about 15 years. They're labeled "YB 1" through "YB 20." ("YB" stands for "Yak Box," a phrase Kelahan uses to describe radio.)
Kelahan stopped calling radio shows a few years back. He says they don't talk about things that interest him anymore.
But for years he did, calling White almost every night. At the peak of the conflict, when he called in just to argue, some might say he was baiting the host. But because this is Jim White, who comes off as a bit of a broadcast bully, baiting might be too strong a word. Whatever the interpretation, Kelahan would never agree with White -- if the host said to-may-to, Kelahan would call in and say to-mah-to and insist that anyone who pronounced it otherwise was nuts.
Today, Kelahan is sparse in his recollections of his "weird little hobby," calling talk shows and taping the calls. Asked what caused the shift from routine caller to caller-trying-to-antagonize-the-host, he has a simple explanation based on his perception of White: "I guess he started acting more like a prick, so I wanted to see if I could get him pissed off."
And piss him off he did, night after night. Kelahan was occasionally banned from White's show, but never permanently. He was never profane, just irritating. If White was yin, Kelahan was yang. Whatever White said or put out there, Kelahan took the opposite tack.
His nickname for the portly host -- who has a body, as well as a face, meant for radio -- was "Dim Wit," a sound-alike for "Jim White." What annoyed Kelahan most about White was his pompous, all-knowing air: "It's like Dim Wit taught God how to make the universe." When he was banned, Kelahan resorted to a middleman, because White's call screener, Elaine, knew his voice. Kelahan would get somebody else to call, and when Elaine asked what the caller wanted to talk about, one of three topics was used: ham radio, boating or model railroading. Kelahan knew those were surefire topics to get on the air quickly. Then, when White punched the button to put the caller on the air, it would turn out to be Kelahan. Sometimes White would end the call; sometimes he'd act like it was no big deal and take the call.
By the early '90s, Kelahan had tempered his act, calling in as "Elvis from South St. Louis." A random sampling of the tapes reveals 17 aliases, ranging from "Rupert" to "Waylon." (When calling in about a religious topic, he used "Thaddeus.") Whatever the name, the confrontations crescendoed in the late '80s, which was for Kelahan the golden age of getting on Jim White's nerves.
The best argument with White, sadly, was taped and lost. The tape was so special, Kelahan played it over and over again for anyone who'd listen. Eventually a girlfriend wound up with the tape and, well, things came to a bad end, so when they split, she kept the tape.
The topic that triggered White's blast was trivial. It was back in 1985, when White was doing Dateline, a sort of on-air lonely-hearts' club. White said he wondered, when people called in, why they talked about what they did for fun instead of what they did for a living. Kelahan called and said that it made perfect sense for that to be the first question, because if two people go on a date, they want to do something they enjoy; they aren't going to work together. Somehow, perhaps because of Kelahan's persistence and peskiness in making this small point, the assertion set White off. He lost it.
To this day, 14 years later, Kelahan can recite the incident from memory. He's played the tape for me many times, and this account of what White said after he ended the call from Kelahan is an accurate recollection: "Sir, get your own radio show. I don't normally get upset, but this guy calls night after night, picking nits. There aren't that many callers who have the ability to get under my skin. There's been about three people in 15 years who have gotten under my skin. Sir, you are one of them."
For Kelahan, this was the highest of compliments, better than a Nobel Prize. The Big Bumper was pissed.
Some 10 years later, with Kelahan calling as "Elvis," the calls were less combative, with White exercising his upper hand more. In one call, "Elvis" questioned White on his use of the term "mainstream," asking what it meant. White took the opportunity to go off on Elvis in a typical ad hominem attack that he uses when the actual topic of the argument precludes a clear winner.
White: People who walk around with pierced nipples are not mainstream. People who have married animals are not mainstream. Mothers and daughters who have the same lover are not mainstream.... Listen to most talk shows, and you have people like Elvis calling up.
Elvis: The "silent majority" is "Shut up, do what you're told and don't make waves." People who call talk shows, a lot of those are people who do make waves.
White: No, they don't make waves, they make noise. They may call themselves activists and doers, but they're not. They're little wimpy cowards who hide in their homes and call a talk show anonymously and talk big but when it gets down to doing something important -- like going out to vote or going to a PTA meeting or refereeing a soccer match -- they're not there to be counted.
The exchange was vintage White, with the host bashing a caller for a perceived miscue. It didn't hurt White's audience, because he was the kind of talk-show host many people hate to listen to but do anyway.
White was known for his gruffness, cutting people off, taking things the wrong way, routinely getting testy when someone opened with a perfunctory "How are you?" He could be sappy and cornball, too, but when he felt like it, which was fairly often, he could be a jerk. And if White could be seen as the Slobodan Milosevic of late-night radio, then Kelahan was just a tenacious member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, fighting a guerilla action, trying -- almost daily -- to ruffle the radio talk-show host with the highest rating in the city. Consider this exchange, ending a call that dealt with why White refused to discuss controversial topics on his show:
Elvis: Well, I just wanted to express my opinion that controversial things are good fuel for a talk show.
White: No, Elvis, you're wrong.
Elvis: The other talk shows are certainly successful using controversy.
White: They're not as successful as mine, Elvis. My ratings are bigger than anybody's. My ratings are higher than Rush's.
Elvis: Your ego's bigger than anybody's too, y'know.
White: Elvis, I've been at this a while. I know what I'm doing, believe me.
Elvis: That's all I had to say.
White: You know the rules, Elvis. Heh-heh-heh. Eleven-twenty-five on KMOX radio.
The tapes contain plenty of call-ins to other shows. There are calls to WGNU-AM, the old KXOK, national shows and to other KMOX stalwarts such as Bob Hardy and Anne Keefe, even a Bob Hyland guest spot. One favorite target was WGNU's Shirley Adams. Kelahan recalls that arguing with her "was like shaking up a can of beer before you open it."
It didn't take much for an argument. On one call, Kelahan was reacting to White's assertion that a suburban car wash couldn't get anybody to apply for a job. Kelahan said it might be that the work was hard, that the car wash was understaffed and the pay wasn't worth it. White jumped on that, knowing that Kelahan had previously said he was a musician who had part-time gigs and didn't have a full-time job.
White: What kind of work do you do, Elvis?
Elvis: I'm in the entertainment business, and that's all I'm going to say. I know you're going to ask me something else.
White: No, I'm not going to ask anything else. When you say it's too hard, no, it's not too hard. For example, the fellow who owns the place has just undergone quadruple-bypass surgery, and he's out there on the line many times doing it himself.... They can't even get people to apply for the jobs, much less take them. Or they take the job ...
Elvis: I just thought I'd point that out to you.
White: You're not pointing anything out to me, you're just confirming my suspicions that there's a bunch of lazy bums out there.
Elvis: I remember when Hardee's started serving chicken, they said it was going to be "labor-intensive." That's a fancy word for understaffed.
White: Ever work for a living, Elvis?
And so it went, night after night, picking nits. It was never a fair fight, because White had the buttons to push to turn the caller into dead air, but Kelahan kept calling, and thousands eavesdropped on their spats. Last Thursday in the studio, off the air, White said he remembered a chronic caller named "Elvis" and even went so far as to call him "intelligent."
Now White plans to take his boat for a circle tour of the eastern half of the country, filing reports along the way. John Carney, son of the late Jack Carney, will take his place as one more example of how KMOX is becoming a ghost of itself with the offspring of Carney, Jack Buck and Dan Kelly.
So will Kelahan miss White?
"Oh, I don't know," says Kelahan with a sigh. "Like I said, he's kind of a prick.