By: Hartley Pleshaw – January, 2005
If American radio can be said to have had a post-World War II Golden Age, it manifested itself in Boston from the mid-1960’s to December 9th, 2004. It was the age of Jerry Williams, Charles Laquidara, Danny Schechter, Eddie Andelman and Gene Burns, among others. These talents, and others like them, not just excelled at modern radio formats, they virtually invented them. (The fate of such inventions as talk radio, sports radio and morning rock radio is, alas, another matter. Many of the above cannot be blamed for retrospective regrets not unlike those of Dr. Frankenstein.)
Recent events have caused me to remember another member of this elite group of Boston radio legends. He was a gay man, a Jewish agnostic, a brilliant young intellectual, a superb writer and media commentator, an eloquent spokesman for his ideology and principles and a witty and cogent observer of popular culture—a great career, and life, cut short by cancer.
Andrew Kopkind died on October 23rd, 1994—ten years, one month and sixteen days before the passing of David Brudnoy. Politically, these two men could not have been more different. In every other way, they were virtual mirror images.
Kopkind came from the Left, from a career sympathetically, if critically, documenting the mass movements of the 1960’s: civil rights, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement and—for him, most personally—the gay movement. In the 1970’s, his news commentaries and programs on WBCN-FM helped to forge that once-great station’s legendary status as the first—and best—alternative rock radio station in America. Brudnoy came from the Right: a true-blue (in the old political terminology) Yalie, a Sharon Statement conservative, a protégé of William F. Buckley.
Brudnoy, however, was not predictable. I distinctly remember his first television commentary in 1973. Brought in by first WGBH and then WNAC-TV to “balance” the forever alleged “liberal bias,” it was a denunciation of censorship.
That woke me up. “He’s against censorship? I thought this guy was a conservative!” I remember thinking. Conservative he was, but when he came out for gay rights, I knew that there was something different going on here.
Brudnoy’s support of equal rights for homosexuals, it should be noted, was on record as far back as the mid-1970’s, long before many “liberals” thought it safe. (Brudnoy wasn’t “outed” for another two decades, until his struggle with AIDS became public, but I believed him when he said his privacy as to his own sexuality was a way of keeping self-interest out of the discussion. In any event, a self-hating closet case would never have come out publicly for gay rights when and how he did.)
His courage and perspective made Brudnoy useful and important. As a noted conservative, his support for gay rights, the legalization of drugs and other libertarian positions could not be denounced as the rantings of a crazed liberal; nor could the Left dismiss him as a cranky reactionary. (Consider this Brudnoy quote: “It wasn’t sex that destroyed the Roman Empire, but Christianity.” No liberal could ever get away with a statement like that; few would have been courageous enough to have made it. But David Brudnoy was.)
A case in point: Brudnoy was a well-known opponent of legal abortion, but refused to support the pro-life movement on the grounds that most of its members opposed sex education and contraception, and were thus more interested in sexual repression than in preserving unborn life. It was this kind of beyond-the-bumper-sticker thoughtfulness that made Brudnoy such an effective advocate, and such a difficult opponent.
And yet, he was always a gentleman—maybe too much of one. Curiously, he included among his close friends and political allies some of the most vicious homophobes in the country. Perhaps David was trying to build a bridge to such people to try to get them to change their ways of thinking. But, the point is now moot. Professional haters in the Boston area now can spew their venom secure in the knowledge that their most effective opponent will stay forever silent.
I strongly suspect that some of those who cried the biggest public tears at David Brudnoy’s passing will see to it that no one quite like him will ever work in radio again. (The communications business is one where the same man who smilingly hands you your “Life Achievement Award” will then tell the head of security to change the locks after you leave the building.) That Brudnoy was a great commercial success won’t matter; civilized, thoughtful discussions just don’t fit in most of today’s radio. They apparently died with David Brudnoy.
And so, at this sad time, I think of David Brudnoy—and of Andrew Kopkind. They were so very different. And so very much alike.