So different, yet so much the same
On Dec. 8, in the last hours of David Brudnoy's life, WBZ-AM (1030) aired a show in which admirers paid tribute to the talk show host. When Paul Sullivan, Brudnoy's hand-picked successor, called in, he talked about Brudnoy's guts, saying, ''The toughest guy I know is a bookworm from Minnesota."
But Sullivan wasn't lacking courage that night, either. Two weeks earlier, he'd undergone brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital after the discovery of cancerous tumors. The Lowell native who'd slugged it out for years in the hinterlands of talk radio before becoming heir to Brudnoy's coveted WBZ night shift was facing his own crisis.
This week, after a month off the air to undergo grueling follow-up treatment, Sullivan, 47, returned to his microphone at WBZ. He updated listeners on his health and then moved on to discuss the boorish behavior of parents at their kids' hockey games.
''I feel terrific. I'm gaining my strength back," he says, exuding boundless optimism. ''I'm back in full swing." In discussing his upbeat response to adversity, Sullivan says: ''Honest to God, this doesn't feel like the worst thing that's happened to me . . . If I thought whining and crying about this would help, count me in."
The irony and angst of following Brudnoy, who died after a long fight with AIDS and cancer, with someone also battling cancer is probably not lost on WBZ's programmers and listeners. But Sullivan sees himself as a guy who's gotten a chance to pursue the job of his dreams.
''I always liked talk radio," says Sullivan, who came of age admiring famed Boston talkmasters Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, and who began his talk career at WLLH-AM (1400) in 1989. ''It really is a bully pulpit for issues."
For a while, it looked as though Sullivan might find other outlets for his interest in issues. In the 1980s, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by serving as a Tewksbury selectman. But he failed in bids for Middlesex County commissioner and state representative. ''The voters showed how brilliant they were," he says of the legislative race, which he lost at the tender age of 20. ''They elected a better man."
Sullivan's career in the media seems to be a case of impressing the right people at the right time. His work on a local cable-access show called ''Tewksbury Spotlight" got him the job at WLLH, where he worked for a decade. There he attracted the attention of Lowell Sun executive Kendall Wallace, who recruited him to write a column for the paper in 1991.
In the '90s, Sullivan became a panelist on the now-defunct WCVB-TV (Channel 5) panel show ''Five on Five." In that role, he caught the eye of Brudnoy, who suggested he do some guest hosting on WBZ. At that point, Sullivan had done fill-in work on WRKO-AM (680) but despaired of ever cracking the exclusive fraternity of big-time Boston talk radio.
''I couldn't break in on it," he recalls. ''I reached sort of a dead end."
His first appearance as a fill-in host on WBZ was in 1996. When Brudnoy's shift was reduced by two hours in 1999, Sullivan became the regular WBZ talk show host from 10 p.m to midnight. In January, following Brudnoy's death, he took over the nighttime show, which now airs from 8 p.m. to midnight.
''I guess I never went after these things," says Sullivan, who chalks up his ascending career path to ''happenstance . . . I just happened to be prepared."
To say that Sullivan projects an everyman demeanor on the air would be an understatement. He has a thick local accent and a deep, flat voice that doesn't exactly conjure up classic radio pipes. If Brudnoy was Professor Erudite, Sullivan is Joe Six-pack.
WBZ general manager Ted Jordan says that contrast is one of the reasons Sullivan was selected. ''It dawned on us that you can't replace David Brudnoy," he says. ''One of the appeals of Paul is that he sounded nothing like David."
''I say this with great love and affection," says WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political analyst Jon Keller, who says he was a confidante of Brudnoy's and is a fan of Sullivan. ''I'm not sure Paul could work on the radio anywhere else. He's not just recognizably Boston -- he's recognizably Merrimack Valley."
Sullivan admits: ''I never went back and tried to get my voice distinctive and get the training people suggested. I had five kids and three jobs, and it is what it is."
Sullivan's style is conversational and, in the often overheated world of talk radio, noticeably civil. He uses humor liberally. During a discussion about bad drivers in snowstorms, Sullivan says when a motorist angers him he takes revenge by disobeying whatever message is on the offending driver's bumper sticker. When discussing the death penalty, which Sullivan opposes, a caller asks if he is a pacifist. No, Sullivan says, explaining he favors fighting any country the United States can beat.
Actually, Sullivan was an opponent of the war in Iraq. But he says he is a Bush supporter because the president ''is a decent human being, a decent leader . . . and sincere in his beliefs." He describes himself as a ''populist" who supports gay marriage and abortion rights. But he is no liberal and believes conservatives have a better feel for the entertainment aspects of talk radio.
Sullivan's life took a serious turn Nov. 22. Driving his car, he exhibited symptoms that resembled a stroke. Two days later, he was having brain surgery. While recovering, Brudnoy fell critically ill and went into Mass General. Sullivan was visiting his mentor in his hospital room when Brudnoy dialed up WBZ's director of news and programming, Peter Casey. Brudnoy, Sullivan recalls, said: ''Now, don't forget. I think Paul should be the one to take my spot."
In discussing the station's decision to heed Brudnoy's words about his successor, Jordan cites both the contrast in broadcasting styles and the eerie similarity of their health problems. ''How could you not give it to him?" he says of Sullivan. ''How could you not let him try it?
''There are times you do things because you're supposed to and times you do things because you want to. And this is one of those times that is both."