Brudnoy, icon of airwaves, dies
To many, a voice of warmth, reason
David Brudnoy, the erudite, eclectic libertarian who for nearly three decades was a mainstay of Boston talk radio, died yesterday in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 64. The cause was complications from Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer.
In an on-air interview Wednesday, Mr. Brudnoy told listeners that the cancer had spread to his liver and kidneys. It was time, he said, to say good-bye.
"My head is completely accepting of this, he said on WBZ-AM, his home on the airwaves for the past 18 years. "I am absolutely ready."
"A most courageous and gentle man is dead," said John Silber, president emeritus of Boston University, where Mr. Brudnoy had taught over the years. "The loss is ours, we survivors who loved him, respected him, and engaged him in conversation for so many years."
Few others in radio or TV, Silber said, could match Mr. Brudnoy's capacity for self-effacement and intellect.
Mr. Brudnoy had battled health problems since 1988, when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
He came close to dying in 1994 because of viral pneumonia and an enlarged heart. A year ago, he again came close to death when he was diagnosed with the carcinoma.
In a Globe interview during his 1994 hospitalization, Mr. Brudnoy revealed he was HIV-positive and gay.
"I desperately wish I didn't have [HIV]," Mr. Brudnoy said. "But you can live, and you can learn about priorities, about friendships, and that you can do a job well without doing it 18 hours a day. What I come out of this with is not a cockeyed optimism, but a more realistic sense of priorities. I'm not an evangelist, but I can tell you I am eternally grateful I'm alive."
Downplaying the importance of his sexual orientation, Mr. Brudnoy said, "But I'm not just gay. I'm also tall and lean and I'm not very good at basketball, but very good at music. I'm not trying to compare sexuality with skill, only to say that I'm not comfortable with the notion of defining people exclusively or overwhelmingly by what they do in bed."
When Mr. Brudnoy returned to the air on Jan. 5, 1995, after a 10-week absence, Mayor Thomas M. Menino proclaimed it David Brudnoy Day in Boston.
The one concession Mr. Brudnoy made to health concerns was to start broadcasting from his Back Bay home. "I like to make my guests feel as comfortable as possible," he said in a 2000 Globe interview, "so I let them smoke and I make them mixed drinks. This is my home and I think they enjoy it much more than a sterile studio. I know I do."
Its host, even more than its point of origin, made Mr. Brudnoy's show an island of idiosyncrasy on the airwaves. Favoring cerebration rather than shouting, he was the talk-radio host for listeners who didn't like talk radio. Mr. Brudnoy emphasized ideas and issues over personalities and name-calling.
"Obviously, his intelligence set him apart," said Jon Keller of WLVI-TV (Ch. 56), a longtime friend who produced Mr. Brudnoy's show in the late 1970s and early '80s. "But it was intelligence of a special sort, a very American sort: open and robust, not pinched and elitist. It was accessible to both the graduate student and the firefighter in Grove Hall.
"Also, he never sugarcoated his opinions. His willingness to cut to the chase verbally and say exactly what he meant, in a way that was blunt and forceful while always elegant, that was unparalleled."
And Mr. Brudnoy made it a point to read guests' books. "The host has to read the book," Mr. Brudnoy said in 2000. "The payoff is in the level of conversation and the detail in which a work can be discussed. I hope what's communicated is my enthusiasm for the subject."
With his penchant for polysyllables, Mr. Brudnoy didn't necessarily wear his learning lightly. Perhaps that was because there was so much of it. In addition to a bachelor's degree in Japanese studies from Yale, he held a master's in East Asian studies from Harvard, and both a master's and doctorate in American civilization from Brandeis.
Mr. Brudnoy never entirely left academe. Before joining the faculty at BU, he taught at Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and the University of Rhode Island. He later credited the two years he spent in the mid-'60s directing the honors program at Texas Southern University, a historically African-American school, with turning him against affirmative action.
"The David Brudnoy Show," the region's most-listened-to radio talk program, ran weeknights from 7 to 10 on WBZ. The station's 50,000-watt signal reaches 38 states, which helped give Mr. Brudnoy a profile that extended far beyond Boston. Adding to his prominence was the success of his memoir, "Life Is Not a Rehearsal" (1997).
Mr. Brudnoy always credited callers with contributing to his success. "They give the program a sense of family," he said in a 2000 Globe interview. "I don't have a foil, like Robin Quivers is for Howard Stern, so the role of sidekick isn't played by an individual but a rotating band of individuals."
Mr. Brudnoy began as an AM radio talkmaster in 1976 at WHDH, moved to WRKO in 1981, and switched to WBZ in 1986. Briefly dropped by WBZ in 1990, Mr. Brudnoy was quickly reinstated after widespread protests.
Representative of the dismay expressed by both listeners and media professionals was the headline that Inside Radio, an industry publication, ran with its account of Mr. Brudnoy's dismissal, "WBZ-AM, Boston Slits Its Own Throat Late-Night."
A self-confessed workaholic, Mr. Brudnoy presented commentaries on several local television stations, most recently on Channel 38's "Nightcast at 10."
He wrote for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, National Review, Boston magazine, and Reason.
Mr. Brudnoy also served for many years as movie reviewer for the Community Newspapers chain and was a founder of both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Boston Theatre Critics Circle.
Artistry runs in Mr. Brudnoy's family: His cousin Sharon Isbin is a Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist.
David Barry Brudnoy was born in Minneapolis on June 5, 1940. An only child, he was the son of Harry George Brudnoy, a dentist, and Doris (Axilrod) Brudnoy, a homemaker.
A gifted student, he attended Minnesota public schools and was a high school exchange student in Japan. He graduated from Yale in 1962.
Mr. Brudnoy started contributing articles to National Review in the early 1970s and became a protege of the magazine's founder, William F. Buckley Jr. He began his career in electronic media in 1971, with commentaries for WGBH-TV.
In 1996, he established The David Brudnoy Fund for AIDS Research at Massachusetts General Hospital to raise resources for unrestricted research into treatments and vaccines for the disease.
In 1997, Mr. Brudnoy received the Freedom of Speech Award from the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts.
"If you accept, as everyone must, this stage in life, then I do not complain about my 64 years," Mr. Brudnoy said in a Globe interview on Wednesday. "I can't evaluate my life. That's for others to do. But I think it's been OK. I've been nice to people. I can't think of anything more I can do but to accept and welcome this."
Mark Jurkowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.