Matt Towery / November 5, 2009

Mr. Boortz’s Opus: Why Talk Radio Really Matters

Back in the ‘90s, an admittedly sappy movie was made for less than $7 million, but it reaped over $80 million at the box office. “Mr. Holland’s Opus” starred Richard Dreyfuss as a high school music teacher who tenaciously plodded along the daily grind of teaching music. All the while, he was privately composing his own “An American Symphony,” apparently never to be performed.

In what follows below, I’d like to honor another man’s life’s work. His career has been in a much different field than teaching music, but his ultimate triumph reminds me of the inspiring Dreyfuss film.

For the last year or so, it’s been open season on America’s conservative-leaning radio talk-show hosts. During the 2008 presidential campaign, it often seemed that Barack Obama was running against star TV and radio host Sean Hannity, instead of against Republican John McCain. (That’s likely because Hannity was a much tougher and charismatic threat than the GOP nominee.)

Months later, we witnessed another high-ratings radio host, Michael Savage, get literally banned from Great Britain. Next, the Democrats decided to treat the godfather of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, as if he were the elected leader of Republicans nationwide. They attacked him at every turn. Limbaugh was even forced out of a potential ownership position with an NFL team because of that league’s fear of controversy. Freedom of speech was nothing more than a cumbersome inconvenience to Limbaugh’s detractors.

But there’s good news for this industry, too. This first weekend in November, the great luminaries of the talk radio world are gathering in Chicago to honor another one of their colleagues, the unique Neal Boortz. The nationally syndicated talk show host is being inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. Boortz is Libertarian conservative whose ideas and fast-paced interaction with listeners have earned him millions of listeners nationwide.

Boortz came to national prominence a little differently than some of his colleagues who followed him into the field. After college, he moved to Atlanta. The city was growing, but its media market was nothing as big as it is today. He worked as a speechwriter to the governor and as a department store’s buyer of fine jewelry, among other jobs.

He was also a frequent listener and caller to the city’s only talk radio station at the time. Eventually, he became a host there himself. Of course, talk radio offered modest pay back then. So in the '70s, Boortz earned a law degree. His legal work continued into the '90s, even while he was becoming the town’s “top talker.” Among his clients were luminaries such as heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield. Finally, in the late '90s, Boortz moved his act to the South’s radio giant, WSB. That brought him national syndication.

So why is Neal Boortz’s story important to you and me? And what has this story to do with “Mr. Holland’s Opus?” Read on.

Unlike many entertainers and celebrities, the off-the-air Boortz is in fact shy and unassuming. He seems an unlikely candidate to become the handpicked protege of any powerful media mogul. Instead, he personifies the dreams of many Americans. They may know what they want, but they face what look like impossible obstacles to reach them.

When Boortz went from talk-show listener to talk-show talker, it was in a modest media market – and a Southern culture – that wasn’t used to “bluntspeak” like his. Even today, some radio station managers ignorantly pigeonhole him as a “Southern talk show host” and deprive their listeners of hearing one of the best minds and mouths on the air.

Unlike many conservative stars of talk, Boortz toes no party’s line. He challenges listeners with facts, figures and the ruthless logic he learned as a lawyer. He loves to verbally joust with those who call in to disagree. He also lets his executive producer and his engineer-sidekick help to keep him in check by challenging him in a sort of freestyle banter. This formula has allowed Boortz to irritate some of the biggest names from both the left and the right. He calls it “stirring the pudding.”

The high school teacher in “Opus” finally got to see his musical score performed live. This weekend, some of the biggest names in the talk radio business are gathering to celebrate the “music” created by Neal Boortz. I could argue that his 2005 New York Times-bestselling book about the “Fair Tax” was his magnum opus. But in reality, it may be the award he’s to receive itself that culminates his career.

For those who cherish liberty and free speech; the right and the ability to say what’s really on their minds; and the scrappy persistence to skillfully do one’s job, the celebration of “Mr. Boortz’s Opus” means more than honoring this one man.

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