Making Airwaves

At the wackiest stop on your AM dial, a loudmouth host plays the politics of personal destruction -- and gets his station in big trouble

WPBR produces no shows of its own. Instead, it's "brokered," selling airtime to individuals who produce their own shows and manage their own ad sales. Currently, hosts pay anywhere from $150 to $200 an hour for airtime, though Farrel had a much cheaper deal when he did 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. five days a week, paying $1250 for the whole 15 hours.

Brokered stations are a fast-growing segment of the radio market, popular with station owners, since the arrangement relieves them of production costs. But with an audience so small, WPBR's commercials are a tough sell, and established radio talent goes elsewhere. Many of the station's hosts have little previous broadcast experience, and many first-timers are among them. Many of them are issues-oriented, with political stances from the far, far, far right (like Farrel) to the equally far left. There's a lot of churn in the programming schedule, and shows and hosts come and go.

Currently, the station's daytime lineup (see "PBR = Pretty Bizarre Radio") includes a past state chair of the Workers World Party of Florida, a right-to-lifer fitness buff, a self-described "public interest lawyer" (who is barred from practicing law in Florida), the founding president of the Second Amendment Coalition of Florida, and a retired motivational speaker with a Yellow Peril fixation.

Station personnel closed the shades to our cameras
Joshua Prezant
Station personnel closed the shades to our cameras
From Sofia with love: Bulgarian-born station owner Emil Antonoff and station manager Virginia Martinez
Joshua Prezant
From Sofia with love: Bulgarian-born station owner Emil Antonoff and station manager Virginia Martinez

Because WPBR's hosts are largely untrained, their idiosyncrasies shine through. It's one big strange family -- but family feuds can be the worst, and Farrel and a former fan are locked in one now, a struggle that's landed Farrel and the station in state court on slander charges. A simple retraction might have settled the matter, but both sides have dug in their heels, and Farrel's reckless behavior may drag the station down with him.

In its rickety fashion, WPBR has been on the air more than 25 years, originally broadcasting from West Palm Beach, then from downtown Lake Worth, moving to its new quarters last spring. It's long been known as a haven of right-wing thought, chiefly because of Dan Gregory, whose paleoconservative "Let's Talk" has been a WPBR midmorning staple for almost as long as the station's been around. Cut down by a seizure January 11 and just out of the intensive-care unit of JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, Gregory is -- at least temporarily -- off the air.

Too bad. Gregory was a classic -- or, as he might say, "Un-be-lieve-able!" With an amazing capacity to believe everything (the hidden hand of the "Committee of 300," the healing power of "colloidal silver") and nothing (evolution is "garbage," the moon landing "a hoax"), Gregory was frequently at a loss for words. Once summoned, however, his voice was a rich and resonant honeyed baritone, his laugh a deep, room-filling rumble.

Rare is the host who could summon the passion Gregory did on the day after nativist Pat Buchanan's upset victory in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary of 1996. Apoplectic with fervor -- the revolution had arrived -- he practically strangled the microphone. If Palm Beach County had had any peasants with pitchforks, they would surely have marched.

The padrone of WPBR is station owner Emil Antonoff, a man accustomed to cacophony. Born in Bulgaria in 1922, he grew up there among active monarchist, fascist, communist, and democratic movements. He claims to have been the "youngest elected member of the Bulgarian Parliament" at the start of World War II and to have survived a postwar Soviet concentration camp. As a refugee, he worked in Turkey with the Voice of America, broadcasting news and propaganda in several Eastern European tongues.

Emigrating to the United States in 1956, Antonoff built an electronic Tower of Babel. He worked in ethnic broadcasting in the New York City area, first at a television station broadcasting in Bulgarian, Turkish, and Serbo-Croat. From 1981 to 1991, he owned a brokered radio station that broadcast in 47 languages weekly.

A resident of Oyster Bay, a well-to-do Long Island suburb, Antonoff has vacationed in South Florida since 1980 and owns a Fort Lauderdale condo. Professional curiosity made him a WPBR listener; in 1996, he learned that the station had gone into bankruptcy; he quickly bought it.

For Antonoff, WPBR represents a version of the American Dream, a taste of democracy with a dash of Horatio Alger. He doesn't want to push any particular political viewpoint, he says; if the station has kept its conservative drift, it's because "liberals can't find sponsors."

"We try to get broader range of voices," he says in heavily Slavicized English. "We try all the time -- as long as it represents something local, the view of the people."

Antonoff's little radio family has had its share of food fights. Two WPBR hosts got into it last summer, when ex-Marine right-winger and professional pest exterminator Ken Olmstead used his hourlong afternoon slot to go after liberal morning host the Rev. Thomas Masters, the Palm Beaches' most visible black leader. Olmstead dragged out court records showing that Masters had been found liable in civil court in 1998 for sexual battery of a mentally disabled teenage boy.

The Olmstead-Masters spat spilled into the local dailies, prompting station management and other hosts -- Farrel among them -- to ask Olmstead to cool it. Olmstead left the station instead. "Basically, I told them to screw off," he says. Olmstead claims he's been blackballed, that the station now refuses to sell him airtime. "They won't say "no,'" he says. "They just sidestep it."

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