It's 7:06 a.m. on Wednesday, February 6, and Palm Beach County's last outpost of locally produced talk radio, WPBR-AM (1340) is on the air. The station's disclaimer has run -- "The views and opinions expressed on this program are those of the host, guests, and callers and do not necessarily represent those of WPBR, its staff, management, or advertisers" -- and morning drive-time host Dick Farrel is a few minutes into his show.
A big man with a walrus mustache, Farrel sits at a microphone in the station's glass-walled broadcast booth, his body stuffed knockwurst-like into a sweatshirt and bicycle shorts, a headset bracketing his pompadour. The "Live Viewing Studio" occupies the front room of a first-floor suite in a featureless office plaza at 1217 S. Military Trl. in West Palm Beach, surrounded by used-car lots, fast-food joints, and assorted small businesses. Out in the parking lot, Farrel's white Toyota Avalon sits baking in the sun, an "I stand with President George W. Bush" sticker on its rear bumper, a scrunched-up McDonald's takeout bag on the back seat.
Farrel gives out the time, the weather, and the station call numbers, then launches a blast at one of his favorite targets -- Palm Beach County government. Two of its agencies are in the crosshairs today: the sheriff's office and the Division of Animal Care and Control.
"Cat's Paws Hacked Off!" Farrel cries, newsboy style, referring to a story that first appeared in the Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News on February 2. "Sheriff and Animal Chaos Don't Want to Have Anything to Do with It! Details straight ahead..." Teaser in place, Farrel expands on the weather report, then screams another headline.
"Palm Beach Post Takes Bribes!" he brays. "It's a story you'll hear only on WPBR and on the Dick Farrel Website: Palm Beach Post Reporter Admits Journalism For Sale!" Details to follow, he promises.
But few details ever come. Most of Farrel's two hours are spent bashing the sheriff ("the anal orifice"), the Post (the "Puke Rag"), Palm Beach County ("more like Nazi Germany every day"), and Star Trek ("the culmination of One World Government").
Such potshots are typical not only of Farrel but of WPBR's entire motley crew of talk jocks. The 1000-watt station may not be "The Voice of the Palm Beaches" that it claims to be, but it's definitely some voices -- some mighty peculiar ones.
None of these self-appointed pundits shoots from the lip with quite the abandon of Dick Farrel. In fact, his ad hominem personal attacks have already gotten him in trouble.
Today, while crusading for feline justice, Farrel gives no sources or facts to back up his indictment. "Some fiend" has mutilated the cat, Farrel says, and "according to the [unnamed] Animal Care and Control director... they have no intention of doing anything to help." With no supporting evidence, he says the sheriff too has washed his hands of the matter.
On the Post's alleged bribery solicitation, Farrel says that when "a WPBR associate" asked "[Post] reporter Don [sic] Weil" about the meager mention of the station in an article on local radio in the Post's business section, Weil responded "You didn't send me the thousand-dollar check!"
"No other media outlet in this community dares to expose the perfidy and criminal behavior of a Palm Beach Puke Rag reporter," Farrel boasts, "except me." The day's callers don't share Farrel's outrage at the Post, however, and they've got their own takes on the cat.
Union John, a WPBR regular, agrees the mutilation is a travesty. But if the county isn't doing anything about it, he asks, "What's new in America?" Andy in Palm Beach calls to say the cat story may have been cooked up by the media "to sell papers." Sean from West Palm begs to differ. "Andy," he says, "you are a sack of it, you moron." Sean speculates that the cat's mutilator was "one of these imports from the Third World using his machete" and offers "a thousand for each of that person's hands to be hanging in City Hall."
But the callers' comments are beside the point. Farrel's charges are a combination of half-truths and outright lies.
Even as Farrel spoke, the cat in question was in the care of Paws-2-Help, a privately run, West Palm Beach animal shelter. (The cat had reconstructive surgery soon thereafter.) Paws-2-Help worker Sigrid Kumpe told New Times, "There was no need to have Animal Care and Control here." Kumpe said the sheriff's office had "helped right away." The story later got considerable play in the Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post.
As for Farrel's attack on the Post, the reporter Farrel targeted calls the commentator's assessment a deliberate distortion. "I joked with him," Dan Weil told New Times. "Later, I told him that the story was hurried. There were space considerations too. He seriously believes I asked for money? There was a roomful of people there."
Post editor Ed Sears called Farrel's charges "patently false" but not worth the trouble of legal action. "It's not as if we were dealing with someone with some credibility," he said.
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.
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."
The internal backbiting among WPBR hosts grew so bad that station management issued a general circular last October threatening to ban any host "who uses his or her show to discredit another talk show host." Still, station Federal Communications Commission files include a note this January from evening host Johnny Sexton complaining about badmouthing of his and other programs by Farrel and afternoon host Joe Falco.
Despite all the bickering, Antonoff loves his audio baby. The station is "a chance for local talent," he says, notes of optimism and wonder in his voice. "Rush Limbaugh wouldn't be where he is today if some small California station hadn't given him a chance."
Dick Farrel is no Rush Limbaugh. Cultivating a "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" persona -- ultraconservative, superpatriotic, and bitterly populist -- he bounced around the airwaves in the Northeast, Georgia, and South Florida for almost 30 years. Farrel has held down broadcasting jobs at a series of more prominent local stations. He broke into the market in 1988 with West Palm Beach-based WJNO-AM (1290), served a brief stint with WIOD-AM (610) in Miami, left the area, and returned to Palm Beach County in 1993 at WBZT-AM (1230).
In January 1999, 15 months after WBZT was swallowed up by mammoth radio network Clear Channel Communications, Farrel was fired. He quickly hooked up with WPBR, however, where Dan Gregory's presence made him a natural political fit. (Palm Beach Post columnist George McEvoy swiftly dubbed the duo "Dumb and Dumber.")
Through sheer persistence, Farrel built a small local following and some petty notoriety. He's been embraced by the Palm Beach County Republican Party and sits on the party's executive committee. Party Chair Mary McCarty makes the occasional appearance on his show, though Farrel's on-air handle for her is "Miss Piggy." Vice Chair Sid Dinerstein features prominently on Farrel's Website, and Dinerstein's own, once-weekly WPBR hour is archived there.
Farrel may be a registered Republican, but his beliefs are muddled. He subscribes to "C-Fact," an antienvironmentalist news service produced by a Christian wing of the Wise Use movement, funded by the oil industry and the nuclear-energy lobby. He made the rounds at the state Libertarian Party's convention in West Palm Beach not long ago; his Website features links to those of the National Rifle Association, the county Chamber of Commerce, the Church of Scientology, and New Age conspiracy theorist Zoh Hieronimus.
Because Farrel's broadcast journalism is untrustworthy, often wildly inaccurate, his account of his career and personal history must also be taken with a grain of salt. He is consistently evasive and/or misleading about the most basic information. New Times has three times approached Farrel for an interview and been rebuffed. On one occasion, he threatened to file harassment charges. On another, he replied, "I don't talk to lowlifes." On the last, he threatened violence.
According to his Website, Farrel "joined the human race" on August 1, 1956, and, according to the WPBR Website, he was "born and bred Richard Kelley Farrel." According to court documents, however, he was born Farrel Levitt. He once told this reporter that he "paid $568 to a New Jersey lawyer" to have his name changed, but he has never done so.
Farrel is enough of a local presence that it's well-known among fans and foes alike that his radio name is phony. It's also widely assumed -- based on his given name -- that he's Jewish, though he dances around the subject. "The fact is, my mother's Jewish," he once told this reporter. "But I have no religion."
Farrel says he holds a 1979 bachelor of arts in communications and political science from the City University of New York and that he served on the New York City police force in the early 1980s. According to an undated Lake Worth Herald article taped to the WPBR office wall, he quit the force after 18 months because he was not promoted, which he attributed to the fact that he was "not a veteran and was white."
Things are not always lovey-dovey between WPBR's morning star and station management, either. An October 2000 note from station owner Antonoff orders that, until a new contract is agreed to, "there shall be no additional air time given to Dick Farrel on WPBR, either directly by contract or by any indirect method which he may concoct to circumvent these instructions." Antonoff told New Times he did not recall the circumstances that prompted the note.
The biggest problem these days for both Farrel and Antonoff is a retired schoolteacher from Tequesta named Larry Ferrara. A former ally of Farrel's, Ferrara was for many years an occasional guest on and frequent caller to Farrel's show. In July 2000, however, Ferrara filed suit against Farrel and WPBR for slander and defamation of character.
A 75-year-old native of Freeport, Long Island, Ferrara is a slight, balding man, unassuming and polite -- unless provoked, when his eyes light up and his voice turns steely. "I just want what's right," he told New Times, speaking softly at first, then snapping: "You've got to get this guy! He's been getting away with murder for years! That station should lose its license!"
Ferrara was a full-time teacher in the Palm Beach County school system from 1967 to 1986. He was also an outspoken critic of the schools, regularly calling local radio talk shows -- particularly Farrel's and Gregory's -- to complain about the "lowering of standards" and the internal politics of the school system, its "cliquishness" and "favoritism." The school board's records show that Ferrara was fired for incompetence in 1986. "They set me up for a fall," he maintains.
Ferrara continued his radio call-in career, sounding off on the whole range of public affairs. For the next decade, he bonded with his fellow airwave archconservatives and became a fixture on the local talk-radio scene. He repeatedly discussed his firing by the school board with Farrel, who had him on as a guest as many as half a dozen times. "I believed his problems had some merit," Farrel has testified.
In 1996, for reasons not political, the two men feuded. "I got concerned about his use of language," Ferrara says. He was also shaken by Farrel's "crude" on-air remarks about the Polly Klaas case, in which the convicted killer of a California 12-year-old accused the victim's father of having molested her.
Ferrara turned from a fan to a watchdog, though he told New Times he is unable to pick up WPBR's signal where he lives, near the Martin County line. Unspecified "friends" listened and reported back to him, he says, sending him tapes of Farrel's show.
In late 1998, Farrel's response to the Jeanette Piro murder case further stoked Ferrara's fire. "They found her body in a freezer on Singer Island, and Farrel started playing a parody of "Pretty Woman' called "Frozen Woman,'" Ferrara says. "The jerk really lost me then."
Soon after, Ferrara mounted a campaign to get Farrel's advertisers to boycott the program. "I didn't do anything illegal," Ferrara says. "I just asked them if they ever listened to the show." It worked. One restaurant canceled a $2500 contract that was about to take effect, court records show; another, a longtime advertiser, failed to renew.
Around the same time, a barrage of faxes and letters lampooning Farrel and WPBR began arriving on the desks of WPBR, its sponsors, and other radio stations. The fliers depicted the station as a "500-watt "Toonerville Trolley'" whose advertisers were being "cheated out of their money."
The station tried to trace the messages to Ferrara but failed. Farrel filed a criminal complaint, alleging harassment and interference with a contract, but that also went nowhere. "It wasn't me," Ferrara insists. "I don't even own a fax machine."
In the first months of 1999, Farrel launched the series of broadcast statements that Ferrara calls slander. In taped excerpts from the show that January 19, entered into the court record of Ferrara's lawsuit, Farrel says: "The fired teacher from Tequesta, they really fired him because they were afraid to have him around little boys because of his sexual orientation." On January 27: "This particular homosexual in Tequesta, we really know he no longer is a teacher because they were afraid to let him loose with teenage boys." On February 3: "that scumbag, lowlife fired teacher who lives up in Tequesta.... The real reason they fired him was because he was a homosexual and they were afraid to have him around little boys."
The official school board record of Ferrara's firing paints him as a lousy teacher but makes no reference to homosexuality or pederasty. Farrel has admitted under oath that he never examined the file until after Ferrara sued him, a year after the alleged slander.
In a fine irony, former archconservative Ferrara's lawyer is archliberal Barry Silver, the Boca Raton attorney who last year argued the National Organization for Women's Florida chapter's court challenge to the state's "Choose Life" license plate. A tall, slender man with delicate features, soft eyes, and a Brillo mop of dark hair, Silver says the case is "not a vendetta."
"I don't have any problem with his spewing his venom," Silver says easily. "But stretching the truth about issues is one thing. It's another to do it about people."
There's no love lost on Farrel's side. In his broadcasts, he's called Silver a "draft-dodging phony" and Silver's father, a politically outspoken rabbi, "two-faced" and "arrogant." Farrel has accused both Silvers of racism for supporting NATO's attacks on Serbia and opposing the war in Vietnam. His logic: They favored the use of U.S. troops to save white Kosovars but not to save nonwhite Vietnamese.
Farrel has testified under oath that Silver is part of a conspiracy against him. Complaining that Silver was politically motivated, Farrel asked the Florida Bar Association to remove him from the case. The bar refused.
Silver, himself a rabbi and a former legislator, claims that Farrel offered to support Silver's (ultimately failed) campaign for the 2000 Democratic nomination for state representative if Silver dropped Ferrara's slander suit. Farrel says that's a misrepresentation. "I merely pointed out that the suit made it politically impossible" for Farrel to support him, he says. (That was the only occasion on which Farrel answered a New Times query. Almost immediately afterward, he remembered to whom he was speaking and threatened to "punch your fucking nose down your ass.")
Farrel's pretrial deposition, Silver says, "bordered on the bizarre": The broadcaster was so obfuscatory and recalcitrant that the deposition required three separate sessions to complete. Farrel's attorney, West Palm Beach-based John Marinelli, would bark out objections, terrier-like, every other minute, stonewalling the proceedings. When New Times arrived at one deposition (they are not, as a matter of course, closed to the public), he and his client called a recess and angrily stalked out.
The voice on the tapes of the allegedly slanderous broadcasts is unmistakably Farrel's, and he never denies it. But he never admits it, either. He believes the tapes are "not authentic," but he pleads memory failure. "I do not know that that is my voice or that those are my comments," he testifies repeatedly.
A letter is introduced in evidence; Farrel "doesn't recall writing it." He wrote another letter, he says, on the same topic, to the same address, but he doesn't recall the content. He had a copy, he says, but a computer failure destroyed it. "I was fraudulently misrepresented," he says.
How will Farrel do if he testifies in court? "He'll make a horrible witness," predicts Silver.
Farrel's fellow hosts haven't exactly rallied to his defense. Most have said they don't know enough about the case to comment. Afternoon host Falco says it's a First Amendment issue, that "someone who doesn't like what Dick has to say is trying to get him off the air." But Falco also admits he has "no firsthand knowledge" of the case. Wil Van Natta, a fervent leftwinger with a Tuesday-morning show, says Farrel is just "an ill-informed guy with a nasty disposition."
Marinelli has declined to comment on the case, as have station owner Antonoff and his attorneys. Silver thinks the station's defense will rely on the fact that Farrel, not WPBR, produces his show. That and their hourly disclaimer.
"They think that's a magic shield," Silver says. "It isn't." He cites Florida statute 770.04, which holds radio station owners liable for damages for defamatory statements uttered as a part of a broadcast if they "failed to exercise due care" to prevent such statements.
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"Even after being informed [of Farrel's behavior], the station refused to investigate," Silver says. "They never cared."
Silver hasn't specified how much his client is seeking in damages. "The thrust is to correct the record and restore Larry's reputation," he said. "Initially, he wanted very little, a few thousand [dollars]." But his client's position has hardened, Silver says. The station broadcast a retraction, but Silver derides it. "They said they were sorry Larry was offended, but they didn't say it was untrue.... The Talmud says a man's reputation is his life. How much is that worth?" He says the chance of a settlement is "nil."
Whatever dollar amount Ferrara goes after, it will be WPBR, not Farrel, with the deep pockets. Silver, who is working on contingency, may end up being paid out of the station's coffers. How much they contain is an open question, however. According to FCC files, the station has had trouble paying its legal bills in the Ferrara suit. If it turns out there's nothing there, Silver says, he'd be just as happy to take the station as payment.
"It's a bit of a zoo, a crazy little station, isn't it?" Silver says, dreamily. "If we win, I want to take it over and use it to protect the environment. We'll have a beacon of light."