Talking Up a Storm
One morning in March, Joyce Kaufman called Comcast, her cable TV provider. It was the sort of mundane chore most folks must endure, but for Kaufman it became a turning point that would affect not just her but thousands of listeners in South Florida.
That day, Kaufman reached a customer-service recording in English. She was asked to press one to continue in English or two if she preferred Spanish. And that was it. She was enraged.
A tanned and tattooed 53-year-old with copper-blond hair, Kaufman hosts a radio talk show. She's been on the air in South Florida since 1991, playing music and hosting talk shows. She's had the Joyce Kaufman Show, a general talk program on WFTL-AM (850) broadcasting from Fort Lauderdale, since 2001. In the past, she's offered callers and other listeners her views on everything from the war in Iraq to the travails of O.J. Simpson, but now she is imbued with a new and more singular purpose. Thanks to Comcast, the husky-voiced Kaufman is suddenly reborn as an advocate for immigration control.
She arrived at work that day still fuming, she recalled recently. For her, a Spanish speaker with Puerto Rican roots, the cable company's language prompt implied that Hispanics couldn't learn English or that they needn't bother to.
Her coworkers at WFTL encouraged her to vent her outrage on the air. When she did, she says, the phone lines lit up. She hit a nerve.
"It was incredible," she says. "The audience was waiting for somebody to say something... So I tapped into their energy."
It was around the same time that an immigration bill was circulating in Congress. On her show, which airs weekdays from 2 to 5 p.m., Kaufman made what for her was the short leap from the Comcast recording to wanting to restrict immigration. In April, she joined other talk-show hosts from around the country for a rally in D.C. where they demanded that Congress enforce existing immigration laws and deny amnesty to the estimated 12 million people who have entered the United States illegally or overstayed visas. They called for stepped-up deportations.
Kaufman said she would represent her listeners by bringing their "soles" to the Capitol; in the ten days before she went to D.C., she collected more than 5,000 pairs of shoes at designated parking lots in South Florida. For the first time since she'd been reborn as a local anti-immigration crusader, she had a chance to meet some of her listeners face to face. When she delved into this new subject, she says, her fear "and everybody else's fear was: Am I gonna tap into this sort of festering white redneck kind of hate? Give that a voice?" But in fact, she says: "It was just awesome. There were Haitians and Jamaicans and Venezuelans and all kinds of Hispanics who were just saying, 'They don't speak for me. Now, you finally opened up the can of worms.' "
Some, including Kaufman, credit talk radio for the immigration bill's June demise. Many of the talk radio hosts who led the charge against it are self-described conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh. Kaufman sees herself a little differently. She's someone with far-left instincts who happens to find herself allied with conservatives on this issue, she says.
In the 1960s, she supported the Zero Population Growth movement, which held that reducing the growth rate of human populations was essential for the health of the ecosphere. "We wanted to shut down immigration completely — no legal, no illegal immigration — until we got ourselves together in this country and started really figuring out how much we should consume, how much we should expend, how much space would be required," she says.
"Back then, that's what left-wing tree-huggers were... Then, somehow, they got all confused. The Sierra Club and all these organizations I used to belong to started being like bleeding-hearts about 'Oh, the poor people, poor people.' Well, guess what? We are destroying the environment in this country at an incredibly accelerated pace because of this group of people who have come to this country and have to live a very substandard existence. They don't have mufflers on their cars. I mean, it sounds like silly nonsense, but it's not. The cumulative effect is huge. They live, you know, ten to a household; they bring disease with them."
It's this kind of reasoning that apparently has buoyed Kaufman's popularity on South Florida radio. Her listenership has spiked upward since she took on immigration, WFTL General Manager Steve Lapa says, leading the station recently to give her more time on the air. According to Arbitron, a radio rating service, the Joyce Kaufman Show has risen from an average of 12,200 listeners a week last fall to 18,200 weekly listeners this spring, the last ratings period for which data are available. And the topic seems to suit her in other ways. Lately, Kaufman "has really blossomed into a unique talent," Lapa says. "She's now performing at a level that's probably the best since she first sat behind a microphone."
Through WFTL, a 50,000-watt station owned by the James Crystal Radio Group, Kaufman can be heard from Fort Pierce to Homestead, across an area where perhaps a sizable proportion are foreign-born and immigration is a hot topic. Some listeners in South Florida no doubt hear a no-nonsense activist, a comrade, and a hero while others detect a hatemonger, an enemy, and a nuisance.
One day in April, José Uzal says he heard Kaufman say on the air that illegal aliens should be hanged in public squares as invaders. For Uzal, who writes for a Spanish-language newspaper in West Palm Beach, Kaufman had gone too far. So he wrote a column about it. He has also sent her several e-mails and called in to the show.
"She's got a right to say whatever the hell she wants to say, but there's a fine line when she incites hatred," Uzal says. "Everything is funny until one joker out there listens to it and shoots a Mexican guy on the corner. And what is she going to say? 'Oops, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to'?"
Kaufman, Uzal says, is basically shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater. "Her radio-station management is going to let this stuff go on until someone gets hurt."
The statement about hanging illegals prompted Aileen Josephs, a West Palm Beach-based immigration attorney, to report Kaufman to the Federal Communications Commission for "indecent" language. The Anti-Defamation League says it has also received complaints about "offensive" remarks on the program.
Kaufman says that the "hanging" comment came from a listener and that it was taken out of context. The conversation that day, she says, was about a Mexican man who was smuggling drugs into the country. In August, however, it was Kaufman herself who said on her show, "If you commit a crime while you're here, we should hang you and send your body back to where you came from, and your family should pay for it."
"There's nothing illegal about saying that people should be [hanged] in public squares for crimes," Kaufman says, speaking to New Times. "Now, if I said, 'OK, you guys need to go out and capture the first Hispanic immigrant that you think might have committed a crime and commit an act of violence on him' — if I did that, I've violated FCC rules. But I wouldn't do that...
"I don't think violence will win this. I don't want to hurt anybody. I just want the laws to be enforced in this country. And my frustration leads me to make outrageous statements all the time."
Those statements are broadcast in a region where immigration, both legal and illegal, is palpable. According to the U.S. Census, two out of every five residents in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties were born outside the United States and one in five residents in the tricounty area speaks Spanish. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 950,000 people in Florida are not authorized to be in the country.
Locals who feel excluded or bitter because they don't speak Spanish can vent on the Joyce Kaufman Show. And they do. They complain about getting turned down for jobs because they're monolingual. They complain about Spanish-language advertisements and words creeping onto English-language TV and radio stations. They complain about going to the supermarket and hearing Spanish being spoken all around them. And then there are the Hispanics who call in and proudly state that they refuse to teach their children Spanish or that perfecting their English is the surest way to show love and respect for their new country.
Kaufman sees herself as both opinion-maker and entertainer. Her job is to get people charged enough to share their thoughts on the air, which she hopes makes for good talk radio. But it's a bit like vaudeville in that there's someone in the wings with a hook waiting to yank the subpar performers off the stage, and that someone is Kaufman, sitting in a small recording studio in an office building on North Andrews Avenue.
Callers who know the program's preferred vocabulary — individuals who sneak into the country for work are "illegal invaders," not "undocumented immigrants" — have greater success on the air. A caller who identifies herself as "Cuban-American" rather than "an American of Cuban descent" will get screamed at and then dumped.
Kaufman's two grown children say they understand that their mother picks fights on public airwaves for a living, but they don't understand her position in the immigration debate. Derek Kaufman, a 27-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, remembers his mother sending him a YouTube clip about the shoe collection and that it struck him as ridiculous.
"I wanted to get the real scoop, whether she was feeling passionately about this," Derek says. "And she was. She's told me this is a firm conviction of hers... It seems odd from someone who is bilingual to want to live in a country that doesn't celebrate her ability to speak two languages and that only wants to have everyone conversing in one language. I don't see the purpose behind it other than sort of latent hatred toward others — and that, to me, makes me uncomfortable. She obviously doesn't hate other people; she's always been a very compassionate person. So I don't know how she reconciles that view."
Derek says he tries to keep politics out of the conversation when he speaks with his mother, typically three or more times a week. And he doesn't listen to her show very often. But he worries that her views on immigration and speaking English sound xenophobic. "I think she's certainly put herself with some strange bedfellows and people who are just bigots and want a mouthpiece for their viewpoints," he says. "I don't think she's racist or bigoted in the slightest, but I think that some of her viewpoints align her with people of that ilk."
If it were up to Derek, he'd "grant the existing illegals asylum and allow them to stay in this country rather than sending them back — make them productive members of society."
Joyce wants them to go home. However humble or kind they may be, they became lawbreakers the instant they entered the country, she says. Do the citizens of the United States want to recruit lawbreakers? If employers stop hiring migrants who aren't authorized to work in the country, she says, they'd leave — "attrition through enforcement."
(After congressional efforts to overhaul immigration policy fell apart in June, the Department of Homeland Security announced a plan that would require employers to lay off workers whose identities don't match Social Security records, but a federal judge in California has blocked the rule, saying it could snare legitimate workers.)
Kaufman insists that her position on immigration is based on a need for fairness, secure borders, the rule of law, assimilation, and pragmatism.
"Do I believe that the majority of people come here to work and make a better life for themselves? Absolutely," she says. "But there are millions — actually billions — of people in India and China and South Vietnam and Korea and all parts of the world who would like to do the same thing. At what point do we decide that we cannot accommodate every person who's looking for a better life?"
She agrees with her son's assessment about her off-the-air personality, though. She thinks of herself as a mild-mannered, giving person — the sort of restaurant patron who never sends food back to the kitchen, she says, and always leaves a fat tip.
Joyce Kaufman is standing barefoot outside her mother's apartment in Coconut Creek, taking quick drags off a cigarette. Her hair is piled messily on top of her head, secured with a large plastic clip. She looks as though she's dressed for a slumber party, in navy sweatpants and a gray T-shirt with the neck cut out. She barely slept the night before, she says, because her mother, Aida, was raging all night. "All night long and this morning, she told me that her mother was here and I was her sister and that Mom was mad at us — that kind of stuff. So she was in a totally different place."
Aida has Alzheimer's. Kaufman moved in four months ago to help care for the 84-year-old.
Inside the apartment, Aida is in good spirits, sitting in a black recliner. She looks tiny. Vulnerable. Kaufman tucks a baby-blue blanket across Aida's lap. On this particular morning, Aida recognizes her daughter, whom she stares at with wide, childlike eyes. "I'm very proud of her," Aida says, her voice practically a whisper. "That's my baby. She's the greatest." Then Aida blows her daughter a kiss.
Kaufman asks Aida if she remembers seeing her on CNN the night before.
Aida says it was interesting, but what was the topic?
Speaking Spanish, Kaufman prods, "Why don't they speak English?"
"They're going to throw tomatoes on you," Aida says. Then she reminds her daughter: "Don't forget I'm Spanish."
"I don't forget," Kaufman says. "If you're Spanish, what am I?"
"You're a Jew," Aida says. "Jew-Spanish. Jew-Rican."
They both laugh. Kaufman decides, aloud, that she's "just a little bit of Jew and a lot of Rican."
"You're baaaaad," Aida says.
Kaufman flips through channels on a television set that's suspended from the ceiling in her mother's bedroom. She stops at a Spanish-language talk show on Telemundo, the station her mother wants to watch, and turns up the volume.
Then she walks into her own bedroom. Across from the bed, there's a shelf decorated like an altar. A ceramic cross is surrounded by votive candles and framed pictures of family members. There's her grandfather in his rabbinical robes, her father, a half-sister, an aunt, a brother...
It's all so personal. This makes Kaufman uneasy. On the air, she drops just enough clues about herself so her audience can relate. One listener might want her to be agnostic while another wants her to be an observant Jew. The perceptive ones will notice that she quotes Bible verses and says words like amen and hallelujah. She is, in the listener's mind, whatever the listener wants her to be.
Many of them have no idea what Kaufman looks like. If they check her website, www.joycekaufman.com, they'll see some sultry photos. In one, she appears to be naked, sitting with her arms wrapped around a knee and a come-hither look in her eyes. In another, she's dressed like a sexy border-patrol agent toting binoculars. She hits on many of her male callers, especially if she agrees with their opinions. She asks if they're single. She tells them they'd have made beautiful children. But she isn't really looking for a date, she says; flirting, she thinks, makes her seem softer on the air.
"I paint pictures with words," she says. "You can think I look like anything. I could be professorial; I could be a slut. Whatever you need me to be, that day, that's what I am. Like guys who drive in their cars want to think I'm hot. And women who drive in their cars want to think I'm just like them — struggling to get home and take care of the family. I mean, they don't want me to be sexy. So, that's the beauty of it. I'm just this radio person."
Kaufman's website lists select biographical details under irreverent titles like "Spic Specs." The bullet points read like a parody, making it difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Under employment, for instance, she lists "Teaching of Learning Disabled Program Directors." Some information is outdated; for example, Kaufman is no longer a vegan. She adopted a vegetarian diet in 1969 and raised her kids on herbivore staples like tofu, all in the spirit of animal rights. But she's been eating meat since a motorcycle accident in 2005.
It's even more difficult to glean insight from an alternative biography on the website, told in narrative form. In this version, Kaufman was "raised by wolves." She protests the Vietnam War at the Capitol, gets 350,000 concertgoers into Woodstock for free, and takes credit for introducing Mia Farrow to Woody Allen. The camouflage lets fans get to know her without really knowing her. All they can be certain of is that she's nutty.
Over the phone one day, Kaufman does her best to lay out the basics. She grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, she says, which was just like West Side Story. It was a mishmash of cultures and backgrounds, with kosher pizza parlors and interracial marriages. And street fights. "Very rough," she decides.
She doesn't remember speaking English until kindergarten. Her father, a Jew born in New York to a Hungarian mother and an Austrian father, studied Spanish at Columbia University so he could better communicate with Kaufman's Puerto Rican mother. "My father thought it was a beautiful language," she says.
Aida converted to Judaism, but Kaufman says her mother held onto her Catholic beliefs. Kaufman says her own upbringing wasn't religious. No first communion. No bat mitzvah. Both parents worked, her father at the post office and her mother in luncheonettes. At 14, restless and rebellious, Kaufman left home. Then she met her future husband, Eric, and the pair went to live in a hippie commune in Vermont.
She eventually went back to school, getting a degree in special education from Hunter College and a master's in social work from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She worked with schizophrenics and autistic children. In 1978, she moved to Florida with her husband. She raised a family, got divorced, and started spinning music on the radio.
Derek Kaufman remembers growing up with a hard-working single mom who was active in things like community theater. He thinks of her as a positive, mellow sort of person who happens to take extreme positions. But, he says, he's noticed a change in her views since the motorcycle accident. She seems more conservative to him.
The accident was serious. On May 15, 2005, shortly after leaving the radio station on her motorcycle, an 18-wheeler made a sharp left turn that blocked Kaufman's path. She swerved onto a median to avoid the truck and found herself pinned to a piece of rebar. She remembers lying there for what felt like an eternity, staring at her right leg, which had been nearly severed three inches above the knee.
She had a vision of a 93-year-old aunt sitting on her motorcycle, telling her not to worry. Then a couple stopped to help — their names were Joyce and Eric. Although, Kaufman says, that couple might have been an hallucination too. By the time the ambulance came, she was pale with blood loss but still conscious.
The next thing Kaufman remembers is waking up at North Broward Medical Center with two members of Pompano's Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church praying over her. She saw that as a sign. "I knew instantly that everything was going to be all right," she says. And that she'd start going to church. Often. She asked Hopewell's pastor, Robert C. Stanley, to baptize her.
Kaufman believes the power of prayer helped speed her recovery. On her right leg, she had a broken ankle, tibia, femur, and shattered knee. Plus a gash on her thigh, which was deep and packed with gravel. The damage was so extensive that doctors contemplated amputation. She had a broken jaw too.
She was in a wheelchair for eight months after the accident, and she used a walker for 12 weeks after that. It took another year to ditch a sparkly purple cane, which was like a security blanket. "I really wasn't supposed to get up and walk when I did," she says, "and I certainly wasn't supposed to walk as well as I'm walking today."
But Kaufman is tough. She went on the air after the accident with her jaw still wired shut. Most of the scars are now barely visible, thin white lines. "There's nothing but metal in here," she says, tapping her right shin. Then she lifts her right pants leg to reveal a seven-inch depression above the knee. From the thigh down, she says, her right leg is numb. Her motorcycle-riding days are over.
It's a Wednesday evening, and around 200 people have come to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church for its midweek worship service. There are perhaps five white faces in the sanctuary. Most of the church's members are black.
Bass notes spill from an organ as Willie Smith Jr., the minister of music, asks people to get on their feet and raise their hands if they came to worship the Lord.
Joyce Kaufman is on her tippy-toes, hands lifted high above her head. She's clapping louder than pretty much anybody in the nearby pews. A guitar and tambourine join in, and the volume of the music slowly rises over several minutes. "Amen," Kaufman says. "Hallelujah!" She bends her arms upward at 45-degree angles and pumps both fists. Her eyes are closed, chin tilted toward the ceiling.
The music quickens and builds to a crescendo. Then it abruptly stops. Sporadic praises escape from the mouths of several parishioners, breaking the silence.
"This is just an outward expression of the way I feel tonight," Smith says.
Kaufman murmurs, "Yes, it is." Then: "Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord."
Earlier that day, on the radio, Kaufman was drumming up opposition to the DREAM Act, which would give permanent residency status to alien minors who want to join the military or attend college. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, had attached the DREAM Act to the 2008 defense appropriations bill. The indication was that the Democrats would approve money for the Iraq War if the Republicans passed the DREAM Act.
Kaufman was peeved. "These creeps use your future as a bargaining tool," she said on the air. Then she urged her listeners to call the senators who hadn't declared which way they'd vote. "Tell them to say 'No to the bad DREAM Act,' " she said. Then she broadcast the Senate hotline number.
It's talk radio activism, but is it Christian to punish teenagers because their parents broke the law? Is it compassionate?
During the program, a woman named Yolanda, from Hollywood, called to thank Kaufman for the information. Yolanda said she was getting all her friends to call senators and urge them to vote for the DREAM Act. That way, once the children got U.S. citizenship, they could sponsor their undocumented parents.
"Now I'm really mad," Kaufman said.
Off the air, in her free time, Kaufman visits lawbreakers every week as part of Hopewell's prison outreach ministry. Forgiveness is out there, for U.S. citizens.
At church on Wednesday night, a woman in the congregation asks everyone to pray for the six black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana, who had been charged with attempted second-degree murder for beating a white student unconscious. The beating followed months of racial tension and fights in Jena after white students hung nooses from a tree at the local high school.
The next day, the "Jena 6" is a topic on the Joyce Kaufman Show. Kaufman's talking points are: A schoolyard beating is just that — not attempted murder; and, any kid who hangs a noose from a tree to intimidate black students deserves to be beat up.
If given the choice of waking up tomorrow white or black, she suggests, most people would prefer to be white. If any listeners disagree, she'd like them to call in and tell her why.
Oh boy. What follows are calls from a bunch of aspiring comedians. One guy says he'd like to be black because he thinks he'd have an easier time getting food stamps. Kaufman rages: "You bigot! You racist! You guys, you've got the wrong radio show!" The next caller says he'd like to wake up black because he'd "get" affirmative action. Kaufman flushes him, adding, "You'd also get me to beat you up." Another caller suggests that hanging a noose from a tree is protected under the First Amendment — it's free speech.
Something isn't gelling. Maybe it's the topic?
The next day, Kaufman decides to read an e-mail from a listener during her opening monologue. "I apparently upset many of you [yesterday]," she says, "as I generally seem to do when I talk about anything except illegal immigration."
"This is from Chris in Parkland: 'PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE' — three pleases, with capital letters — 'No O.J. No Andrew Meyer being Tased. No Jena 6 today. There are things that are going on that will impact our lives more than any of the above. If ever there was a time when we needed our allies in the media to hammer on the fact that we need to be on the phones with the Senate, it is now.' Yes, it is now."
But Kaufman has already played a sound bite of George W. Bush stumbling over his words. She's called him stupid and invited listeners to defend him. The phone is ringing.
Cecilio in Greenacres takes her to task for disrespecting the president, but his English is heavily accented and difficult to understand. She calls Cecilio a moron and hangs up.
Then the program gets interrupted by a breaking news story about a small plane that crashed near the shoulder of the southbound lane of Interstate 95. The flow of Kaufman's show is broken. She storms out of the studio and starts to pace the halls barefoot. The station's morning news anchor, Ron Hersey, slides into her place to handle the plane coverage.
Producer Brennan Forsyth has several callers to the Joyce Kaufman Show on hold, but they start to drop off as snippet after snippet comes in about the downed plane.
Suddenly, the phone lights up again. It's a woman who thinks the station switched to news so Kaufman could hunt down Cecilio in Greenacres and beat him up. As he hangs up the phone, Forsyth mutters, "Boy, they're crawling out of the woodwork today. The crazies."
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