Talking Up a Storm

Radio host Joyce Kaufman wins fans by flaying a new enemy: undocumented immigrants

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."

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie