Alan Berg: Talked to Death

The talk show host made listeners deathly angry until he was taken off the air–forever

Denver talk show host, Alan Berg lies slain in the driveway of his home next to his black VW convertible on June 18th, 1984. Credit: Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty

September 1981: My first month in Denver, I flip the radio dial to KOA, the largest station in the Rocky Mountain region. A radio junkie for 25 years–in New York and Chicago, in Kansas and Texas–I think I have heard everything the medium has to offer, until today. It is Yom Kippur: for Jews, the holiest of days, a day set aside for prayer and fasting and the atonement of sins.

"I know there are anti-Semitic people out there among you gentiles," the man on the radio is saying, his voice like sandpaper. "I know that you're listening. I want you to call me and tell me why you don't like Jews. Let's not pretend this doesn't exist. Let's stir it up. You're anti-Semitic, and you know it, and you've got real feelings about this, and I want to find out what they are."

I am certain the man on the radio isn't sitting at a desk but standing over a microphone and pointing at the studio walls, flailing his arms like a psychotic. At any moment, I think, the microphone will go dead, and he will be jerked off the air.

I have never heard anything like it, on radio or on television. His words bother me, because I know what he is saying, however provocative, is true. He says his name is Alan Berg.

***

Fall 1982: I catch one or two snatches of Berg's program, and I am struck by his sense of humor. Berg is a clown, yet he has grasped how everything–everything from buying lettuce to making love–has become politicized.

And this is funny, too: people aren't as good, they aren't as enlightened, as they thought they were a decade or two ago, and they are worried and frustrated by the discovery. He makes terrible fun of our confusion and limitations. He appears to be one of the few public figures I have come across who is living now, in this decade, not in the past, not in the Sixties or Seventies.

One afternoon Berg launches into a black man who has called to tell him that there are certain things he will never experience or understand because he isn't black. Berg is fed up and tells the man to quit jiving him. The caller sounds stunned. Apparently, no one, least of all a white man on the radio, has taken his ideas to task before. The exchange between black and white is brusque. And honest.

In November, a woman who has been listening faithfully to Berg for six years tells me about her relationship, via the radio, with the man: "I get mad at him, but I always come back to his program. He's so alive, in ways that many people aren't He makes me think. Although I never call his show, I always talk back to the radio. Even when I'm driving my car, he makes me respond. I'm never silent when he's on. Or alone."

Another listener tells me that Berg makes him angry but also helps him examine his feelings. Most of the time, the man says, he realizes that he is angry with himself for something he has done or not done. It takes listening to Berg, and having his emotions riled, to get him to admit it to himself.

The process is, of course, what psychiatrists are paid 75 dollars an hour for. Berg is nothing if not a pop shrink.

***

December 1982: I spend a couple of days in the studio with Berg during his show, and afterward we talk. On and off the air, he enjoys making fun of his looks and often describes himself as ugly. He is tall and thin, like a toothpick, and his eyes are those of an 80-year-old man. A full, whitish beard covers his pockmarked face.

He is not handsome, yet when he begins to talk, his face comes alive, his words altering the way one perceives him: by some trick of eye or ear, he becomes better looking the longer he speaks. Berg has what all true entertainers have – presence, the power to make you see what isn't there.

He tells me he was born in Chicago in 1934 and grew up in a black and Jewish neighborhood. When he was nine, he began sneaking into the Regal Theater, a black-music showcase. "I had my first orgasm there," he says, "listening to Lionel Hampton's big band." As a teenager, he was drawn to ballet. "I once admitted that to a friend and he said, 'You queer?' I wondered if maybe I was. Not in the sexual way, but just that I was a queer person. I didn't feel that I belonged anywhere, and to this day that feeling has never changed."

On the air, he projects tremendous anger, sometimes laced with bitterness. I ask him where it comes from, and he starts talking about his father, whom he calls "an inexcusable dentist."

When he was growing up, his father practiced in a Christian neighborhood. According to his son, Joe Berg tried to pass himself off as a gentile with his patients, all the while attending synagogue on the weekends. His hypocrisy infuriated the youngster.

"I despised [my father] for that," Berg says. "He said no one would accept him if they knew he was Jewish. Well, those were tough times, but they weren't that tough. My father was just plain confused...He was a hypocrite and a notorious bigot against anything that wasn't Jewish. As a kid I would scream at him, 'How can you go to temple and hold yourself out as a gentile?' He never hit me, but he would wail back."

Berg developed a sense of disdain and even scorn for bigotry in anyone or any group. On the air, he mocks Christians, Jews, blacks, men and women, straights and gays, society, himself. He offends without regard to sex, race, religion, creed or class. His show is the First Amendment in action. He says things out loud many people have become afraid or ashamed to say. And he openly acknowledges conflict, complexity, human perversity, perhaps because he grew up so close to all three.

Berg attended the University of Colorado. (At 17, he was married. "She was a nurse, an older woman," he says. "I met her in a bar, and she said we couldn't sleep together unless we got married. So, I married her." After 30 days, the marriage was annulled.)

He graduated from the De Paul law school in 1957, married again and began his legal career, earning $100 a month as a law clerk in Chicago. When he started giving kickbacks to bail bondsmen and they began throwing cases his way–at the time, he claims, a common practice in Chicago–his income jumped to $50,000 a year. "I saw nothing wrong with this at first," he says. "It only worked on me later."

By the early Sixties, he had a reputation as a superb defense lawyer who was for hire by the Mafia: "For a while, I was their fair-haired boy, getting off defendants that people said no one could get off, walking the scum of the earth out of those courtrooms."

He began to drink, and he once parked his Porsche in Lake Michigan. He was cheating on his wife and steadily losing his grip on everything–a failing, frustrated, self-destructive man in the vise of an old companion: anger. "

We like to say a lot of heroic things about why we're angry, right?" he tells me. "Because we don't like indecency or wrong. But I think it's mostly all premised on not liking yourself. When all is said and done, there are just too many things you know about yourself that aren't as pure as you would like them to be. It was unbearable to me that I was prone to corruption. All of a sudden I was doing all the things I'd always been ridiculously critical of. I learned that lying was the single most destructive thing in my life. And practicing law like that is a form of lying. The drinking was a great way not to face the ugliness I saw in myself. Maybe it reminds you a little bit of your father, whom you never saw any guts in in your whole life. You suddenly say, 'I'm not the opposite of him; I'm weak too.' You have to sort that out."

Berg's wife left him. ("All of the women who were involved with me loved me for a while," he says, "but most of them grew to hate me. They got tired of hearing me whip myself.") He eventually followed her to Denver to dry out. That was in 1966 or 1967–he can't remember which–and he says he hasn't had a drink since then.

In the early Seventies, when he was a reformed alcoholic and running a shoe store–his girlfriend at the time broke his nose with a shop stool–an acquaintance invited him to sit in as a guest on his radio talk show.

Berg was a natural on the air, an irrepressible loudmouth who would argue with anyone about anything at any time. Two weeks later he had his own show.

Unlike other talk-show hosts, Berg didn't plan to be outrageous. His program filled a time slot that had previously been a rock & roll show. Teenagers who tuned in expecting music, hard and loud, heard a man with a nasal voice talking fast. Some of them called Berg and said things like "You suck" and "I hate you." He began returning their compliments, venting his bile both on them and more innocent callers, cutting people off with the flick of a switch. Before long, he was a phenomenon: the Last Angry Man spewing venom into the night.

As a lawyer, Berg says, he had once defended Lenny Bruce, and in his own way Berg became the Lenny Bruce of the middle-class, middle-brow, middle-American radio talk-show set. Berg soon had the highest ratings ever given a talk-show host in the Denver market.

Over time, he had several lucrative offers from large radio stations in Chicago and New York, but he felt accepted in the West and decided to stay. His anger finally had a home – and a purpose.

"I stick it to the audience and they love it," he says. "Everybody here is dying to bust out, to feel." After losing one radio job, he "got an overwhelming number of letters from people who hated my guts but wanted me back on the air so bad they could taste it. They didn't understand exactly why they needed me, but they missed the hell out of me when I was gone...I give them something to feel, some emotion...I'm angrier than anyone who calls my show. Anger is one of the greatest motivators in the world. Rage destroys."

Berg not only feels anger; he inspires it as well. In 1979, Berg got into a shouting match with a caller who claimed that the local district attorney showed favoritism toward Denver's Jewish community. A week later the caller burst into the studio while Berg was on the air. According to Berg, he pointed a gun at him and said: "I'm Fred Wilkins. You will die." Wilkins fled, only to be caught a few days later and charged in the incident. (The charges were later dropped.) Wilkins turned out to be the organizer of the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Do you have a death wish?" I ask Berg. "No," he tells me, "I have a living wish, and every move in my life has been toward it."

***

January 1984: Berg appears on Sixty Minutes when it examines talk radio and some of its obnoxious hosts. The program features Berg at his worst but focuses on Gary D. Gilbert, a screamer out of Washington D.C., who makes Berg look tame.

Gary D. says things to callers like "You come down here, you lily-livered, yellow-bellied, egg-sucking-dog, bed-wetter, pinko Commie!" Berg doesn't come across as much more interesting or intelligent than Gary D., although he does give a good definition of talk radio and why it is successful: "It's the last neighborhood in town. People don't talk to each other anymore. Talk radio is the last place for them to hear human voices. So many people are isolated today. They don't have a chance to communicate."

Talk radio is a phenomenon. It is among the most popular forms of radio programming in the nation, and it is hitting a lot of nerves out there. More than a hundred years ago, Walt Whitman listened to his countrymen speak and said that he could hear America singing. Talk radio is now the sound of America singing; only today it sounds more like crying, whining, bitching – one host calls it "throwing up" – confessing and, in general, letting raw emotions, private problems and political opinions hang out there in the electronic sky for everyone to hear.

Berg has taken the idea of talk radio as the last neighborhood to its outer limits: he holds group-therapy sessions on the air, putting on four callers at once and encouraging them to pick one another apart. "Some people are laughing, some are hating," he tells me. "All the emotions of the earth are there...They go back and forth with each other, and it's a gas."

Berg urges people to call him up, right now, and to argue with him. He jumps into the confusion and conflict just beneath the surface of the body politic. You can write your newspaper – or Sixty Minutes – a letter, which they may or may not print or read on television. Berg is always accessible, on the air or off. Unlike many celebrities, even those in Denver, his home telephone number and address are listed in the book.

Only one exchange on the Sixty Minutes program is really memorable.
Sixty Minutes: "You say, yourself, you often go on there, you don't know quite what you're going to say."
Berg: "Hopefully, my legal training will prevent me from saying the one thing that will kill me. [Laughing] And I've come awfully close."

***

January 1984: Late one evening, in suburban Denver, the Bennett family – husband Bruce, wife Debra Lynn and their two daughters, Melissa and Vanessa – are essentially destroyed, beaten with a hammer. The crimes have no apparent motive; the Bennetts' assailant does not even bother to rob them.

Whoever visited them in the night simply murdered the parents by crushing their skulls with a blunt instrument, then sexually molested seven-year-old Melissa and killed her, too. Vanessa, age three, was severely beaten but has survived with possible brain damage and paralysis.

The assault is just another wanton act of violence. The murders seem to stir something deep within the community, something almost primitive or tribal. The evening following the murders, I tune in Berg. "I want to get a gun," I recall him saying. "I want to find the person who did this. It bothers me to say that, but I just want to find him and..."

Months go by, and the Bennetts' killer is not found. Justice is not done, but I understand better now why Berg is important in the city and region. He provides catharsis. Someone needs to help us let off public steam, to remind us that it's okay to feel outrage.

Talk radio, especially in the hands of someone like Berg, does that better than anything else.

***

Monday, June 18th, 1984: Driving from Denver to Tucumcari, New Mexico, I tune in Berg's show. Earlier he had been joking around about Father's Day and soliciting calls from men who don't enjoy sex.

Now, as the program is coming to an end, he is talking with Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder about the need for secrecy in handling important government documents. Berg is playing the devil's advocate with his incessant, probing questions. It is a lively conversation, but not memorable.

In the past few years, there has been some evidence that Berg is mellowing. His father died in 1983, and Berg recently visited Israel, returning aglow from the experience. His own scattered and tangled sense of identity seems to be coming together for the first time in his life.

His need to strike back at others is still strong but perhaps not quite as vitriolic as it once was. He seems to be settling into himself and learning more about what he wants to do with talk radio. "It's strange," he tells me during an interview, "but in the past year I've felt more love for my show than ever before. Maybe I'm making more of a breakthrough now...If I'm depressed, I write down on a piece of paper what my show will be tomorrow."

On another occasion, he says: "First and foremost, I'm trying to entertain. Mostly myself. I've spent my whole life trying to entertain people. I'm trying to entertain you right now. If anyone in this business ever says they are trying to make a serious significant contribution to society, they're fulla shit. There ain't a guy in this business who doesn't have an ego on the line, who isn't insecure and frightened to death. Me included."

"Then you don't have any moral purpose in doing your show?" I ask. "My moral purpose is to kill myself." He laughs. "To figure a way out of here. If I had any moral feelings for this city, I'd leave tomorrow."

I am traveling to Tucumcari to write about a young man who committed suicide there in April. He was 18 – perhaps the best all-around athlete in the town's history, an honor student, a blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager with the body of a young god. He had recently received a full-ride football scholarship to Texas Tech. By any measure, he was a very popular kid in Tucumcari. One day he left school during the lunch hour, drove home, stuck a shotgun to his chest and pulled the trigger.

In May, a sportswriter for a Texas newspaper had written a story about the suicide. High school athletics had come out looking bad, as had the young man's family and girlfriend. Everyone who knew the boy, it seemed, bore some of the guilt and shame. A number of local people wrote the reporter angry letters about his piece, and several of them were thinking of pursuing legal action.

In fairness, there was no malice in the reporter's story, and what he wrote was not that inflammatory. He had merely treated the suicide in the same way he would have treated a lost football game, asking, Whose fault was it?

When I get to Tucumcari, some adults refuse to talk to me, some lecture me on being an exploitative journalist, and one man throws me out of his house in the middle of an interview.

After a few days in town, I begin to understand their anger a little better. No one there had known that the young man was even troubled, let alone suicidal.

Everyone I speak with says the same thing: the boy couldn't talk to anyone. Instead of trying to communicate, he pulled the trigger.

My first morning in Tucumcari I go to the local newspaper office to read some clippings about the young man. While sorting through them, I hear a radio report: "Alan Berg, a controversial radio talk-show host in Denver, was murdered in front of his home last night. He was 50 years old. A native of Chicago, Berg had been..."

After the numbness begins to subside, I start to feel there is some connection between the suicide and Berg's death. Perhaps connection is the wrong word. Maybe it is only an irony. The town hero of Tucumcari died (one imagines) because he could not talk. Berg died (one imagines) because he talked too much.

Driving home from New Mexico, I think a lot about these two deaths, but what I am really thinking about is evil. That's probably a waste of time, but in moments of confusion and loss – and while riding over that huge Western landscape without Alan Berg to dispel the monotony – the mind searches for something to hold on to and chew.

My thoughts are also a small tribute to Berg: he was always rummaging around inside of evil, trying to figure it out, to pin it down and hold it up for public scrutiny. He was intensely aware that it emerges from behind a thousand smiles, and he was always telling us that the thing is right there inside of us, each of us, and we need to ferret it out for ourselves.

Somewhere near Trinidad, Colorado, just north of the New Mexico line, it occurs to me that evil might be nothing more than the choking off of that process: the death of communication.

The courses of the bullets through Berg's torso were hard to estimate, the [autopsy] report said, because of the probable twisting of Berg's body at the time he was shot. The report said two slugs struck Berg in the head near the left eye and exited on the right side of the neck, and two more hit on the left side of the head and exited downward on the right side of the neck. Another struck the left side of the head and exited at the back of the head. —-Denver Post

He was murdered in front of his apartment building, and it is believed that a .45-caliber MAC 10 machine pistol and a silencer were used. Twelve rounds passed through Berg's torso, arms and face before splintering his garage door. It was an excellent hit.

The Denver Police Department immediately undertook the largest murder investigation in its recent history, assigning 47 officers to the case full-time, and radio-station KOA offered a $10,000 reward for information.

On October 18th, four months to the day after Berg was killed, FBI agents were shot at while maintaining surveillance at the house of Gary Lee Yarbrough in Sandpoint, Idaho. They were looking for his brother, Steve.

Gary Lee Yarbrough, 29, later fled when FBI agents entered the house. In an upstairs room, they found a three-foot-high portrait of Adolf Hitler surrounded by black crepe paper and candles.

They also found two 12-gauge shotguns, five semiautomatic rifles, a bolt-action rifle, a .45-caliber Colt pistol, a Winchester .22-caliber rifle, a .45-caliber MAC-10 machine pistol and a .308-caliber MAC-10 machine pistol with a silencer, 100 sticks of dynamite, one and a half pounds of C-4 plastic explosives, fragmentation grenades, night-vision scopes, more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, bandoleers loaded with .308-caliber ammunition, 110 blasting caps, four loaded crossbows, police scanners, booby traps and Aryan Nations uniforms.

Yarbrough was at large until November 24th, when he was captured in a Portland, Oregon, motel after a shootout with the FBI. His partner at the motel, Robert Mathews, escaped and fled to a house on Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound, near Seattle.

On November 30th, one of the guns recovered in the Yarbrough house was positively identified by the FBI as the Berg murder weapon. On December 7th, the FBI located Mathews and surrounded the house. After a 30-hour siege, the FBI fired illumination flares into the house. The house burst into flames, and Mathews died in the blaze. (The cause of the fire is still unknown.)

Named by the Denver police as a suspect in the murder of Alan Berg, Gary Lee Yarbrough is in jail in Boise, Idaho. Law-enforcement authorities have speculated that the killing may have been an initiation rite for membership in the White American Bastion, a white-supremacist organization.

At a December 18th jailhouse press conference, Yarbrough–a former member of the white-supremacist the Aryan Nations–denied killing Berg. "I know nothing about Alan Berg," said Yarbrough, "except that he was a Jew." When asked who committed the murder, he replied, "God."

Earlier, Yarbrough had told the Seattle Times that his young daughter, Autumn, would someday be "firing bullets into the heads of kikes."

Who killed Berg is less important than the fact that he is dead. "All of us have lost a friend and maybe even a mentor," said one longtime listener in Denver after the murder. "But on a larger scale there is a loss of freedom every time something like this happens. Even subconsciously, people will resist saying what's on their minds, because someone who is out there listening and polishing a gun won't like what they say and will blow their head off. If you're a public person and hold some unpopular beliefs, your life is in jeopardy."

Two days after the murder, Gary D. Gilbert, who had left his radio program in Washington D.C., said that in the future he would be more cautious on the air. When his old show was going well, he recalled, he had received death threats every day.

Many Denver radio listeners who had never met Berg in person could not understand why they missed him so much. They brought flowers to his apartment and scattered them on the driveway where he had been shot. They stuck roses in the bullet holes in his garage door. They drove past his vacant apartment every day for a week.

Denver held a huge memorial service for him, attended by everyone from corporate executives to the local bag ladies. A week after his murder, people drove home from work with their lights on dim as a tribute to Berg. After his death, people seemed able, finally, to admit how much he had meant to them, and how much they missed that wild, unpredictable, insistent, overwhelming voice, that forceful river of words running through their minds and pulling them into its eddying current, whether they wanted to be drawn in or not.

"I feel a void now," says Dr. Kathy Morall, a forensic psychiatrist in Denver who had appeared on Berg's show three days before the killing. "The radio station will never, ever replace him. He was provocative, insulting, arrogant...He gave us every side of himself and didn't hide any of it. He didn't say, 'Everyone should be like Alan Berg.' He said, 'Let me provoke in you a different way of thinking. Let me shake you from your yawning passivity. Agree with me or disagree with me, but don't just sit there.'"

There is another reason, I believe, that he made such an impact. He knew instinctively where people live – down in the crevices holding those secret desires and needs and contradictions – and he knew how to get down there in a hurry and then dig in. He may have skated over the surface of many social issues, as his critics always charged, but not over the emotions they aroused.

If you think people are essentially creatures of logic, then you might have considered Berg a sham. If you think we're fighting a constant battle against irrationality, and sometimes losing, then he might have crawled under your skin as well. In a way, he was just a guy who liked to talk too much. Yet in another way he was much more than that.

I once asked him why he felt that he had to call himself ugly and whip himself verbally on the air. "I must be punished," he said. "But why?" "I could take the most beautiful relationship in the world and find a way to destroy it. I'm a wrongdoer." He started to laugh, a full, deep, mature laugh. "I secretly want to be a Christian and don't recognize it," he said.

At the time, his answer struck me as bizarre. It was obvious that my question had bothered him and that he had tried to dismiss it by coming up with a glibly funny answer.

A year and a half later, after his death, his words don't seem so odd. In fact, they have begun to make a kind of sense. Berg absorbed a lot of the anger that is out there floating in the air, a lot of the anger that is now generated by the media. He became a martyr in the Christian sense of the word – a media martyr, a martyr for those who distort and destroy the meaning of the truth. He died for our sins.