Jewish Journal


September 7, 2006

Radio Host Barry Gordon: It’s All Right to Be Left


"I don't come in until the sax solo," Barry Gordon says to the technician in the cramped, second-floor studio in the North Hollywood area.

Gordon takes off his glasses, places them on a pile of books, and, light-green highlighter in hand, he begins marking up another text, this one by Noam Chomsky, Gordon's first radio interview on this Sunday. Gordon has been host of "Barry Gordon From Left Field," a political talk show on KCAA 1050 AM, since earlier this year, and as he tilts forward in his swivel chair, he studies the tome 15 minutes before his 1 p.m. show begins. With his gentle rocking motion, salt-and-pepper beard, and Talmudic concentration on the prose, Gordon suggests an Orthodox Jew davening during prayer, a fitting image for a man who may be most famous of late for his portrayal of the rabbi on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

But Gordon has played many roles over his long, multifarious career, which started when he was a 3-year-old singer on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." He has morphed from child singer to recording artist (his rendition of "Nuttin' for Christmas" remains one of the top-selling Christmas records), child actor on Golden Age TV shows like "Leave It To Beaver" and "Dennis the Menace," Tony-nominated performer for his role in Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns" and president of the Screen Actors Guild.

He also graduated Summa Cum Laude from Cal State L.A. in his 30s; got a law degree in 1991, when he was in his 40s; ran as the Democratic candidate for Congress in the late 1990s; recently co-wrote the musical, "Dorian Gray"; and now, in his late-50s, has become a radio personality.

In working in radio as a political commentator, Gordon is returning to his roots in many ways. In addition to his own radio and TV performances as a child singer, his father was a DJ in Albany, N.Y., before the family moved to Southern California, when Gordon was about 7. A few years later, the young Gordon became entranced by the Kennedy phenomenon and read "Profiles in Courage."

On this day, though, he is reading Chomsky as the technician cues Supertramp's "The Magical Song," a hit from the late 1970s. We hear the lyrics, "They'd be calling you a radical, a liberal...," before segueing to Gordon, who says, "We're here to cut through the white noise of the right wing."

Dressed casually in gray corduroys and faded-pink floral shirt, Gordon speaks in animated fashion, and unlike many actors, he can do so off the cuff with great elocution and diction.

After telling listeners about his "packed" show, whose interviewees in the later segments include Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Gordon introduces in almost hushed tones his opening guest, "one of the most extraordinary minds of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky."

In an era of talk radio, where political discourse is often reduced to shouting, Gordon conducts his program with much civility. The morning after the show, he will say over the phone, "The biggest mistake liberal talk radio can make is to copy conservative talk radio. I think you can have a passionate program without trashing people. There can be respectful disagreement, but it's disagreement."

There is no doubting Gordon's political perspective, and not just because of the baseball metaphor used in the title of his eponymous program. Gordon ran for Congress in 1998 against James Rogan, the Republican representative from Glendale, best remembered for his role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Gordon lost a close race but paved the way for Adam Schiff, a Democrat, who won two years later.

Yes, Gordon is on the left. On his blog, BarryTalk.com, he has criticized the Israeli reprisals against Hezbollah that resulted in the killing of civilians, even if many were used as shields by terrorists. Now, as he interviews Chomsky, Gordon says, "As you're a professor of linguistics, let me ask you a question about language. 'How would you define a terrorist?'"

Chomsky, who has written many books on the Middle East and has voiced his disapproval of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli military activity, responds that a terrorist engages in "the calculated use of violence against civilians." Gordon, who is extremely well-informed, holds forth about the Israeli media and Middle East politics. He mentions that he has joined the organization, L.A. Jews for Peace, which he regrets does not have a large membership.

He and Chomsky discuss the failed peace talks at Taba. According to the MIT professor, the Palestinians and even the Iranians had signed on to a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the Israelis backed out of an agreement.

If Gordon seems to be one of the lone liberal voices on the radio (he jokes that listeners are as likely to hear Gordon Liddy as him on KCAA), he follows in a tradition that goes back to FDR, whose "fireside chats" showed his mastery of the then-new medium, and has included everyone from Orson Welles to Robert Scheer to Al Franken.

"The trend in the medium is not to take a position," he says. "I'm not interested in playing devil's advocate. 'On the one hand, this; on the other hand, that.' I'm interested in taking a position."

As the first of his many interviews today ends, Gordon relaxes in his swivel chair. He says he is reaching as many as 3.5 million listeners on KCAA but is hoping to go national. That will take a lot of resourcefulness, but Gordon is great at improvising, and he's a quick study. He once filled in for the cantor at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts ("I was the temple's Ruby Keeler"), he learned how to write and read music without any formal training, and he returned to college and law school in middle age.

So, how will he take his radio show national?

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," he chuckles.

"Barry Gordon From Left Field" is broadcast live Sundays from 1-4 p.m., on KCAA 1050 AM, webcast live on www.kcaaradio.com, and podcast on demand from the show archives. For more information, go to www.BarryGordonFromLeftField.com and the blog, BarryTalk.com.

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