Bernie McCain insists he is not a talk show host at all, but a talk show interrogator. In his two years in D.C. -- on WRC radio until three weeks ago, now on the new WOL-AM as the flagship on-air personality -- McCain, 45, has used the airwaves to argue, joke, cajole, fume and philosophize his way into the homes of thousands of Washingtonians.
He left WRC -- for an undisclosed piece of the action at WOL -- ranked fourth among the city's talk show hosts with the 18 and older audience. "Charming, but firm" is how Sol Levine, his producer at WRC, describes him. Others see an adroit manipulator, intent on sparking the brand of controversy that keeps the listeners turning in. His handiness at the microphone has given him the image of a star audio quarterback, able to pull together loose ends and keep a game -- or a talk show -- running smoothly.
At the same time, he spices up the airwaves, drawing this assessment from WRC programming director Gordon Peil: "Bernie tends to get into topical subjects that relate to hard news and often have an atmosphere of gossip about them."
So much the better for listening. Dewey and Cathy Liggins Hughes, the new owners of WOL, are banking on McCain's fans following him down the dial. McCain prides himself on maintaining an air of authority and having a definite opinion about most of the topics he discusses, from the latest political outrage to diet and exercise. But that same air sends some listeners racing to turn the dial, and pushed him off the morning time slot on WRC. People didn't want to hear that first thing in the morning, a station spokesman said. At WOL, he's on from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Stocky and prone to flashy gold jewelry, including two noticeably heavy gold rings displaying his name and initials, McCain is known for dealing swiftly and coldly when he's had enough of offensive callers. He says he wants the people who call him to understand that anyone who doesn't respect him and other callers will get the phone slammed in his or her face. "There has to be an exchange of respect," he says.
In his 17 years in radio, 15 in black-oriented radio, McCain thinks he's earned some respect. Yet, he is quick to point out that luck played a major role in his career. "Ever find yourself doing something and ask, 'Why me.?'" he says. "You know there are other people who could do it a thousand times better. I've met guys who've had greater intellect, a greater capacity to touch people and a better set of pipes. . . I guess I've been at the right place at the right time under the right circumstances quite often in my life."
The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, and himself an ordained Baptist preacher -- at 29, "for my own satisfaction and curiosity" -- McCain came to radio by a circuitous route. A Newark native, he dropped out of high school and joined the Marines, becoming a staff sargeant. Following a five-year stint as a leatherneck, McCain wandered from job to job in search of the right one. During the next 10 years, he dropped in and out of college, managed a rock-and-roll group, sold clothes and liquor, then left the country, spending three years in Paris driving a produce truck.
Returning to the States, he sold pots and pans door-to-door before he found radio. The moment came when a vacationing disc jockey friend asked him to fill in for him at a small Newark station. McCain liked the work. Shortly thereafter, he was ordained. But radio was the path he chose.
He discovered that he not only had ability as a disc jockey, but that "talking quick trash," and shooting the breeze with people calling in requests turned him on more than anything else he had ever done. He was hired and later moved on to work for stations in New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Philadelphia as everything from disc jockey to station manager.
Working at WRC gave him his first shot at a white-oriented market. The deal that Dewey Hughes offered McCain meant a cut in salary -- he was probably earning somewhere around $50,000 -- but the piece of ownership made up for the difference, both say.
When Hughes went fishing for a "talkmaster," as he puts it, he put a piece of his station on the hook because WOL needed McCain to "legitimatize" its new all-talk format. "Now that we have Bernie on the air, people will know that we're serious abut this format," he says.
"The Big O.L." -- once a popular soul station known for its finger-popping do-wop and jive talking DJs -- adopted an all-talk format under the new ownership in October. Talk rules from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
McCain, married -- his wife Carolyn is a housing consultant and he is the father of two college-age children -- says he went for the bait because he and Hughes are on the same philosophical wavelength and have been ever since the 1960s, when they worked as community affairs directors at sister stations. "Philosophically we have a great deal of understanding," McCain says. "We want to give black people a vehicle that they can use to get a little closer."
He adds, "Though the sharing of thoughts and ideas, hopefully we can reach some kind of conclusions. If we only complain, then the only thing we do is maintain the kind of atmosphere for people to study and evaluate us and determine solutions for us. I'm tired of being studied and evaluated."
So, what can listeners expect? "We want to make a difference in people's lives," McCain says. "We want to do more than talk. We plan to bring people to the mike who have control and power, people who make decisions that affect other people's lives, so our listeners can question them and make suggestions.
But last Saturday, a pensive McCain sat behind his desk at WOL, his black miniature schnauzer in his lap. Leaning back in his chair, he watched the afternoon traffic jam on Wisconsin Avenue below. "Some people think I think I have all the answers," he mused. "Man, all I have is a lot of questions."