Being sacked for arguing on the radio that Islam is a "terrorist organization" may not be the best thing that ever happened to Michael Graham's career, but it's pretty close.
After WMAL (630 AM) fired the midmorning talk show host for refusing to apologize for his remarks about Islam, Graham became the flavor of the month on TV shoutfests and talk stations across the country. Even now, after his 15 days of fame, Graham is busy fielding job offers, working as a substitute host on stations in Los Angeles and other big markets, and conducting a daily Internet-based talk show, happily reiterating his comments about Islam.
But all Graham ever wanted to be was the host of a local talk show in Washington, and ABC Radio, which owns WMAL, has now denied him that platform, which leaves Graham, who lives near Falls Church with his wife and four children, a frustrated soul.
"The whole idea of talk radio is to be a lot of fun, a little edgy, a place where crazy ideas are entertained," he says. "They may be mocked and dismissed, but they help focus the conversation. For me to be sacked for saying what I believe -- it is heartbreaking for me to leave WMAL. I just don't get it: I got your station more publicity than you'd had in five years, and you fire me? What did I miss?" (I sought comment from WMAL President Chris Berry, but he did not respond.)
Graham's journey to the limits of acceptable speech began after this summer's terrorist attack in London. The talk host, a former stand-up comedian who was inspired by listening to Rush Limbaugh six years ago to try radio as a performance medium, argued that because polls showed a large minority of Muslims were unwilling to turn in extremists in their midst, support for fundamentalist terrorism must be intertwined with the faith's teachings.
"If your theology feeds the killers and if millions of your members support the killers, even though they're a minority, you have, in my opinion, a terrorist organization," Graham said.
Graham, whose bombastic style and disdain for nuance made him a rising star in talk radio, had made similar comments many times before. But this time, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington lobby promoting the civil liberties of American Muslims, was listening. Its spokesman, Ibrahim Hooper, called me and other reporters to encourage stories about Graham's remarks. CAIR rallied its followers to urge WMAL's advertisers to pull commercials from Graham's show.
WMAL executives told Graham to apologize. He refused. "If I'd said something racist, I would have apologized. But I am concerned about this paradigm that the most oversensitive people get to fire you. I love that CAIR protested what I said. I had them on my show. Yes, protest, argue. If you have the argument, you don't need to have anybody fired."
Graham's firing sent shock waves through a world of sharp-tongued performers who are paid to be provocative. Over a beer at the pub across from the Heritage Foundation, where Graham uses a radio studio, the lanky funnyman marvels that he's considered a wild man in Washington. "I'm in the middle of the pack in talk radio. But here, I'm crazy loon Michael Graham on the edge. Doug Duncan and Gerry Connolly wouldn't come on my show," he said, referring to the Montgomery county executive and the chairman of the Fairfax County supervisors. "They're scared of me. I'm a graduate of freaking Oral Roberts University -- and I'm scary?"
Talk radio in Washington is among the tamest in the nation. Talk hosts marvel at the high ratings won here by the low-key "Diane Rehm Show" on public radio's WAMU.
But Graham believes Washington audiences are eager for talk with more bite. "Washingtonians are not tight prudes," he said. "Real-life people want me to climb up on my pony with my lance and go after those in power. Real-life people who know nothing about Islam look at the newspaper and say, 'Holy crap, why are they trying to kill us?' "
Graham hopes to have the last laugh. ABC is seeking bids for its radio stations, including WMAL, and the overwhelming response Graham has had from other radio companies makes him optimistic that a new owner might put him back on the air here.
"The only people who are happy about this," Graham said, "are CAIR and the corporate weasels at ABC who go to bed every night terrified that someone will call them insensitive."