“You know the thing I hate the worst about radio personalities?” talk-show host Jay Marvin asks as he walks up State Street to the WLS AM studios. “They’re all full of themselves. They’re not human. You ever notice that? They’re all manufactured—including me.”
Marvin’s a radio lifer who has spit vitriol and leftist politics into countless microphones in cities and towns across the country for nearly three decades. He earned himself the sobriquet “the man you love to hate.” He ranted, he shouted, he was mean. His favorite thing to call listeners was “brain stem.” A caller might say, “Jay, I think this fella Castro is nothing but a communist dictator—he’s just as bad as Hitler.” At which point Marvin would cut the caller off, screaming, “Why don’t you crawl back under the rock you came from, brain stem!”
Full of anger and hate, this old hippie spent most of his life running from town to town, station to station. “Tom Russell has a quote in a song of his,” Marvin says. “‘If a man runs long enough, sooner or later he’ll run into himself.’ I was out there looking for something. Then I ran into myself.”
Marvin swears he’s a new man. “It’s all different now,” he says. No more browbeating. No more man you love to hate. Swear to God.
Marvin was born Marvin Jay Cohen. His father, Stuart Cohen, was a fairly successful Hollywood talent agent who divorced his wife in 1959, when Marvin was six years old. He would see his father only once more, over the holidays that year. His mother’s second husband moved the family—Marvin had two stepsisters and later a half sister—into that bastion of conservatism, Orange County. Then as now, the county was the epitome of suburban comfort, full of ranch houses right out of the Brady Bunch. Breadwinners commuted in big cars, came home to martinis, and clucked their tongues at the civil rights and antiwar protesters on the nightly news. In the 80s the local airport was named after John Wayne. In the 90s the district was represented in Congress by an icon of the right, Bob Dornan.
“My family was highly dysfunctional,” Marvin says. “I had a very screwed up childhood. My stepfather didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand him. I jokingly refer to him as Pol Pot on the radio occasionally.” Marvin and his stepfather argued about everything from capitalism to the cut of Marvin’s clothes. It was Archie and Meathead without the laughter.
Most Orange County teenagers were regularly reminded that the world was theirs for the taking. Not Marvin. “I grew up in a household where I was told all the time that I was stupid, that college was for other people, that the university was for other people.” His only hope, his parents told him, was to learn a useful trade—become an auto mechanic or a heating and air-conditioning technician. When he said he wanted to be a cartoonist his stepfather told him he wasn’t smart enough and besides there wasn’t any money in it.
During the day Marvin would pal around with one or two friends, though he found even those friendships unsatisfying. “My interests were different than their interests,” he says. “I was interested in politics. I was very much an outsider. I was very much to myself.”
At night he would hole up in his room and turn on the radio. He says it was his only escape. He spent hours dialing through local and national music and talk shows, listening to voices from downtown LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver—Joe Pyne, Les Crane, Stan Borman. “That was theater of the mind,” he says. “I loved listening at night. I cannot tell you who worked during the day at a lot of legendary radio stations, but I could always tell you who worked during the night.”
Often he’d carry on the battles he’d had with his stepfather with the talk-show hosts. “Joe Pyne was extremely conservative,” he says. “I would call him on the phone, this kid from Orange County. I would get into it with him over the air. He’d hang up on me. I thought it was the greatest thing.”
On Saturday mornings Marvin would tune in to a talk-show host with whom he could find no argument. “I listened to the Pacifica station,” he says. “They had a woman on named Dorothy Healey. She was the head of the Communist Party chapter in Los Angeles. I loved her. I imagined what it would be like to have her as a mother. I thought she was so cool. She got me interested in radical politics.”
Later, Marvin bought a shortwave radio and began to tune in to stations around the world. “I would listen to the English broadcasts of Radio Havana, and I fell in love with Cuba overnight,” he says. “I loved Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. I used to write both of them these long letters asking how I could go to Cuba. I wanted to go to Cuba and work for Radio Havana.”
Marvin took the 60s axiom—tune in, turn on, drop out—to heart. “I was one of the first ones in high school with long hair,” he says. “I was also one of the first ones to smoke dope and drop acid.” His grades suffered, and his teachers and counselors said things that only reinforced his stepfather’s notion that he was stupid.
In the summer Marvin’s parents would ship him off to camp or on long trips. “My parents liked to get rid of me,” he says. When he was 16 he traveled with a group of teens on an organized trip to Chicago. He was enchanted. “This city, you see it and think, ‘Oh man! The city of Nelson Algren. The city of the Haymarket martyrs. The city of the Chicago Seven.’ I just loved it. So from the minute I got into radio, my goal was to get here—somehow, some way—and work in this city.”
The minute Marvin graduated in 1970 he left. “I hitchhiked,” he says, “because everybody wanted to be Jack Kerouac.” He had about $50 in his pocket. “In those days, man, that’s all you needed. People would share things. You could make it all the way across the United States.” For four months he traveled what was left of the original Route 66 to Chicago, then headed to Bangor, Maine. When he got there he turned around, came back through Chicago, and went on to Madison, Wisconsin.
At that time Madison was a hotbed of radical activism, and Marvin arrived shortly after a man had been killed in a campus bombing. It was a dangerous and thrilling time for a kid who wished a communist was his mother. “I lived in Madison for a little while,” Marvin says. “I took a lot of drugs, met a lot of women. I had a good time.” He fell in with a group of self-described outsiders and says he felt wanted and at home for the first time in years—though he also says they weren’t friends, only acquaintances. “We were going to overthrow the government. We were going to build an alternative society.”
But he says that after a couple of months he realized that the task of reconstructing America was a bit beyond him. He decided it was time to make something of himself, so he returned to California, hoping to enroll in some kind of school. He lived in a rooming house in LA and worked as an usher on the movie-theater strip. And he kept up his radical credentials by attending as many protest rallies as he could, dropping in on meetings of revolutionary groups, and mailing harmless but annoying packages to his local army recruiting office.
About eight months after he arrived he got his draft notice. He showed up at the appointed time at the LA induction center, and one of the first things he saw was the U.S. attorney general’s subversives list, a roster of organizations thought to be dangerous or un-American. As Marvin scanned the list he recognized name after name. While filling out the forms the officials gave him, he gleefully wrote down the names of the organizations on the list to which he’d sent money or whose meetings he’d attended.
Then he was given aptitude tests. The first was the mechanic’s test. Marvin seethed. “I figured, ‘I’m not going to go into the armed services and be a truck mechanic,'” he says. “I matched up screwdrivers with the wrong screws. I misidentified parts of automobiles. On purpose. Then when I got to the math test, I said to myself, ‘Fuck this! I’m not going to be able to do this.’ So I just went down the answer sheet and filled in all the little circles in a zigzag.”
After the inductees’ tests were graded, a sergeant stood in front of the room and called out names, and guys were led off to another room and a two-year hitch of active duty. When he’d finished calling out the names, ten people remained in the room, including Marvin. “A third of us who were left were drunk,” he says. “Some of them had serious abuse problems—falling down all over the place.” Each of them was directed to see a specialist in another room. “First I had to see a psychiatrist,” Marvin says. “Then I had to go see the FBI.” The FBI agent opened a box and showed Marvin all the items he’d mailed to the induction center. “I’d sent them bags of dirt, bricks, antiwar propaganda,” he says. The agent also reminded Marvin of some of his extracurricular activities as a teenager. “I’d been in demonstrations. I’d thrown rocks and bottles at the police. I was a strong supporter of the Black Panther Party. In those days I considered myself a communist.” He was disqualified for military service, declared 4-F.
Marvin’s radicalism might have kept him from getting blown up in Vietnam, but today he finds his opinions at the time a little embarrassing. “Now that I look back on it, it’s like Andre Breton—I was more interested in the subversiveness of it than the politics or the economics.”
But back then Marvin was roiling inside, and he was looking for a tonic. “I felt there had to be a better thing going on than what was going on in the United States,” he says. “There had to be a better way.”
Like a lot of kids in the late 60s and early 70s, Marvin fancied himself a heroic revolutionary. But it’s a good bet that no socialist city, no world without the Man, would have dissipated his anger and bitterness. Sooner or later he’d snorted at almost everything he’d ever been involved with. He’d never found anything he truly believed was right, never found anything that kept him happy. Even today he says, “If everything looks like it’s really going well, I’ll find something to bitch about in five minutes, trust me.”
A smart-ass loner with 4-F status and few skills wasn’t exactly in demand in the early-70s job market. Marvin still hid out alone in his room at night, tuning in to radio stations from around the country. “I had this overwhelming, burning passion to be in radio,” he says. “I always wanted to do talk, but I never thought I was smart enough.”
So he concentrated on music stations, listening to the DJs, trying to understand what made a radio personality good. He also chose stations he saw as different. “I loved listening to the black stations up on the top end of the dial,” he says. “I also loved to listen to the hillbilly stations. I was drawn to it because at that time it was the white man’s blues. Country music was not like it is today—it was almost like an ethnic format. It was like being an outsider. I was getting into a culture that was alien from what I was raised in.”
Marvin enrolled in a broadcasting school. As soon as he got his FCC license he began scanning the help-wanted sections of trade journals, looking for a job, any job, the farther from Orange County the better.
The first station that called him was KRSD in Rapid City, South Dakota. “They were desperate,” Marvin says. So was he.
But he lasted only a few months as a country-western DJ there. The way he saw it, the station was playing fast and loose with FCC regulations. “I said, ‘Man, I can’t stick around here,'” an ironic response for a guy who professed not to care about rules and regulations.
A DJ position opened up a thousand miles to the south, and Marvin grabbed it. “I got a job in Del Rio, Texas, which is a hundred and some-odd miles southwest of San Antonio, on the border between the United States and Mexico,” he says. “I loved it. It was a little 250-watt station. I lived in Mexico for a while in a motel at the bottom of the Amistad Dam. It was great.”
While he was in Del Rio, Marvin got married. He doesn’t remember exactly when, though he says he was probably about 20 years old. “We were married for seven years,” he says, “and all we did was drink and get high.” Asked why the marriage crumbled, he shrugs and says, “You know, it ended.” They had a daughter, Rachel, and her mother took her back to Texas. Marvin saw Rachel only once or twice a year, though he says they talked on the phone a lot and exchanged letters.
In Del Rio, Marvin played country-western. “I played Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Johnny Bush, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Jack Greene, and Jeannie Seely. I remember getting the Shotgun Willie album in the mail and going, ‘Oh wow! Willie’s got long hair! Cool.’ Lefty Frizzell—God, he was so cool.”
That gig lasted a year, maybe two. Marvin can’t remember. However much he loved it, the feeling didn’t last.
Eventually he moved again. And again. “I worked in every radio station you can think of across the country with all sorts of crazy people and all sorts of weird situations,” he says. “I was itinerant.” Asked why he kept running, he shrugs. “I used to have a terrible temper. I hated management. I’d go to another city for 25 bucks more a week. I didn’t give a shit—when you’re in your 20s you’re invincible.”
He still wasn’t happy with his life. Even radio didn’t make him happy. “I thought it was all I could do,” he says. “But when you’re in your 20s, it’s not a bad life. Lots of drugs. Lots of women. What the hell.”
In 1975 Marvin got a call from Valerie Harper, one of his father’s clients and by then one of the biggest television stars in the country, with her own sitcom, Rhoda. She told him his father had just died, and she offered to pay for a round-trip plane ticket so he could attend the funeral in Los Angeles. He declined.
In the spring of 1978 Marvin took a job with WMPS in Memphis playing country-western songs. Shortly after he started, he was in a restaurant having lunch when a woman in a booth caught his eye.
Mary Beasley had been born and raised in a small town in Mississippi. She’d spent a brief period working for a financial firm on Wall Street, then returned to the south to work for a farm-equipment company in Memphis. She and Marvin quickly became constant companions. “It was a great friendship at first sight,” she says.
In the spring of 1980 Marvin got an offer for his first gig in Chicago, at country-western WJEZ. He couldn’t pass it up—it was in the nation’s second-largest market. But for the first time he didn’t want to leave a town. Four months later he and Mary got married, and she moved to Chicago and took a job as an executive secretary.
Mary—who remembers dates, stations, towns, and events much better than Marvin—nudged Marvin toward addressing his anger, his sadness, his sense of loss, his endless searching. In 1981 he took a deep breath and went to see a psychotherapist. With the therapist’s help, he struggled to understand how his father’s abandonment, his stepfather’s contempt, and other issues had affected him. He stopped doing drugs and seriously curtailed his drinking—he would drink only beer and only on weekends when he wasn’t working. Mary says she never thought of him as an alcoholic. When he drank, she adds, “He was never mean. He was very happy.” Asked if the drinking and getting high made his life more bearable, Marvin looks away. “Yeah,” he says. “Maybe.”
In the fall of 1983, Marvin returned with Mary to California, where he got a job at KSAN in San Francisco playing country-western tunes at night. During the day he began browsing through the city’s famous bookstores. He started to read Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm and found it difficult to get through. He told his new therapist how hard it was to read, adding, “I’m not smart enough for this.”
Nonsense, the therapist replied. You simply haven’t exercised your reading capabilities in a long time. Keep at it. Get better. You’re no dummy. So Marvin hunkered down and got through the book, grasping as much of the symbolism and meaning as he could. Encouraged, he took up Russian novelists, including Dostoyevsky. He was hooked. “I’d sit on the air and read a book between records,” he says. “I learned I was smarter than what I’d been told as a kid.”
He began to dream of writing a book. He also started to dabble in painting. And he grew increasingly dissatisfied with his job. “Here I was at 11 o’clock at night playing 15 in a row,” he says. “There had to be more to life than that.”
He got crankier around the office, and his manager started jumping on him, on the air and off. It didn’t help that Marvin’s audience numbers were low.
Soon the general manager was calling Marvin several times a night on the studio’s hotline to complain about things Marvin had said on the air. Marvin seethed. “I thought, ‘What have I done with my life? I’m a lousy fucking disc jockey.’ What I really wanted to do was just be around books.”
In July 1985 Marvin got canned. “The weeks leading up to my firing,” he says, “were the closest I ever came to coming completely unglued.” He and Mary sold most of their possessions, packed up their two cars with the rest, and moved to Albuquerque.
Once there, Marvin began to write a novel, working weekends at a two-bit radio station. Mary worked full-time as an executive secretary to support them. The writing was a lot harder than he’d imagined, the radio station depressed him, and again he was desperately unhappy. “It was one of the lows of my life,” he says.
Marvin floated his resume around the country, and in January 1986 he became the midday host at KKAT in Salt Lake City, spinning records and taking phone calls. The combined format gave him a chance to interject his opinions on current events and politics. Surprisingly, the onetime communist sympathizer, druggie, and 4-F radical became a hit in the Mormon capital. “I had huge numbers,” he says.
One day a station executive cornered him in the hallway. Marvin remembers him saying, “Look, you’re a loudmouth around here. We think you’d be good for mornings.” Marvin had landed the plum morning-drive slot in Salt Lake City. Within months, he’d shot up to the number one spot for his time slot. He should have been deliriously happy. He wasn’t.
On the air, Marvin raised animosity to an art form. “I made a lot of rude, disparaging remarks to people,” he says. “I didn’t cut people off, I ripped their throats out. I beat the crap out of them.”
There was the time, for instance, when a black woman called in and argued with Marvin over Louis Farrakhan. The shouting pushed Marvin’s audiometer over the red line and kept it there for long moments. The woman called Marvin “boy.” He called her “mammy.” “She got racist with me,” he says. “I in turn got racist with her. I was sad I did it. We’re only human. We all make mistakes. I went to school over that one.”
Another time a woman called in and lectured Marvin about what she considered to be our overly sexually permissive society. “I told her I had sex with her daughter and it didn’t cost very much and she wasn’t any good,” he says. “The woman was in tears. That was a terrible thing to do.”
During the late 80s bellicose radio was all the rage. And nobody, it seemed, could argue more vehemently, more viciously, than Jay Marvin. He was at the top of his game. Like many talk-radio hosts, he prided himself on his honesty. “I can only be myself,” he often said on the air. “I can only tell you the truth.”
But he was well aware of the price he paid for his success. “I used to leave the studio every night feeling bad.”
Marvin had decided he didn’t need to see his psychotherapist anymore, but periodically he would slide into a deep depression. Unable to point to a specific cause, like cancer or a death in the family, he was increasingly frustrated. “He could never say why he was depressed,” Mary says. “I worried about him. I was afraid he would get so depressed that he wouldn’t be able to stand it and kill himself.”
She’d noticed that his moods had a roller-coaster pattern. “Jay would have such highs and such lows,” she recalls. She began reading up on psychiatric ailments and told Marvin that his symptoms—his wide swings between exuberant highs and bitter depressions—were almost textbook examples of manic-depressive disorder. Marvin, then deep in depression, shrugged.
He kept going to work when he was depressed, but he barely functioned away from the studio. “He’d make himself get up, and he’d be really good on the air,” says Mary. “But that’s all he could do.” When he wasn’t working, he would just lie down and stare at the ceiling.
Mary insisted that he see a psychiatrist. He refused. She threatened to leave. He still refused. Finally in 1986 she moved out for two months. “It was emotional blackmail—I told him, ‘I’ll come back when you get help,'” she says. “I missed him terribly. I worried.”
Marvin went to a psychiatrist, who said he did indeed have a classic case of bipolar, or manic-depressive, disorder. The National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, headquartered on Franklin Street north of the Loop, offers a list of symptoms of mania: highlighted moods, exaggerated optimism and self-confidence, decreased need for sleep without fatigue, grandiose delusions, inflated self-importance, irritability, aggression, increased physical and mental activity, racing speech, flight of ideas, impulsiveness, and poor judgment. People suffering from mania often go on spending sprees, drive erratically, become sexually promiscuous, even experience auditory hallucinations. The NDMDA also offers a list of symptoms of depression: prolonged sadness, crying spells, severe appetite and sleep-pattern changes, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety, pessimism, indifference, loss of energy, lethargy, guilt, a sense of worthlessness, an inability to concentrate, indecisiveness, social withdrawal, unexplained aches and pains, and thoughts of death and suicide.
Manic episodes often begin abruptly and can last from two weeks to five months. Depressions usually last longer—they tend to last about six months. Sufferers often experience a period of normality between episodes. The frequency of episodes tends to increase as a person grows older, and the depressions tend to last longer, up to a year or more. Men and women suffer the illness in relatively equal numbers.
Mary remembers Marvin’s highs. “I can understand why manic-depressives like the high part,” she says. “Who wouldn’t? Those highs are incredible. I used to think that would be so great to get that excited and happy.” But he insists he never truly had manic episodes. “I never had the elation,” he says. “To be truly manic you have to believe you’re king or you can jump off a building and fly. You have to suffer delusions. I never had that.”
He began to understand that for some 15 years he’d been self-medicating with booze and pills, which took the edge off his despair. Now the psychiatrist prescribed lithium. It caused tremors, so Marvin switched to Prozac, which he took for six years. Later he would try Eskalith, Dexedrine, Wellbutrin, Depakote, Zoloft, Klonopin, and Tegretol. Some of the drugs didn’t work well for him, some had intolerable side effects.
One day at a radio-industry event in Salt Lake City, an executive from a talk-format rival station told Marvin he’d be better off doing straight talk. It was the first time anybody had ever told him he could do what he’d dreamed of as a solitary teenager. Marvin remembers stammering, “I don’t know. Do you think so? Do you think I’m smart enough to do that?”
“Oh, yeah,” the executive said.
“The idea never left me,” Marvin says, “so I decided to find a talk-radio job.”
He found one in November 1988, at WTKN, a medium-size station in Saint Petersburg, Florida. “It was this god-awful talk station that had no listeners,” Marvin says. “I’d sit on the air for hours and hours and talk to myself.”
But it was a good experience. Marvin had carte blanche to spout and spew. He worked at making better arguments, proving his points, digging deeper to find words that expressed how he felt, even though he was staring at a studio clock whose hands never seemed to move.
When the format changed at WTKN in the spring of 1990, Marvin jumped to WFLA, the big talk station in the Tampa market. WFLA had listeners, and they rang Marvin’s studio phone off the hook. Marvin was becoming—as he liked to bill himself in those days—”the man you love to hate.” He was the bully of the Florida airwaves. Like Howard Cosell on network television in the 1970s, he became the guy people listened to just so they could despise him.
The drugs had eased his depressions, but he was still angry and bitter—and he still believed that spewing venom was what his bosses and the public wanted. “I thought that was part of the job,” he says.
Marvin was once again listening to Radio Havana, and listeners in Cuba occasionally could hear his show. He began corresponding by E-mail with a man who worked in the English-language department at Radio Havana. One day the man invited Marvin to visit Cuba, and he jumped at the chance.
When he returned to work, Marvin told his Florida listeners things about Cuba they didn’t want to hear. “It wasn’t this armed horror story that everybody makes it out to be,” he says. “Of course when you tell people that they say, ‘You were duped!’ Like I’m 47 years old and I can’t tell when I’m duped? It’s a third-world country, and it has some eminent problems. Do I think there should be democratization there? Yes, I do. But for a third-world country—and remember, I’ve been to Mexico, it’s a far better place than that.”
The reaction was even worse during the gulf war, when he voiced his opposition to Operation Desert Storm. He says people frequently called the station claiming they’d planted a bomb in the building with his name on it.
Marvin was a success. His name was known all over Tampa, and he was making good money. But he still wasn’t happy. For two decades he’d clung to the idea of Wisconsin as one of the few places he’d ever been happy. Why shouldn’t he try to recapture the magic of Madison? In November 1992 he chucked the Tampa job and hooked up with WTMJ in Milwaukee.
But Milwaukee wasn’t Madison. “Milwaukee,” he discovered, “is very conservative.” And Milwaukee listeners hated him. In Tampa listeners had enjoyed hating him. Milwaukeeans simply hated him. “That was an awful experience,” Marvin says. “I was at the wrong radio station. It was like an old folks’ home. People resented me. After seven months I walked out.” He wasn’t sure what he would do, but he still wanted to prove to himself and his stepfather that he could be more than a mere radio jock.
Despite Marvin’s checkered past, he got a call from Drew Hayes, the operations director who’d turned a moribund WLS AM in Chicago into a talk powerhouse in the mid-80s. Hayes offered him a fill-in position at the station, a job most radio people in the country would have killed for.
“Uh-uh,” Marvin told him.
“What do you mean?” Hayes asked.
“Just that,” Marvin said. “I want to get out of radio.”
“Oh, come on,” Hayes said.
Marvin says he said no a half dozen different ways. But Hayes was more determined to corral Marvin than Marvin was to quit the business.
He came to Chicago in August 1993 and worked fill-in shifts until he got a regular slot, 10 PM to 2 AM weekdays. “I loved it,” he says. “I loved it.”
But not enough. “I still harbored bitterness,” he says. One day he simply stopped taking his drugs. Why? “I just got angry with life.”
He was off the medication for a week. He started having panic attacks, waking up unable to breathe. One afternoon on the air he started raging for no apparent reason. He realized he needed help, so he started to drive himself to a hospital. He got lost. He floored the gas pedal and aimed the car at a tree, but it ricocheted off the curb. He called Mary, got back in the car, and drove home. Mary took him to the doctor, who told him to get back on his medication and take some time off. Marvin hasn’t been off the drugs since.
During his stay in Chicago Marvin began to feel some of his hate and anger fly back at him—more and more callers were threatening him. One young guy kept calling Mary and him at home and sending them letters. One day the guy left a message for Mary on their voice mail threatening to rape her.
Well before his contract was up, Marvin asked to be released from it. “I’d start saying to myself again, ‘Gee, there’s other things I can do. I can write. Maybe I’m not as stupid as I think I am.'”
He told his bosses, “I want to go to a place where there’s more sunlight. I’ll be mentally better off.” He also wanted to do afternoons, figuring that would help him get through a difficult part of the day. “If you get past the afternoon period and into the night you’re OK,” he says. “I try to ignore the afternoon. If I look at it too much it’s painful.” But Roe Conn and Garry Meier held WLS’s afternoon slot, and they were doing quite well.
WLS let Marvin go in the fall of 1996, and he immediately took a job at KHOW in Denver. “The whole time I was at that radio station was a nightmare,” he says. “It was just a terrible situation.”
Only weeks after he and Mary arrived, she got a traffic ticket. Furious, Marvin turned it into proof of police-state thuggishness. He began to air “pig reports,” complete with oinking sounds in the background, telling drivers where police cruisers were lying in wait for speeders.
So it went until the morning of November 12, 1997, when several people in cars phoned in to tell him that a chase right out of Hollywood was occurring. Marvin followed the story on the air with the help of cell-phone callers.
The incident had begun when neighbors saw a skinhead acting suspiciously in an apartment complex. In the Denver area, skinheads are numerous and especially violent; in 1984 members of a white-supremacist group assassinated liberal, Jewish radio talk-show host Alan Berg. The neighbors who saw the skinhead called the police.
When the first squad car arrived, the skinhead jumped into a car driven by his girlfriend, and the two sped off. The police began to chase the car, and the skinhead—who had an AK-47, another assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns—began firing at them. Soon officers from three different municipalities were chasing him at speeds of up to 90 mph. They cornered him in a mazelike apartment complex, and he leaped out of his car and hid.
Then a Denver police officer decided to peek around the wall he was hiding behind. The skinhead saw him first and blew off the top of his head.
“I let loose,” says Marvin. “I hate skinheads. I hate fascists of all kinds.” He became even more enraged when he learned that the officer was Bruce VanderJagt, who moonlighted weekends at the bank where the Marvins did business. “He was one of the first people we met in Denver,” Mary says. “We’d asked him for directions, and he turned out to be the friendliest man.”
Other Denver skinheads were listening that morning. They’d been listening to Marvin for months and had already threatened him over the phone, in letters, through E-mail. They’d broken the windows of Mary’s SUV. That day numerous callers identifying themselves as skinheads promised to kill him. Sergeant Donna Starr-Gimeno of the Denver police recalls some of the threats: “We’ll blow up your house.” “We’ll kill your family.” “We’ll do an Alan Berg on you.” That same morning a dead pig was found at the front door of a Denver police station with VanderJagt’s name scratched into its skin.
A police lieutenant listening to Marvin’s show recognized the voices of some of the callers who threatened him as members of the group that had killed Berg. He sent officers to the KHOW studios and to Marvin’s home. “My wife was sitting at home,” Marvin says. “Two police officers knocked on the door. They said, ‘The skinheads are gonna come by. We feel they’re gonna shoot up your house.'”
Marvin got a police escort home from the station that afternoon. Sergeant Starr-Gimeno showed up at the house and told Mary and him, “These are ruthless people. We’re with you.” She even gave them her home phone number. Marvin got police escorts home for several more days, and for the next month officers sat in their cruiser on the street in front of his house.
A couple of times, someone got past the cops and broke some more car windows. Someone tried to jimmy the back door of their house. Someone tossed a piece of raw meat soaked in antifreeze into the backyard, and the Marvins’ greyhound almost died when it ate some of it.
The Denver police, the people Marvin had called pigs, were suddenly his best friends. He and Mary would invite the officers in for coffee, and they all became close. Starr-Gimeno and later her husband became particularly friendly with Marvin. “He was so damn interesting,” she says. “Jay and Mary have ideas. They have visions. They have theories. Jay makes up poetry in his head. Mary makes up literature on the spot. I’ve never been around people who think like that. They don’t just stand around gossiping about Susie and Kathy and all that junk.”
Starr-Gimeno began to tease Marvin about his pessimism and his endless complaining. “She had a nickname for me,” he says. “‘Meyer,’ like I’m a little old Jewish man. ‘C’mon, Meyer. Quit whining, Meyer.'”
That same year Marvin learned that he had sleep apnea. “I had like 84 interruptions an hour while I slept,” he says. “I was very sick. I had to be on oxygen.”
One night Starr-Gimeno told him, “Y’know, Meyer, the problem with you is you’re sitting around here complaining and griping and you’re not getting out.” She motioned to Mary. “You’re holding this woman hostage here. Why don’t you come with us? You’ll get some exercise.”
“No, no,” Marvin said, holding up his hands. “I don’t want to go.”
“You pick up your oxygen bottle and get your ass in that patrol car,” Starr-Gimeno said.
“Go,” Mary said. “It’ll be good for you.”
“That first night, I could barely climb an apartment stairway,” Marvin says. But soon he was riding regularly with Starr-Gimeno on her supervisory rounds. “Once he got a taste, he wanted to go on calls,” she says. “Then he wanted to go on building searches. Then I couldn’t keep his butt at home. He’s seen people die. He’s seen babies born. He’s seen cops cry.”
What Marvin saw sometimes turned his stomach. “I saw things with the police that the public never sees,” he says. “Suicides. Shootings. People so fucked up on crack that the pipe would burn them and they wouldn’t have any idea what was going on. Seeing that stuff changes your life, man.”
He remembers vividly the time Starr-Gimeno and he responded to a car and motorcycle accident. The bike had rear-ended the car at a stoplight. The two saw a mangled bike when they pulled up but noticed the rider sitting, apparently unhurt, on the curb. “I’m OK,” the biker told Starr-Gimeno. He took off his helmet, placed it on the street next to him, rested his weight on it, and stopped breathing.
“What’s going on?” Marvin shouted.
Starr-Gimeno had seen this happen before. She explained that he’d bled to death from internal injuries.
“Who do we call?” Marvin said, panicking.
“We’re it,” Starr-Gimeno said in a flat voice.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?”
Marvin stared at the dead man, who was still sitting upright on the curb. “Oh, my God,” he said.
“You come into this world and you go out,” Starr-Gimeno said. “That’s it.”
Several times they arrived on the scene of grisly auto accidents, where human body parts were strewn across the pavement. Marvin says it was hard not to retch. “How do you handle it?” he asked her the first time.
“You’re going to have flashbacks,” she told him. “Then you learn to pretend you’re going into the meat market. You pretend that’s not human. If a cop thinks for one second those parts are human, you’ll go around the corner, pull your gun out, and blow your brains out.”
As they became closer, Starr-Gimeno began to understand what drove Marvin. “When you ride around with somebody for ten hours a night you get to know them. In the confines of a car there’s things you can’t hide. It’s like being with your confessor. We did this for months.” As he told her about his radio odyssey, she realized that he wasn’t in Denver for the long run.
His daughter, Rachel—who was still living in Texas had married and had a child—showed up in Denver one day. Marvin introduced her to Starr-Gimeno, and Rachel told her she was thinking of moving to the area to be near her father. Starr-Gimeno shook her head. “Your dad’s a gypsy,” she said. “He’s gonna pull his ass up out of here and leave.”
Marvin was infuriated. “That’s not fair,” he protested.
“You’ve run all your life,” she said, shrugging.
Marvin bit his lip for a few moments, then said, “Maybe you’re right.”
But Marvin says he was changing. The nightly rides with Starr-Gimeno had opened the world to him. “I saw a lot of things and went through a lot of changes that forced me to get to know myself.”
When Marvin was still in Chicago he’d exchanged a few calls with his stepfather. Apologies were hinted at. Some of the anger was defused. In the spring of 1998 he got word that his stepfather had suffered a massive heart attack. His stepfather pulled through, but Marvin was struck by how fragile life was. He let go of more of his anger and embraced the man he’d detested. Mary says, “They seem to have mended all their fences since the heart attack.”
That March, Marvin was named Denver’s best news/talk personality by the Colorado Broadcasters Association, in large part because of his live coverage of the VanderJagt shooting. That same year he got his first novel, Punk Blood, published. It’s a difficult read—a 78-page sentence with little punctuation or capitalization and no indentations that’s crammed with images seen by a man drowning in melancholy: “hello hello it’s 6:30 nighttime I’m standing on the corner of tenth and Howard the wind trying to bore through my clothes it’s a cold night and the rain paints life in streaked in garish reds and blues there’s maybe one other person on the street an old wino done up in burlap sacks he stands under a door arch holding a paper bag waiting for God knows what even his skin looks better than mine.” There are also felons and bullet holes and bleak motel rooms and bodies stuffed in trunks.
Marvin also got some of his poems published. They’ve appeared in the New York Quarterly, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Black Ice. Some of them can also be found in God’s Work, an on-line literary magazine. One of them, “DOA,” is quintessential Marvin:
Death slides along a carpeted highway plush
quite in search of companionship acceptance
on to kiss a clogged artery with final lips
to drink from a domestic squabble gone to blood
Death walks on quiet feet business deal gone
sour a pearl handle revolver the cologne of
cordite empty whiskey bottles a coroner’s report
like a good novel death lights one up moves
across the landscape coming for me and you.
In April 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up Columbine High School, killing 13, while Marvin was on the air. One of Marvin’s new police friends was a SWAT team officer who heard about the shooting on his police radio and raced to the school, hoping to protect his son and his son’s classmates. After the shooting ended, the officer, whose son was unharmed, phoned Marvin on the air. The two men wept.
In the aftermath, many callers were critical of how the police had responded, and Marvin found himself in the unusual position of defending the cops. “These were my friends,” he says. “If it wasn’t for my friends in the Denver police department, I don’t think I could have made it through three years in Denver.”
Marvin says the Columbine shooting finally forced him to rethink the way he talked on the air. “I thought, is this what it comes to? All this anger, all this hatred? Why are our young people so pissed off? I don’t want them listening to me and getting the idea everybody is angry, that it’s OK.”
He swore off using the word “pig” to describe cops. “They were never judgmental with me,” he says. “They never said, ‘You’ve got long hair.’ ‘Your views are out of the norm.’ ‘You no-good commie.’ I know there are bad cops, but there are so many officers out there trying to do the right thing. I would drive around with these officers, and in between calls we would have these policy discussions. What you learn is it’s one thing to sit on the radio and quote statistics and make statements. It’s another thing to go out there and see people at their very worst and come up with some solution on how to fix it. It’s complex as hell. I couldn’t offer any black-and-white, cut-and-dried fixes to anything. I don’t have them anymore.
“How do you deal with somebody who wants to get high on crack and that’s all they want? They don’t want anything else. It doesn’t matter how many times you talk to them and how many programs you put them in. How do you deal with that? It’s not a three- or four-hour talk show. That’s what you learn. That’s what I found out in Denver.
“I had thought that the left was right. Now I don’t necessarily feel that way. I don’t think conservatives are bad people anymore. I don’t think the left are bad people either. There are wrong agendas on both sides. My feelings are very much up in the air.”
He goes on, “I don’t want to be hated. I was angry. I was at a different place in a different time. I thought all that stuff was part of the job. You know what? It takes a lot of physical and mental energy to do that kind of radio—to scream at people, to throw yourself against the wall every single night. I’m not going to cause myself to have a heart attack for anybody.”
Yet he does admit, “There’s some things about my personality that’ll never change. I’ll always be passionate. I’ll always get worked up. But I decided you can disagree with somebody, but you don’t have to humiliate them, you don’t have to call them names. I’m not going to do it anymore.”
Marvin’s radio personality began to change. “Oh boy! The print media went after me,” he says. “They never did like me. They thought it was a gimmick, a stunt.”
Certainly they were suspicious. “When he first got here he was considered an asshole,” says Tom Walker, then assistant entertainment editor for the Denver Post. “At first I thought he was being disingenuous about his big change. You never knew with Jay whether he was yanking your chain. He seemed to mellow out as he went on. As time wore on I bought it.”
“When he first came to Denver, he was a ranter and a raver,” says Ed Will, who wrote a profile of Marvin for the Denver Post. “His radio show was violent. I don’t know if it was Columbine or what—I can’t look into a man’s heart—but he began to change.”
“Columbine changed his life,” says Jeff Hillery, Marvin’s boss at KHOW. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime horrible event that changes you forever. He was on the air as it happened, and he listened to people ranting and raving—and then he said, we have to stop confronting each other. It changed his life. He controlled his temper.” But Hillery also suggests another reason for the change. “Jay’s numbers weren’t growing as much as we hoped they would. I can’t tell you one talk-show host who’s screaming now. He knows radio. He’s the consummate pro.”
Marvin continued to cruise late at night with Starr-Gimeno, still sorting out the choices he’d made. “I would tell her about Chicago,” he says. “I would try to describe to her what WLS was like. How great it was. How much fun I had. Slowly but surely, by talking to her I came to the realization that I had this gift—Chicago—and I had just let it go. I guess you have to leave home to find home.”
Convinced he’d made a mistake in leaving Chicago, Marvin began to dream of the day he could go back. But he’d broken his contract with WLS to go to Denver, and had to prove he could live up to his responsibilities. “I had a three-year deal in Denver,” he says. “I went through the whole three years. I saw it all out.”
As his Denver contract was coming to an end, stations in Philadelphia and Miami showed some interest, but he wanted Chicago. “I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights,” he says. “Finally I worked up the courage to call Mike Elder.”
Elder, who’d replaced Drew Hayes as director of operations and programming, took the call. He remembers hearing a childlike voice: “Can I come home?”
“I don’t know if we want you back,” Elder said. He knew that radio was changing, that rage was out.
“I don’t want to call people names,” Marvin told him. “I don’t want to have to hurt people. I don’t want to give the wrong impression to young adults.”
“I have to be convinced,” Elder said.
Marvin sent Elder some tapes and regularly called to tell him that he was now a sweetheart on the air.
Elder listened to the tapes, knowing that a good radio professional can make Hitler sound like a Mennonite on tape. “What Jay was doing on the air before was late-80s, early-90s radio,” he says. “That’s what got the phones going. It was exciting to hear the arguments. Now you have a paradigm shift in the listeners. People don’t want to hear conflict—they have it all day at the office.”
Elder had overseen a confrontational, conspiracy-oriented show when he ran a radio station in Kansas City, and though he canceled it, he still worries that it might have helped inspire Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to hatch their Oklahoma City federal-building bombing plot. “We do have an impact on people,” he says. “This is entertainment, but some people might feel we give them permission to act on their feelings.”
As he talked to Marvin over the next several weeks, Elder wondered what influence Marvin’s show had had on the kids at Columbine: “Is there any chance those kids heard the anger?” He says he finally decided that Marvin had had an epiphany just as he had. “When he was in Denver and he went through Columbine,” Elder says, “he started wondering if the in-your-face thing was doing anything to cause people to react violently. He did a self-examination.”
Finally, Elder decided, “You have to sometimes go on faith.” He offered Marvin a job.
“He gave me a chance,” Marvin says. He signed a five-year deal to do a three-hour evening show, from 7 to 10 PM.
Marvin returned to the Chicago airwaves in September 1999. The week before, Tribune media columnist Jim Kirk wrote, “He is perhaps leading a major pendulum swing back in the business.”
“What listeners are hearing in Chicago is the real Jay Marvin,” says KHOW’s Jeff Hillery. “He’s more human than he’s ever been.” The old, angry Marvin? Hillery snorts. “That is the direction he thought he should go. Some directors pointed him that way. We’re in the entertainment business. Jay’s shtick was to be the outspoken, loud talk-show host.”
Gary Dobry, a painter friend of Marvin’s who runs a boxing gym in Arlington Heights and has been pushing Marvin to draw and paint, remembers well how the old Marvin would snap at people who disagreed with him. “I hear him holding back all the time,” he says. “He has really high highs and really low lows. Jay writes all day. It all stems from being an artist. That’s what you are—you feel everything. That’s the demon he deals with. My guess is that’s where the anger comes from.”
Mike Elder acknowledges that Marvin’s change is a work in progress. He cites an exchange Marvin had with a woman this June, during which he was impatient, imperious, and occasionally bullying. But Marvin—who always introduces himself as “your resident bipolar manic-depressive”—didn’t call her names, and after the show he regretted what he’d said. The woman called back the next night, and Marvin apologized to her. Elder says, “He wouldn’t have done that in the old days.” Hillery says, “He really, deep down, is a pussycat.”
“I’m not perfect,” says Marvin. “But I try to work on this very, very hard every single day.” He adds, “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”
On a late afternoon this spring Marvin and his producer, Sue Haleem, sit in a cramped meeting room thumbing through news clippings, looking for topics he can discuss on the show. On his left is the keeper pile, on the right the rejects.
Marvin picks up a piece from USA Today that describes a woman in Helena, Montana, who got pregnant while she was a crack addict and was hauled into court for endangering her fetus. The baby was later born with cocaine in its system. The judge ordered her not to get pregnant for ten years. “What the fuck is that?” Marvin nearly shouts, then launches into a rant about how draconian our judicial system is. How do you prevent a woman from becoming pregnant? he says, bouncing in his seat. What do you do if she does become pregnant?
Haleem, who’s a third Marvin’s size, glares at him and says the woman was lucky to escape the electric chair. She argues that because the woman chose to do drugs, her child could suffer poor health, reduced brain function, even death. Ten years? says Haleem, raising her voice. She should thank her lucky stars she isn’t sterilized permanently—that’s what I’d do.
They argue for a quarter hour, neither budging. Finally Marvin takes the clipping and places it on his left.
When a clipping on the Diallo shooting trial in New York comes up, Marvin says, “You know the 41-shots thing? Cops are trained to empty their weapons. You don’t give a guy a second chance to get up and kill somebody.” Haleem merely nods. He sits silent for a moment, sizing up the potential this story has to eat up part of the first two hours of his broadcast. Finally he places the clipping on his right, saying, “I don’t want to go anywhere near that New York thing.”
There’s a story about a couple who found a satchel filled with $300,000 and two guns. They turned the bag in, no one claimed it, and then the Drug Enforcement Administration and the local police department decided to split the money. Shouldn’t the couple get the money? Marvin asks. Haleem nods, and he puts the clipping on his right.
He picks up another clipping and reads the headline: “13-year-old Girl Hangs Self.” Without even looking at Haleem he places it on his right. Also into that pile go stories about the Chicago high school teacher who left a student behind on a class trip to Spain, about a poll that named Jeff Beck guitarist of the year, about a woman sentenced to death for killing her husband who belatedly claimed she was a lifelong victim of physical abuse. “Y’know why she’s gonna die?” Marvin asks.
“‘Cause she’s in Texas?” Haleem says.
Marvin’s face turns red when he reads that Pat Robertson’s organization made thousands of phone calls to Michigan voters in the days leading up to that state’s presidential primary, telling voters that John McCain wouldn’t make a good president. “That’s not very Christian,” Marvin roars. “I’d lift Robertson’s tax-exempt status.” Yet Marvin decides not to talk about Robertson. “I don’t want to get into a fight with these religious fundamentalists,” he says. “They’re wearing me out. I don’t want to have a heart attack.” Earlier today his doctors told him he has an irregular heartbeat. They prescribed a blood thinner and ordered him to lose weight.
Mike Elder, the operations director, comes into the room. “What’s your story today?” he asks. Haleem shows him the Montana story. He nods, and then he and Haleem argue for a quarter hour about enforced sterilization as a solution. Marvin watches this exchange, a satisfied look on his face. This story will fill up at least two hours.
After dinner in the deli downstairs, Marvin and Haleem wait for afternoon hosts Roe Conn and Garry Meier to clear out, then take their places—Marvin before the microphone, Haleem in the control room. At seven o’clock Marvin plunges into the Montana story. All the phone lines light up as if on cue. Haleem screens the callers, talking to them for a minute or two to make sure they’re not crackpots and getting the gist of their arguments, which she types into her computer so Marvin can read them on his screen.
Female callers seem to agree with Haleem that the crack-addict mother should be sterilized. Men seem to be more forgiving, though a guy on a car phone thinks the woman should be kicked out of the state of Montana. Marvin reads Haleem’s summary during the first break and presses a button to talk to her. “I’m gonna go to Lisa, who agrees with you,” he says. “I don’t feel like arguing with this white-bread boy on a car phone who’s gonna spew out right-wing venom on me. I’m gonna let him cool off a little. I don’t want to have a heart attack.”
At the 7:30 news break Marvin watches the ABC live news feed and sees the network projecting that McCain will win the key Michigan primary. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” he shouts, bouncing on his stool and flipping the bird with both hands. “Fuck you, Shrub! Fuck you, conservative establishment! You can’t buy this election!”
Haleem switches her intercom on. “Easy,” she says. “Easy.”
Marvin calms down a little. “You see?” he says. “I’m gonna have a heart attack.”
After the break a caller tells Marvin that he too is manic-depressive, adding, “I take Effexor.”
“Oh, I’ve taken Effexor,” Marvin says, his voice almost soothing. “It works pretty good.”
“It’s changed my life,” the caller says.
Marvin goes back to working the Montana story until nine o’clock. His show usually deals with a single topic for the first two hours, then he opens up the lines for the last hour and lets callers discuss anything they like (in March the show was extended to midnight). But few callers want to talk about anything else.
“I’ll tell you this,” Haleem says. “I’ve worked with ’em all. There’s nobody like Jay—nobody can work a topic like him.”
Marvin spends much of the last hour talking with a female caller from Bucktown who dances around the subject of the Montana woman. Marvin senses that she wants to say something more. “What are you getting at?” he says. “What do you really want to say?”
She says in a circuitous manner that Marvin’s defense of the woman’s right to introduce crack into her fetus’s bloodstream is typical of an abortion-rights supporter. She adds, almost apologetically, that she’s not a raving fundamentalist. Actually she’s sort of sweet.
But she’s raised Marvin’s hackles. First off, he tells her, I don’t know if I’m in favor of abortion or not. Things aren’t that simple in my world. There’s a growl in his voice, but somehow he controls himself.
The woman senses the menace, and her voice cracks. At that point the old Marvin would have gone in for the kill: branded her a fascist, labeled her a religious nut, called her sex starved, accused her of doing strange things with a crucifix in the privacy of her own bedroom—all things he’s said in the past. But not today. Fifteen minutes later, near the end of the show, he and the woman have become downright chummy. Call again, he tells her. I will, she says.
Haleem pulls down his volume-level buttons.
A commercial comes on, and Marvin removes his headphones. “See?” he says. “I’ll feel better walking out of here tonight.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.