By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - I won’t say them, and I won’t write them, dammit - Imus’s three little words. And I won’t spill another drop of ink or clog up the internet with another byte of commentary on them, or him, or us: Every talk show, every cultural critic, every blogger, every politician, and everybody in the car-pool lane has said it all already. The whole thing has gotten so out of hand a person doesn’t have time to obsess about Iraq anymore.
Well, maybe I’ll spill just a drop. The interesting thing to me is how almost everyone in the media and on the streets seems to delight in saying or writing those three little words while deploring them and Imus at the same time. It must be a liberating experience. Just a few weeks ago, the New York City Council passed a quixotic resolution banning the “N-word” from public discourse, and just like that the whole nation found a completely acceptable substitute, beginning with an N, no less.
Well, maybe just another little drop. Since it’s a contraction, I think the proper spelling of the third word is “’ho,’” and the plural is “’ho’s.” All the papers have been spelling it “hos,” but wouldn’t you pronounce that “hoss”?
But enough is enough, as quite enough people say these days. What I really wanted to write about was Philip Norman.
Don Imus got his start in Palmdale, Calif., in 1968, doing a crazy radio show on KUTY. He got fired for the first time in 1969, when at KJOY in Stockton he staged an Eldridge Cleaver lookalike contest.
By that time, Philip Norman had been fired too, not for being outlandish but for being outmoded. His radio show, which began on KNX in Los Angeles in 1950, was terminated in 1968 or so, when KNX replaced its eclectic, supposedly stodgy format with “News, all news, all the time news,” as my father derisively called it. Philip Norman had news, but it was no longer the news they wanted.
Norman was a raconteur. In the middle years of radio, you could find people like him all over the dial. You can hardly find a single one today. You have the shock jocks on one side and the erudite NPR interviewers on the other, but no raconteurs.
What Philip Norman did best was tell stories: “Something to amuse you, something to amaze you, and maybe a yarn or two,” he would say as his program opened. He also played a little innocuous music, and he did the commercials himself, Arthur Godfrey-style, convincing people to buy a product based on his own credibility. He had no sidekicks, no celebrity guests, no telephone call-ins. It was just him, talking through a microphone to just you.
In its first incarnation, the Phil Norman Show was called the “Housewives’ Protective League,” a daily 30-minute afternoon formula franchised to radio stations nationwide, featuring a local announcer dishing out recipes, evaluating new household gadgets, and giving husband-placating advice to moms washing clothes and baking cookies before the kids came home from school. Eventually the program acquired his own name, and he expanded it to another 30-minute segment in the evening, “Phil Norman Tonight,” where he could tell all the stories he wanted.
That’s where I found him.
As a boy, I was spellbound by his tales, and by his delivery. His topics ranged from the mundane - how to test eggs for freshness - to the bizarre - frozen fish falling from the sky in Wisconsin. He did biography and history and geography, science and music and art, and he taught me more than I learned in school - or rather, he contextualized what I’d learned, giving dry subjects a human shape and making them come alive. He did this because he could talk - a deliberate, bright baritone voice touched with naïve wonder and subtle humor, never scripted, always spontaneous. Listening to him was like going fishing with your favorite uncle: You didn’t talk because you didn’t need to; you just soaked up his words like you soaked up the sun, and resented the fish for biting.
I met Philip Norman twice. The first time was around 1964, when I rode my bicycle the five or so miles from the dreary suburb of Norwalk to the new Boys’ Market in the dreary suburb of Paramount, where he was the featured attraction for its grand opening. He sat at a card table smoking cigarettes and chatting with the customers. He didn’t look at all like I thought he would - just an ordinary man in a gray suit. But the voice was the voice, and that was what mattered.
I unfolded a page I had copied out for him, an excerpt from one of those “stranger-than-fiction” books I liked to read at that time, a pseudo-historical speculation about a satellite launched by the Confederate Army: something to amuse him, if not amaze him. He thanked me graciously and said he might use it on his show. I doubt he ever did.
The second time I met him was early in 1990 at his home in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley. I was doing freelance feature writing and thought he’d make a good where-is-he-now? subject. Mel Baldwin, another KNX old-timer, tracked him down for me, and he gladly invited me over for an interview.
He was 79 then, shriveled and immobilized by emphysema. “All we ever did was smoke,” he told me, “in the studio, on the air, everywhere. But I never took any cigarette ads, I’m proud to say.”
The voice came out between gulps for oxygen, but it was the voice.
His wife Helen served us snacks. “The Housewives’ Protective League!” he laughed, shaking his head and glancing playfully at her. “How far we’ve come! It’s an embarrassment now.”
I turned on my tape recorder. He was eager to talk, as if he hadn’t told a good yarn or two in a very long time. He was pleased at my attentiveness - grateful that a fan from his heyday had come back to thank him in his solitude.
I got the rest of his story. After his dismissal at KNX, he found a spot on KBIG, another L.A. station, which lasted a year, until it went easy-listening. He appeared briefly in a cooking segment on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America. He called in his chips with his friends in advertising. And then he gave up and retired.
He reminisced at length about his life in radio, but I can’t recall what he said. Tape recorders do that to the memory.
We said good-bye and I promised to keep in touch. Busy with my move to New York, I never wrote the profile. He died that November.
I still have that tape around here, buried in some box in the attic. I’m going to look for it. I need an antidote for all the replays of those three little words.