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Sunday, August 13, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Churning up the radio

Seattle Times staff reporter

What must it be like to be Tom Leykis?

If you are Tom Leykis, the brutally strident radio shock jock, you've never been bigger. Your show on KQBZ-FM (107.7 "The Buzz") is the highest-rated broadcast in the Seattle area among adults, and your ratings are untouchable among men. Soon you'll premiere your documentary, "Blow Me Up, Tom," here.

If you are Tom Leykis, your ties to Seattle are many: You frequently riff on Seattle issues to listeners on the 70 stations nationwide that air your show. You revealed the identities of an accused child molester in Sea-Tac recently, and of Mary Kay LeTourneau's underage lover before that. You needle Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Susan Paynter, offering to donate $40,000 to charity if she'll let you sign her "rack." And you also single out Seattle men as the biggest wimps in the world.

"They look like the men I see in L.A. when `The Phantom of the Opera' will play the Pantages Theatre," Leykis says during a long dinner at his favorite Seattle restaurant, the Metropolitan Grill. "At the intermission you'll see all these guys standing around - the straight guys will be standing around, all downing these $8 Johnny Walker Blacks, wishing the whole thing would be over, like they have a gun to their heads. That's how guys look here all the time."

Leykis, 43, is heavyset and dressed in his usual black clothes and black Raybans - keeping the sunglasses on indoors. In person, he can be charming - offering a bite of his filet mignon and frequently punctuating remarks with playfully diabolical laughter. He's also beyond forthcoming. There seems to be no question he won't answer directly, and no access he won't give. Everything about his attitude suggests: I don't care. Bring it on.

If you are Tom Leykis, your name is a Rorschach test. This is because of your stated "public service": to help men "get their balls back" and to show women how men really think - and doing so in a way that would have made tennis player Bobby Riggs look like a sensitivity guru. For hordes of young men, the Rorschach is in the shape of a hero; for many women it's a pig. Both tickle you equally, and you often devote entire programs to taking calls only from women who hate you. By the same token, as a staunch atheist, you also entertain calls from the religious.

Plenty of women want Leykis to sign their breasts without any $40,000 enticement. During his annual broadcast from the Bite of Seattle on July 21, a steady stream of women lined up to go onstage and bare themselves for a signing while hundreds of whooping, chanting fans gaped in Seattle Center's Snoqualmie Room. Outside, many hundreds more lined up to get in, and began signing each other before police dispersed the burgeoning Mardi Gras.

The particular appeal of having Leykis apply his Sharpie to one's mammaries is sometimes as ineffable and emotional-contagion-driven as flashing at Mardi Gras for party beads.

"I just want to get signed, I don't know," said a visibly nervous Staci Weigand, 21, of Renton, waiting in line for the privilege in the Snoqualmie Room.

But for the woman standing next to her, it was a self-esteem booster. "I've always been pretty closed up, and looked down when people talked to me," said Christine, 18, who declined to give her last name. "This kind of opens me up."

Whether you consider him liberating or oppressive, Leykis has tapped into something, and it's snowballing. That same day, he learned his ratings in Los Angeles - his current home - had surpassed Rush Limbaugh's for the first time. He has inked a deal for a TV show. The 50-minute video documentary, "Blow Me Up, Tom" - named for an explosive sound effect callers request - is amateurishly made, but documents his freakish popularity.

Has Leykis tapped into an anti-PC Zeitgeist of simmering male resentment? Or is it just garden-variety anger-and-sex radio?

"This is the first group of adult males who grew up in a single-parent household. They don't know how to be guys," Leykis says during the Met dinner.

He has studied the wine list there like a proofreader. Although his on-air persona seems like a six-pack, heavy-metal kind of guy, Leykis is a wine connoisseur and a jazz buff. His four-story stucco house in the Hollywood Hills contains a wine cellar, and he's been known to bring his own bottle to restaurants that aren't up to snuff.

Leykis started his radio career at 14 by winning a contest for an hour on the air one early weekend morning in New York. He had a "terse" and "complicated" relationship with his parents - especially his father, a newspaper layout man and two-fisted union activist who steadfastly opposed the boy's radio dreams.

When Leykis graduated from high school at 16 and enrolled in broadcasting at Fordham University, he stayed with his grandmother, in his dad's old bedroom. There, he found one of his dad's old books - from the Columbia School of Broadcasting. Leykis never mentioned it to him. But before his father died five years ago, Leykis was syndicated and said he had "the pleasure of telling him he backed the wrong horse."

"The Professor" of "Leykis 101" infamy - whose qualifications include "translating women into English" and being a "master debater" - was born about three years ago. The unwitting midwife: call screener and associate producer Mike Dooley.

"Mike was telling me how he was spending all his money on dates with women. He was going out to restaurants, renting limos, taking them out for drinks - and they weren't putting out. . . . I said, `It's because you're spending all that money. You should be spending nothing,"' he recalls.

As Leykis increasingly focused his on-air shtick on that subject, his audience swelled. He also whipped up listeners with diatribes on a loophole in Washington state law that has resulted in some men, who marry single mothers and divorce them, being forced by courts to pay child support for kids that aren't their own.

"Once we got on that bandwagon, baby, they were calling from all over the country. That's when I started telling men in Washington state: `Don't date single mothers.' It was that, and also because I said: You'll never be the No. 1 person in her life. If you end up wanting a relationship, you'll be trying to talk over your relationship over a Happy Meal."

State Rep. Renee Radcliff (R-Mukilteo) confirms the legal loophole, and pledges to have Leykis present to receive the pen if her bill to close it ever gets the governor's signature.

As for what's really behind Leykis' popularity, University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz says it's both the Zeitgeist and the anger that always finds a radio audience.

"I think there is a lot of anger there for men, and he's articulated it better, and that has something to do with his ability to drill an issue," she says. "He takes a strong point of view, and he's shocking and he goes against the common norms of conduct. People are delighted to see someone step out of a PC way of interacting, even if it's brutal or explicit - or in some way just like mooning."

But Schwartz, a relationship expert and Lifetime Network personality, gives Leykis credit. "Unlike some people up there (in talk radio) who are just kind of rednecks, he's intelligent. So while he's being outrageous, he's also being smart."

Also unlike Limbaugh and his ilk, Leykis says his personal politics are "small L" libertarian - he says on every show that he's no "right-wing wacko or convicted felon." Pro-choice, anti-gun control, pro-affirmative action. But, he throws in, "I wouldn't go to a black or Hispanic doctor in a state where there was affirmative action. And I have steadfastly avoided going to any meetings to discuss diversity or sexual harassment."

The books Leykis stokes his brain with are mostly political and financial, like "The Millionaire Next Door." Leykis says he religiously tithes to mutual funds, and is wealthy enough never to work again. So why does he?

"It's fun," he answers.

A media expert says the young men who find Leykis fun are advertising's most sought-after demographic. But Leykis doesn't so much represent a surge of male empowerment as merely an across-the-board increase in programming that targets all sorts of specific audiences, whether men or gardeners, says UW communications professor Gerald Baldasty. Even if radio is a niche medium, Baldasty's colleague, Don Pember, acknowledges, "This kind of talk radio - whether it's Rush, John Carlson or Dr. Laura - has a religious following. You don't listen to him to have him change your mind, but to reinforce what you already believe. He's also like Dr. Laura in that she says things people would like to tell their friends but would never think of telling them."

And Leykis relishes his work as a walking id: "I say the stuff that guys can't say. They're thinking it, but they can't say it. All the guys want to talk about the fat chick in the office or the lesbian in the office, or the woman who files sexual-harassment complaints in the office even though nobody would sexually harass her in a million years."

At a recent Leykis listener party at the Ballard Firehouse, Boeing engineer Curt Costas, 37, said, "He's exactly right about women. If I would have listened to him four years ago - when this chick used me for my money and used me to take her on a trip to California - I would have told her to get out. But," Costas added, "if you're looking for a relationship, you shouldn't listen to him."

Leykis' influence, predictably, is nothing short of odious to some.

"I just have to deal with the Tom Leykis fallout," said one Seattle woman. The fallout "includes embittered, immature men who don't recognize over-the-top, ratings-driven bravado and take his message very much to heart. I work with someone who listens to Leykis constantly."

Asking not to be named, to avoid awkwardness at work, she said, "The guy is wretched to me and pretty much every other woman here in the office, and I cannot help but feel that it is Leykis who has helped whip him up into this misogynistic froth."

Was Leykis always a Sam Peckinpah alpha male?

He readily admits he's made all the mistakes he inveighs against, before settling into his current marriage - his fourth.

Leykis' marriage to Los Angeles TV reporter Christina Gonzalez ended when he allegedly discovered she was cheating on him, by finding various receipts. On the rebound, he had a one-year marriage to a Seattle listener. Leykis vilified Gonzalez on the air, but said he has since reached "an understanding" with her, and had an amicable split with the Seattle woman.

"I believe he really loved Christina. I think that's what really broke his heart," says Bart Graves, a Phoenix radio journalist and longtime friend of Leykis.

Leykis met his current wife, Susan, 40, at an L.A. Kings hockey game, and their nearly nine-year marriage is his longest. They like to watch baseball and hockey together at home. Leykis says she can match him toe-to-toe in any argument.

Friends say Leykis has always preferred women who put their own career goals aside to focus on his. Susan, a shy woman is still getting used to the attention - which includes women flashing her husband in restaurants - is a former marketing representative who now works as Leykis' personal assistant.

So what's it like being married to "The Professor"?

"That's kind of a hard question to answer in a succinct manner. It's always interesting," she says.

"He's very easygoing at home. People say, `Does he scream and yell all the time at home? Is he always picking arguments?' I think he gets it all out on the air. He's an entertainer, and I think people lose sight of that."

Still, Susan admits, "There were times when I'd get upset about something (he'd say on the air), call him during a break and ask, `How could you say that?' But I realized for peace and harmony to reign in the household, it's entertainment. I don't take it seriously."

What might surprise listeners about Leykis, she says, is that he likes to spend quality time with his pet guinea pig. "They have a conversation every morning. He's completely enthralled with Tom."

A pet is the closest he's likely to come to having a child. After sharing a small bedroom with a brother and two sisters - from whom he's now estranged - Leykis says bluntly, "I put in my time with kids." Leykis treats his core group of male friends - who jokingly call themselves his "enablers" - as family, according to Graves.

They became friends 15 years ago, when Leykis would do a remote broadcast at a Ford dealership and five people would show up - four of them dealers. "He did a very different show then, an extremely liberal show in a very conservative town." Later, when Leykis became syndicated, Graves says he reinvented himself. "This persona he's created is doing very well. It is a persona."

Off the air, Leykis isn't as confrontational with women, Graves says. "He'll do a slow burn a long time before he gets on someone."

"But people want to know, `Do you believe what you say?' That's what they all want to know," Leykis says in the restaurant. "And the answer is, surprisingly to most people: yes. I believe what I say."

His critics' most frequent accusation: He's a misogynist - a woman-hater.

"I hear it all the time," Leykis says. "But I do not hate women. I am honest about the differences between men and women."

If you are Tom Leykis, men literally want to lay hands on you and buy you drinks. (You laugh off a joke that your favorite cocktail, a Lemon Drop, ain't too manly.) Everywhere you go, men want to tell you what women have done to them and how you have helped them.

After the dinner - a few weeks before the Bite of Seattle - Leykis was standing on a corner without his entourage when a cab driver hauling passengers in the opposite direction stopped abruptly and hollered the show's familiar greeting at him: "Hellooooo, Tom!" Forgetting about the passengers in the back, the driver insisted on taking Leykis anywhere he was going.

"We didn't know America before we started listening to him," said cab driver Jerome Adams, 47, originally from India. "It's a great education."

If you are Tom Leykis, you are wary of becoming a caricature. You say you plan to avoid that by continuing to evolve your material into some new direction. But none of that is clear yet. At the moment, being Tom Leykis is one hell of a lot of fun. You'll be mobbed like a rock star at each stop in a pub crawl after the Bite of Seattle broadcast.

As your limo pulls away from the Snoqualmie Room, it's surrounded by roaring fans, and one scowling woman giving you an obscene gesture.

"Isn't it amazing?" Leykis says. "It's like a cult. And we backed into this! This is all stuff I believe. I just didn't know how powerful it all was."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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