Friends of David Brudnoy reflect on a legend on the airwaves and in the classroom
By Brian Fitzgerald
David Brudnoy went on the air December 8 to tell his radio listeners that he was ready to die. The following day, after a 15-month battle with cancer, the COM professor did.
The farewell from Brudnoy, one of Boston’s most recognized radio talk show hosts for the past two decades, didn’t surprise his friends, including Tobe Berkovitz, a COM associate professor and associate dean. “David’s listeners, his colleagues, and his students were all his family,” he says. “He was a wonderful and caring person.”
COM Dean John Schultz says that Brudnoy was “a brilliant and inspiring teacher for students at the College of Communication, a friend, a mentor, and a man of such incredible dedication that even on his deathbed he was concerned that his students got the grades they had earned and would not miss a single class. We have witnessed the passing of a media institution.”
Brudnoy’s top-rated nightly 7 p.m. radio show on WBZ-AM was on the air for 18 years, touching on almost every topic from politics to the arts. Berkovitz calls him “the prince of the talk show circuit,” saying that he was easygoing, intelligent, and funny. Brudnoy, 64, was an intellectual and a polymath, educated at Yale and Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese studies and a master’s degree in Far Eastern studies, respectively. He also had a master’s degree and a doctorate in history from Brandeis. He reviewed movies and wrote articles for such publications as the New York Times, the National Review, and the New Republic. In 1994 he published a memoir, Life Is Not a Rehearsal.
“I would call David a renaissance man of the 20th and 21st centuries,” says Berkovitz. “He was a brilliant critic and teacher. He was erudite and kind.”
Brudnoy left all his personal papers to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.
A Minneapolis native, Brudnoy started his broadcasting career in 1971 at WGBH-TV in Boston. He moved to WHDH-AM in 1976 as a talk show host and joined WRKO-AM in 1981. His final stint was at WBZ, beginning in 1986. He had such a loyal following there that when producers pulled the plug on his show in 1990 in favor of cheaper syndicated talk programming, listeners boycotted the station and he was back behind the microphone within weeks. His show was broadcast to 38 states and most of the Canadian provinces.
“I knew him well,” says President Emeritus John Silber, “not only as a friend of more than 30 years and as a frequent guest on his radio program, but as a colleague at Boston University, where he set demanding standards for his students in the College of Communication.”
Brudnoy’s dedication to his students was legendary. He taught his classes throughout his illness, using a microphone as his voice grew increasingly weaker. “The man worked almost 24/7,” says Berkovitz. “He did his talk show until 10 o’clock at night, and I’d get e-mails from him at seven in the morning. He liked teaching the eight o’clock classes, even though he was on the air for three hours at night. He was incredibly productive and energetic.”
After he almost died from a viral infection that put him in a coma for nine days in 1994, Brudnoy revealed that he was gay and had AIDS. He was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer, in 2003. He said that the fatal cancer had nothing to do with AIDS.
He was known as a conservative, but his political philosophy transcended party politics. He upset his conservative listeners by supporting gay marriage, but liberals bristled at his criticisms of the “nanny state” that he thought imposed too many laws about how people should live their lives. “He called himself a libertarian, and I used to tease him and say, ‘What? You’re a vegetarian?’ Because, of course, he hated all things politically correct,” says Berkovitz. “He was really a free thinker. He took great umbrage at being called a conservative talk show host.”
Berkovitz appeared on Brudnoy’s show several times to discuss politics and the media. “When you were his guest and he disagreed with you, he was always very gentlemanly,” he says. “That was his style. It was never a yell-fest on his show. No one ever screamed or interrupted. It was civilized talk radio, and that is, unfortunately, an oxymoron in this day and age.”