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Getting on Jim White's nerves doesn't seem like that much of a challenge. The late-night radio-talk-show emcee surfed the edge of irritation on KMOX (1120 AM) for more than 30 years. He continually seemed one exaggerated reaction away from taking somebody's head off. Wednesday, April 7, is the last night for White's 10 p.m.-2 a.m. show, and a big send-off will be broadcast live, from the Summit restaurant, 8-10 p.m. April 8.
Tom Kelahan probably won't be there, though he's been listening to White for close to 20 years. He's been doing more than listening: He's been calling White -- in the early years just to chat, in the later years to argue. And he's been taping these calls, to White and to other talk-show hosts, for years. He has 20 cassette tapes, each 90 minutes long -- that's 30 hours of call-ins spanning about 15 years. They're labeled "YB 1" through "YB 20." ("YB" stands for "Yak Box," a phrase Kelahan uses to describe radio.)
Kelahan stopped calling radio shows a few years back. He says they don't talk about things that interest him anymore.
But for years he did, calling White almost every night. At the peak of the conflict, when he called in just to argue, some might say he was baiting the host. But because this is Jim White, who comes off as a bit of a broadcast bully, baiting might be too strong a word. Whatever the interpretation, Kelahan would never agree with White -- if the host said to-may-to, Kelahan would call in and say to-mah-to and insist that anyone who pronounced it otherwise was nuts.
Today, Kelahan is sparse in his recollections of his "weird little hobby," calling talk shows and taping the calls. Asked what caused the shift from routine caller to caller-trying-to-antagonize-the-host, he has a simple explanation based on his perception of White: "I guess he started acting more like a prick, so I wanted to see if I could get him pissed off."
And piss him off he did, night after night. Kelahan was occasionally banned from White's show, but never permanently. He was never profane, just irritating. If White was yin, Kelahan was yang. Whatever White said or put out there, Kelahan took the opposite tack.
His nickname for the portly host -- who has a body, as well as a face, meant for radio -- was "Dim Wit," a sound-alike for "Jim White." What annoyed Kelahan most about White was his pompous, all-knowing air: "It's like Dim Wit taught God how to make the universe." When he was banned, Kelahan resorted to a middleman, because White's call screener, Elaine, knew his voice. Kelahan would get somebody else to call, and when Elaine asked what the caller wanted to talk about, one of three topics was used: ham radio, boating or model railroading. Kelahan knew those were surefire topics to get on the air quickly. Then, when White punched the button to put the caller on the air, it would turn out to be Kelahan. Sometimes White would end the call; sometimes he'd act like it was no big deal and take the call.
By the early '90s, Kelahan had tempered his act, calling in as "Elvis from South St. Louis." A random sampling of the tapes reveals 17 aliases, ranging from "Rupert" to "Waylon." (When calling in about a religious topic, he used "Thaddeus.") Whatever the name, the confrontations crescendoed in the late '80s, which was for Kelahan the golden age of getting on Jim White's nerves.
The best argument with White, sadly, was taped and lost. The tape was so special, Kelahan played it over and over again for anyone who'd listen. Eventually a girlfriend wound up with the tape and, well, things came to a bad end, so when they split, she kept the tape.
The topic that triggered White's blast was trivial. It was back in 1985, when White was doing Dateline, a sort of on-air lonely-hearts' club. White said he wondered, when people called in, why they talked about what they did for fun instead of what they did for a living. Kelahan called and said that it made perfect sense for that to be the first question, because if two people go on a date, they want to do something they enjoy; they aren't going to work together. Somehow, perhaps because of Kelahan's persistence and peskiness in making this small point, the assertion set White off. He lost it.
To this day, 14 years later, Kelahan can recite the incident from memory. He's played the tape for me many times, and this account of what White said after he ended the call from Kelahan is an accurate recollection: "Sir, get your own radio show. I don't normally get upset, but this guy calls night after night, picking nits. There aren't that many callers who have the ability to get under my skin. There's been about three people in 15 years who have gotten under my skin. Sir, you are one of them."
For Kelahan, this was the highest of compliments, better than a Nobel Prize. The Big Bumper was pissed.
Some 10 years later, with Kelahan calling as "Elvis," the calls were less combative, with White exercising his upper hand more. In one call, "Elvis" questioned White on his use of the term "mainstream," asking what it meant. White took the opportunity to go off on Elvis in a typical ad hominem attack that he uses when the actual topic of the argument precludes a clear winner.