FOR 10 WEEKS DAVID BRUDNOY, Boston’s popular and erudite conservative radio-talk-show host, had been off the air. Then at 7 p.m. on Jan. 5 he was back. As he signed on, the Brudnoy faithful—some million listeners spread over 38 states—awaited their nightly serving of wit, banter and Bubba-bashing. What they got instead was utterly electrifying: an hour-long monologue, probably unprecedented even in the freewheeling world of talk radio. “No one at WBZ has talked about what I’d like to talk to you about tonight,” Brudnoy said. “I am a 54-year-old homosexual…. I was suffering the first attack of HIV—the AIDS virus.”
Until then, Brudnoy, a self-described libertarian—economically conservative and socially liberal—had guarded his privacy. But after news of his illness broke in Boston, he decided to go public on his show, he says, out of need to set the record straight with his listeners. “It would have been demoralizing to a lot of people if I’d just come back and said, ‘Well, let’s talk about the Gingrich revolution,’ ” he says. “I had to do it. I needed to get that monkey off everybody’s back.”
Brudnoy talked movingly, and in intimate detail, about his homosexuality, his contracting HIV and his hospitalization with Pneumocystis pneumonia, an infection common to AIDS patients. And with his usual dispassion, he even took pains to educate his listeners. “Don’t call it the HIV virus,” he told them. “It’s redundant.” He confessed that he hoped to live “at least five more years.”
Then Brudnoy opened the telephone lines—and waited. Whether it was because of the nation’s growing knowledge about AIDS or the respect Brudnoy has won for his integrity and candor, WBZ’s switchboard was swamped with calls from men and women expressing their concern and encouragement. Sen. Edward Kennedy, an occasional Brudnoy target, phoned in from Washington, as did William F. Buckley from New York City. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld visited the show soon after and pronounced Jan. 11 David Brudnoy Day. Of the 11,000 letters he has received so far, Brudnoy says only two have been negative.
Six months ago, Brudnoy would never have dreamed he would be discussing his illness, much less his homosexuality, in public. That changed on Oct. 24, when he began coughing and slurring his words during the show and was sent home to recuperate. The following evening he collapsed in the lobby of his apartment building and was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital. Emergency-room doctors were still trying to diagnose the problem when a friend of Brudnoy’s arrived to inform them that their famous patient was HIV positive. A few hours later, Brudnoy went into a medically induced coma and remained unconscious for nine days. Many of his friends kept a vigil, and when he saw them upon waking, he told his listeners, he began weeping uncontrollably. “I said, ‘I’m not going to live,’ which was an irony, of course, because at that point I was going to live.”
Brudnoy’s hospitalization fired up the local rumor mill. Reporters from both Boston papers called asking for confirmation that he had AIDS. Startled at the invasion of his privacy, he denied it at first, then—realizing the truth would inevitably come out—changed his mind. He gave an exclusive interview to The Boston Globe and alerted WBZ that he would tell his listeners when he returned to the air. “It wasn’t a painful thing at all, once it was unleashed,” he says.
Little in Brudnoy’s upbringing had prepared him for such scrutiny. Brought up in Minneapolis, he was the only child of Harry, a dentist, and Doris, a home-maker. He says he began to suspect he was gay in sixth grade. “I remember there was a boy in the fifth grade who was just gorgeous,” he says. “I remember fixating on him and thinking, ‘Isn’t that odd? I’m gawking at him and not at the girls.’ I knew something was going on. I just didn’t know what it was.”
Brudnoy went off to Yale, then to graduate school in East Asian Studies at Harvard before deciding to get a Ph.D. in American intellectual history at Brandeis. His academic career was short-lived; in 1971 a friend suggested he audition for an opening as what Brudnoy calls the token conservative commentator at WGBH, Boston’s public television station. Personable and articulate, Brudnoy was a natural. In 1976 he won a full-time radio-talk-show slot at Boston’s WHDH; eventually he moved to the more powerful WBZ in 1986. Though Brudnoy never made an issue of his homosexuality, neither did he go to great lengths to conceal it. “Being gay was just one aspect of David’s life,” says his friend Judith Wurtman, a research scientist at MIT, “like being thin or not having much hair on top of his head.”
When Brudnoy came down with a bad case of the flu in 1988, a friend suggested he be tested for HIV as a precaution. As Brudnoy told his listeners on Jan. 5, he was astonished when the test came back positive. He confided in only a handful of his closest friends. To ensure secrecy, he put himself under the care of a doctor in Washington and never submitted bills to his insurance company for any treatment identified with HIV Though he spent $35,000 out of his own pocket, he says the privacy was worth the money. “I had six years of no intrusion,” he says. “Nobody knew a thing.”
But now that millions know, Brudnoy says he is comfortable with that too. Mostly he is happy to be back on the air, talking about why government should stay out of citizens’ lives, about crime and education, even breweries. Lately his friends say they’ve noticed a distinct mellowing in his personality—”type A-squared,” as one calls it. Brudnoy admitted as much himself on the air. “One of the good things that has come out of this is the recognition of dependence one has on one’s friends,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important it was to wake up and find my friends there.”
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston