IT IS 1 P.M. IN DENVER, AND RADIO talk show host Ken Hamblin, the self-proclaimed Black Avenger, is ready to take calls on his 1-800-I-M-ANGRY phone lines. Before he does, an announcer offers this tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “Caution: This radio show could prove hazardous to your victimization and should be avoided at all costs if you are a white liberal [or] a quota black and trust in the merits of affirmative action forever. Should you fit into the above category, the host and your local radio station assume no responsibility for your predictable discomfort.”
That said, Hamblin, 54, flashes a gap-toothed grin and dives into a 3-hour talk-fest devoted mostly to celebrating the recent Republican election landslide and jeering at “egg-sucking liberals” and “freeloading” black prison inmates. “We have made our prisons the equivalent of resort camps,” exclaims Hamblin. “I say put the ‘P’ back in punishment and make jail a place where no dude wants to go.”
As for himself, Hamblin wants to go to the top, and he’s making progress—thanks, ironically, to the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, whose efforts to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to ban him from the airwaves last winter backfired and catapulted him to national attention instead. Now this onetime local radio host has a syndicated daily show that airs in 54 cities nationwide on the Entertainment Radio Networks; he writes a twice-weekly column for the Denver Post and a weekly column for The New York Times syndication service. His first book, part autobiography and part general commentary, will be published by Simon & Schuster next year. The working title: Don’t Feed the Blacks.
Hamblin is part of a growing legion of talk show hosts, including Bob Grant in New York and G. Gordon Liddy in Washington, who wear their extremism on their shirtsleeves. Though critics have dubbed him the black Rush Limbaugh, Hamblin says, “Rush is in many ways the voice without experience. He is junior to me, white and middle-class. I am more authentic.”
Some people, not surprisingly, see Hamblin simply as opportunistic: a black man making money by saying exactly what many conservative whites want to hear. “He represents the worst of my race,” says Regis Groff, the former president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. “He is willing to sell out his own people for money and go beyond conservatism to outright denigration of the race.”
“My function,” Hamblin responds, “is to put pressure on the pastors, the reverends, the councilmen to flush out the lowlifes. The white people won’t do it, and the political people won’t do it. So I’ll be the odd man out.”
These days, Hamblin’s on-air behavior isn’t the only thing drawing criticism. Last January, Hamblin, married and a grandfather, was charged with misdemeanor harassment when a former colleague at Denver station KNUS accused him of pinning her on a bench and simulating a sex act on New Year’s Eve. Hamblin told police he was just being playful, and authorities agreed to drop the charges if no other such incidents occur before next January. Then, in October, Hamblin admitted that some background material about a city council-woman that he used in his Denver Post column had been lifted from the rival Rocky Mountain News without attribution. He was suspended by the Post for two months. He says he was guilty simply of “sloppy work.”
Hamblin, of course, would prefer not to dwell on such matters. Instead he sees himself—and sells himself—as a conservative Don Quixote, a black man who fought long odds and won. “I ran the gauntlet and didn’t fall off the footpath to heroin or crack or murder or prison,” says Hamblin. “I am a messenger from the ghetto who got through.”
One of five children born to West Indian immigrants who split up when he was 8, Hamblin was raised by his mother, Evelyn, on welfare in Brooklyn. He joined the army at 17, married Saleetha Cartwright and later began a career in photojournalism. The couple had two children, Ken Jr., now 33 and a music promoter in Denver, and Linda, now 31 and a television announcer in Kansas City. They moved to Detroit in 1967, where Hamblin eventually became the first black photographer for the Detroit Free Press. Soon after they arrived, Saleetha suffered a brain aneurysm that left her totally incapacitated. Hamblin divorced her a few months later; he continued to provide financial support for his kids but left them in the care of his mother-in-law.
In 1969, Hamblin wed Sue Hoover, now 48, a Free Press reporter, and the couple left the paper to make documentary films together. They moved to Colorado in 1975 and eight years later, when Hamblin’s production business went bust, a friend told him, “You never shut up, why don’t you try radio?” Hamblin soon began filling in for announcers at Denver’s KOA when they got ill or went on vacation. During the decade that followed, he attracted a primarily white audience with commentary that grew increasingly strident as he jumped from station to station.
After years of being largely ignored on the local political scene, he became the center of a national controversy last December. He attracted the attention of syndicators after members of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators meeting in Denver happened to hear his local talk show and complained to the FCC that his commentary was racist and inflammatory. Hamblin had finally found his calling. Or call-in.
The rewards have been great: He owns a home in the mountains and another near the city. His career is booming. All of that, says Hamblin, is to be expected despite the flak he has taken from liberals—black and white. “America wants me to succeed,” he says. “The only people who don’t want me to make it are those who [would] garner power from my failure.”
VICKIE BANE in Denver