October 09, 1989 12:00 PM

It’s early evening at NBC Radio’s Talknet studios in Manhattan, and Bruce Williams is ready to talk. He leans back in a red leather chair, his antelope cowboy boots propped up on a desk, and reaches for his customary can of diet Coke. “Hey, Pittsburgh, what’s on your mind?” asks Williams as he commences his three-hour call-in radio show.

A sweet-voiced woman, fresh out of college, wants Williams to help her manage her finances. “Don’t go out and buy a lot of expensive furniture,” he advises. “What you thought was cool at 21, you wouldn’t want to put in front of your house at 30 because people might think you Med that stuff!” Next on is a 33-year-old woman who fears she is being discriminated against in an office full of men. “The only way you won’t be discriminated against is if you ask for no concessions,” says Williams. “In the meantime, you’ve got to outwork them.”

Every weekday night, the avuncular, reassuring tones of Bruce Williams draw some 3 million advice seekers in all 50 states to the radio. While Larry King may be heard on more stations (King claims 350 to Williams’s 305), it is the relatively unknown Williams, 57, who commands the largest talk show audience in the country.

Most nights Williams dispenses advice on financial topics ranging from mortgages to liability suits, but he has coolly tackled such disparate subjects as suicide, prisoners’ problems and kids’ conflicts with their parents. Indeed, as he once said, he’ll talk about “everything but wine and sex.” Williams’s guileless approach has been so successful that he has created a cottage industry around the show. He does at least 40 personal appearances a year where fans flock to hear him hold forth on investing in the stock market, drawing up a will or avoiding being fleeced by sleazy salesmen. There are Bruce Williams instructional tapes, and a second book filled with Williams’s folksy wisdom is due out later this year. He owns several businesses, including flower and gift shops, two radio stations and a barbershop, and lends his name to ads for banks and other products. Williams does not think his endorsements compromise his credibility as a consumer adviser. “Radio is a commercial enterprise,” he says. “If I thought the endorsements were damaging, I wouldn’t do them.”

But Williams’s first concern is still the person on the other end of the line during his immensely popular show. “Nothing on your mind? That’s cool,” he says to his audience in a soft voice. “Just sit back and eavesdrop.” If you do manage to get him on the phone (only one of every 15 callers gets on the air), don’t expect to be coddled. “Look, it’s a conversation between two people,” says Williams. “It’s not a professional counseling session where I’m gonna puff on a briar pipe and say, ‘Tell me more.’ It’s not only what you say; the inflection in your voice has to leave no doubt that you agree or disagree with the listener.”

On the rare occasions when Williams is stumped by a request, his listeners often help each other out. A caller in L.A. who once wrote a book about Jerry Lee Lewis lost all the copies of a Lewis biography in a fire and couldn’t find his own book anywhere. “Ten minutes later,” remembers Williams, “one of the major collectors of Jerry Lee Lewis memorabilia calls and says he has a copy that he would mail to the guy.” A woman wanted to know what a medal from the 1890s, which she found in her backyard, was worth. A distant relative of the decorated soldier who received the badge of honor dialed 800-TALK-NET and said she knew something about it.

Williams’s greatest resources are common sense and a keen mind. His appeal lies mainly in the fact that he is a Regular Guy and not some rarefied financial expert. He doesn’t have an M.B.A. or a journalism background, and he says he never prepares for a show. He does read the Wall Street Journal, but he is proud to point out, “I also read the local weekly in Franklin Township, N.J.”

Williams describes himself as a hustler growing up in East Orange, N.J. His father had a profitable shoe salon in New York City and “made a considerable amount of money” until the Depression. “He worked hard but never recovered financially,” says Williams. The younger of two boys, Williams became a businessman himself at age 11 when, toward the end of World War II, he began making his own toy soldiers and selling them. “I used to melt down lead pipe in the coal furnace in the basement, cast the soldiers and dip ’em in olive drab paint,” he says.

In 1951, after attending New Jersey’s Upsala College for a semester, Williams joined the Air Force. He saw action in Korea, served a total of four years there and in the U.S. and then returned to New Jersey to earn a degree in education at Kean College. In 1957 he married Ruthann Burns. Four years later they started a private kindergarten called Lane Robbins in Somerset, N.J., and raised their own five children in the same community.

Williams was on the Franklin Township council from 1967 to 1975, served as Mayor for a year, and, after an unsuccessful bid for the state assembly, he decided to try working behind a microphone.

His first radio show, At Your Service, in New Brunswick, N.J., became a local hit. A year later he set his sights on New York City and began “assaulting” WMCA with letters and phone calls. After two years, Williams reports, “this guy calls and says, ‘Christ, I’m so tired of seeing these messages on my desk. Would you be willing to work on a Sunday afternoon?’ I said, “Done.’ ”

The response was so overwhelming that the station asked him to work six days a week, and in 1981 Williams was hired away by Talknet, which is a nightly package of advice-oriented talk shows. Today he earns a salary which is “a good deal more than minimum wage” but nowhere near the $2.6 million-a-year figure he has seen reported. “You gotta be kidding me,” he says with a laugh.

Williams’s NBC career almost ended before it began. A year after he was hired, he took his four-seat Cessna out for a hop and hit a tree while trying to abort a landing. “I took a nice airplane and turned it into a piece of trash,” says Williams. “It was strictly pilot error.” Fighting for his life, Williams was in and out of hospitals for two years. “I’ve been opened up six times for intestinal reductions, and my kneecaps are gone. But they put me back together.”

Williams’s hectic schedule leaves very little time to spend at his three-bedroom, white colonial home in Franklin Township. Divorced since last year, Williams now lives with his youngest son, Michael, 25, an aspiring club musician. His brush with death didn’t discourage Williams from fulfilling a lifelong fantasy two years ago: free-falling 8,500 feet. Williams’s airborne aspirations don’t end there. He still has one more flight of fancy: “When I shed a few pounds,” he vows, “you can bet I’m going to try some hang gliding.”

An understandably distraught 19-year-old girl is the last caller on tonight’s show. She tells Williams she used a vegetable dye on her hair to turn her red locks to black but became horrified when they changed to blue. She had the dye analyzed, and the lab results revealed the dye contained lead. Three months later, the overwrought teenager still has traces of blue in her hair.

Williams commends her for retaining a lawyer and documenting her ordeal with pictures. “That’s the end of it, kid,” says Williams. “Wasn’t much fun, was it? Let me ask you this: How did it affect your social life?”

“Well, I’ve been wearing a lot of hats,” she answers sheepishly. “I work in a law office.”

The most popular talk radio host in America grins and says, “Well, you’re in an office full of sharks, they’ll take good care of you. I wish you well, sweetheart. Hey, it’s been a good hour, folks. This is Bruce Williams…”