March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

It was Roger Hedgecock’s first afternoon on the air, and in his silver sateen jacket with the station call sign, KSDO, emblazoned over one breast and “Roger” over the other, he looked every inch the media personality. Bottled up within the glass-enclosed broadcast booth at the San Diego radio station, Hedgecock, 39, could have been just another talk show host prattling on about his recent bout with the Alaskan flu. Except that, as his audience of an estimated 300,000 people all knew, the new man behind the mike was none other than San Diego’s disgraced former mayor, a convicted felon who was forced from office six weeks earlier. Not for Roger Hedge-cock a tail-between-the-legs exit into anonymity. Even after being convicted of conspiracy and perjury in connection with the financing of his 1983 mayoral campaign, the man with limitless chutzpah hasn’t been willing to relinquish his spot at center stage.

Not surprisingly, his listeners were interested in his troubled job history. John, who was phoning from La Mesa, was the most direct: “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “I’d like to know why you’re not in jail.”

“Because the judge said I didn’t have to be while the appeal was pending,” Hedgecock explained smoothly.

Still, most of his erstwhile constituents seemed wholeheartedly in support of the Republican who had served 29 months at City Hall. “It’s an honor to speak with you,” said Ira from Clairmont. “This is a big vote of confidence,” said Dorothea from Normal Heights. “As far as I’m concerned,” said Hank from Ocean Beach, “you’re still the mayor, and I think you’ll be a great success.” One caller went so far as to address him as Mr. Mayor. “After this,” said Hedgecock, “you’ve got to call me Roger.”

The star of the Roger Hedgecock Show isn’t the only California politician to have plunged into broadcasting during a hiatus. Onetime L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty served time behind the micro-phone, and so did Ronald Reagan. But Hedgecock’s career on the airwaves is less likely to be interrupted by another campaign than by a stint in custody. Last December he was placed on three years’ probation, including 365 days “in county custody.” (He is also forbidden to run for public office until 1989.) If his appeal is denied, he could find himself behind bars, depending on the discretion of the sheriff of San Diego County. Hedgecock, however, isn’t the sort to put things on hold just because the sword of Damocles is hanging over his head. “I’m not a person who can stand on the sidelines,” he says. “I gotta be in the arena. I gotta be in the arena, okay?”

For most of his life, the dynamic Hedgecock has been right where he wanted to be. A native San Diegan whose father was a professional photographer, he made a name as a law student at the University of California in San Francisco. After a 1970 oil-tanker spill in San Francisco Bay, the budding environmentalist joined a student group that talked its way into a meeting with then EPA Director William Ruckelshaus. “I decided there was no way we could go to Washington and talk and let this guy know what it was like standing out there for 36 hours cleaning birds,” he remembers. “So we put some of this [oily sludge] in a can, and by the time we got to Washington, it had been fermenting in there for a while. The most awful smell came out. I don’t think he’ll ever forget it. The EPA did enforce the new tanker regulations.”

After he graduated, Hedgecock set up a law practice and married Cynthia Coverdale (now a 38-year-old real estate executive and mother of Jamie, 8, and Christopher, 5). As city attorney in the coastal town of Del Mar and later as a San Diego county supervisor, Hedgecock continued to press his case as an environmentalist. His political career seemed charmed: He won a 1983 special election, vaulting into the mayor’s office with 52 percent of the vote. He was buoyed by a broad-based coalition that included blacks, Hispanics, gays and others who had felt dispossessed in the traditionally conservative city. While he had a reputation around City Hall as an arrogant sort who could be sharp with subordinates, his popular support never wavered. In November 1984 he was elected to a full four-year term—even though he had been indicted on campaign financing charges two months earlier.

Hedgecock’s career didn’t come apart until last October, when he was finally convicted of conspiring to have $357,000 illegally diverted into his campaign. On Dec. 10, Hedgecock resigned from office. At his sentencing, he told Judge William Todd, “As God is my witness, I did not intend to violate those laws…. I’ve never been in trouble with the law before. I’m here today in very deep trouble with the law, and I ask for your mercy.”

One of those who watched the proceedings on TV was Jim Price, KSDO president and general manager—who happened to have an opening. “I was watching him holding up with as much grace under pressure as I’ve ever seen,” recalls Price, “and I was thinking, ‘If you put him on the radio with the kind of communicating skills he has and his knowledge of the city, he has the potential to be as good a talk show host as you’ll find in the country.’ ”

He promptly signed up Hedgecock, offering him a one-year contract for a reported $60,000, compared to the $50,000 he made as mayor. The arrangement seems felicitous for both parties: Ratings are good, and the show’s commercial time is booked solid. Hedgecock professes to be delighted. The radio, he says, is “a great forum—it’s electronic democracy.”

Predictably, political subjects (and politicians) crop up frequently during his 12:15 to 3 p.m. weekday slot. On the first broadcast (which Hedgecock dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston called with congratulations. Gov. George Deukmejian, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and Senator Cranston have been asked to do guest spots. Hedgecock has devoted programs to incest, children of divorce, the problems of the homeless and Satanism in the city’s high schools. Oddly, only one subject has been conspicuously underplayed: that of the special election held Feb. 25 with 13 contenders vying to fill his slot at City Hall. Hedgecock insists he is committed to the future of San Diego and does not rule out another chance at shaping it. Does he miss being mayor? “Yes, of course I do,” he replies. Would he run for office again? “I don’t know. I’ll keep you guessing.”