In the pantheon of popular, bombastic radio and cable talk-show hosts, Michael Savage occupies a special place.
In contrast to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Schlesinger, Bay Area-based Savage mixes conservative diatribe and blunt observations with acerbic humor and a gift of gab. It has propelled him to the top of radio talk-show ratings as well as bestseller book lists.
Savage crossed a line recently, however. MSNBC fired him from his 5-month-old television cable show ``The Savage Nation'' on July 7 after he responded to a prank caller by calling him a ``sodomite'' and saying, ``you should only get AIDS and die.'' As a result, Savage's radio show, also called ``The Savage Nation,'' was suspended from stations in Boston and Los Angeles.
Savage, 61, apologized for the outburst in interviews and on his Web site. But whether the fiasco will affect his multimedia success remains to be seen.
There's no denying his popularity. His nationally syndicated radio show reaches about 6 million listeners on 310 stations (just behind Limbaugh, Hannity, Howard Stern and Schlesinger). In the liberal Bay Area it's the No. 1 program in the 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday time slot, attracting 226,000 listeners each week. His book, ``The Savage Nation: Saving America From the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language and Culture,'' was on the New York Times bestseller list for five months this year.
KNEW-AM (910), Savage's radio home in San Francisco, decided not to suspend him because he apologized, said Ed Krampf, regional vice president in Northern California for Clear Channel, the owner of the station.
``His comments on MSNBC were wrong,'' Krampf said. ``He's admitted that and apologized to his listening audience. He assured us that this is not who he is, that it was an unfortunate mistake, and that I'd never have to worry about it again.''
Savage strikes a chord in fans -- and alienates opponents -- with his assertion that immigrants from ``turd world'' nations, ``seditious'' anti-war protesters and a cabal of ``feminist zealots'' that has ``feminized and homosexualized'' America are dragging us down.
On his MSNBC premiere in March, he explained his appeal: ``I have touched on a raw nerve that has been buried and suppressed in this country.''
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who wrote about the talk-radio phenomenon in ``Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time,'' says, ``Savage pushes the envelope of acceptable discourse and taps into the grievances of folks who are angry at society. But he also has a cutting sense of humor that saves him from sounding like just another ranter.''
``He's a showman,'' says Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, a talk-radio trade publication. ``He's a smart, mature, seasoned guy who knows instinctively how to make the radio pop. He knows how to . . . get people listening.''
``You say all I do is insults?'' he said in a Mercury News phone interview in February that turned contentious. ``I guess an awful lot of people like my insults.'' Savage refused several additional requests for an interview.
Those who knew Savage years ago are shocked by his metamorphosis, from 1960s author and proponent of herbal medicine, to 1970s hanger-on in the North Beach Beat poets crowd, to the right-wing talk-show host they hear today.
When asked about the apparent shift in his views, Savage said, ``I was once a child; I am now a man.''
Savage, whose legal name is Michael Weiner, was born in New York City in 1942 into a Russian immigrant family ``raised on neglect, anger and hate,'' he writes in his book, an autobiographical rehashing of his radio broadcasts.
In 1964, Savage met his first wife, Carol Ely (who is not mentioned in the book). Ely, an advertising copy writer who lives in Florida, says she underwent two abortions during their marriage. Savage now strongly opposes abortion.
By 1967, after Ely and Savage had separated, Savage met his second wife, Janet. She followed him to Hawaii, where he earned master's degrees in anthropology and botany at the University of Hawaii. He and Janet have two children.
Savage built a career as a nutritionist and herbalist. In his 1980 book ``Weiner's Herbal: The Guide to Herb Medicine,'' he praised the ``remarkable'' medicinal benefits of marijuana. He now attacks advocates of medicinal marijuana and rails against drug use.
While in Hawaii, he offered to produce readings by poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, leaders of the Beat Generation. In a letter in the Ginsberg papers at Stanford University, Savage explained that he would like others ``to hear and see and know why I adore your public image.'' He signed one letter ``Love (archaic), Michael Weiner.'' Both writers took him up on his offer, participating in a reading there in 1972.
Savage moved to the Bay Area in 1974. He enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley, earning a doctorate in nutritional ethnomedicine in 1978.
Through Ferlinghetti, he met many poets and artists in North Beach, the birthplace of the Beats. Savage, now blasted by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for his hateful rhetoric, did not shy from highlighting his association with Ginsburg, the openly gay poet.
Stephen Schwartz, a senior policy analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., and North Beach regular in the '70s, recalls that Savage ``seemed like a BS artist, a person who wanted attention and wanted to be taken very seriously.'' Others remember him then as opinionated, funny and devoted to his children, a man who was accepted by the same counterculture crowd he now disparages.
``I really don't understand the transformation of Michael Weiner into a Jew hater and a poet hater and a leftist hater,'' says Ferlinghetti, co-founder of City Lights bookstore of San Francisco. ``I don't know what happened in his life that caused that.''
In other media interviews and in his book, Savage has said that his experience with higher education altered his outlook. Despite his doctorate, Savage was rejected for various academic positions. He writes in ``The Savage Nation'' that affirmative action ``almost destroyed my family and me,'' and in 1996 he sued UC-Berkeley when he was denied an interview for the job as dean of its graduate school of journalism. The reverse-discrimination case was eventually dropped.
Whether Savage's current right-wing positions are the product of some epiphany at midlife or just opportunistic showmanship is unclear.
Longtime friend and physicist Jack Sarfatti likens him to Lenny Bruce, saying that much of what Savage says is misunderstood satire. ``Michael's just a smart Jewish kid from New York,'' Sarfatti says. ``He's extremely funny much of the time. But he's angry. A lot of Jewish intellectuals are angry, so Michael has kind of channeled his anger into a high form of art.''
But New York marketing consultant Alan Zaitz, a former friend who has known Savage for more than 50 years, is unsure how seriously the radio host takes his own message.
``Does he really believe what he speaks?'' Zaitz says. ``I don't know. Years ago he was anti-war, but now all of a sudden he's George Bush's best fan. It's hypocrisy, but it makes damn good radio.''