He's not your typical conservative talk host - and that may make him worth a listen
By Joseph P. Kahn -- Globe Staff
Debuting on his new WRKO-AM talk show last month, Reese Hopkins wasted little time poking a stick into the beehive of Bay State politics.
In his first day on the air, Reese Hopkins declared "war" on Governor Deval Patrick, went after Mayor Thomas Menino and City Councilor Chuck Turner for their handling of the snowstorm that paralyzed Boston, and declared his support for Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential race - after splicing Mitt Romney's voice into a comedy bit he called "Cry for the Negro."
Reese Hopkins is comfortable labeling himself a conservative, and finding another right-tilting host in RKO's lineup was hardly a shock. He's followed in his 10 a.m.-to-noon slot by Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, after all. But identifying Hopkins by the on-air company he keeps can be misleading.
A Reagan Republican, he's also a Jewish African-American who once danced in hip-hop videos and who was managing a New Jersey tile warehouse when the station brought him to Boston.
Reese Hopkins, 38, has promised WRKO (680) listeners his own life will be an "open book." Whether that book sells locally remains to be seen, but it's definitely different from anything else on the market.
"I'm not a celebrity, just an average guy," Reese Hopkins says during an interview following a recent broadcast. "Too many people in this business lost their jobs by forgetting who their listeners are. Trying to reinvent the wheel is not what I do."
Confounding stereotypes is a different story. In New York, where Hopkins worked in radio from 2001 to 2005, he billed himself as The Crossover Negro and praised mainstream media personalities like Al Roker and Bryant Gumbel at the expense of the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Reese Hopkins sympathized with store looters rather than the cops trying to arrest them. After CBS fired Don Imus for his racially charged remarks about a women's college basketball team, Hopkins was furious - not at Imus but at CBS and Sharpton for making too much of a verbal gaffe he calls "irrelevant."
"It's not about a black guy disrespecting other blacks on air," Reese Hopkins says of his Crossover Negro persona, which he's since dropped. "I'm not a self-hater. I just wanted to talk about aspects of the culture I didn't like." Listeners would rip him, he adds, "because, one, I didn't sound black, and two, I idolized Ronald Reagan. If anything, that just toughened me, though."
Reese Hopkins spices his radio monologues with references to just how tough he's become. How he got that way confounds stereotypes, too.
A native of Queens, N.Y., Reese Hopkins says he grew up in a single-parent household with an abusive mother who threw him out when he was 15. (On air, Reese Hopkins has graphically described the beatings he says he received.) For three years, until he graduated from high school and went to Fordham University, Hopkins was homeless and sleeping in an apartment building stairwell. At Fordham, he and a group of friends created their own mock radio show, yet it wasn't until 1999 that Hopkins converted his passion for edgy radio into a paying gig and a modicum of fame.
In the interim, he'd danced on the "Club MTV" show and in rap videos, eventually putting together his own group, Beatmarket, that toured from 1995 to 1999. By 1992, Reese Hopkins was married and had a son. Three years later, his wife left him, taking their child with her. It would be another 10 years before Reese Hopkins reunited with his son, who is now 15 and living at Hopkins's home in New Jersey. Remarried, Hopkins also has two stepchildren, ages 15 and 10.
Following the breakup of his first marriage, Hopkins says, he decided it was time to get "a legitimate job." Answering the phone for a warehouse-management company was the first of many such jobs he's taken to support himself. Others have included car-service dispatcher, security guard, and airport porter. By 2000, he says, "I'd already adopted my Crossover Negro character, which was basically a statement that I was not some hip-hop bum."
Radio entered the picture later that year, when Hopkins faxed a couple of fake-news bits to the "Star & Buc Wild Morning Show," then airing on FM stations WQHT and WWPR. The bits got read on air, and Hopkins was subsequently invited to join the cast. He debuted in April 2001. Five months later he was broadcasting from the show's studio in Lower Manhattan when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. Reese Hopkins was staring at the twin towers when the second airplane hit.
"I'm claustrophobic and a hypochondriac, so I was like mumbling and hyperventilating at the same time," he remembers. Thrust into the role of news correspondent, he found he liked it and began paying more attention to politics and current events - and less to the musical interludes (50 Cent, Kanye West) that carried the show. In 2005, he suddenly resigned from "Star & Buc" and stayed out of radio for what became a two-year hiatus.
"It was time to make my own moves, to become Reese again," he says.
Leaving the warehouse
Settling in Fort Lee, N.J., with his new family, Hopkins managed a tile warehouse while producing shows for one of Howard Stern's satellite radio channels. Then, in October, he got a call from an old friend, 'RKO sales manager Jim Capuano, asking if he'd be interested in auditioning for a radio job in Boston.
Reese Hopkins tried out for two days in the slot previously occupied by Todd Feinburg. By winning the job, Hopkins became the only African-American in the full-time lineup of either 'RKO or WBZ-AM, Boston's two leading nonsports AM talk stations.
According to Jason Wolfe, vice president of programming for Entercom Boston, which owns WRKO and WEEI-AM, race and diversity were nonfactors in choosing Hopkins, notwithstanding the fact that Wolfe has fielded complaints in the past about who commands the mike at his stations. In 2003, for instance, 'EEI morning hosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan were suspended for two weeks after making racially charged comments. Community leaders were upset, many demanding that Dennis and Callahan be fired. (They were not.)
"At the end of the day, it's who sounds and fits best in the time slot," says Wolfe, who ran focus groups to gauge listener reaction to Hopkins. "Reese's personality is different from anyone else on the air, so we felt it was worth taking a shot on him."
As for Reese Hopkins not being very familiar with Boston and its leading players, Wolfe says he's unconcerned. "He's not from here, but he's not pretending to be. The important thing now is for him to get out in the community and become acclimated to it, and the audience to him."
With the latest ratings-measurement period starting on Monday, Wolfe says it's too early to tell how successful Hopkins has been at attracting listeners, new or old.
Reese Hopkins agrees he's better off not pretending to know the city any better than he does.
"The big thing is, don't lie," he says. "If you're not from here, tell them - so they look at you as a guy who's here now."
A regular feature of his new show is something Hopkins calls Therapy Thursday, in which host and listeners vent about personal issues. Cross Dr. Phil with Howard Beale, the mad-as-hell broadcaster in "Network," and you get an idea of how Hopkins operates.
"Radio is not about how far you can cross the line," he says. "The day of the shock jock is dead. Now it's about what you can do that's compelling without being offensive."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.