On the air and oppositional
Christine Craft uses the tools of the trade: sarcasm, humor, mockery and above all outrage—lots and lots of outrage—mostly directed at the governor
As thousands gathered on the south lawn of the Capitol for the large anti-Schwarzenegger protest on May 25, hundreds of signs showing cartoonish images of the governor were hoisted. One was of a sneering Arnold, emblazoned with the words “Wurst Wiener.” Another showed the governor wearing what looked like an S.S. uniform, with two lightning-forked W’s on his armband and the message “Arnold for President of Austria.”
The provocative signs were the work of local graphic designer George Glazunov, the grandson of a famous Russian composer, an aficionado of the sorts of theatrical political gestures pioneered by mid-century European anarchists and socialists as well as 1960s American radicals. He’s also the creator of an earlier series of images of a demonic-looking President George W. Bush, along with the tagline “electile dysfunction.” The placards were paid for, out of pocket, by Talk City radio-station host Christine Craft, a broadcaster loved by some for her outspoken liberalism and detested, to the point of receiving death threats, by others for her fiery, opinionated rhetoric.
When Craft recently critiqued the Hmong practice of ritually sacrificing animals for religious reasons, she received a barrage of hostile e-mails, accusing her of everything from ignorance to racism. When she criticizes Bush and other federal and state Republicans, she also raises the hackles of the right. Conservative talk-radio rival Eric Hogue, of KTKZ radio, asserts—somewhat self-servingly, given conservative talk shows’ searing critiques of the country’s political leadership during the Clinton years, not to mention its penchant for distortion and exaggeration—that she does “a marvelous job of complaining” while being in hock to “special interest” groups such as the trade unions. “When you’re complaining and whining all the time,” Hogue continued, “people don’t enjoy that. I don’t laugh much when I listen to liberal talk radio. The tune-out factor is big.”
Not big enough, apparently, to deter Christine Craft. For months now, she has been at the forefront of local anti-Schwarzenegger activities. She has been using her weekday podium at Talk City—the local affiliate station of the liberal Air America network, broadcasting on 1240 AM—to urge people to protest the Schwarzenegger administration’s cuts to universities and other public services, its attempts to “reform” state pensions, its redistricting plans and the calls for a special election next November.
Air America has positioned itself as the mainstream liberal, Democratic, alternative to Rush Limbaugh and the bevies of conservative talk-radio commentators who have shot to prominence over the past couple of decades. Funded by an array of progressive foundations, its mission consists of pushing a feisty liberal message, using the tools of the trade (sarcasm, humor, mockery and above all outrage—lots and lots of outrage) perfected through the recent years by their conservative rivals.
Over the Sacramento airwaves, in recent months, Craft has focused her outrage largely on generating opposition to the governor and his policies. “He’s chosen to be a bully,” she stated, explaining her loathing of the movie-star-cum-politician. “The special election is an attempt to make California a redder state, to make changes that negatively affect the middle classes and the poor and benefit the rich.” She’s been actively protesting against him, and urging her listeners to protest against him, since way before his poll numbers began to plummet, waiting for that moment when the shine would wear off.
And, with thousands gathered on the Capitol lawn, the shine did, indeed, appear to have corroded. “I run into all kinds of people who were gaga-Arnold,” she stated fiercely. “And they hate the guy with a passion now. There’s an immense change.”
Under the intense late-spring sun, 60-year-old Craft—in blue-jean overalls, a cotton blouse and sneakers with no socks, her hair short and mouse-brown—was preparing to go on the air live from the protest. Perched in front of her was her mascot of the moment—a stuffed bulldog with Schwarzenegger’s face, a large cigar protruding from its mouth and its head adorned with a halo of purple flowers—whom she derisively had named “Karl Rove’s Lapdog.”
She had a makeshift studio set up on a Talk City table to the right of the stage. Faced with a nonfunctioning satellite phone, the station had several cell phones ready to go, through which she was actually going to broadcast her show. Beneath the table were two plastic containers, in which were stuffed hundreds of $1 bills—Glazunov had been asking everyone who took one of his signs for a $2 donation, intended to repay the radio host for her outlay.
“I’m a hot, sweaty old bag!” Craft declared happily to a fan who wandered over to ask how she was. “And I’m having fun.” She started to laugh. It might not have been everyone’s idea of fun, but for Craft, who these days spends most of her waking hours nursing her elderly and extremely sick father, the carnival-like atmosphere was a diversionary godsend.
Minutes before 4 p.m., the start time for her show, Craft’s team rounded up about a dozen volunteers from the crowd. They would be, she said coquettishly, her Wienerettes. For a woman whose mother was a glamorous sometime Hollywood actress and television-commercial presenter in the early days of TV—she did advertising spots on General Electric Theater—it was a suitably entertaining image.
Glazunov—sporting spiky dyed-blond hair, jeans and a purple T-shirt with the letters CCCP and a hammer and sickle (the old emblems of the Soviet Union)—led the group onstage. When Craft’s show went live, listeners heard Glazunov roar, “Give me a W.” The Wienerettes gave him a W. “Give me an I.” The volunteers dutifully gave him an I. And so on. “What’s that spell?” “Wiener!” roared many from the 10,000-strong crowd.
For the next two hours, shielded from the sun by a makeshift tent but still sweating so profusely that her glasses kept sliding down her nose—with fans coming up to take her photograph, shake her hand and wish her well—Craft shouted into her cell phones over the noise of the crowd. She interviewed various protesters about what they were angry about and why they were there and inserted her own verbal digs at the governor.
It was all a long way from the supposedly impartial world of objective, mainstream journalism in which Craft had debuted 30 years earlier. It also was several degrees removed from the calm professionalism of a well-endowed studio: According to listeners, at times throughout the live broadcast, as the technicians wrestled with the uncooperative satellite phone, the station was plagued by minutes of dead air. And, when the air wasn’t dead, Craft’s voice, gamely offered up over the backup cell phones, often was hard to hear against the background din.
Christine Craft was conceived in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel; came into the world in Canton, Ohio; and grew up a Navy brat (when she was born at the tail end of World War II, her father was serving in the Sea of Japan) and only child in Southern California. She went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1960s, where she spent a goodly portion of her time surfing and much of the remainder of her time honing her skills as a champion debater.
In the 1970s, she was briefly married to the film director, playwright and photographer Lorenzo DeStefano, and following her dabbling in a series of non-career jobs, she went into the glitzy, dressed-up world of TV journalism—arguably an unlikely profession for a woman who loathed getting made up and who, suffering from an inherited deformity of the feet bones, viewed the wearing of high heels as practically a form of socially sanctioned torture. Her career in television news moved her from California to New York, back to California and then into the Midwest, where she was hired as a news anchor by the Metromedia company. And it was there that Craft rendezvoused with destiny.
In 1981, the 36-year-old news anchor was demoted from her job at KMBC in Kansas City, when the television station’s management told her that focus groups indicated viewers thought she was “too old, too unattractive and wouldn’t defer to men.” She was, in other words, a Murphy Brown before her time. Astonishingly, one of the focus-group questions targeted at men was, according to the later findings of Craft’s legal team, “Let’s be honest about this, she’s a mutt, isn’t she?”
Craft moved back to California to nurse her wounds, to surf and to work for a Santa Barbara station. And then she sued Metromedia on three counts, chief among them for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the part that prohibits sex discrimination. In August 1983, a jury in the federal district court in Kansas City awarded her a half-million dollars in damages. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Stevens then threw out the verdict and ordered a second trial, in Joplin, Mo. Again, a jury sided with Craft. Again Metromedia appealed, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the new verdict, finding no “reasonable” jury would have come down on her side. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case—Sandra Day O’Connor, at the time the lone woman on the court, was the single dissenter—and Craft’s legal odyssey was over, her bank account as empty as the day she had first decided to sue.
Nevertheless, during those years she emerged as something of a cult hero for supporters of women’s liberation. She became a cause célèbre for equal-rights groups, was featured on the cover of Life magazine and appeared on Late Show with David Letterman. She wrote a best-selling book titled Too Old, Too Ugly, And Not Deferential to Men, with an introduction penned by Larry King. And, for a few years, represented by lecture agent Carlton Sedgeley, she was a hot ticket on the national speaking circuit, leaving her beachfront home in Santa Barbara to fly to cities and campuses around the country.
Craft’s case was taught in law schools in constitutional-law classes—as she found out when she enrolled in the McGeorge School of Law in the late 1980s and studied to become a lawyer. And over time, the cult hero morphed into an icon of the feminist movement. So much so that in later years, her one-time protégé and friend Rush Limbaugh—whom she claims to have discovered while she was working on a Sacramento television station in the latter years of the 1980s—would take to referring to her as the “colonel of the feminazis.” When Limbaugh made a brouhaha about backing the troops in the 1990-1991 Desert Storm operation, Navy brat Craft made a point of one-upping him, posing for nude photos—her back to the camera and “U.S.A.” emblazoned on her behind—that she told her listeners she’d send to the troops as a morale booster. (Craft’s radio station chickened out and, recalled one of her friends, airbrushed in a red, white and blue bikini.)
Yet, the brash, slightly off-kilter public persona was, in many ways, a facade. In reality, once off the air, Craft was (and still is) an intensely private person, and the celebrity status fit somewhat uncomfortably. She seemed to like her animals more than casual human contact; she had no children (though she does have plenty of godchildren and people who view her as an honorary parent, aunt or big sister); and she had, over the years, spent a large part of her leisure time and spare cash building up her vast collection of dolls—inanimate imitations of the human form less likely to trigger drama than their real-life counterparts. When office Christmas parties rolled around, she put in a perfunctory appearance and usually left before the dancing started, having perhaps drunk at the most a couple of sips of wine.
But because of the notoriety, everywhere she went, the anchor was a star. Ninotchka (the reclusive Greta Garbo film character) in her private life, she’d become a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Madonna in public—a woman with a serious political point of view and the balls to tell powerful men where to go if they didn’t want to hear it.
It was a hard double act to keep up. After a while, Craft just needed a change of pace. Almost on a whim, she accepted a television-news job offer from the small Channel 31 in Sacramento, packed up her belongings and moved north at the tail end of 1985, accompanied by a barrage of headlines as word spread that a company was willing to risk hiring the “firebrand.” She assumed the move would be temporary. Instead, she never left, becoming, over the decades, one of the capital city’s most recognized, albeit elusive, media personalities.
The move opened up new avenues for Craft, allowing her to develop new sides to her personality. Four years after arriving in the city, Craft quit her job at Channel 31 and enrolled in law school. “It’s a conservative school,” said Craft’s law-school friend Donna Sanders. “And many of the students are fundamentalist Christians. And many came from backgrounds where people didn’t mix racially.” Sanders, an African-American, recalls that “Ms. Craft” came in and immediately set to work breaking down the racial divide. “Seeing people from different ethnic groups interact, that brought a lot to the students. I call her ‘Ms. Craft.’ It’s an African-American thing. She’s very strong, very opinionated, very beautiful. She calls me ‘Ms. Donna.’ She’s not a diva, but she just comes across as this intelligent, strong but loving female.”
At the ripe old age of 50, Christine Craft had passed the California bar exam.
When she emerged from her studies again, now a journalist-cum-attorney, her interest in TV had waned, and her interest in radio had increased. Somehow, the medium seemed more forgiving of a late-middle-aged lady who chooses to come to work with no makeup, wearing ankle-length blue-jean overalls and backless sneakers. It also was far more accommodating of her increasingly opinionated political views.
She began working as a radical, sassy talk-radio host and, at times, also taking on legal work—especially if the cases involved animal rights (she also wrote columns and articles for this paper).
Today, attorney Craft is a fill-in talk-show host on the large KGO station in San Francisco. And for the past several months, she has worked as the main local weekday-afternoon talent for Talk City, helping the station develop a respectable, albeit still fairly small, audience in this media-saturated market. Even Hogue, who seems to view her politics as almost being toxic, begrudgingly recognizes her talent. “She’s a good talk-show host, and she handles the format well,” he said. But then he quickly qualified his compliment. “There’s a lot of people good at what they do—I just don’t like their content.”
Of course, for Christine, the content is the point. “The country is in a whole lot of doo-doo right now,” Craft said angrily. “And I see the airwaves as being a way of mobilizing people. I think these are very critical times. Somebody just has to say, ‘No! You’re not going to screw us without a fight.’” The radio waves, Craft continued, are “my living room, my salon.”
In Old Sacramento, at the top of the stairs leading from the Front Street entrance of Talk City’s building up to the second-floor studio, hangs an upside-down Stars and Stripes. Title IV of the U.S. Code, Craft explains, states that flying a flag upside down signifies that the nation is in distress. Continuing the theme, in the room from which Craft broadcasts is a photo of President Bush against a red, white and blue background, with the single word “FLORIDA” forming a clearly Hitlerian mustache along his upper lip.
As 4 p.m. nears, the 60-year-old peps herself up. “OK! I’m ready! I’m ready! I’m ready! It’s showtime!” she shouts inside the windowless studio, and then she’s live, talking a mile a minute into the microphone, a pencil ready in her right hand to take notes on the things said by her callers over the next two hours.
On the air, the rabble-rouser lambastes Bush for his many faux pas; mocks him for riding his “tricycle … I mean bicycle” recently while the White House was being evacuated after a plane flew into restricted space overhead; calls him a “boob,” a “moron,” a “monarch.”
She has an intimate it’s only you and me style, intended to put her callers at ease. And when she wants to score political points, she effortlessly slides into the faux naiveté, the golly-gee-whiz style of the seasoned radio voice. “Is it because he’s basically their puppet?” she muses, when pondering why nobody bothered to tell Bush about the emergency situation. She finishes the half-hour segment by positing—presumably in jest—that perhaps the president was, in fact, not on his bicycle, but instead was off in a love nest with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the whole time.
Craft’s audience loves it. Throughout the show, Talk City’s phones are ringing off the hook.
And so, in the somewhat unlikely setting of early 21st-century Sacramento, Craft is having a renaissance, at an age when many people are starting to think about retiring, collecting Social Security and whiling away their days on the golf course.
Said her longtime friend and confidant Bill Wiggins—who was a senior housing official under former Governor Jerry Brown—as he pondered her current status as elder stateswoman of the Sacramento protest scene, “It’s like a phoenix rising. And it’s great, because it’s a relief from looking after her father” (Willard, an 89-year-old retired naval officer and teacher—and rock-hard conservative Republican—who has lived in a cottage out back of Craft’s house since his wife died of Alzheimer’s disease 11 years ago and who now has all the ailments and more of most men his age).
These days, as Willard’s health has declined, as he falls more often and as his body fails him, Christine has become virtually a full-time nurse. She leaves her house for a few hours each weekday afternoon (she has a caregiver hired for those periods); drives to the Talk City studio in her old black Volvo station wagon, with Karl Rove’s Lapdog perched in the passenger seat; feeds the parking meter; grabs a mocha freeze at Steamers Coffee and briefly schmoozes with the riverfront store owners; does her two-hour show; and hurries home, to a house filled with dogs and cats, many of which she has rescued from abandonment, and to an old man she loves far too much to ever send away to a nursing home. “My father’s my only living relative. I don’t have anyone else. That’s it,” Craft explained. She rarely goes out, existing as something of a hermit. When she fires off an e-mail to Wiggins, as she does most days—like an aging odd couple, they check in on each other almost daily to make sure they’re both doing OK—she signs it on behalf of one of her cats, one of her dogs and “Mommy Christine.”
For attorney Craft, the radio show and the political rallies have become her “lifeboats,” her connections to the larger world. “There’s an amazing juxtaposition between what her home life is and these rallies and shows,” explained Wiggins in wonderment, as he pondered the again-rising local stardom of his best friend.
Air America’s top national broadcaster, comedian and best-selling author Al Franken, believes the kind of local voice and passion that Craft brings to the issues is indispensable. Franken, who broadcast live from the Crest Theatre on May 11 for three hours, to commemorate Talk City’s one-year anniversary, said, “You need to be addressing stuff at the grassroots, and local issues are extremely important. When you’re talking about winning back the country, you’re talking about national and local issues. So, it’s real important for a network like us to have local content.”
When she gets an e-mail or a phone call from someone she believes has something to say, Christine will invite him or her onto her show—nurses who’ve run afoul of the Schwarzenegger machine for protesting funding cuts, teachers, and civil-rights activists who’ve spoken out against racial profiling.
Talk City’s 26-year-old assistant programming director, Marinda Johnson, said that Craft quite simply “is the station. Everyone goes to her for little things. She’s not like a mom; it’s a big-sister kind of thing. She takes care of me. She’s accomplished so much, but she’s still just Christine. She brings a lot of joy to the station. She keeps us all laughing.”
“I met Christine in 2003,” recalled 32-year-old Haleh Welcher, a Muslim woman originally from Iran who phoned her KGO show to talk about post-9/11 tensions and whom Craft subsequently invited onto Talk City to co-host a number of shows. “She’s honest and respectful, even in disagreement, and to me that’s what a real American is. She’s an advocate for the people. I love her. I think she should be governor.”