UNDERNEATH A canopy of seven microphones, stretched out
like biomechanical tentacles to the farthest reaches of the room, Sean Hannity
sits all alone in a brightly lit radio booth in the studios of WABC/770 AM, his
chiseled chin resting on his hand. Reports just came out that Rep. Gary
Condit's wife had a verbal blowup with Chandra Levy three days before the
Washington intern's disappearance. The news is just another bucket of chum to
feed to the sharks that listen to talk radio.
Hannity will be able to stir up more debates about power. He can talk about
sex. He can talk about politics. He can talk about the police. He can throw
down the gauntlet at the decaying moral fiber in America.
But sitting all alone in a room with seven microphones, Hannity knows no
one is going to talk about anything until the Yankees game is over.
On a television outside the booth, crew members of "The Sean Hannity Show"
watch Shane Spencer line a ball into the gap, driving in two more runs the
Yankees won't need. Hannity's radio show will be shortened from a three-hour
marathon to a one-hour sprint due to WABC's game broadcast. He doesn't like it.
But he accepts it. And he knows that at his other job, no baseball team will
get in his way.
In an hour, Hannity will sprint from the radio station at 2 Penn Plaza to
the Fox News offices seven blocks away to start preparing for the hard-
charging debate show he does with longtime left-of-center radio personality
The two Long Island natives have propelled "Hannity & Colmes," weeknights
from 9 to 10 on Fox News Channel, into a steady ratings bonanza. Comparing the
second quarter of 2000 with the second quarter of 2001, the show has grown 85
percent in households and 47 percent in persons ages 25 to 54. People seem to
like to watch these two yelling at each other, along with listening to them.
Sold as a hipper, more high-voltage version of CNN's "Crossfire," Hannity
and Colmes take each other to task on a nightly basis. You tread on the First
Amendment, Colmes will crack his knuckles. You go off on Christian values,
Hannity will crack his.
Hannity is the conservative. He frequently substituted for Rush Limbaugh on
his radio show. When he gets going with his moral fiber and decency rants, his
voice is stern and forceful, just a notch lower than the archetypal superhero
cadence that accompanies lines such as "truth, justice and the American Way."
The liberal Colmes, on the other hand, has the deep, looping voice of a
radio disc jockey, playing out more of a rascally cartoon character than a man
of steel. Political pundits and media watchdogs have criticized Colmes for
being a pushover to Hannity's steamroller. Some even claim he's a fall guy-a
"scarecrow" as one journalism professor labeled him-a liberal foil in Rupert
Murdoch's conservative news machine. But as these two warriors go from one job
to another with only their wits and their mouths to fight with, you appreciate
what is actually a difference in style: Superman may be able to race bullets
and bend steel, but Bugs Bunny can be just as effective with a sloppy kiss on
the cheek and a crazy laugh.
With the Yankees postgame show over and the dramatic, orchestrated swells
of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" sweeping the airways, a deep-throated announcer
warns, "From border to border, sea to shining sea: Sean Hannity is on." Seven
blocks away, Alan Colmes is preparing for the Fox show, calling up congressmen
for some usable quotes about Condit, scanning the papers and the cable news
stations. He doesn't get to talk yet. It's Hannity's time.
HANNITY starts off on a rant: At 8 years old, he got a job delivering
Newsday on the Dogwood Avenue route near the old FoodFair in Franklin Square.
(You had to be 12 to deliver the paper, but no one asked, and he took the job.)
His work ethic firmly defined, Hannity switches gears.
"Now, look at how the world's changed. How many of you parents out there
would allow your children to get off the bus from school, go alone on a
bicycle, pick up the papers and deliver them. Under no circumstances would I
let my children do that."
His fondness for picket-fence America now defined, Hannity moves to third
"But, parents will let their 12-year- old daughters go see a Madonna
The message delivered, the phone lines fly open and people come back,
defending free speech and Madonna and anything and everything Hannity may have
butted heads with in the recent past. Firing back bolts of moral fiber and
claps of family values, Hannity seems born for the role. But, unlike his
radio-for-life counterpart Colmes, Hannity took the long route to the airwaves.
Raised in Franklin Square, Hannity, 39, was drifting in and out of college
in California and started to work in construction. He was a blue-collar guy.
Then the Iran-Contra hearings came up.
"I would take off work and just watch all of it, and listen to the radio,"
Hannity says during a break. "It was fascinating." But at the time, Hannity
claims, "real opinionated, issue- oriented, at-times controversial radio didn't
exist" in Southern California.
Hannity would call up radio programs and debate the goings-on of the day.
But when he discovered that the man he was calling was pulling in 60 grand for
being argumentative and confrontational-things he always felt came naturally to
him-he made a play for radio. He was fired from his first gig after just 40
hours because he booked a guest who wrote a controversial AIDS book. But he
eventually landed a steady job and earned his stripes at WGST/ 640 AM in
In 1996, he was paired with Colmes to star in the debate show on a start-
up all-news channel. Five years later, it is the only show on Fox News that has
never changed its time slot. He also got to work at WABC, the station he grew
up listening to.
The hour on WABC goes quickly. Hannity leaves 2 Penn Plaza and, weaving in
and out among 12-year- old Madonna fans heading toward Madison Square Garden
for the concert, hails a cab.
"I think Alan has a chauffeur-driven limousine," Hannity says, beginning
the first of many playful digs at his co-host. "Typical limousine liberal. If
you see him in a cab, it's a setup."
But Colmes and Hannity don't really hate each other. It's strictly
business. Not that they don't feel strongly about the issues both on and off
the air. Before Hannity's son arrived two and a half years ago, the two would
see each other off the air for dinner. But now, with their conflicting radio
time slots, the only time they see each other is right before the show.
"He's a great guy," Hannity says on the elevator up to the Fox News
offices. "He's smart, he's funny. He's got a great way about him. He's just
It's 6:30 p.m. when Hannity pokes his head into his adversary's office.
Although Colmes is neat in appearance, he looks disheveled next to
Hannity's hair-sprayed coif, gray tailored suit and power tie. Colmes, 50, grew
up in Lynbrook, 20 minutes away from Hannity. He came of age during Vietnam
and the Nixon administration, "when it was popular to be liberal, because they
were the ones speaking against the establishment."
After a stint on Hofstra radio and WGSM /740 AM in Huntington, Colmes
landed a successful show in Boston that was syndicated in 1990 as a nationwide
afternoon drive-time show. While being a liberal was cool on the airwaves in
the '70s, it was downright odd in the '90s. And Colmes has heard the arguments
many times by the liberal media charging that the Rupert Murdoch-owned, Roger
Ailes- driven Fox News Channel is slanted far to the right: "Next to Sean
Hannity, you're too soft."
"My attitude is: 'You kill fire with water, not with fire,'" Colmes says,
tired of the criticism. "You can carve up a turkey in a number of ways."
Web-based media critics at Media whoresonline.com broke down a partial
transcript from a "Hannity & Colmes" interview with Steve Forbes. Of the total
1,483 words spoken, 555 were spoken by Hannity, 633 by Forbes and 295 by
Colmes. On a debate show in which the liberal host should take to task the
conservative guest, Colmes spoke every fifth word.
"That's ridiculous," Colmes says, looking over the numbers. "I can be just
as effective with a quick retort or a one-liner than with a big paragraph."
Like the time the two were debating corporal punishment. Hannity was for
it, Colmes against it.
"After Sean spoke an eloquent paragraph about the benefits of corporal
punishment, I said, 'Well, would you ever hit your little dog, Snowball?' And
he reeled in and said, 'No!' Now it took three seconds. I didn't need to occupy
40 seconds to get my point across."
Clearly upset by the mainstream media's portrayal of him as Mr. Liberal
softy, Colmes turns to his computer.
"You are the devil," he says, reading off the screen. "I save all my good
e-mails. Listen to this one: 'You liberals should be deported.' And this one:
'I truly hope one day I have the pleasure of flipping you off to your face.'
And this one: 'You are completely evil.'"
Colmes pokes his head from behind the monitor.
"I'm clearly effective if I'm getting under all these people's skin. If
you're a conservative, you think I'm Satan." (With his anti-abortion,
pro-family agenda, Hannity gets even more hate mail. During the 1996 Olympics,
the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation released a statement on its Web
site denouncing AT&T for allowing Hannity to broadcast his radio show on
Atlanta's WGSTfrom AT&T's Olympic Pavilion, claiming Hannity "unabashedly
perpetuates anti-gay and lesbian stereotypes.")
AT 7 P.M., producer Meade Cooper and Hannity cram themselves into Colmes'
tiny office (Hannity's is just as small) to go over the script for the night's
show. The pages include simple setups-the correct names and titles of guests on
the show. But the crux of the show is all off the cuff.
After the first 30 minutes-all Chandra, all the time-the guest slated for
the bottom of the hour is a student from the University of California at Santa
Barbara who was kicked off the track team for being an exotic dancer.
"You know, I have trouble thinking this is the only way she could make
money," Hannity says with a smirk. "What about McDonald's?"
"Well, should she be thrown off the team?" Colmes counters. He leans
forward to throw another jab, but stops himself. Many times the two start
digging into the show's meat two hours before showtime. Colmes rests back into
his chair and saves it for the ring.
The two men head downstairs to the street-level studios. Earlier this
month, they were moved into posh studio B, complete with a window out onto the
street for gawkers to stare, "Today" show-style. Four cameras move in and out,
and guests are beamed in via satellite.
For the past month, the first 30 minutes of the show have been focusing on
the missing intern case. The Chandra Levy story poses an interesting conundrum
for a debate show like "Hannity & Colmes." Unlike the Clinton impeachment or
November's election, there are no well-defined teams. No one is waving the flag
for Gary Condit. Guests on the show are left to argue over police procedure.
There is little yelling. But ratings are still there.
Tonight's show is fairly tame. "I think we should all be united for the
sake of the missing girl," Hannity says at the end of one segment. The exotic
dancer gets her face time, and Hannity is fairly tame in his accusations of
lack of morality.
Hair stylist Mary Cicero sits in the back of the studio, comb at the ready
for any commercial break touch-ups.
"I love them both," Cicero says. "This is one of the funnest shows to work
on. I can't say a bad thing about either of them."
The show ends at 10. At 10:05, Hannity jumps in his car for the ride back
to his western Suffolk home to be with his son and wife, who is expecting a
baby girl within weeks. But Colmes, the Manhattan bachelor, has to hustle to
get to his next show.
Talk Radio WEVD/1050 AM is a decidedly different beast than the Murdoch-run
Fox News. The station's call letters are in honor of famed socialist Eugene V.
Debs, and Colmes shares the airwaves with left-of-center personalities such as
Bill Mazer and Ed Koch.
But beginning Sept. 1, WEVD will turn into all-sports ESPN Radio, forcing
Colmes and the others to look for another radio gig. Perhaps more important
than the paycheck, Colmes is losing his place to vent after having to share the
heated hour with Hannity. "I'm going to have to be twice as volatile in that
hour," Colmes jokes of his Fox News job. "I won't have that three-hour [radio]
Colmes arrives 15 minutes before he's set to go on the air, greets his crew
of three and settles down into his sparse studio, entirely gray and beige save
for a red scarf and candle that Colmes installed when the room was feng-shuied
a few months ago. Darrell Hammond, whose dead-on Bill Clinton and Al Gore
impersonations on "Saturday Night Live" have turned him into a political pundit
in his own right, is in the studio for the first hour. He and Colmes talk
about Condit, a woman's right to choose, the trappings of the Electoral College
and the differences in power between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
After debuting an impersonation of Dick Cheney trying to unravel the
mystery of Little Bo Peep and her lost sheep, Hammond departs, leaving Colmes
alone with the phones.
With the lights dimmed, it's the picture you get in your head when you're
listening to talk radio at midnight: A guy, all alone, talking to whoever will
listen, the black coffee and cigarette replaced by vitamin water and a giant
chocolate chip cookie.
The folks who call into Colmes' show are cut from a different swath than
Hannity's afternoon-drive- time listeners. They are hard-core political junkies
who are listening for hours at home instead of in 15-minute blocks in their
cars. Some are crazed conspiracy theorists. Some are just plain lonely people.
Colmes doesn't screen his calls for content. He has a cast of regulars who call
in and berate him. He banters with a woman who tries to link Bill Clinton to
Chandra Levy's disappearance. He brushes off attacks by xenophobes and
homophobes, throwing comedy in the face of hate. Long-winded diatribes about
racism are countered with a sarcastic jab and a laugh before punching in the
Somewhere in a car driving down the Southern State Parkway, Sean Hannity
may be listening. And unless he's willing to pick up the phone, he's got to
just sit there and take it. Either that or just turn off the radio. But where's
the fun in that?
1) RIGHT "Look at how the world�s changed. How many of you parents out there
would allow your children to get off the bus from school, go alone on a
bicycle, pick up the papers and deliver them. Under no circumstances would I
let my children do that."- Sean Hannity 2) LEFT"I�m clearly effective if I�m
getting under all these people�s skin. If you�re a conservative, you think I�m
Satan."- Alan Colmes 3) CONSERVATIVE - I think Alan has a chauffeur-driven
limousine. Typical limousine liberal. If you see him in a cab, it's a setup."
Sean Hannity on Colmes 4) LIBERAL - "He's smart, he's funny. He's got a great
way about him. He's just wrong politically."- Alan Colmes on Hannity
[CORRECTION: A quotation on yesterday's Part 2 cover was incorrectly
attributed. The quote, "He's smart, he's funny. He's got a great way about him.
He's just wrong politically," was from Sean Hannity, talking about Alan
Colmes, his co-host on the Fox News program, "Hannity & Colmes." pg. A02 ALL