The Roasted Host 

The airing-out of Bill Boner

The airing-out of Bill Boner

In the dark recesses of an enormous studio complex on Dickerson Road, three people—a TV talk-show host, his wife, and his guest for the evening—sit chatting in a glass-paneled room overlooking a studio console. The conversation turns to movies, and the guest says that she has seen the movie Nixon. She didn’t like it, she says, not because of any particular historical concerns, but just because she didn’t like the way it was filmed and edited.

The talk-show host shakes his head. The two darkest periods in our nation’s history, he says, were the days of Vietnam and the days of Nixon. Because of that, he explains, he finds it unbearable to watch movies about Nixon or Vietnam—movies “like Field of Dreams.” Field of Dreams? The Kevin Costner baseball movie?

No matter. It is time. An associate producer escorts the host and his guest to the studio. The host’s wife sits alone, somewhat nervous. No one can blame her for being nervous. For years, the city’s news media have worked overtime to embarrass and ridicule the man who is now her husband.

A few minutes before airtime, a phone line is already lighting up, and the show’s producer is dispatching last-minute orders to a cameraman. “Thirty seconds,” murmurs a disembodied voice. On a bank of video screens, images flicker—a woman is hawking dishwashing liquid. The camera settles on the host, and a computer-generated logo of a microphone appears onscreen.

In the control room, the murmur among the technicians suddenly hushes. The countdown to airtime has begun. Producer Mark Sudbury (five!) stares intently at the (four!) screen, while an associate (three!) producer lines up the (two!) blinking first call (one!). Instantly, in homes all over Middle Tennessee, as channel surfers flip past on their way to ER, the host’s familiar face fills the screen. “Welcome to PrimeTalk,” he says. “Tonight we have a great show for you.”

The boyish face belongs to Nashville’s newest prime-time talk-show host. It is the face of Bill Boner.

Talk is deep

Since the last week of November, Boner—former congressman, former mayor of Nashville, former radio call-in host, pallet manufacturer and widely acknowledged media victim—has hosted his own television talk show, PrimeTalk With Bill Boner, on Nashville’s new station WNAB-Channel 18. One hour a night, five nights a week, Boner and his guests meet to discuss the issues of the day.

“Our focus is kind of like a Larry King Live-type format,” Boner says. “I try to deal with current issues, and most of the issues I’ve dealt with are not really political issues.”

Indeed. Boner’s guests have ranged from sideman and former Walton Jon Walmsley to financial consultant Dave Ramsay, from Rob Royer and Jimmy Griffin of the ’70s pop group Bread to private investigator Norma Tillman. Upcoming shows will include state Rep. Gary Odom and psychic Carol Kennedy. “We’ve got somebody here from space abduction,” Boner says, flipping through a red notebook that contains his production schedule. “She’s been abducted, and we’re going to talk about how they let her go.”

The quality of Boner’s show varies with his guests, but PrimeTalk fulfills a serious need in Nashville’s ever-widening local broadcast market—a need for local current-affairs programming. While Boner has a few liabilities as a host—his introductions are often stiff, and his laugh sometimes brays alarmingly from out of nowhere—he is nonetheless covering local issues in far greater depth than any of the local news programs on Nashville’s three largest network affiliates.

Thus far, Boner has devoted hour-long shows to topics such as race, domestic violence, Social Security, welfare reform and the Christian Coalition. His call-in format allows viewers to present direct questions to experts and public officials who are often removed from the public. Add Boner’s likable personality to the mix, along with his knowledge of just about everyone in the city, and the results are entertaining, sometimes enlightening.

“On our shows,” Boner says, “I try to run the gamut—a certain number that capture the interests of women, a certain number that capture the interests of men, a certain number that capture the interests of African-Americans. I try to look at the various sections of our community and think how we can bring something on that would interest you.”

“He wants it to be informative, and he wants to do a good job,” says Carol Boner, Bill’s wife, a tall woman with neatly arranged blond hair and high cheekbones. But whenever her husband is mentioned in the local media, she notes with some puzzlement, the content is almost always unfavorable. Because she met Boner long after his well-publicized troubles, she says, she doesn’t recognize the man she reads about. “No matter what he does,” she sighs, “it seems that when you hear about him, you don’t hear ‘the one who was congressman’ or ‘the one who was mayor,’ you hear ‘the one on Donahue.’ ”

Donahue! “We don’t mention that word around here,” Boner jokes before the show, but the ironies of his current situation are inescapable. It was almost six years ago that Boner, his fourth wife-to-be, Traci Peel, then-WLAC talk-show host Les Jameson and Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie appeared on what was then the nation’s hottest syndicated daytime talk show. “You can’t ever believe the media,” Boner said on the show—and now here he is, part of the flock.

Boner’s skirmishes with the Nashville media are legend. During the 1987 mayoral primary, The Tennessean at one point actually endorsed anyone besides Boner. So relentless (and accurate) were the paper’s attacks that many credited a pro-Boner, anti-Tennessean backlash with swinging the election his way. By 1990, the dismal events surrounding Boner’s administration and personal life had triggered an avalanche of bad press.

Nevertheless, however much Boner may have disliked the message, he certainly liked the medium. During his term as mayor, Boner appeared frequently on radio shows, and he even briefly authored a column in the Nashville Scene. In a famous Tennessean editorial, John Seigenthaler described the basic contradiction of Boner’s political personality: a willingness to use the media at convenient times and then blame them at others for his troubles.

It doesn’t seem that surprising, then, that Boner would eventually join the ranks of the media, first with a show on WWTN, then on the Murfreesboro radio station WAPB last year, and finally on WNAB, the Warner Brothers affiliate housed in the massive Speer Communications complex on Dickerson Road. In a reversal of fortune worthy of Dickens, he’s made his debut in the same month as Phil Donahue’s before-they-make-me-run retirement—and shortly after Les Jameson’s firing from WLAC.

Ungentlemanly callers

These days, Bill Boner seems to bear little, if any, resentment toward his former adversaries in the press. “When I recommitted my life to the Lord three years ago,” Boner says, “the first thing I did was sit down and ask, ‘Lord, what is it you want me to do? Should I seek a career that just shuts the door on all the experiences and knowledge I have, or do you want me to try to take my past experiences, good and bad, and try to share those with others?’ I firmly believe the Lord has led me to this opportunity.”

While a talk show may not seem the most likely vehicle for the Lord’s work, there is no question as to Boner’s gentlemanly handling of his guests. Even when his guest is Sandra Roberts, who was responsible for some of The Tennessean’s most scorching editorials while Boner was in office, the discussion remains remarkably relevant and lively. Roberts is amusing, articulate and direct; she even admits that she has more respect for Metro Council member Julius Sloss than she did when the paper endorsed his opponent, Ludye Wallace.

Offscreen, however, an odd situation is developing. A persistent caller wants to demand that Roberts take a lie detector test. “Does he sound drunk?” a staffer asks, while Boner and Roberts chat amiably before the cameras. The assistant handling the call can be heard saying, “Well, sir, if you believe she’s a bitch liar, you’re entitled to your opinion.”

Producer Sudbury informs Boner of the situation. On the screen, as Boner listens to Roberts, he almost imperceptibly shakes his head. “Dump the caller,” Sudbury says. Within minutes, though, the man calls back. Sudbury tells Boner the situation once again. The show goes into its break.

The opportunity for a bit of revenge is sweet. Boner can let the caller on after the break, and the caller can harass Roberts, who, after all, never hesitated to let the former mayor have it in print. Boner can just sit back and watch Roberts squirm on live television, and he needn’t have a flash of guilt. Hell, it might even make for great TV—it works for Geraldo.

But that doesn’t happen. When the show resumes, Boner himself tells Roberts, somewhat apologetically, what the caller wants. Roberts, obviously bemused, instructs the man to call her directly at the office the next day. The situation is resolved. The show proceeds onward, to real issues.

“I must admit, when Bill called me, my first reaction was, ‘How can I get out of this?’ ” admits Roberts, a 22-year Tennessean veteran, who says she didn’t know “how seriously Bill Boner [would] be perceived” as a talk-show host. While she confesses, not unkindly, that “I don’t think God put Bill Boner on this earth to be on television,” she is nonetheless complimentary of Boner’s efforts.

“Say what you will about Bill Boner, he’s a real people person,” she observes. “Unlike many television personalities, he doesn’t try to make his guests uncomfortable.

“He certainly made me feel at ease,” she adds with a laugh, “which is strange, since I’ve written some pretty scathing editorials.”

Asked if he held any animosity toward Roberts from six years ago, Boner laughs. “Heavens, no!” he exclaims. “Hey, you heard her—she said she made a mistake about Julius....”

Et resurrexit

So far, Boner’s bosses at WNAB are pleased with his performance. “I think he’s great,” says Vince Barresi, WNAB’s president and CEO. “We were certainly aware of some of the difficulties Bill has had. But we sat around the table and talked. No one has his knowledge of the city. We knew we wanted to do a prime-time talk show—an in-depth pulse-of-the-community show—and we were fortunate enough to get Bill Boner.” Boner’s is the first in a planned series of local programs to originate from WNAB; the next, a sports call-in show featuring radio personality George Plaster, debuts Jan. 29.

Although the show has triggered a large initial response, some wonder how long Boner can draw an audience, especially with Warner’s weak lead-in programming. “If [the show is] going to have a future,” observes Roberts, “it’s going to have to outlive the novelty of seeing Bill Boner on TV.”

It’s never a wise idea, though, to underestimate Boner’s popularity in Nashville. Even though he chuckles at the idea of running for office and plays out his little-ol’-me routine, he can also readily provide a list of encounters with people who have urged him to jump back in. “There’s not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t say run for something,” Boner says.

He probably isn’t exaggerating. Last winter, when Boner was still hosting an afternoon show on talk-radio station WWTN, he broadcast one afternoon from a side booth at Varallo’s, the Ninth Avenue chili mill that remains a popular hangout for the old guard of Nashville politics. As Boner exchanged quips with Drue Smith, herself a relic of a vanishing Nashville, heads turned. Newcomers whispered. A steady stream of well-wishers, buddies and supporters filed past Boner’s table, clapping him on the shoulder and clasping his hand. Boner’s strength as a politician will always be his reputation as the guy who remembers people’s names, who knew your parents, who knows your neighborhood.

At the climax of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, after making the decision to resign, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon stares forlornly at a painting of John F. Kennedy. “When they look at you, they see what they want to be,” Nixon whispers. “When they look at me, they see what they are.” In a good way, the same may be true of Bill Boner and Nashville, especially as the city’s fortunes rise. In the bust years of the 1980s, Boner’s marital troubles, his good-ol’-boy political machinery and even his corn pone accent symbolized the things Nashvillians couldn’t stand about themselves. Today, in more charitable times, people look at Boner and see a warm personality, a tireless spirit, a resilience in the face of adversity that mirrors the city at large. “Sometimes,” he says, with the ring of hard-earned wisdom, “time is a good healer.

“Those who miss you remind you,” Bill Boner explains, “and those who hated you kind of mellow.” He leans back with a smile, framed at his desk against a backdrop of the Nashville skyline. “I’ve found, generally,” he says, “when you’re out of office and the other guy’s raised taxes, you don’t look near as bad as they thought.”

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