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Living Out Loud: : Death of a Radiohead

A talk radio pioneer's murder 20 years ago

By Jeffrey Hillard · July 14th, 2004 · Living Out Loud
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The midnight air was swelling with talk.

There was nothing but talk, the city of Denver paralyzed with the fear of bullets, death, and an act of barbarity it has not known since.

The talk blossomed to rumors of a mob hit or an angry caller getting revenge. I was there 20 years ago on June 18, 1984. I was outside in that night air, and I was talking. So were others near me, and so was a team of KOA talk radio hosts who attempted to articulate their own privileged shock and anger.

Alan Berg's dog Fred escaped the machine gun fire, but his master did not. Berg was gunned down at 9:30 p.m. as he stepped out of his Volkswagen Beetle in the driveway of his townhouse. Ironically, he'd prevented his ex-wife from experiencing the ambush, because he had just dropped her off at her home after a dinner.

Berg pre-dated the Limbaughs and Frankens on talk radio. Berg shined in his controversial halo during the real infancy of talk radio. There were perhaps eight to 10 major talk radio outlets in the country in 1984. Now there are more than 100.

Berg was more liberal than the racist and homophobic media interviewer, Joe Pine, who made confrontational interviewing household entertainment in the 1960s. But, like Pine on TV, Berg on radio was not loath to make an enemy. It was typical for him to say he lived day to day.

Berg made enemies who killed him.

Exactly two years to the day after Berg's murder, I would be back in my native Cincinnati, job hunting, after three years of grad school in Boulder and four years living in Boulder and downtown Denver. In 1986, two years removed from Berg's murder, I realized he was using more his intellect than his mouth to stir debates and action. He meant to expand awareness, not erode it with a myopic agenda.

And for 20 years I've tried unsuccessfully to write a poem about that night. It never seems to be right.

Berg lived in a townhouse on Adams Street, about a mile from my dumpy apartment on the edge of Capitol Hill.

Other than Berg's few neighbors, I was one of the first rubberneckers on the scene. Adams was a 15-minute walk from my place on Marion Street. I knew where Berg lived because I'd heard a co-worker at the bookstore where I worked once describe living near him.

The Denver Police had threaded blue and yellow crime-scene tape across the street and sidewalks and blocked off Adams at Colfax Avenue, a main drag. The woman I stood next to sobbed into a housecoat; she was Berg's neighbor down the street. Someone said Fred the dog needed to be taken away as quickly as possible. Someone wondered if Judith, Berg's ex-wife, had been called.

Someone said how deeply lonely Alan Berg seemed in life.

The air swelled with confusion.

There hung a kind of evil in the air I'd never before encountered. I focused on the suits talking feverishly into their walkie-talkies. FBI and Denver's homicide units were taking notes and smoking.

We would be very clear about the murder in weeks to come. Members of the white supremacist group the Silent Brotherhood, affiliated with the Order, waited in a car across the street for Berg to come home. A former Denver resident and Klansman, David Lane, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Denver as the driver. Bruce Pierce of the Order was convicted of shooting Berg. Lane is serving a 190-year sentence and Pierce a 252-year sentence.

Berg was the Order's first targeted hit, according to court testimony.

The air swelled with silence at 2 a.m. when I walked home to Marion Street. I turned off my transistor and took in momentary silence. I knew I would not sleep in silence. As many in Denver did all through the dark morning hours, I listened to Berg's KOA colleague, Ken Hamblin, riff brilliantly on Berg's influence, his temperamental genius, his death and hate crime. That night Hamblin dreamed his own four-hour-plus poem to Berg. I hope a tape still exists in the archives.

The air the next morning seemed incapable of nourishing. It was hot again on June 19, and the city wobbled with a hangover of death. The ghastliness of the murder was surfacing. The news photos were out. A mysterious car had been sketched. Bullets were found all over Berg's garage and car door. He'd been shot numerous times and died instantly.

I could not shower off a pall of sadness I wore. I didn't always agree with Berg, but I admired occasions when he got three or four viewpoints on an issue, as opposed to subjecting listeners to only one -- his own. He may have argued against those viewpoints, but Berg was never much satisfied with any answer, even his own. A former Chicago lawyer, he was a man of inquiry, and he despised injustice. His railing against neo-Nazis got him killed, as one editorial put it.

I saved whole newspapers of Alan Berg's assassination for nearly 20 years, before I mistakenly threw out a pile of papers during a cleaning spree. From year to year I'd see his face on my magazine shelf, hidden under some newer mags. I'd look at his face, his glasses tilted on the tip of his nose, his wiry mop of graying hair, his eyes open wide and gazing at something across from his radio microphone. I can even recall how Berg's body lay cockeyed under that white cloth on his driveway.

I've never finished that poem about the night of his murder. I've found a structure, but I can't seem to find the true language.

It's not as if I haven't tried. I tinker several times a year with the poem. I have faith. I don't easily give up on a poem. I do keep believing that those words I need will find themselves alive and talk to me, on some murky, unpredictable late night, and I will walk directly to them.



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