Billo: The Salubrious Life and Salacious (Well, Maybe) opinions of Willis Bennett Ballance

From L.A.'s KFWB and KNX to San Diego's KFMB

Ballance talking to a caller. “Wait! You aren’t a porker? You aren’t a lardo? You aren’t one vast waddle of womanhood?"
  • Ballance talking to a caller. “Wait! You aren’t a porker? You aren’t a lardo? You aren’t one vast waddle of womanhood?"
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

“This is Bill Ballance, self-ordained lay therapist to those huddled, perspiring masses yearning to be stroked, eager to participate in the Bill Ballance communicative pentathlon, a certified incubator of soaring euphoria carefully programmed for the interplanetary generation. Right here, every night for six hours on radio station KFMB, we thoroughly explore our universe of the mind with single-minded intensity, with dedicated ferocity, and with the amplitude of communicative velour.

Ballance is a modem Ambrose Bierce — from whose witty, acerbic Devil’s Dictionary he occasionally borrows — a Dear Abby of the airwaves.

Ballance is a modem Ambrose Bierce — from whose witty, acerbic Devil’s Dictionary he occasionally borrows — a Dear Abby of the airwaves.

"And if tonight you feel that your wagon of destiny has swerved over on the soft shoulder of that grim dirt road to oblivion, my fine show will guide you to that haven of serenity — within. And now let me slip a few friendly chives into the psychic bouillabaisse of a woman named…”

“Sherry.”

[The resonant, baritone voice lowers.]

“How old are ya, punkin?”

“Nineteen.”

Ballance listener Roger contends that the average IQ of the people who call is quite low, “around room temperature,” and that the “popular psychology that passes for wisdom on the show is ludicrous.”

Ballance listener Roger contends that the average IQ of the people who call is quite low, “around room temperature,” and that the “popular psychology that passes for wisdom on the show is ludicrous.”

“Empty the cockles of your cavorting heart to lovable Billo.”

“It’s my boyfriend.”

“Is he a chronic oaf? With few remaining frizzled synapses in his avocado-size brain?”

“Yeah, but that ain’t it.”

“Wait! You aren’t a porker? You aren’t a lardo? You aren’t one vast waddle of womanhood? [The voice lowers.] How much do you weigh, sweetheart?”

Randy Nitchals, Ballance's producer: "When I would ask them what they were going to talk about, they would end up telling me the whole story."

Randy Nitchals, Ballance's producer: "When I would ask them what they were going to talk about, they would end up telling me the whole story."

“Aren't we getting a little personal?” “Why yes, my dear. That’s the whole point of the show!”

For thirty-six hours a week. Bill Ballance converses with callers — mostly women unafraid to publicize their experiences in marriage, divorce, parenthood, sexuality, love — on his nighttime talk show. He does so in a stream-of-consciousness style replete with aphorisms, maxims, and oracular (though tongue-in-cheek) “immutable” laws, and with a vocabulary so baroque that he seems not to be working at the KFMB studios on Engineer Road in Kearny Mesa but rather to be emanating from within the private lexicon of an early seventeenth-century sonneteer.

Home for Ballance is not in Coronado, the location he announces on the air; it is actually a few miles from the KFMB studios.

Home for Ballance is not in Coronado, the location he announces on the air; it is actually a few miles from the KFMB studios.

Brash, audacious (“I hate all pretension except my own”), and wry, Ballance is a modem Ambrose Bierce — from whose witty, acerbic Devil’s Dictionary he occasionally borrows — a Dear Abby of the airwaves, and the freeways, since an inestimable number of his listeners tune in his show while on the road. Though some of his observations and opinions send shock waves through one’s cerebellum (“A woman never really knows what she wants until her husband makes her send it back”), he can also be sympathetic in the operation of his two-way, public confessional booth he began in 1970, when he introduced the Feminine Forum program in Los Angeles — a new format that enlarged the scope of radio significantly. And though his “deep, gutsy. Vitamin E voice, which vibrates like mellow, carefully unplucked cello strings” is one of the most recognizable in the business, Ballance is essentially a private man. He makes few public appearances and admits even fewer callers to his private world of “creative solitude.”

Ballance did make a public appearance a few weeks ago. Every night on his show for a week prior to the event, he plugged an “I Love You, San Diego” party to be held at Lehr's Greenhouse, a restaurant in Mission Valley. He said he would be able to arrive toward the end of the affair — at around seven-thirty — since his show was being pre-empted by a San Diego State basketball game.

Although it was pouring oceans outside — almost an inch of rain fell in a twenty-four-hour period — an estimated crowd of 3000 came to the restaurant to toast the city, drinking free white wine and light beer, to meet local celebrities and, of course, each other. It was a diverse crowd, though mostly professional (the average age was around thirty-one or so), and the ratio of males to females was about sixty-forty. It was a banquet for people-watchers at Lehr’s, which itself looks like an aviary for floating houseplants.

Several people at the party had come specifically to meet Bill Ballance. Don, a young man in his early twenties who dressed like a cowboy (but was drinking a “downstream” beer), wanted to meet “the dude that has all the ladies crawling all over him," to compare notes, evidently. Favorably impressed with Ballance’s quasi-legendary following of women, Don said, “Man, I’d take half his action and be sittin’ pretty.” He added something about learning how to “score,” as if love were some sort of football game.

An attractive brunette in her late thirties named Mary had come to chat with Ballance, with whom she had spoken before, twice on his show and once in person. “Bill is special,” she said matter-of-factly. “Talking to him always improves my choice of words and makes me feel more like a poetic person. Most men abuse the language the way they abuse women.

“People rarely see him in person,” she added, “but six nights a week they hear his voice on the air. In this he is like a constant — that’s the important word, constant — and faithful companion. Some say he’s like a father figure. To me he seems more like a relative, a crazy uncle or something, who isn’t really crazy at all. He just says all those things on the air to draw people out. And he’s always there on the radio assuring people that at least someone is willing to listen to their problems. So even though he can sound pretentious, even though some say he's a sexist, at least he’s loyal to his listeners. I think that’s his secret.”

A well-groomed man named Roger, roughly in his early thirties and wearing a three-piece corduroy suit, was less flattering. He contended that the average IQ of the people who called was quite low, “around room temperature,” and that the “popular psychology that passes for wisdom on the show is ludicrous.” Roger does listen to the program, however, and he personally enjoys the lines Ballance utters in between the calls themselves. “I also sometimes tune him in,” he says, “because I get a kick out of how dumb some of the people he talks to are. It confirms my suspicions about the level of intelligence in this town.”

Other opinions varied. Jerry, a soft-spoken man in his mid-thirties, felt that Ballance did his job well, but added that “all that syrupy sweet talk is patronizing and condescending to women. These are the Eighties,” he said, “and a man doesn’t talk that way to a woman anymore.” And Alice, a pert woman whose profession is communication therapy for the visually handicapped, felt that Ballance provided an outlet for the “spontaneous need” people have to communicate. She noted that, unlike Dear Abby, where one has to put one's feelings in writing, the format of Ballance's show- is both private and public. “The caller is simply talking to another voice in the night.” she said, “and most of the time they're not talking to Ballance. They’re really talking to the person they're talking about.” And though he seems very patriarchal to her, Alice concluded that “it’s obvious he values human beings.”

When Ballance finally arrived at the party, he did so quietly, unannounced, hardly the visible personality one would have expected from some of his self-lauding antics on the air. Rather than appear dressed in a gaudy outfit, a resplendent emanation of his legendary lifestyle, Ballance was among the more dressed-down people in the restaurant: faded blue jeans, a white turtleneck sweater, and a denim jacket. He would meet quietly with small groups of people, then would move on, never allowing a large crowd to gather around him. Observed at a distance, he seemed gracious and self-effacing, as if he were reticent to attract attention to himself. And his body language — leaning forward when listening and establishing direct eye contact when speaking to someone — suggested the ability of a capable teacher to single out an individual from within a larger group. Although a majority of the people he met with were women — of all ages — men approached him, too.

One of them was Don the cowboy, by then even more in love, if not with San Diego, then at least with the free spirit(s) of the party. He appeared to cross-examine Ballance, apparently trying to glean all he could from the master. Ballance, in turn, seemed very courteous, but he withdrew quickly from the conversation and, shortly thereafter, from the party. At a later date, Ballance recalled the man. “He was married,” he said. “So I asked him if his wife was still with him or if she had seen the light, it was clear he was suffering from testosterone overload and was about to combust spontaneously. Jesus! What a gruntbrain!”

With the exception of his few public appearances, one reaches Ballance by going through Rocky Nitchals, the producer of his show who screens callers to the station. Referred to as the “Pandarus of Pacific Telephone,” the twenty-three-year-old Nitchals — stocky, with brown eyes, reddish-brown curly hair, and moustache — works with Ballance in adjoining studios, separated by a thick glass window. Before him are fifteen lines on a switchboard, and even as he talks to you, Rocky's eyes dart back and forth — to the blinking lights on the switchboard, to Ballance through the window, to the clock, to the decibel levels registering on a meter, to the log he keeps of commercials played on the air (for billing purposes later), and to the news room behind him. Where Ballance is the voice of the show, Rocky is the eyes and, when the phone first rings, the ears — both being qualities Ballance is quick to appreciate. “He's the best I’ve ever seen in talk radio; one of the main reasons the show has improved is the way Rocky screens the calls.”

Nitchals, who has been with Ballance almost a year, worked at the KFMB studios two and a half years for free (while also working at a local 7-Eleven store “unpacking boxes, mostly”), answering the phones twenty to thirty hours a week just, he says, to get his foot in the door. On Christmas night, 1979, then producer Kim Tomlinson was unable to do the show and Rocky filled in. A few months later she was married, left the show, and Rocky took over the job. “At first it was difficult,” he says. “People would call in, just wanting to talk to someone, and when I would ask them what they were going to talk about, they would end up telling me the whole story. By the time they got on the air, they were all talked out and had nothing left to say to Bill.”

Rocky gets his share of strange calls, he admits. Often the phone will ring and when he picks it up, the caller will hang up (“Usually kids playing with the phone, I guess”). And though he says nearly all the calls are from “nice” people, some of the callers object to the show — “Usually people with strict religious ideas. They want to register complaints about it with the general manager of the station, so I give them the phone number and say call in the morning."

And some of the calls can get to him. In one instance that stands out in his mind, a prostitute identified herself as such and said she wanted to talk to Ballance. “She sounded real sincere,’’ Nitchals recalls. “Said she was being forced to do all these things against her will. It was really sad — the sound of her voice. If I could have done something to help her I would have. When she got on the air, though, she was afraid to talk. She froze. Somebody must have been right there with her who just came in.” At work in the adjoining studio, Ballance huddles close to the microphone, concentrating on the voice, tone, and inflections of his caller. His facial expressions change with almost every word. Because he says he must “focus completely on the caller,” Ballance docs not like to be observed when working. Once when he was employed by radio KGBS in Los Angeles, the owner of the station, George B. Storer (thus the call letters —GBS), came in the studio to watch his prized attraction at work. “This little old guy came in,” Ballance recalls, “very well dressed, and I had no idea who he was so I threw him out. Turned out to be George Storer, the owner of the damn station!”

Alone in a tiny (and freezing — as in arctic conditions; he prefers it cold) room surrounded by the paraphernalia of the trade — microphone, tape cartridges of upcoming commercials, file cabinets, countless dials and switches — Ballance concentrates on the mike, eyes open, and is listening intently through a set of stethoscope headphones. The only clue he has about the caller is a small sheet Rocky holds up, with a minimum of information on it — name, age, and area of the county the caller is from. And with the exception of a five-second delay device, which he says he uses only about once a week to edit out risqué material, last names, and brand names, the show is live. Ballance works five nights a week, six hours a night, without a script. Which is what he had wanted to do since the age of five.

Born Willis Bennett Ballance at an undisclosed date (Ballance says, “Just tell them I’m in my middle-earlies; tell them I'm immortal — but am not getting any younger”), his childhood was somewhat less than ideal. His mother, Cecille Bennett Balance, died two days after giving birth to him, and to this day Ballance is convinced that his father always resented him for her death. When Ballance was very young, his father told him, “The only time I wanted you was before you were born."

His father, Willis H. Ballance (Bill is the sixth Willis Ballance), was a mathematician, the top of his class at Cornell. He was also a heavy drinker, "which is why I never touch the stuff," Bill says. When Ballance was in the third grade, his father taught him how to forge his signature so his father wouldn’t have to bother signing report cards. He was also capable of cruelty. "I used to confide in him. Then he would entertain his guests at parties with the things I had told him in private. Damn humiliating.” For a long time after that, Ballance would never confide with anyone, never opening himself to vulnerabilities. “I learned early I was going to have to scuffle for myself.”

Ballance claims his three stepmothers weren’t interested in him either. Each regarded him, he says, with “Olympian indifference.” After a while he gave up trying to seek his father’s approval or anyone else’s other than his own, gradually developing, he says, “massive self-respect,” which created many problems for him throughout his youth. “Now I am unblocked, as the psychiatrists say — I have never been to one, by the way — and I confide all sorts of things with the audience on the show. Whatever I’ve been through — and I've been around the grounds; I’ve paid my dues, not just my tuition — that might be of use to the audience, I’ll talk about.”

He decided to go into radio at age five, when he was living in Peoria, Illinois, the place of his birth. His father gave him no encouragement — he is the only ’’show biz” person in the family — so he went ahead on his own. When he was seventeen, he enrolled at the University of Illinois and majored in journalism, writing for the Daily Illini, the school newspaper. One day when he was a freshman, station WILL in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, called the newspaper office and wanted someone to do book reviews and newscasts from seven to seven-fifteen every morning (“Jesus! Can you imagine a seventeen-year-old kid doing book re-views'!”). Ballance, the only one in the office at the time, said he would love to do it.

Being alone in the office that day was a fortuitous stroke of luck, and for the next four years, he did the seven o’clock news and then went to school. He also had a severe case of “mike fright.” “I’d do fifteen minutes of news and then I would throw up — for one whole year, almost to the day. Seven o’clock news, seven-fifteen puke, then go to my eight o’clock class — like clockwork!”

Upon graduation from the University of Illinois, he went to Denver but couldn’t break into radio. One of the executives of NBC-owned station KOA said he needed at least six months experience. So Ballance looked elsewhere and landed a job in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at station KFBC, where he worked as a disc jockey, newscaster, and announcer. Almost exactly six months later the Denver station called and offered him a job. At age twenty-one he became the youngest staff announcer ever at an NBC-owned-and-operatcd station.

After four years in the service, where he rose from private to captain in the Marines, Ballance worked in Chicago for a year “and one egregiously long winter; I was constantly having to reheat my cummerbund,” and then moved to Hollywood. From 1955 to 1966, he was one of the original “rock jocks” at KFWB-AM which became the prototype of all rock and roll stations in the country (they invented the notion of the “top forty,” for example). But Ballance says he had always envisioned doing a radio talk show.

In 1953, while he was doing a celebrity interview show at KNX, the CBS station in Hollywood, people would phone the studio with questions they wanted Ballance to ask his guest stars. His secretary would receive the calls and would write down the questions on a piece of paper. “It dawned on me that we could eliminate the middle step and take the questions on the air. But Bob Sutton, the program manager there at CBS, told me confidently that nobody wants to hear phone calls on the radio. Can you believe that? It wasn’t until seventeen years later that I finally did it. All that time lost…” And by the end of the Sixties, Ballance was weary of playing rock and roll records, so he began to salt in his own observations between tunes. “Then one time a member of the local press referred to me as a ‘veteran dj,’ and I knew I had to get into something more grown-up.”

In August, 1970, Ballance began his talk show on the air at KGBS. When he first proposed the idea, the station manager said to tape the calls after the show. “There was no spontaneity in this,” Ballance recalls, but for a while he would tape the calls for an hour after the show for use the next day. In late 1970 he got a tape-delay device to edit the calls on the air, and on the first of January, 1971, he began taking live calls. “After this, the show took off and we wiped out the other seventy-five stations in Los Angeles,” he says proudly. Since a majority of the callers at the time were women, Ballance entitled the show Feminine Forum and focused his topics around human relationships — all laced with a visceral level of innuendoes and double-entendres.

“When I began the show in 1970,” Ballance says, “there were many changes taking place in communication, and I grabbed the brass ring at the right time. The television show Laugh-In had run its course, and All in the Family had just begun. That should give you some idea of the changes. Also, Dr. Reuben’s book. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, had just come out. What my show was doing then was discussing the taboo topics, marriage and divorce, on the air. It was the first program to explore this terrain and at the time it had a sort of shock value, though now that stuff seems so tame, like a cipher, and nothing compared to what is currently on the daytime TV soap operas, those dramatic detergents. They’re much nastier than anything that gets said on the air.”

By 1972 other disc jockeys had begun imitating Ballance and the format of his show; the difference, he says, was that “they would just get dirty with women on the air.” A national furor ensued, and an FM disc jockey in Chicago was fined $2000 by the FCC for saying something lewd on the air. It was at this time that a reporter from the New York Daily News coined the expression “topless radio,” and in 1972 the FCC monitored Ballance’s program on KGBS. Their officially published findings, Ballance recalls with a grin, were that “Ballance’s show is not obscene…stupid, perhaps, but not obscene.”

In 1971 Ballance also broke new ground by inviting on the show a trained psychotherapist, Norton Kristy, to discuss the more serious concerns of his callers. And in 1972 Ballance also asked psychologist Toni Grant to sit in on the show as well. She did quite well, he says, “but I could see the warning signs — like when she told me I gave Dr. Kristy a forty-five-second introduction and only gave her thirty-two seconds.” In 1974, when he moved over to KABC radio, for a salary of around $125,000 (he says his current pay is substantially less now; sources at KFMB estimate $50,000 annually), he took Toni Grant with him. “We were there three years, and in 1977 she took my time slot away from me. And she has never acknowledged the fact that I brought her into radio, which is typical of the profession. It is Ballance's Law of Corrosive Competition that ‘jealousy is the friendship one performer has for another.” I call Toni Grant the Ma Kettle of psychologists, but in the long run, she may have done me a favor. If she hadn't stolen my show out from under me. I never would have come to San Diego.”

Which he did, March 1, 1978, and his nightly show has boosted the station’s Arbitron ratings (the equivalent of Nielsen for television) more than 600 percent in the last three years — no mean feat, since many people told him that no one would call the show in San Diego. They said the area was too conservative. But the opposite is the case. They're more open down here than ever."

In the eleven years he has been doing the show, Ballance says he has heard everything on the air, which-may almost be true, since he has talked to an estimated 150,000 callers. He also admits to a process of “mellowing out" in the last eleven years. At first, he says, he would utter things on the air merely for their shock value, in order to attract an audience. “But my show is much more compassionate now. I've heard so many rotten human problems. Jesus! Some of the things people tell me, especially old people — I call them venerables if they are over eighty, and I love ’em — venerables devoured by inflation."

Because of their sheer number, it is impossible for Ballance to single out his most memorable calls. A couple of them, however. do come to mind. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation. Ballance will suggest that he and the caller perform a son of improvisational scenario, a “theatrical tableau" in which they do role-playing, acting out the situation of the caller. On one occasion, he remembers, a widow phoned whose husband had died twenty years earlier. Ballance suggested he play her husband (“a dullard relieved only by an occasional flight of vapidity") on a brief return from the dead. “When her husband came back to life," Ballance remembers, “the woman began nagging me: I never picked up things around the house; my insurance policy didn't take care of her. She said, ‘I'm glad you're dead!’ And a torrent of fury came out of her — all the things she had been wanting to tell that dim bulb for twenty years."

The memory of another call literally brought tears to his eyes. An eighty-eight-year-old woman named Mabel phoned the show a couple of years ago. She said she was still carrying the torch for a man missing in action in World War I. She had never married and all her life she had waited for the return of Ed, who was never reported dead. On an impulse, Ballance suggested to Mabel that he play Ed and that they pretend he has just come home to her after an absence of sixty years. “When we went in to the thing, she never fell out of character. She was alert and bright and she literally enacted with me the meeting she had wanted to take place for her entire lifetime. I pretended to meet her on the porch. We flew into each other's arms.

“‘I’ve been waiting for you for sixty years,’ she said.

“’It's not too late,' I said. ‘Let’s go in and sit down.’

“We talked about how we missed each other, and I told her how I was sorry I hadn't been more considerate. The whole thing was so damn real I could barely get through the conversation. It was the most piercing, profoundly emotional call — on the level of regret and self-inflicted torture — I’ve ever had. And I have never heard of a more prolonged fixation for an idealized person from one’s past.

“ ‘You want some pie?’ she asked.

“’Please.’

“After a pause — she was apparently going into her kitchen to get the pie — she asked me, ‘Do you remember that night? The night before you went to France?’

“ ‘Oh, yeah . . . that night.’ (I had no idea what she was talking about at all, so I just winged it.) ‘Yeah. We didn’t get any sleep all night, did we. .

“ ‘Yes,’ she whispered, ‘you remember.’ ”

About a month later Mabel called him back and said the spontaneous role-playing was the best thing she could have done. She had not thought of the man since then. “The scenario must have purged her of something she had carried with her for sixty years!” Ballance says. “Man, that melted me!”

Ballance admits that the calls can affect him. “At that moment on the air, when I’m talking to someone, that person is the only one in the world for me. But I can usually turn it off at midnight. That is, unless someone reminds me about a call, then the emotion comes gushing out again. Usually, though, I try not to take them home with me.”

Home for Ballance is not in Coronado, the location he announces on the air; it is actually just a few miles from the KFMB studios. It is a fairly large, bachelor-kempt—as in tidy, but comfortably so — nine-room house with a master bedroom on the second floor and a large work room beneath it that has seventeen file cabinets full of tapes used previously on the show. In the three living areas of his home — the work room, the living room, and the bedroom: the places he inhabits most frequently — there are roughly 3000 books, including a large collection of texts on psychology and another equally large number of books on the Civil War, his oft-stated avocation (“When I was six, I kept hearing different versions of the war—very different and contradictory. That was the first time I learned to mistrust an adult. And I began reading about the war to find out the real truth”). And there are surprisingly few novels in his collection. “I used to be an avid reader of novels,” he says, “but since I’ve been doing the show, all the stories people tell me on the air have fulfilled my need for fantasy. After the first year, I lost my appetite for novels.”

Ballance, who is five feet, ten inches tall and weighs 158, is more subdued in person than he is on the air, but is essentially the same. He is an apt listener, his laugh — which jostles his tinted glasses and which sounds as if he is momentarily choking on the complete inventory of a gravel company — is easily forthcoming, and he is an inveterate editor of his own verbalizings, always revising his words, often in midsentence, for the most concise expression. For this reason, he says, he dislikes hearing himself on the air. His Saturday-night shows, taped highlights from previous evenings, are “too painful” for him to hear. “I spot so many mistakes and missed opportunities of expression — failures to bring out the caller more effectively. I would redo everything and am constantly asking myself when I hear a tape, ‘Why did you say that? You gruntbrain!’ ”

On the air, his personality is flexible, depending on the caller. If the voice on the line is timid, Ballance will be verbally alluring. But if a woman is forward with him, he will back away, saying about his private life, “It’s all bluff on my show. I go home and fall into a sobbing, convulsive heap.” All of which is done in an effort to avoid confrontations after the show.

The private Ballance never dates women who call KFMB. “It’s true that I come on strongly on the air. I’ll tell a woman to leave her porch light on and all, but that's just fantasy time. I have to keep the private life divorced from the professional. I have a close, intimate, verbal relationship with people on the air, and I’d like to keep it that way.” Of his private life, in which he regularly dates three women, each of whom knows of the others, Ballance says, “Let’s just say that I’m leading a nimble — for me — sex life. I’m no longer seeking trophies for my bedpost, and I’m not what you would call a bed-hopper, someone trying to cut a wide swath through the sunburnt boudoirs of Southern California. On the air I said at one time that my sex life had improved since I had a nuclear prostate implant. Next thing I know, this guy called in — really! — and asked where he could get one.

“All I want to do is my show, and everything in my life is built around it — a sort of disciplined self-indulgence: one big meal a day and a roof over my mouth, some tennis (I’m a good, solid, D-plus; I bound around the court in a high, senile prance), and whoopee on weekends. The show's the thing. I have no illusions about being a star or a high-profile guy.”

He doesn’t go for large crowds, such as the one at Lehr’s Greenhouse, or “mass enthusiasms. I have a deep, upstream instinct, a feeling never to move with the crowd. In fact, any time the general public is in favor of something — like astrology — I’m suspicious. I’m not really gregarious at all. Never have been. And I don’t like to go to parties where there is organized hilarity, like at those swinging-singles apartments, those desperate, stucco ghettos, where you are the stuccee.”

His current, coveted tranquility was not always the case. He was married twice, for a total of fifteen years, to Beatrice and Alice; the latter had an identical twin sister, and Ballance recalls that “everything I would tell her would go in her ear and out her sister’s mouth. I was a rotten husband, and a varsity philanderer the whole time, but now I’d be a great one because I finally know myself. But I'm not really interested in getting married — for a while at least. I’m looking after Billo now. I lived the first half of my life for my two sons, Jim and Kurt, and now I’m living for myself and loving every minute of it. Matrimony, you know, is that great fermenting process whereby love ripens into vengeance. And now, when I sense a threat to my precious freedom, I tell the woman. Things are getting a little awkward between us.’ ”

He is actually pro-marriage for other people, though. “If you can find a lifelong mate who isn’t totally predictable after a couple of years, someone who doesn’t subject you to massive ennui, then fine. Sure.” But he also advocates “contractual marriages,” where couples have to renew their options, say, every thirteen weeks. “At least that would keep things lively. And better that than all those dreary marriages where the wife yells that some day she’ll dance on her husband's grave and he says that’s great, since he plans to be buried at sea.”

Ballance has made it a rule never to date married women. This is a fairly recent policy, however, the result of painful experience. “Her name was Ziba. She was an Arabian woman. Twenty-eight when I met her in 1971 — and gorgeous. I met her at a party. I didn't know she was married, and after we had talked for a bit she said, ’Let’s get out of here and go to your place. ’ It wasn’t until much later that I discovered she was married and that her husband was impotent. We were lovers for four years, then one day she went home to see her parents. She confessed to her mother and father and they laid the wrath of Allah on her — since it’s verboten for women to fool around in her culture. When she came back to the States, she chopped off the relationship — like that! Jesus! That really hurt! You find yourself pleading not to break it off, literally crawling after her. But she had the power then and ran with it, without giving me a backward glance. It took me over a year to get over it, and I haven’t dated a married woman since. I’m really no infallible lover and sweetheart. In matters of the heart. I’m no more successful than anyone else.”

Ballance also candidly admits to fallibility in some of his previously held notions about women. Just as he is consistently revising his choices of words, Ballance also rues several statements he made in his book (Bill Ballance’s Hip Handbook — 1973) on the subject of women. To his credit, he assented to a form of close-order grilling on this matter:

You say on page 205 that "friendship betw een two w omen is always a plot against each other . . . women understand women, and they don’t like them."

“I don't believe that as strongly as I used to, but thousands of women over the years have told me that’s the case.”

You say on page fifty-two that ’ hate lies nearer to love in a woman’s soul than in a man's soul"

“That line doesn’t communicate what I meant to say at all. Because women are more sensitive, they hate more deeply and love more profoundly than men.”

On page 113 there's this: ’ ‘All of us men prefer the kind of girl who requires eyeball-recapping if you gaze at her too long."

That’s juvenile and silly, and I’d cut it if I could. I do believe that attractive women often suffer from what I call the ‘burden of beauty,’ and they are in a sad situation. Many beautiful women never develop their interior resources because men seem to be satisfied with their exteriors.”

On pages 2/9 and 220, you also say that “women should be worn like a boutonniere. to add to a man’s look of distinction, and to contribute to his aura of well-being. A woman should be delightful to pluck and easy to replace; she should be put on with pleasure and removed without pain."

“It’s nonsense. Since I did the book. I've changed a lot, especially in the last five years. I’m much less glib now. I may say sexist things — like cutie and honey-plum — on the air, but I am always urging women to better themselves. I’m eager for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. I’m all for it. In fact, I don’t understand the arguments against it. They make no sense to me at all.

“A woman’s place is wherever she chooses to be. Women have had roles, and the roles are being erased. I say on the air, ’What most men like about old-fashioned women is that they are rapidly disappearing.’ One of the many spin-off benefits of the feminist movement is that women who are unhappy in marriage now have the courage to split instead of allowing their lives to be ruined by some swaggering bully, some insensitive, gruntheaded swine, the height of whose cultural season is the arrival of a singing telegram. No. Women arc much more open than men and have much more between the cars. I love ’em."

Ballance also admitted to overdoing on the air what seems to be almost an obsession with fat, a recurring subject that has aggravated several of his listeners. “I'm determined to stop talking about it so much, but grotesquely obese people are eye-polluting." He traces his own dislike to an experience in his childhood. When he was five years old, he watched the maid at his house clean a chicken. “When all this gristly, pussy, yellow goop burst out of its stomach, I asked. What’s that?’ ‘Fat,’ she said. I was and am repelled by it. I’ve overdone it on the air, though."

According to Rocky Nitchals, seventy-five percent of his callers who make it on the air are women, and approximately seventy-five percent of them want to discuss personal problems. A random mini-poll of San Diego psychologists and psychiatrists, some of whom turned out to be avid listeners, revealed that, for the most part, the ways Ballance handled his callers was inoffensive. A psychiatrist in La Jolla, however, who asked that she remain anonymous, said that although the Bill Ballance show actually brought new clients to the profession, she feared there may be a danger in broadcasting what is, in effect, “popular" psychology. “Not so much for the caller, necessarily; they have mustered up enough nerve to relate their problems. The danger is that other listeners who feel they have similar problems — parallel cases — may react to whatever Ballance tells the caller, in the form of specific courses of action, as gospel. This could be dangerous."

“I never prescribe a course of action for profound psychological problems," Ballance says. “And there are any number of areas I’m simply not qualified to answer." Because of this. Ballance and Nitchals keep a list of phone numbers at the station, twenty-four-hour hotlines for instant access to a psychotherapist if the caller appears to have a serious problem.

Ballance's show has never been stuck with a lawsuit or taken off the air for improprieties. He says he recognized early that serious calls would occur. For this reason, he began inviting Norton Kristy (Ph.D. in psychology. University of London, and co-director of the Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy in Santa Monica) on the show every other Monday night. He also has Marcia Lasswell (author of No Fault Marriage) and two lawyers (Bob Baumer and Susan Groves, who do legal advice) on the show as well. “The psychotherapists and the lawyers," Ballance says, "give the show credibility. I only claim to be a ‘self-ordained lay therapist,’ and I don’t want to set myself up as an authority. I encourage callers to ventilate their problems on the air but when I sense they’re on-the ragged edge, I suggest they call in when I have my two psychologists on the show, or I’ll wrap up the call by suggesting they see a certified counselor. The American Psychological Association loves the show, since we give them so much business."

The man who has probably talked to more women than anyone else in the history of the world does not hesitate to appraise his own contribution to talk radio. “I would locate myself prominently,” he says. “My kind of talk show had never been done before. I also broke new trails in communication by bringing a trained psychologist on the air, and my show was the first to explore all aspects of marriage and divorce — with counselors, psychologists, and attorneys. In effect it was the first show to explore human interaction on the air."

Of his own role on the air, Ballance's sometimes pretentious voice (“My ponderous, all-wise pomposity on the air is an act, for fun”) becomes modest in tone. The show' provides an outlet, he says, for communication between essentially anonymous people, since the callers are free not to use their real names. “The show promises to improve the quality of people’s lives — that’s too pretentious, really — but w hat I think it reveals is that all levels of society have the same emotional impulses. At heart, we all have the emotions of a six-year-old. And people can call in — unsophisticated, unslick human beings — and feel free to share their experiences, anonymously. All bogus pomposity aside, I don’t want to be regarded as the fount of all wisdom, even though I pretend that in a humorous way. The show is essentially entertainment, with a tincture of information provided by the experts. Humor is the main thrust of my show, and w hen I meet people in person. they regard me as a humorist and never ask me advice. I enjoy my work immensely and quite frankly. I’m the best at what I do."

After that extreme statement, with which most experts in the field would hastily agree, you could see it coming. Always the balancer, always the agency trying to draw people away from their painful extremes with humor and self-effacing irony, a sly smile began to broaden his moustache. Even his own extreme statement, though true, was fair game for a barrage from Ballance’s tempering wit. “I’m a man of my time," he continued, pontifically tongue-in-cheek, “and I know it. I’m not expecting eternal fame, because humor operates on the Ballance Principle of Diminishing Renown. It so happens I sold my soul to the devil in exchange for a peek at the year 2281. I was dismayed to find that not only were my shows, books, and record albums forgotten, but I myself was thought to be fictitious. And here I had hoped to be remembered as the Demosthenes of Drollery. Well, tough taco."D

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