Ken Hamblin remembers Alan Berg 25 years later
This month marks the 25th anniversary of KOA radio personality Alan Berg's murder. But despite this substantial passage of time, Ken Hamblin, Berg's friend and colleague, still gets emotional when he thinks about the evening when he broke the news about the slaying to radio listeners across the state and the region. "It was a tough night," he notes, after pausing to pull himself back together. "It was a tough year. It was a tough five years. It's still tough twenty-five years later."
At first, Berg, who manned the 8 a.m. to noon shift at KOA, and Hamblin, at the microphone from 8 p.m. to midnight, didn't get along. "We had a very stormy, fiery beginning, I think because our temperaments were so parallel," Hamblin says. "We'd have weekly staff meetings, and Alan and I would always be nipping at each other. He was a horrendous chain smoker, and I hated going into the booth and finding the ashtray overflowing and ashes all over the telephone. That became a bone of contention for us."
Their relationship didn't improve much until both were assigned to broadcast from Vail in connection with an international skiing event. Their agenda included an interview with former President Gerald Ford, and as they made their way to their remote studio, Berg, who'd unwisely worn a half-coat and leather-bottomed shoes, nearly fell over, forcing Hamblin to come to the rescue. "You know the Secret Service is watching this," Hamblin remembers Berg saying as they tottered along. "We make a pretty weird couple, don't we?"
Not that Berg minded their differences. Before long, he was referring to them on the air as "Hymie and the Shvartze" -- the latter being the Yiddish term for "black." Far from being offended, Hamblin was amused. "Alan was not in crisis about being Jewish, and I'm still not in crisis about being black," he points out. "After that, we bonded."
Before their Vail stay was over, they'd gotten into a rhythm that reached its apotheosis during a debate about public breastfeeding. Berg knew it would be a hot-button topic, and when Hamblin ventured that he saw nothing wrong with the practice, he took the opposite angle to juice up the proceedings. "He went on and on about how, if a woman had to breastfeed, she should do it in the lavatory, and if she couldn't do it there, she should put a towel over her head," Hamblin recalls, laughing. "And then he talked about seeing a woman breastfeeding in the lodge 'wearing a short skirt and go-go boots. And the kid she was breastfeeding was 23-years old!'"
The ice broken, Berg and Hamblin began lunching together several times a month at a restaurant near KOA's old Lincoln Street studios. Berg was never satisfied with his performances. According to Hamblin, "He'd ask, 'What did you think of the show?' And I'd say, 'It was a good show.' And he'd say, 'Nah, you're full of shit.'" But if he was wary of positives, he didn't shy away from dishing them out. "He'd tell me, 'You're going to be so lucky. The business is changing. There's going to be a place for you,'" Hamblin remembers.
Likewise, Hamblin felt that Berg was bound for even bigger things -- but his radio rise came to an abrupt end the night of June 18, 1984, when he was gunned down in his driveway by members of a white-supremacist group called The Order. Hamblin was already midway through his shift that night when Rick Barber, a longtime overnight host who was then working as a newsman, walked into the studio a few minutes late for the 10 o'clock break. "He had on a white shirt, his tie was loose, his sleeves were rolled up, he had on a pair of braces -- suspenders -- and he didn't say anything to me," Hamblin says. "He just sat down, nodded to the engineer, who clicked on his mike, and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Alan Berg has been shot.' My jaw slackened at the sound of it. And then, his next words were, 'The Denver Police Department confirms that he's dead.'
"I could feel myself tumbling into a black pit," Hamblin goes on. "It was like something out of the old Twilight Zone." Nonetheless, the show had to go on, and as the phone lines lit up, he discovered that his reaction mirrored that of the station's listeners. "There was shock, disbelief -- and we all needed to talk about it," he says. To give everyone a platform for their grief, he remained on the air for at least a couple of hours beyond the usual end of his slot: "I stayed until two a.m. The media was there, but I didn't want to leave the booth. It wasn't real until I walked out of there. As long as I stayed in that booth, I could postpone it. But I couldn't postpone it forever."
KOA assigned security to watch over Hamblin for the next week, and he promptly applied for, and eventually got, a permit to carry a weapon. In the meantime, he received advice from Denver police about how to stay safe: "They said, 'If you think a car behind you is following you, make a right turn, and then make another right turn. And if they're still back there after the third right turn, you've got a problem. Head for the cop shop." But neither packing a gun nor learning evasive maneuvers made it any easier to deal with the impact of Berg's death on his psyche. "It's bad enough when you lose someone to cancer, or even to a car accident," he maintains. "But when somebody's murdered, it's like a wrecking ball. It's a tough thing to get your arms around."
At first, he felt "numbness," he says. But then, "you'd get angry, and you'd speak out. You'd raise your voice and go after things in detail. You became less tolerant of intolerance, whether it was black racism or anti-Semitism or whatever."
If the once-liberal Hamblin doesn't directly connect his growing conservatism to the Berg killing, he makes it clear that it had a major effect on his ideological evolution. "I started calling a spade a spade, cutting the pie down the middle," he says. "I had people telling me I had an obligation to become their megaphone, to preach their narrowness, their prejudice -- and by refusing to do that, I built a reputation for being controversial, provocative. And one day, it donned on me. The limited amount of time I spent with Alan Berg was like being in the tail of a comet. I wasn't at the head of the comet, I wasn't in the middle, I was at the tail. And I realized how much he impacted what I became on the radio. You have to be comfortable with what you're doing. If you're not comfortable, don't get into the three-ring circus, don't go to the zoo, don't sit behind this microphone. Because if you aren't comfortable, you're going to flop. You're going to fall on your face."
With that philosophy in mind, Hamblin took on the guise of the Black Avenger, a man unafraid to counter and contradict the liberalism of the African-American political power structure. Along the way, he became the host of a nationally syndicated talk show, the author of two books, and a favorite talking head on assorted cable-news networks. But earlier this decade, around the time the syndication arrangement fell through, he realized that he'd tired of his combative persona. "I didn't want to sit on Fox News and try to convince people that America was a great country," he says. "And I didn't want to go on CNN and argue with people who didn't want to leave Harlem or Watts because of their own xenophobia. I reached a burnout point."
So he retired, and thanks in part to some wise investments (including a couple of Quiznos restaurants he owned and sold), he's pretty well fixed. He and his wife, who live in Frisco with their three dogs, spend much of their time traveling; they've got a trip to Paris and Rome scheduled for September. But he's hardly forgotten the people he met on the way from there to here -- Alan Berg among them. "He's still with me," he says. "He's always there."