December 27, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Stephanie Miller moves from Sister Sleaze to progressive radio queen

As the daughter of upstate GOP Congressman William E. Miller, Stephanie Miller's Republican cred couldn't be much better. In 1964, when she was 3 years old, her father ran for vice president on the Republican ticket alongside conservative hero Barry Goldwater.

But Stephanie Miller's ambitions were not political. She wanted to be a comedian like her idol, Carol Burnett. And after majoring in theater at the University of Southern California, she landed her first professional radio gig. In the mid-1980s, Rochesterians got to know her as Sister Sleaze, sidekick to Brother Wease.

Politics gradually crept back into her life, but it wasn't conservative politics. Two decades and several incarnations later, Miller is the hottest voice in liberal radio.

Her show is on more than 60 stations across the country. She's as smart as she is funny, skewering one conservative after another, often with their own pitchforks.

The Stephanie Miller Show, which airs locally (weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon) on News Talk 950 WROC AM, is arguably the most creative talk show on the air. Miller and her sidekicks improvise their way through political and social criticism with sound effects, guest appearances by Washington luminaries (channeled by impressionist Jim Ward), and an unrelentingly wicked satirical bite. It's a fast-moving, irreverent good time. And Miller has definitely not left all elements of Sister Sleaze behind.

The show may be a bit hard to swallow for conservatives, especially the ones who provide Miller with so much of her material. But life couldn't be much better for a left-leaning comedian these days.

"When you've got the head of the evangelicals out with a male hooker buying crystal meth: you can't write this stuff," says Miller by telephone from Los Angeles. "A congressman who's head of the missing-and-exploited-children caucus having instant-message sex with children: you've got to be kidding me. When do you remember a vice president shooting someone in the face?"

Miller was too young during the 1964 Goldwater-Miller campaign to remember it. But she knows they lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.

"They can't blame me for the loss," she says. "I hadn't said anything yet."

She finds it ironic that Republicans of that era might look like liberals compared to Republicans today.

"I think my dad and Goldwater would be appalled at what's become of their party," says Miller. "Goldwater was pro-gay-rights and pro-choice. He talked about the undue influence of the religious right. And that was back in the 1980's."

Despite her father's career, Miller wasn't particularly political as a kid. She wasn't concerned with politics at all when she began her career in radio. In fact, she'd never had any intention of being political. But somewhere in the transition from music radio in the 1980's to talk radio in the 1990's, she began to gravitate toward politics.

The Republican Party played a major role in her newfound interest.

"It's just how mean-spirited and exclusionary I saw the Republican Party becoming," she says. "It's not my dad's party."

Miller's father died in 1983. She remains very close to her mother, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a Republican. But she avoids talking about politics with her. As for the radio show: "I'm not on in Charlotte, thank God."

When the family members get together, they often argue about what their father would think of current issues. Miller says her two sisters, who have always been Republicans, have become disgusted with the party. They both voted for Kerry. Her brother, who remains a Republican, has grown apolitical.

Miller, who grew up in Lockport, attended Catholic schools.

"It had the same effect it has on everybody," she says. "It makes you raunchy and rebellious. Catholic school is such an easy target for comedy, but I will say that's become one of the themes of my show: taking back God, taking back moral values. That's one of the things I find people on the left so offended by." Miller herself no longer practices religion.

After college, she began to do stand-up comedy on the West Coast. But when her father died, she returned to Lockport. She soon found herself in a featured guest spot on a radio show in Buffalo. After her initial taste of broadcasting, she sent a tape to Brother Wease, who was flourishing in the Rochester morning market at WCMF FM.

"I hired her as soon as I heard her tape," says Wease (Alan Levin), whose show remains popular today. "She's very manic, very bright, very funny and creative." When friends asked Wease, "how come you give that girl so much mike?" he had a simple answer: "Because she's phenomenal. Don't try and compete; let people fly. I let her fly, and we had a ball."

In fact, Wease is so proud of Miller, he can't avoid bragging.

"The radio she learned was from me," he says. "I sincerely love her like crazy. This girl is driven and dedicated and a worker. She didn't get anything by accident. If anybody's got the future, she's the person."

Miller returns the compliment.

"I still consider him one of my dearest friends," she says. He's just got a heart of gold." She recently recorded a "particularly sleazy"salute for his 60th birthday celebration. (A film of the party, held at the Comix Café, will be released on DVD.)

Miller was back in Rochester only one year before her energy and style landed her a job in Chicago, but there is one more thing about Rochester she will never forget.

"Mamasan's: the best food ever. I still haven't gotten over it."

Between her stint as Sister Sleaze and her current persona, Miller held a variety of jobs, from playing small roles in films to co-hosting "Equal Time" with Bay Buchanan on CNBC. With her current show, she seems to have finally found her niche.

"Sometimes in life, you end up using everything you are and you've become," she says. "It kind of just falls together, even though you don't plan it that way."

Although the AM airwaves are full of talkers, very few of them exploit the medium to its full potential. Miller pulls out all the stops, sometimes harkening back to the radio shows of the pre-television age.

"They say it's theater of the mind," she says. "Radio is the most creatively free medium. That's why I enjoy it more than television. Television tends to be over-produced and over-prepared. It's not as authentic as radio."

Depending on how much she has prepared the previous day, Miller wakes up at 3 or 4 a.m. and arrives at the station at 5. She goes on live on KTLK in Los Angeles at 6 a.m.

No small part of her show's success is due to her two well-chosen cohorts, the extraordinary impressionist (and sometime conspiracy theorist) Ward and producer-sidekick Chris Lavoie. They are not only radio partners, but they are also among Miller's best friends off the air.

"They are genuinely funny," says Miller. "Jim Ward says something at least once a day that literally makes me fall out of my chair. Most of it's off the cuff, so you don't see it coming."

The show's daily features include "Rightwing World," a critique of Fox News and other conservative media; "Stand-up News, " which is brimming with Ward's sound bites, and "Tinsel Talk," a look at what's going on in the entertainment world.

Ward writes some of his characters' dialog ahead of time but always performs it live. In addition to President Bush, he does a dead-on Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tom Brokaw, Charles Rangel, and many others. Both Miller and Lavoie are equipped with sound-effects machines that can provide illustrative noises --- like buttons popping off of Tom Cruise's suit after his wedding feast --- in a split second.

And if there is a bizarre news story anywhere in the world --- like the recent one about Japanese women suffering from a disease causing too many orgasms --- you can bet it will be thoroughly analyzed.

Because Lavoie and Ward have been with Miller for several years, a lot of their communication is practically telepathic. "At this point, we share a brain," she says.

As successful as Miller's show is, liberal radio is fighting an uphill battle in terms of ratings. The Rush Limbaughs of the world still dominate on hundreds of stations around the country. Air America, the liberal talk network featuring Al Franken, recently declared bankruptcy.

Miller points out that her show, which is syndicated by Jones Radio Networks, is not part of Air America.

"Capitalism is kind of hitting progressive talk," says Miller. "Air America is bankrupt, so I think the expectation is they're going to go away, but progressive talk isn't. Progressive talk is having some growing pains, but the good shows that get ratings will make it."

The problem with the progressive format, she believes, lies more with a lack of understanding about radio than with the liberal slant of the shows. Miller bemoans the fact that people who have never done radio, like Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower, are put in front of microphones and are expected to win over audiences.

Aside from politics, there are some obvious differences between Miller and her right-wing competitors. Limbaugh, for instance, hardly ever takes calls from those who disagree with him. On the few occasions that he does, he rarely lets the caller hang around long enough to rebut him or have a meaningful dialog.

By contrast, Miller has long conversations with her adversaries.

"To me, it's just better radio," she says. "What's entertaining about listening to people who just agree with me? You don't just get on, you go to the front of the line if you disagree with me."

Disagreement is one thing; death threats are another.

Miller received a death threat recently after appearing on Fox News' Hannity & Colmestelevision show.

Since the man included his phone number in his e-mail, Miller called and confronted him on the air. He denied that his letter was a death threat, but confirmed that the words she read back to him --- clearly calling for the death of Miller and peace activist Cindy Sheehan --- were his.

"Fox News viewers are a particular kind of crazy," says Miller. "There are some right-wing freaks out there. That's what Keith Olbermann was saying" in a commentary on his MSNBC show.

"I'm not saying nobody on the left ever does anything wrong," says Miller, "but there is a particular strain these days that, as [Olbermann] says, comes from the top of the Bush administration --- the bullying and fear mongering and trying to suppress dissent, threatening to kill me if I don't agree with them."

"Olbermann's not saying President Bush orders it or condones it," says Miller, "but it's the kind of environment they've created. You've got the president, before the election, saying if you vote for Democrats, the terrorists win, America loses."

The good news for Miller was that Olbermann mentioned the death threat on the air. He is one of a substantial group of men she refers to as her "future husbands." Others include Senator Russ Feingold and CNN commentator Jack Cafferty.

On air, Miller is self-deprecating, joking frequently about her appearance and her love life, or lack thereof.

"Most people in radio are big losers with no life," she says. "Trust me. I don't know what it is about, particularly, women in the business, but look at Oprah, she's not married, doesn't have kids. Pundits like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter are not married."

When I say it doesn't surprise me that Ann Coulter isn't married, I hear the same cackling laugh that poured from the radio speakers when the Democrats won the House and Senate last month. And then the jab.

"That's true. Ann Coulter --- what is it? Is it male, is it female?"

It may say something about the absurdity of our time, but people increasingly are turning to comedians for political commentary. The success of "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and "Real Time with Bill Maher"has not gone unnoticed by serious news stations. CNN recently called Miller to talk to her about doing a television show.

If she does, she will join comedians like Colbert, Maher, and Jon Stewart, who, in addition to being funny, are among the most astute political commentators in the media.

"Comedians tend to be truth-tellers," says Miller. "For a time now, we just seem to have the facts on our side. We're at a point where all the good comedy targets are on the right."

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