Whether you love him or hate him, ‘radio blowhard’ Austin Rhodes has lasted for more than 25 years

By his “Cousin” Don Rhodes

 

Because WGAC radio talk show host Austin Rhodes and I share the same last surname, over the years his listeners have come up to me somewhere and ask if we are related.

It’s generally always an amusing encounter, because right after they ask almost timidly, “Now, are you related to Austin Rhodes?” they act as if they are ready to take a step backwards in case I’m going to explode with some angrily-worded answer.

The truth is we are not related that is traceable, but we have known each other since the 1970s when we were involved with The Augusta Players.  His Rhodes branch comes from this immediate area while mine comes from southern Georgia around Moultrie.

But because we each have been asked about our possible kinship so much we started calling each other “cousin.”

And I’ve even been to a couple of his family gatherings through the invitation of a late American Legion post buddy, Bobby Joe Hamilton, who was related to Austin and their real cousin, country music star Terri Gibbs.

When you look up the words “lightning rod” in a locally-published dictionary, you very probably will find a photo of Austin Rhodes.

More than once I have heard someone remark, “Love him or hate him, you still have to give him credit for lasting more than 25 years in the local media.”

That’s what makes the anonymous comments printed in August of 2000 in The Augusta Chronicle’s Rants & Raves section that much more hilarious.

The unidentified complaining reader wrote, “I would like to know when WGAC is going to look into getting rid of talk show host Austin Rhodes?  He is very arrogant.  You cannot discuss anything with him.

“Anytime anybody gets into a discussion with him, he cuts them off.  His head is getting too big, and Augusta deserves better.  And I hope the radio station would look into that.”

Well, apparently, the station is still looking into that some 18 years later!   

Austin has been attacked verbally with threatened lawsuits and even bodily harm over the past two decades mostly because of his ultra conservative stances.

But almost all of those critics and bullies have been dumped by the voters, died off, quietly faded away or otherwise just fallen by the wayside.

In September of 1993, just a year after Austin began afternoon talk show hosting, WAJY-FM put up former pro-football player and former WRDW-TV anchor Charlie Britt against Austin’s time slot.

The Chronicle said WAJY “hopes Mr. Britt’s name recognition will give him an immediate audience and take a bite out of Austin Rhodes and WGAC-AM.”

Austin told The Chronicle, “I welcome it. Competition makes you sharper.  It’ll be interesting to see how he does taking calls.  He has a lot of baggage, both positive and negative.  May the best man win.”

Well, we know who won that on-air battle which really turned out to be just a skirmish.

Augusta businessman Deke Copenhaver, as Augusta’s mayor, became irate over Austin criticizing some of the city’s hiring moves and the mayor posted online:

“I would be extremely concerned with giving this authority to someone with no experience running any kind of organization.  Also, when was the last time you spent any time at the Municipal Building observing how our day to day operations run and interacting with the majority of good people who bust their tails every day to provide services to our citizens?

“Finally, please let me know of any experience you have in a leadership role where you have run anything.”

To which Austin replied, “I have spent the last 23 years covering government on a daily basis, and I keep up with about half a dozen political bodies, including the Augusta city government. I speak with elected and appointed officials daily.  I don’t have to attend the dog and pony shows on meeting days to learn a dad-gum thing.”

In an interestingly twist of fate, Copenhaver in later years as a private citizen again for a brief while became a morning talk show host on the same station, in the same studio and using the same microphone that Austin used in the afternoons!

The Chronicle in January of 2001 published an editorial that was headlined “A radio blowhard” in which the unsigned writer leveled criticism of Austin’s on-air revelations about a Richmond County murder case.

The editorial labeled Austin as an “immature talk show clown” with “an overblown ego and an obsession for attention that would shame Bill Clinton.”

Deeper jabbing the editorial pen, the Chronicle added, “Despite some experience in serious journalism earlier in his career, Rhodes today is nothing more than a self-aggrandizing entertainer.  His show is not about informing, enlightening or encouraging constructive, issue-oriented debates.  It’s about generating ratings.”

Well, again, that editorial was published more than 17 years ago, and Austin has out-lasted the Chronicle’s then editorial page editor, then executive editor and then general manager who have long moved on to other employers.

Once again, the immature talk show clown ─ like him or hate him ─ had the last laugh.

For me personally, it has been fascinating to have a front row seat watching my “cousin’s” life in local media become so successful that in July of 1992 he marked his Silver Anniversary as Augusta’s most popular radio personality.

That’s not just my evaluation.  The Georgia Association of Broadcasters four years consecutively (2008-2011) named him “Radio Personality of the Year.”

And he usually tops every reader’s poll of favorite local radio broadcasters.

His many other accolades include being honored with the Louis C. Harris media person of the year award in 2014 from the West Augusta Rotary Club.

That especially was meaningful since his WGAC mentor and late close friend, Matt Stovall, won the same award in 1993. 

Austin had started his long run in afternoon drive-time radio on WGAC in July of 1992.  The following March of 1993 station officials offered him a two-year contract and expanded his show to three hours.

Austin was more than just a co-worker with Stovall and pallbearer at Stovall’s 2002 funeral.

He literally had grown up in The Augusta Players’ Youth Theater in comedies and dramas directed by Stovall.

One such play in 1979 directed by Stovall, “Ten Little Indians”, based on an Agatha Christie mystery novel, resulted in Austin being nominated for an Augusta Players’ Auggie Award for best supporting actor.

And the two appeared together in Players’ adult theater productions including the 1983 version of “M*A*S*H” with Austin playing Captain “Trapper John” McIntyre and Matt playing Captain Augustus Bedford “Duke” Forrest.

“I was introduced to Matt by the late Bonnie Pirkle while working with her on a show she was directing for the Augusta Players Youth Theater in 1973,” Rhodes recalled. “I was 8 years old.

  “I knew him “from a distance” until he cast me in “Ten Little Indians” for the Players’ Youth Theater in 1978.  From that point, I worked with Matt and his father, Jim, ─known as Papa Stovall to his adoring fans ─ on many, many theater projects over the next 20 years.

“To say they were like family to me would be an understatement.  Matt was like a big brother in many ways, both in theater and broadcasting, and “Pop” (what I called Papa) was like another grandfather.”

Rhodes, a fan of organized sports teams, started assisting Matt with football broadcasts in the fall of 1983.  Stovall hired Rhodes to work weekends, a late night air shift on WMTZ-AM radio in Martinez, and, as Rhodes said, “It was off to the races from there!”

Through the Players’ production of “M*A*S*H,” Austin came to know veteran actress and director Barbara Lynn Feldman, who played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan.

Their friendship would lead to almost 15 years of Austin doing shows with Feldman’s Storyland Theater productions held in recent years in the Imperial.

“’M*A*S*H’ was the first time I worked with Barbara on stage,” Rhodes said. “I had seen her in several productions before, but that was the first time we actually worked together.

“I began working with Storyland in the fall of 2003.  Ironically, Barbara came to me at Matt’s funeral asking if I would consider joining their company. Many of the roles I have taken were once played by Matt.

“My two favorites along the way, both originated by Matt, are The Emperor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and a rather fun, French version of The Big Bad Wolf in “Mademoiselle Hood Meets Le Wolf.”

You would think that Austin was born to be a public figure beginning with one of his earliest starring roles being in June of 1971 as the ring bearer at Thomson’s First United Methodist Church for the wedding of Victoria Lee Burt and Robert Walker Hawes.

“My Dad and Bobby Hawes were best friends back in the day,” Rhodes said with a laugh.  “My stage debut would have been in the National Hills Elementary School production of ‘Dudes and Daisies’ when I was in the first grade.  It was a production staged by the sixth and seventh graders, but I crashed it.  I insisted on being included, and they caved.  True story.”

By December of 1973, he was playing Santa Claus’ helper at the Augusta Junior Women’s Club’s Christmas party passing out gifts to foster children.  His father, Robert Rhodes, played Santa.

His aunt, Jewell Bentley Childress, who died in 2010, was president of the Augusta Junior Woman’s Club.

She also served as a director of the Richmond County Historical Society; on the Advisory Boards of St. John Towers, Georgia Regional Hospital, the Dietetic Intern Program at University Hospital and for the Richmond County Board of Education and was a member of the Augusta-Richmond County Board of Zoning Appeals serving as its chairman.

It is largely from his aunt that Austin was heavily influenced by local politics.  Childress was a member of the National Historical Preservation Society and served for many years as president of the Women’s Republican Club of Richmond County.

“While Aunt Jewell was more visible in local political circles, her two sisters ─ my mother, Beverly, and my aunt, Bonnie Perry ─ were every bit as active and militant,” Rhodes observed.

“That was a Bentley family trait that I inherited.  And I can honestly say that attitude was ginned up by the addition of my Dad’s family, too.  We used to have these epic family dinners (tons of aunts, uncles, cousins) where political conversation and debate would rule the table.

“You were allowed to give an opinion, but you better bring your ‘A game’ or your words would be mashed up and fed back to you on a platter. Growing up in that atmosphere, what choice did I have but to eventually get into my chosen field?”

Rhodes noted that both of his aunts were citizen activists with a heart and a conservative conscience.

“They were tough, but they were fair,” he said.  “They demanded respect for the law, but they showed extreme compassion for those in need. Jewell was legendary in her public service and church work, and  Aunt Bonnie made us all proud by becoming a volunteer, full blown paramedic while her husband was serving as the Mayor of their then hometown of Berkeley Heights, N.J.

“I share that to say that they proved their values not just by running their mouths, but through important community service work that contributed real value to their fellow citizens.”

Many local television viewers remember Rhodes hosting the “Comcast Connect” program live at 7:30 p.m. on Mondays in the early 2000s.  One of the last public appearances that music superstar James Brown made was on Austin’s TV show.

“Not long after my radio show debuted, some schmuck called in asking the ‘real value’ of James Brown to the music world,” Rhodes recalled of his friendship with Soul Brother Number One.

“This uninformed goofball likened J.B. to an early version of Billy Ocean or Engelbert Humperdinck; someone with a few catchy tunes who was nothing more than a B-list celebrity unworthy of real notice or praise.

“Well I went off on him, and I took that chump to school on James Brown explaining how he had basically invented an entire genre of music and that the only single human that compared to him and his place in popular music was Elvis Presley.  And, oh, that Elvis had said that himself.

“Keep in mind this was 1993 and, while the world would soon be dumping accolades and awards at JB’s feet by the metric ton, he still was reeling from his recent incarceration and its fallout.”

James Brown himself apparently was listening because, about 20 minutes after Rhodes quit talking about Brown, the man himself appeared in the radio station lobby after getting out of a limousine.  He let it be known that he wanted to meet the man who “knew his business” so well.

“I had covered J.B. like the rest of the local media had for years, up to that point, but I had never really gotten to know him personally,” Rhodes said. 

“All of that changed that day. It is without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences in my life getting to know him so well.  I was the only broadcast media professional invited to his wedding to Tomi Rae and their Beech Island home.

“A few years later, I was deeply honored to be invited to his private family funeral [Carpentersville Baptist in North Augusta] held the day before the big public funeral in James Brown Arena.

“By the way, I consider the re-naming of Augusta’s main performing venue in his honor was one of the most important things I have ever done.  I was the first member of the Coliseum Authority to begin the process to make that happen.”

So why is my cousin still on the air after more than 25 years if so many people can’t stand him?

The truth is ─ like many entertainers I have known who say they don’t read their reviews but really do ─ people want to hear what Austin has to say whether they like hearing it or not.

And the bottom line is that Austin usually tells the truth based on facts and solid sources; no matter what kind of conservative spin he puts on such information.

He hates political corruption and the bad crime guys and girls and basically does take the side of the common people.

And he long has been a champion of the basic tenants of fair and accurate journalism and First Amendment rights.

That definitely was evidenced when Ed Turner, during one of his No. 9 Band rock and soul concerts in the Imperial, made a joke about then Medical College of Georgia president Dr. Richard Azziz.

The audience laughed but it wasn’t as funny to the board of directors of the Columbia County Exchange Club who had been racking in thousands and thousands of dollars every year for their local charities from Turner’s sold out shows.

Chip Lowe of the club sent Turner a message saying, “Ed, this concert was developed to be an event for you and your band to entertain the patrons who so willingly spent their money to not only enjoy the musical entertainment you provide but to also help us help the kids.

“This event was never to be a political platform for anyone. Everyone has a right to his/her opinion but not in a public spotlight of this type.  The Board of Directors of the Columbia County Exchange Club is in the process of sending a letter of apology and explanation to (those concerned), in addition to other sponsors who were offended by your presentation.”

Turner himself responded, “For the Columbia County Exchange Club to be so upset over my on-stage comments about the ASU/GRU controversy is beyond me. I have received no complaints from anyone over our very popular stance that we want Augusta in the name of our merged universities.

“For you and/or your Club to be sympathetic with Dr. Azziz and the Georgia Regents is so perplexing that I won’t even bother to respond. . . . I will never stay silent and complacent on and off the stage over any local controversies.”

Austin immediately came to Turner’s defense and posted on Facebook, “So here it is.  Ed Turner and his AMAZING group Number 9 have been thrilling audiences with sold out shows for years.  It seems one of their adopted charity groups has taken issue with Ed’s own stage banter and comedy routine a few weeks back which took aim at the iron fisted philosophies of Dr. Azziz.

“His routine brought the house down, and until THIS letter I had not heard one whisper of complaint or criticism.  You would have thought Ed had come out against puppies and penicillin.

“I applaud Ed and I stand with the artists and musicians who tell the stuffed shirts of the world to go straight to Hell.”

Besides his straight-forward, going to the heart of the matter approach about this community’s social and political problems, you can’t argue with how generous Austin has been lending that familiar voice and over the top personality to a wide range of non-profit fundraisers and charitable endeavors in the Central Savannah River Area.

So, love him or hate him, Austin will be around as long as he wants to be on the air or until the station management and ownership want him around.

But never count him down or out.  He just might run for elected office in heavily Republican Columbia County territory and just might win.

Why not?  Other entertainers including Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, Jimmie Davis, Al Franken, Clint Eastwood and Donald Trump have held elected government offices.

One thing for sure if that ever happens.  Just like his radio show, Austin’s elected political service sure wouldn’t be dull.

Article appears in the October 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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