Off the air, Grant lies low—and does dishes

BOB GRANT SITS IN HIS STUDIO AT WOR Radio in Manhattan, the home of his new, nationally syndicated talk show, leafing through listener mail. The 67-year-old host smiles as he peruses a few of the thousands of mostly supportive letters that arrive each week. But he can't help mentioning one harsher missive that made its way to his home in Manalapan, N.J. "It was just addressed, 'Bob Grant, aka The Rat,' " he says. "And it showed up at my house. Can you believe that?"

In a word, yes. Grant is synonymous with what is known in some circles as Hate Radio. Rush Limbaugh, whose own partisan commentary pales next to Grant's, wasn't even born when Grant took to the airwaves five decades ago. Until April his incendiary diatribes against liberals, welfare recipients and others—he regularly refers to African-Americans he dislikes as "savages" and once expressed the hope that President Clinton would "exchange bodily fluids" with an HIV-positive immigrant—were limited to a New York-area rush-hour show on WABC. Then came the April 3 plane crash in Croatia that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Before details were known, Grant made a crack implying he hoped Brown hadn't survived. That was one scabrous comment too many for executives at Disney, which had taken over the station last February when the company merged with ABC. A week after Brown's funeral, Grant was fired from the job he'd held for 12 years. But ratings are ratings, and Grant's had been close to the top. Ten days later he was hired at WOR, which syndicates him to an audience of 1 million at 110 stations nationwide. "Love him, hate him, agree, disagree, racist, not racist," says WOR affiliate director Marc LoPonte, "the guy gets out there."

Less thrilled are those who hoped the Brown comment would be Grant's professional epitaph—not his big break. "Grant goes over the bounds of civilized conduct," says travel writer Arthur Frommer, who gave up his own weekly show on WOR when the station hired Grant. "I loved my program, but I refuse to lend assistance even indirectly to the vile racism he spews. I could not be on a hate station."

Relaxing in the two-bedroom condo he shares with Josephine Saracco, his companion of 10 years, Grant just shrugs. "People take me so seriously. I never took myself so seriously," he says. "The positions I take are honest—I was always a right-winger—they're just stated in colorful terms. This is entertainment." If there are limits, they're for the audience to impose. "Anyone is welcome to pick up the phone and tell me I'm horseradish," Grants says.

Contentiousness runs in his family. Grant was born Robert Gigante in Chicago, the second of three children of Pasquale Gigante, a violinist, and his wife, Mary. In overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago, says Grant, his father was a Republican who, during the 1940 presidential race, proudly displayed a photo of GOP nominee Wendell Willkie in his parlor window—and faced down a neighbor who threatened to throw a brick through the glass.

After graduating from high school in 1945, Grant, an ace debater, got an internship at a local radio station—and was smitten. He dropped out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to take a full-time radio job and a year later was hired as a news announcer at Chicago's WBBM, where his bosses told him to change his ethnic-sounding surname. "I still resent it," he says.

In 1957, Grant wed Stephanie La Russo, a WBBM staffer. Thirteen years and four children later, the couple split up. Grant, then working in California, was offered his own show in New York City. Leaving behind his kids—who now range in age from 30 to 37, and with whom Grant is close—"was the toughest part," he says. By 1984 he had a home at WABC, and his caustic credentials were established.

Off the air, Grant is less prickly, even domestic. "He helps clear the dishes and stacks the dishwasher," says Saracco. "He's helpful." The appreciation is mutual. "Josephine nurtures me," says Grant. "It's a big job." Though there is no date, Grant sees a wedding in their future. After all, they both like long walks and classical music. And, he says, "we both despise the Clintons!"

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Manalapan