‘Cuba Boys,’ Radio Callers Who Taunted WBAI, Come ForwardBy COREY KILGANNON
For decades, the progressive talk radio station WBAI has been hounded by a couple of conservatives calling in to taunt program hosts about their left-leaning politics and telling them in their thick Brooklyn accents to – and this was their stock phrase — “Go back to Cuba, you commies.”
They have called thousands of times, maddening some hosts, including “Grandpa” Al Lewis, the activist and actor who played Grandpa on “The Munsters” television series.
Mr. Lewis named these callers “The Cuba Boys,” but the usual alias they used was Johnny from Greenpoint. All anyone really knew about the callers was that they were working class New Yorkers who knew the station thoroughly, and that they also sent hundreds of postcards over the years from various states and foreign countries, including Cuba.
“They have literally changed programming practices at WBAI over the years,” said John McDonagh, 58, who for 30 years has run Radio Free Eireann, an Irish-American talk show at the station, and was perhaps the favorite target of the Cuba Boys. “We have hosts here who stopped taking calls altogether, because of them.”
The mystery ended on Saturday afternoon, as the Cuba Boys – two retired New York City fire lieutenants, Girard Owens, 59, and John Sexton, 58 – finally visited WBAI-AM (99.5), to be interviewed on the air by Mr. McDonagh, a New York City cabdriver from Middle Village, Queens.
A week earlier, Mr. Owens had called Mr. McDonagh to introduce himself and to invite Mr. McDonagh to visit the Statue of Liberty with him on Sept. 11. Mr. Owens explained that over the past decade he had traveled to all 397 national parks, monuments and historic sites in the United States, but not the statue.
Mr. Owens had rescued civilians from the towers that day, and then had spent months working at ground zero. He was recently told by his doctors that he had cancer, Stage 4 lymphoma, which was caused by his exposure to dust and debris at ground zero, he said.
“The reason I came forward is because I don’t have much time left,” Mr. Owens said in an interview.
Mr. McDonagh said of Mr. Owens, “He told me he didn’t want anyone calling in to WBAI years from now and wondering what ever happened to the Cuba Boys.”
Mr. Owens said he began telephoning WBAI in his early teens, calling the hosts “commies” if they refused to debate him.
“It wasn’t crank calling,” he said. “It was phone guerrilla warfare. Some of these so-called progressives wouldn’t want to hear our side, so before they’d hang up, we’d tell them to go to Cuba.”
Despite his ideological views, Mr. Owens became a dedicated WBAI listener, and donated thousands of dollars to keep the station operating because, he said, “I believe in free speech and even though I disagree with their politics, I’ve always used a lot of the information they give for travel and health reasons and investing money.”
“I went to a lot of communist countries – North Korea, Russia, Cuba, China, East Germany,” he said. “And I used to call into WBAI – I didn’t care if I was in the firehouse or listening online in another country – and I’d tell them, ‘If you can’t appreciate how great America is, especially New York City, and if you think communism is better, then go to one of those countries and I’ll pay your fare.’ ”
Despite his fervent ideology, Mr. Owens wound up making lasting friendships in his travels to Cuba and returned more than a dozen times.
In the studio, Mr. McDonagh, along with a fellow host, Sandy Boyer, as well as a sound engineer, Eliza Butler, sat alongside Mr. Owens and Mr. Sexton and recounted great calls with the Cuba Boys over the years.
There was the time they called in and made Bob Dylan, who was a guest, laugh. There were the many calls from their firehouse phone to the well-known WBAI host Bob Fass.
With all the radio transmissions and alarms in the background, Mr. Owens said, “He must have thought I was in the C.I.A. or F.B.I.”
Mr. McDonagh said of the Cuba Boys, “They seemed so normal, they’re out saving lives, and in their spare time they’re torturing WBAI.”
“Do you get great joy out of this?” he asked them.
The two men said it was so much fun, they called the station daily.
At this point, the phone was busy with callers and Mr. McDonagh said, “If only the switchboard would light up like this when we’re looking for funds.”
Most were longtime callers, like Kevin from Brooklyn, who said, “This is almost like finding out who Deep Throat was.”
Some were former hosts, like the comedian and author Malachy McCourt, who said that part of his preparation for the show was readying himself for the Cuba Boys’ calls. Before he hung up, he told Mr. Owens and Mr. Sexton, “Conservatism is a form of brain damage.”
The Cuba Boys seemed perplexed that so many of the callers were so friendly and conciliatory.
“They’re in a state of shock,” said Mr. McDonagh. He took another call with a phrase that the Cuba Boys knew well.
“WBAI, you’re on the air,” he said, as the two Cuba Boys looked at each other and smiled.