I remember Alan Berg. He was the late-night radio talk show host on KOA radio, and I was working the TV news overnight shift. In those days, both the KOA radio and KCNC-TV news operations shared the same building at 1044 Lincoln Street near downtown Denver.
The overnight grind of writing scripts for the 6 a.m. news would kick in, and I would venture down the second-floor hallway to a bank of vending machines to find bad coffee. I would run into Alan there. He was tall and seemed even taller with his full head of white hair and sport jackets, which even with his signature turtleneck and sweater underneath, hung over his thin frame.
Born to a Jewish family, Berg had outspoken liberal views and a highly confrontational interview style. In a 1984 60 Minutes segment on radio “shock jocks,” broadcaster Morley Safer described Berg’s style as the “verbal version of a blunt instrument.” Berg was known as a “man who spoke his mind, challenged assumptions, and relished a fight about ideas.” He drew huge audiences even as he rubbed some people the wrong way.
In that same 60 Minutes segment, Safer asked Berg whether his on-air antics were dangerous. Said Berg, “I agree with you. There is danger.” He continued, “Hopefully my legal training will prevent me from saying the one thing that will kill me.” (At age 22, Berg was one of the youngest people to pass the Illinois state bar exam). Later that year, those words came back to haunt him.
I remember the night Berg was gunned down. At about 9:30 p.m. on June 18, 1984, Berg returned to his Adams Street townhouse in Denver’s Congress Park neighborhood after he had been out on a dinner date. He stepped out of his black Volkswagen, and gunfire erupted with Berg being shot twelve times in the driveway of his home. He was murdered by members of the white supremacist group, Aryan Nations. Those involved in the murder had a plan to kill prominent Jews such as Berg. Two of them were convicted on charges of civil rights violations, although neither was charged with murder. They were sentenced to 190 years and 252 years in prison, respectively.
Just last month, some members of the Denver media community made sure Berg received some overdue recognition as he was posthumously inducted into the Denver Press Club’s Hall of Fame. Producer Susan Reimann, talk show host Peter Boyles, and reporter/author Kevin Flynn recalled Berg’s career, and his undaunted and provocative style. Nearly four decades earlier, Flynn was one of the Rocky Mountain News reporters assigned to cover Berg’s death and later wrote a book with co-author Gary Gerhardt titled The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America’s Racist Underground.
While much has changed since that book was published in 1989 (Flynn is now a Denver City Councilman), much remains the same. Flynn implored the crowd at the October event to take note and beware of troubling trends present in our country today. Nearly four decades have passed since I shared overnight coffee with Alan Berg, but his courageous words—words which cost him his life—still serve to remind us of the dangers of racist and antisemitic rhetoric and actions today.