“How come you’re cawlin’ a loy-yuh?”
That’s how attorney Len Tillem greets every caller to his KGO radio legal advice show.
If this was some other radio talk show, it might be time for a boring, minutiae-laden call from someone seeking free legal advice.
But this is the Len Tillem Show. This is a 65-year-old host who’s a free-swinging “loy-yuh” — as opposed to a buttoned-down attorney. Bounding out of the radio is the voice of someone with a sassy New York accent (think Woody Allen with a dash of “the nanny,” Fran Drescher, thrown in) and a healthy dose of Bronx chutzpah (a mixture of, say, Larry David and Jackie Mason).
Tillem, a practicing attorney for nearly 40 years, asks one female caller about “the guy who knocked up your mother.” He asks another if a harasser has “ever called your daughter dirty names.”
Yes, the woman replies, hesitantly.
“What?!” Tillem shouts excitedly. “What kind of names?!”
He tells another caller: “Mary, Mary, relax. You’re going to end up in San Quentin if you don’t calm down.”
“Len is a star. He really is,” says Mickey Luckoff, president and general manager of KGO radio at 810 AM, a highly rated news and talk station in San Francisco. “I often get the question, ‘Did you hire him because you wanted a lawyer?’ No, of course not. We hired him because he’s a personality, an entertainer.”
Hired by KGO in January 2000 to fill six hours of weekend programming, Tillem and his show slowly but surely blossomed. Three years ago, KGO realized it was sitting on a ratings gold mine and also gave him weekdays from 12 to 12:45 p.m., shortly thereafter bumping up his slot to the full hour. He retains his weekly Sunday show from 4 to 7 p.m.
His weekday show is rated No. 1 in the Bay Area, with 57,500 listeners at any given time, according to the latest Arbitron ratings. No. 2 during the noon hour is KOIT with 39,000 listeners, according to KGO operations director Jack Swanson, who says Tillem is “No. 1 by a large margin, and he’s consistently No. 1.”
“To this day, I still don’t understand why the show is so popular,” the ever-humble Tillem says. “A lot of people come up to me and try to do the imitation, ‘Why ya cawlin’ a loy-yuh?’ But that’s not it. I think it’s because people like the stories from the callers.”
The “stories,” as he calls them, are really miniature soap operas that Tillem does his best to elicit from each caller. People’s tales of woe, drama and scrapes with the law turn out to be more entertaining than the legal advice.
He begins another call: “We get great stories, interesting stories. I love these stories!
“Christine in Santa Clara, hello Christine. How come you’re cawlin’ a loy-yuh?”
“I think he’s great,” says Ronn Owens, KGO’s morning talk host who ends his own show every day with 45 seconds of banter with Tillem, repartee that occasionally includes a bissel of Yiddish or a reference to a Jewish holiday. “He makes the law fun, he knows how to pick the right calls and he really uses the New York accent to his advantage.”
“Well, it’s much more pronounced on the radio than in my real life,” Tillem admits of his accent and his up-front style. “That’s a persona. You know, the New York Jewish wise guy. The fast-talking New Yorker. And when they say a ‘New York accent,’ they really mean a Jewish accent.”
Tillem has the background to go with the shtick. Born in the Bronx three days after D-Day in 1944, he is the son of Jewish Polish immigrants. “I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English,” he says.
His father, Carl, was a plumber who, during World War II, worked on ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And his mother, Ethel, eventually opened a rooming house when the family (Tillem has two older brothers and a younger sister) moved to Long Island’s Rockaway Peninsula not long after Tillem’s bar mitzvah.
“My parents were not Zionists. They were more like socialists,” Tillem says. “As a kid, I went to Workmen’s Circle schools where the emphasis was on Yiddish, not Hebrew. I read Sholom Alecheim.”
Tillem says much of his personality was shaped by his maternal grandfather, Sam Rosen, a harnessmaker who came to America in 1912.
“I think a lot of my show comes from the fact that my grandfather used to read me the ‘Bintel Brief’ in the Forvertz [the Jewish Daily Forward],” Tillem says. The column, in Yiddish, answered in practical terms often salacious questions from Jews, many of them new immigrants, who were confused about adapting to life in America.
“It was kind of like the ‘Dear Abby’ of its time,” Tillem says. “Whenever I get a good call nowadays, I’m always thinking: ‘This is a Bintel Brief kind of call.’ ”
In high school, Tillem was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Chat, which gave him a bit of early training for a current column that he co-writes with an associate. Focused on senior legal issues, it’s published in seven local newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle’s monthly PrimeLife supplement.
Tillem’s law practice in Sonoma, Len Tillem and Associates, specializes in elder law — including estate planning, wills and probate, trusts and long-term planning.
“I got tired of the fighting and litigating,” he explains. With elder law, “I’m not fighting with anyone. I’m not even going to court. I haven’t been inside a courtroom in 25 years.”
Tillem earned a bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College, then a law degree at New York University. While he was still in college in 1968, he visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love; his sister, Susan, who now produces his show, had dropped out of college and joined the Haight Ashbury scene.
“I loved it,” Tillem says, referring to the freewheeling sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. “I was like a kid in a candy store. It was unbelievable. It was fabulous.”
He did, however, return to New York in the fall to continue working toward his law degree, after which he became a public defender in Brooklyn. But something inside of him always wanted to be “a country lawyer,” as he puts it.
“And to a Jewish boy from New York City, Sonoma was the country,” he adds.
So he moved to Sonoma, where his sister now lived, and in 1974 opened a law practice just a few blocks south of the picturesque town square. The office, in an old, converted house, now includes a fully loaded radio studio, which is where he does his show six days a week.
Although he’s two months shy of his 10-year anniversary with KGO, Tillem has been giving legal advice on the airwaves for nearly 20 years. He started at KVON, a small station in Napa, in January 1990.
“I just knew I wanted to do it,” Tillem says. “I told my wife and she says, ‘So, you’re going to be on the radio. Are you nervous?’ And I said, ‘No.’ ‘Did you prepare?’ ‘No.’ It was my kind of gig. I just knew I could do it — and I did.”
It turned out to be a smart move, because in a few months the show was expanded, first to an hour, and then to two days a week, and Tillem no longer had to pay a $50 fee for the airtime. Then a station in Santa Rosa gave him a show, and he often did both in the same day (one from 8 to 9 a.m., the other from 1 to 2 p.m.). Next came syndication, as a station in Lake County started airing the show.
“That’s when I realized I really loved doing radio, and I got better and better at it,” he says. “By 1992, I had built a studio in my office.”
Eventually, KGO heard Tillem and decided to try him out on the weekends in 2000. “It was like going from the minors to the majors,” Tillem says.
While establishing his radio prowess in the 1990s, Tillem was also helping to establish Reform Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma. He and his wife of 23 years, Susan Fegan, and their two daughters, Freya and Phoebe, were among a group of 20 or so charter families when the synagogue was founded in 1996, as was his sister, Susan Tillem.
“I’m not the most active member of the temple now, by any means,” says Tillem, although both of his daughters were bat mitzvahed there. Freya, 22, is now a senior at UCLA and Phoebe, 19, is a freshman at USF.
His eldest daughter’s name, Tillem says, came about because “we liked Fralich, which means ‘happy’ in Yiddish, and Freya is the Norse goddess of love and beauty.”
Not all of Tillem’s life can be described as ‘fralich,” however. He had two previous marriages, one that lasted two years and another one that lasted 11 years (no children in either). And he used to have a drinking problem, which he sometimes mentions on the air.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he says flatly in an interview. “After my divorce in 1978, I started drinking heavily, and one day I caught myself chugging a $20 bottle of wine like it was a Pepsi.”
In 1983, after one particularly nasty hangover and a realization that he and his then-girlfriend had nothing in common except drinking, he decided to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“About three months in I had a little slip, but after that I got it,” he says. “I really got it. I did what A.A. said. I did the program, went to meetings every day. A.A. saved my life.”
Perhaps because he had his own experiences with drugs and alcohol, Tillem gets especially animated whenever one of his callers is in a scrape that involves an illegal substance issue or a DUI.
“Radio is an older audience, but everybody likes younger people. I try to avoid alta kocker calls, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “Calls about young people are juicier and sexier. A 22-year-old girl who got caught for drunk driving — it’s somebody’s daughter or granddaughter and the audience can relate to it. I like those a lot. I like marijuana calls.”
There are several secrets behind the Len Tillem Show, though they’re not really secret because Tillem is more than willing to talk about them.
First, his sister screens every call, and only articulate people with salacious and interesting sagas make it on air. “I get e-mails how rude she is, which is her job,” Tillem says. “We are not Legal Aid. We are not there to help people on the telephone. We are there to find interesting calls so we can entertain an audience.”
Another trick of the trade is that David Brown, an attorney at Tillem’s firm, talks to every caller before they go on the air, does some quick research if necessary, then sends Tillem via computer a detailed summary of the caller’s problem along with a legal analysis. So on the air, when Tillem is citing legal codes and statutes seemingly off the top of his head, all of those have actually come via Brown.
“I have to be witty and clever and bright,” Tillem says, “so I can’t remember if it’s a two-year or four-year statute of limitations, or how many days a person has to file a response. I couldn’t do it without him. I tell everybody he’s the brains of the operation. Sometimes he even gives me jokes.”
Tillem can’t deny that the radio show has helped bring in a lot of business to his elder law practice. “Oh my God. It’s been unbelievable,” he says.
“We sell trusts — who gets your stuff when you die? We do other work for seniors, but trusts are the bulk of our practice. So for $2,000 or $3,000, you’re buying a trust, and then it’s over. You don’t need me anymore. We need to sell a lot of those to maintain the practice, and the radio show helps bring in the clients.”
Tillem also does seminars on elder law around the Bay Area, usually teaming up with another lawyer for 10 or so events per year. On Nov. 12, for example, he had a seminar at a hotel in San Rafael.
A member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Tillem served as a delegate to a White House Conference on aging in the 1990s.
When it comes to trusts, he says, “The biggest mistake people make is choosing their oldest child to be the successive trustee, but maybe he has a drinking or gambling problem, or he’s not emotionally suited to distribute the funds. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to leave your assets outright to your children. You’re kind of like a social worker when you talk to people. It’s very satisfying to help people reach a solution.”
And what else is satisfying to Tillem? He says he doesn’t have many friends and doesn’t like to socialize, and when someone recently asked him what his hobby was, “I couldn’t think of anything,” he says. “My wife had to step in and say, ‘Radio is your hobby’ — and it really is.”
What about the collection of arrowheads and Native American artifacts on display near Tillem’s desk? “You think I collected these?” he asks rhetorically. “I found these at a garage sale and some people gave them to me. I’m a Jewish boy from New York City. What am I going to do, go hunting for Indian artifacts?”
Tillem’s “Jewish boy from New York City” persona has carried him far, and perhaps he owes it all to
34-year KGO veteran Owens, who was born Ronald Lowenstein in New York City in 1945. In Tillem’s early days on KGO, he used to go on Owens’ show occasionally, which is where the “loy-yuh” moniker was born.
“He was the one who started making fun of me: ‘I’m a loy-yuh. Why ya cawlin’ a loy-yuh?’ ” Tillem remembers. “Then all over KGO for a couple of days everybody was saying it, and then I started saying it more. And it just worked.”
“He’s a loy-yuh,” says fellow KGO talk show host John Rothmann, “but you can’t necessarily capture that in print. What everyone should know, however, is that the second you use that expression with that inflection, everyone knows you’re talking about Len Tillem.”