A Man in Full

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans broadcaster Garland Robinette is still fighting mad
July 17, 2009

It was the birds that tipped him off. Two days before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, while the storm was still out at sea and its path remained uncertain, Garland Robinette was coming out of his neighborhood coffeehouse when he noticed something strange. A large palm across the street, normally home to a flock of green parrots so noisy that talking near it was impossible, was empty and silent. As he walked home, Robinette scanned the trees and phone lines of his Uptown neighborhood. Nothing. All the birds had vanished. His mind went back to the jungles of Vietnam where he had served as a Navy “Riverine,” running commandos up rivers and canals on small boats. There the birds always knew before the troops when mayhem was at hand, and cleared out. That afternoon Robinette went on the air at wwl radio, the fifty-thousand-watt station that broadcasts across the gulf south from its home in New Orleans, and advised his listeners in no uncertain terms that they should follow their feathered friends out of town. “It’s time to panic,” he told them.

At the time of Katrina, Robinette was still a relative newcomer to radio. In the seventies and eighties he had been a fixture on New Orleans TV news, co-anchoring the 6–10 p.m. broadcasts at the highest-rated station in town with Angela Hill, his former wife of nine years (“Garangela,” one press wag dubbed them at the time). But in 1990, Robinette, burned out and bored with a profession he’d come to find “superficial,” walked away from what was as close to a lifetime appointment as you could hope to find in modern American journalism (Hill is still a lead anchor at the station). He moved to the country to paint and embarked on a successful stint in public relations. He thought he was done with broadcasting. I remember meeting him for the first time during this period at a mutual friend’s wedding in Manhattan. When I told him I was newly enrolled in journalism school, he winced: “Why?”

But in 2004, when a close friend and popular radio talk-show host in New Orleans was diagnosed with cancer and asked Robinette to fill in, he agreed, though he admits he had long looked down on radio as the “trailer trash” of the media world. To his surprise, he found that its open format and close interaction with callers agreed with him. WWL asked him to go on the air full-time in 2005, a few months before Katrina struck the city.

Robinette’s performance during and after the storm has become a piece of Katrina legend. The night of the storm, he stayed on the air even as the windows in wwl’s downtown broadcast studio blew out. In the days and weeks that followed, he would sometimes broadcast twelve hours straight or more, working from a studio the size of a broom closet at wwl’s makeshift studio in Baton Rouge. At a time when cable television and even electricity were scarce, Robinette’s raspy voice was often all people had to steady them through the crisis. His interview with Mayor Ray Nagin a few days after the storm, in which the mayor aimed a profanity-laced stream of invective at the federal government’s failure to respond, went viral on the Internet and is considered, in retrospect, the turning point in getting the city help. “He really came into focus with that,” says Dave Walker, who covers media for The Times-Picayune. “It was his emotion and raw reaction to the state of the response to the storm, coupled with Nagin’s response. It’s one of the most incredible pieces of broadcasting I’ve ever heard. Even the silences were devastating.”
Robinette’s pleas on behalf of New Orleans got him a star turn in Spike Lee’s four-part HBO documentary about Katrina (though Robinette admits he had no idea who Spike Lee was). He developed an ardent fan base among the national press covering the storm, such as Brian Williams of NBC News, who called Robinette “iconic,” and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who labeled him a pillar of the city. He even got an exclusive sit-down with President and Laura Bush.

In the years since the storm, Robinette hasn’t lost any of his passion but admits that he is weary at times. Broadcasting from WWL’s new studio, with the Mississippi River Bridge framed outside his window, Robinette holds down the 10 a.m.–1 p.m. slot at the “Big 870.” Soon to be sixty-six, he still has something of the look of a TV anchorman, but his voice has a pronounced croak, due to complications following surgery in 2007 to fix a snoring problem that left him coughing and bedridden for months, often unable to speak. Seated behind two computer screens, with CNBC muted on a nearby television and stacks of highlighted reference material on the desk in front of him, Robinette styles his show as a “think tank” and invites callers to challenge both his and their own preconceptions of the world. Robinette strives, with mixed results, to keep the tone highbrow—a rare commodity on AM talk radio—directing his producers to screen obvious yahoos and callers who “don’t have all their teeth.” The goal is npr but the result is more often Fox News-light. The callers tend to run conservative, as does Robinette in many areas, though he is at times a vocal backer of President Obama and is moderate on social issues.

Also, as much as Robinette may admire the cool, detached tone of public radio, his natural persona runs altogether hotter, and he is frequently a combative presence on the air. Despite almost forty years in broadcasting, he says his stomach still turns flips before a show. In the studio, he bounces in his seat and leans into the microphone, dabbing his finger on a moist Halls lozenge and sucking it to soothe his aching throat. He doesn’t have much patience with callers he sees as mindless acolytes of what he calls the two “stupid clubs”—the “Demedonts” and the “Republicants.” And special woe unto the caller who happens to challenge Robinette’s positions in one of the areas he sees as sacrosanct, such as the treatment of veterans, the evils of bureaucratic incompetence, and what he describes as the near-criminal negligence in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

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One organization, above all others, has been a particular target of Robinette’s wrath: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the institution charged with building and maintaining the hundreds of miles of levees that surround New Orleans and southern Louisiana. For Robinette, Katrina was not a natural disaster but a man-made one caused by the Corps’s failure to maintain the levee system despite years of warnings that it was at risk of failure. A report to Congress on how the Corps plans to overhaul the levees, in the wake of Katrina, to withstand major hurricanes was initially due in December 2007, but still has not been finalized. When an investigation funded by the National Science Foundation discovered that the levee-rebuilding work done by the Corps after the storm had used a cheaper and more permeable type of soil, to save money, Robinette took to the air to call the Corps “a stupid, evil organization.” (The Corps denied the foundation’s charge.)

He is no less caustic in private. “What should I have called them?” Robinette says, his face clouding with anger. “When they rebuild levees they know will fail and they know people will die because of it?”

In May, Levees.org, a local watchdog group, found that the Corps had paid $5.2 million over the last two years to an outside public relations firm to polish its image, touching off a fresh chorus of outrage that the Corps was spending more on image-building than levee-building. “Garland has a big heart and isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said without fear of retribution,” says Sandy Rosenthal, the head of Levees.org and herself a frequent critic of the Corps. “New Orleans can be like a factory town when it comes to the Corps. It’s a big employer, spends a lot of money, has lots of contracts and vendors.” (Despite numerous calls seeking comment, the Corps never made anyone available to discuss Robinette and his criticisms.)

Part of Robinette’s frustration with the Corps stems from the fact that he has been sounding the alarm on the potential consequences of suspect levees and coastal erosion since he started in television in the early 1970s. “He recognized the problem and did really in-depth reporting on the issue before anyone else down here,” says Jim Henderson, who worked with Robinette for twelve years as a sports anchor at wwl. “August 2005 finally proved his point.” Indeed, Robinette says he produced special reports annually on problems in the wetlands for WWL before station management finally asked him to stop in the late 1980s. “They said everybody thought I was crazy and obsessed,” Robinette recalls.

Still, not everyone sees Robinette as a beneficial force in New Orleans these days. His once-warm relationship with Mayor Nagin has devolved to the point where Nagin will no longer return his calls (a common complaint among members of the New Orleans media). Robinette’s frequent excoriation of Nagin, who is black, and other local politicians have alienated many in the city’s African-American community. Robinette is clearly vexed by this disconnect with what is, after all, still the majority population in New Orleans. Robinette does get black callers and says he receives a lot of feedback from the African-American community about the show. Yet market surveys contradict this. “You know how big my listenership is in the black community?” he asked one day, before curling his hand into a circle. “Zero.”

Clancy DuBos, the political editor of Gambit, the city’s largest alternative newspaper, says Robinette’s difficulty is more a byproduct of the city’s larger racial division (which in many ways has been intensified by the stress of rebuilding after Katrina), than anything to do with his show. “It’s a natural tension between media and politicians in a town where the media is dominated by whites and politics is dominated by blacks,” says DuBos. Robinette estimates he’s done about thirty shows in just the last year aimed at addressing the city’s racial mistrust—“not just kumbaya, hand-holding talk either,” he says—and has conducted on-air roundtables with black political leaders to sort out differences of opinion. But he doesn’t think any of it has made an appreciable impact. “I’ve tried and tried to bridge that divide, but now I’m just tired. You want to say I’m a racist, go ahead. I know it’s not true.”

Robinette grew up on the bayous of southern Louisiana, the adopted son of an oil-rig worker and his wife. Until age thirteen, when his father died, his family lived in a camp behind a petroleum refinery near the town of Des Allemands (the movie critic Rex Reed also lived there for a time). In contrast to the stereotypical image a Cajun country upbringing might conjure, Robinette was not a rough-and-ready outdoorsman, but a kid with asthma who hated hunting or the idea of killing anything. Instead, he learned the piano and liked to draw. An indifferent student, Robinette washed out of college three times—he never got his degree—and was drafted into the military in 1965. He wound up a member of the so-called brown-water Navy that patrolled Vietnam’s waterways in small boats. “Did you ever see the movie Apocalypse Now? That was my boat,” says Robinette. (John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee, was also a “Riverine” in Vietnam, but, Robinette notes, “he had a bigger boat.”) The duty was notoriously hazardous. Robinette was the only survivor from his original crew, and was wounded twice. He spent months in the hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds he received when his boat was ambushed by enemy rocket fire.

As I spent time with Robinette and listened to his show, it became clear that Vietnam remains the defining moment of his life. Though he is low-key about it, it informs his views on everything from the torture of suspected terrorists (he went through the sere training that was the basis for the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program, and recalls being shown propaganda movies about how no Rockefeller had ever served in a war, then being dunked headfirst into a barrel of ice water); to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (he thinks the VA hospital system is irretrievably broken and should be abolished in favor of sending wounded vets to the best hospitals in the country at taxpayer expense); to the conduct of warfare (he made headlines in 2006 for advocating the use of nuclear weapons to speed the end of the Iraq war, a stance he doesn’t apologize for. “The average American doesn’t want to know what war is about,” he says, with some heat. “They want to wave their little flags and cheer and then run the other way when the women and children start getting killed”).

When Robinette returned from the war in 1969, he moved in with his mother and got a job as a janitor on the overnight shift at a local chemical plant. That led to another janitorial job at a small radio station, where he changed the urinal cakes and occasionally filled in reading the weather report (he had been trained as a radio man in the Navy). He was twenty-six, scarred, and going nowhere fast. Soon, though, things began to change. Robinette bluffed his way into a job as a part-time reporter at a radio station in the small town of Houma. The station’s owner also had an unused vhf television license and wanted someone from his radio network to organize a news department for his start-up television station. Robinette lied about his experience and got the job (“I told him I had been a ‘news director’ in college,” recalls Robinette). At KHMA, Robinette was basically a one-man operation, shooting stories, editing film, and appearing on the air. His most memorable moment came when a set collapsed during one broadcast, pinning him to his desk while his camera guy was out getting coffee. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” people on the street would whisper at him for months afterward, mimicking his distress on the air.
In less than a year, Robinette was recruited to wwl-tv in New Orleans as a reporter. There, while filling in as a temporary anchor (the regular anchor went on the air drunk and was fired), Robinette caught the eye of Sherlee Barish, a prominent television agent who happened to be in New Orleans. She arranged for Robinette to audition for jobs in major markets, and he got plum offers, including chances to anchor at flagship stations in Los Angeles and New York.

Less than three years earlier, he’d been cleaning urinals. Now, still shy of thirty, he was on the verge of TV-news stardom. But he turned them all down. “Barish was furious,” Robinette recalls with a laugh. “Swore she’d ruin me.”

The truth was, Robinette didn’t feel ready for the big time. Though his career was taking off, his emotional state was becoming more fragile. Before the war, he says, he’d never fired a gun or gotten into a fight. Now he was often confrontational at work and getting into brawls after-hours. “He had a big temper back then,” recalls Jim Henderson. “Things got to Garland that might roll off someone else’s back. He has more of the temperament of an artist.” Things got so out of control, Robinette says, that when he went up to wcbs in New York to meet Walter Cronkite, both of his hands were in casts from a fistfight. He cut one cast off himself the night before the meeting so he could shake hands with the broadcasting legend. Robinette says he went through years of counseling and tried several medications to deal with the psychological trauma from the war, but with limited success. He didn’t drink or use drugs (aside from his prescription medication), but he smoked heavily and he eventually packed 230 pounds on his five-foot, ten-inch frame. He was a star in New Orleans, but he was bored and restless. He worked seven days a week. He went through three marriages, all of which ended, he says, entirely due to his problems. “I wasn’t always a lot of fun to be around,” he says.

Eventually, two things helped him keep his demons at bay: exercise (he started running up to seven miles a day) and painting. Though he always liked to sketch, Robinette didn’t start to paint seriously until he was past forty. Now he has his own gallery and exhibits regularly around New Orleans. In a studio behind his house, designed by Nancy Rhett, a fellow artist to whom he has been married since 1994, Robinette has several canvases in different stages of completion and much of the nervous tension that surrounds him at the radio station is noticeably absent. His home is decorated with his work, including several portraits of Charley, his twelve-year-old daughter with Rhett and his only child.

As for how long he’ll remain on the air, Robinette says he’s not sure. He has no immediate plans to stop, but at various points he spoke wistfully of retiring and leaving the city, pursuing his love of painting in some distant, less-troubled landscape. He also says he was approached by a delegation of local businessmen (whom he declines to name) about running for mayor next year when Nagin’s term expires, a suggestion he says he quickly dismissed. At times the city and its multitude of problems—staggering violence, dysfunctional politics, economic woes—seem to overwhelm even Robinette’s crusading temperament. And, hanging above it all, is the unrelenting specter that New Orleans remains in peril, unprotected by the incompetence of those Robinette rails against each week. The aftermath of Katrina reopened emotional scars from the war that Robinette thought had finally healed, and he’s not sure he’d be able to endure another big storm. That the city will flood again, Robinette has no doubt. “We’re basically Gulf-front property already,” he says with resignation. “People still don’t realize how close the sea has come.” But as another hurricane season gets under way, Robinette remains at the microphone, fighting a battle he sometimes thinks is already lost. And in the warm and verdant city outside his studio window, the trees are filled with the song of birds.

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.