Hold the Phone

The Jerky Boys Ain't Got Nothin' on Russell Miles

Radio host Paul Pryor didn't have any reason to think the caller on the line at that particular moment was any different from the rest. After all, Clifford Wickersham clearly shared Pryor's anti-homosexual bent, so he was most welcome on the air.

But then the Texan-drawling bubba pushed things a little too far -- "Now that Eric's gone," Wickersham said, referring to former KLBJ-AM personality Eric Blumberg, "We can make fun of the Jews, too. I've got a good Jew joke I'd like to tell you!"

Pryor began to get a little nervous. "Uh, no, I don't know about this..." he fumbled.

"I figured maybe you hated the Jews as much as you hate the queers," Clifford continued -- just before he launched into a series of anti-Semitic obscenities. One must imagine that Pryor and his producers then scrambled to cut off the phone. You could almost hear Pryor stewing in red-faced embarrassment as they cut to a commercial.

Pryor, whether he knew it or not, had just been had. There is no such person as Clifford Wickersham. The man on the phone was, in fact, one Russell Miles -- former Dallasite, former fundamentalist Christian, and now Austin's unholy crusader in the war against the intolerance of hate radio. He had had enough of Pryor, and decided to make the ultra-conservative mouthpiece hear how similar to a big, fat idiot he sounded.

Miles, aka "Brother Russell," is a radio version of the Trojan horse. He phones unsuspecting radio hosts, usually of the right-wing, Christian variety, and leads them on. His pseudo-Christian ramblings, odd though they may be, lure the announcer in. And just when they get comfortable, Brother Russell sticks it to 'em.

The 30-year-old Miles uses a variety of characters to do the sticking. It might be the vulgar Clifford, or it might be his loony conspiracy theorist, Dave McManus (pastor of "Faith Tabernacle Outreach Mission Crusade Deliverance Temple Healing Ministry Center in Jesus' Name, Ltd." in Westlake), who warns of a coming one-world government ruled by paramilitary orangutans. Or maybe Melba Jackson, a sweet little old Southern Baptist lady, albeit a somewhat confused one. The results are brilliant, effective, and usually not as blunt as the example above -- more often, they're just hilarious.

"So many of the real people they talk to are almost as crazy," says Miles, "so they don't see it coming. Melba may be no more weird than most of their usual callers, until she does a stage dive at the very end of the call."

"Stage dive" is a good description for what Brother Russell does -- two call-in hosts, lambasting communism, get about as confused as Miles' Melba character when it's clear that she's not talking about the same Marx and, uh... Lennon... that they are; and an over-the-air healer, trying to take the pain out of a good Christian's back, appeared to have healed his patient -- until Miles starts shrieking in mock pain.

If you're interested in hearing Miles' work, but don't think you can wait through hours of brain-numbing holy roller radio in hopes of catching a call, you're in luck -- in 1994, Brother Russell compiled the best of his crusade on a tape titled Radio Jihad, which he reissued just last year on compact disc.

Miles, 30, is very familiar with the territory on which he treads, though he says he was only moderately religious growing up. "When I was in my early 20s, I did go through a pretty religious phase. I attended a Southern Baptist church, even visited some Charismatic churches, and had a pretty intense bout with fundamentalism. All my friends were hooked on drugs in their early 20s; I was hooked on Jesus. Then I had some real disillusioning experiences and got out of that."

After the preacher at his local church, to whom Miles had become close, was caught having an affair with a woman from the congregation, "That made me wake up and smell the coffee. That started me on the path [out of fundamentalism], and then I read a book called The Mind of the Bible Believer by Edmund Cohen, and it was very helpful, very influential."

Today, Miles says he's not a Christian nor an atheist. "I'm like most people -- I have my own sort of personal mix that works for me. I would say more Eastern -- I've done a ton of reading on Buddhism, and if I had to choose a religion it would be Zen Buddhism."

Miles primarily goes after religious radio shows. "One of the things that originally made me want to call those shows is that they were so one-sided and sort of hateful. I figured I'd call up and sound like they do, but a lot worse, and illustrate what they sound like to me."

But Brother Russell doesn't save his pranks just for Bible-thumpers. A few tracks on Radio Jihad have his characters pulling the wool over the liberal Blumberg's eyes, including a charming discussion between Melba and Blumberg regarding the "NAFTRA" trade agreement. "I think you're thinking of the Gillette trade agreement," said Blumberg.

Miles doesn't consider himself an activist, but he is concerned about the rise of the religious right, and his claim that Radio Jihad is not a mission is betrayed by his words: "Yes, I do [consider the religious right a threat]. I'm not as liberal as my politically correct Austin friends, but the stuff that's been happening in Round Rock to me is very scary -- the censorship. The Christian Coalition scares the shit out of me, because about five or six years ago, nobody knew who they were. I used to get a newsletter from this guy up in Massachusetts that dealt with First Amendment issues, and he was talking about this Christian Coalition. I thought it was a fringe group that would never have any leverage. And I hear six years later or so they're getting their people on local school boards, city councils in small towns. You can get elected in Texas just because you're anti-abortion, [even though] you may be the biggest goofball in the world. I saw some of that stuff first-hand in Dallas when I was going to church there. We would have people come and speak at my church and try to whip us into a frenzy about local issues."

Predictably, not everyone is pleased with Brother Russell's mission -- especially certain radio hosts. One cut on the CD features Mike East, formerly a conservative talk show host for KIXL, likening prank callers such as Miles to "the same people that go into local businesses, restaurants and things, and carry Crayolas in their pocket and mark on bathroom walls. These are people that lack something upstairs. As one man put it, they're one taco short of a combination plate."

One would think that, after having been his victims since the early Nineties, the radio evangelists would have caught on to Brother Russell's scheme. Surprisingly, though, Miles is still making successful raids on Austin shows.

"You just have to call new shows, and create new characters," says Miles, who directs a large number of his calls to KIXL. "You know what? Apparently, [the radio hosts] don't talk to each other, because I never cease to be astounded at the people Melba fools. Sometimes you have to lay off a few weeks to let them forget about you."

Has Brother Russell ever come face-to-face with any of his victims?

"Not really. I've spoken to Eric Blumberg since then. I didn't know him before, but he bought the CD and managed to get in touch with me. He thought that call [the "Jew" call to Pryor] was really remarkable.

"One time, I won a contest on KIXL, and the prize was a book. I went to pick it up at their office, and Mike East was standing right there. I thought it was funny he was standing three feet from Melba and didn't know it."

No, Brother Russell didn't seize the opportunity. "What I should have done was pick up my book and say just as I was leaving [in an elderly female voice], "Goodbye, Mike -- God bless you." n

Radio Jihad, on the Goy Division label, is available at record stores around town. Those in need of salvation can also visit Brother Russell Ministries on the web at http://www.io.com/~melba. Brother Russell expects to have a new CD out this spring.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Media Clips
Media Watch: 'A Sense of Purpose'
Media Watch: 'A Sense of Purpose'
Texas Tribune makes its debut in the realm of nonprofit journalism

Kevin Brass, Oct. 30, 2009

Media Watch
Media Watch
The 'Statesman's 'World' Keeps on Shrinking

Kevin Brass, March 21, 2008

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle