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While "More Stimulating Talk Radio" (the station's promo tag line) bulldozes through the minds of America, it is hard to say which of Saavedra's roles is more influential. Is it his weekly presentation of an interactive Jesus Christ, complete with confessional musings and sexy cutaway music like Depeche Mode's "Your Own Personal Jesus"? Or the task of instilling in Angelenos a hunger for KFI's conservatively slanted take on the day's headlines?
Either way, Saavedra is an eerie mix of both of his posts. Quick on his feet, he is an articulate, slick talker who admits to crying regularly out of spiritual frustration and getting down on his knees to pray for guidance. He likes fart jokes, reminiscing about his youth, and eating lunch nearly every day downstairs from KFI's studios at Arnie Morton's Steakhouse, where he hugs and shakes hands with the staff as they pass by.
"What would be funny would be if I sat here and tried to pretend to be the ultimate Christian," Saavedra says, dressed as usual in black. "Do I like shock value? Absolutely. Why? 'Cause when you make a noise, people's walls come down. It is inherently who I am. KFI is about irreverent honesty. You can try and force that it's conservative because we have Laura and Rush, but ultimately it is just ideas."
Five days a week, he comes up with provocative billboard slogans, attends corporate meetings, and runs interference for the other on-air personalities. On Sundays, he tapes his show.
"I have a 56,000-foot telephone that allows me to talk to 126,000 people a week; that's pretty cool to me. 'Cause they get to talk to me too. I really get moved and touched from the people that call in."
"I am a better listener during the show, more responsive, all those things," says Saavedra, who adds that on most Sundays, he will call his mom from his car after the show and talk about how it went. "If I could find a way to be that guy that I am for three hours [on Sundays], every hour of the day, I would have it in the bag."
The son of a daydreaming Latino bellhop father who had a Big Fish knack for telling stories, and an Anglo Catholic mother who ran her own wallpapering business, Saavedra admits to fighting a lot as a teen and even once stealing a car. He may not be the conservative Christian community's first choice to play the role of Christ, but the bilingual Long Beach native seems about right for a station that sells itself as the best source for "irreverent information."
"People hide behind reverence. Talking heads, pseudo-intellectuals, know-it-alls — we [KFI] don't care about them. We're making fun of reverence. We're shaking people's ideas. It's social satire," Saavedra says. "This is me in a nutshell—I take the show seriously and the content seriously. I don't take myself seriously at all . . . I have a foul mouth; I like crass humor, a stiff drink. But that doesn't mean I don't believe there is truth."
Saavedra's Jesus Christ started out as a guest on Bill Handel's morning show. At that point, he already had his own show, called simply The Neil Saavedra Show. The last hour of his show was something he called "The God Hour," which he recalls as basically him just bitching about his own frustrations with the church, and going back and forth on the air with atheists. "As far as who conceived it [the Jesus character], it might have been Bill, 'cause it wasn't my brainchild," says Saavedra.
Handel says he can't remember who came up with the idea and calls it an "immaculate conception."
After a few successful guest appearances on Handel's show, the station asked him to do a full hour of just the Jesus character. Robin Bertolucci, the station's program director, soon expanded it to two hours, and eventually three.
Saavedra counts among his heroes Billy Graham and Phil Hendrie, whose seminal The Phil Hendrie Show, featuring controversial "guests" voiced by Hendrie, was on KFI for years. And, though he says it's not the purpose of his radio show, he would be thrilled if, as the result of listening, someone were to ask Jesus into his heart.
He asked Christ into his own heart when he was 17, and he did it because of a girl.
"That's the way most people come across God, it seems," Saavedra jokes one afternoon at Morton's. "A little missionary dating."
The girl liked Jesus, and Saavedra liked her. At first, he told her she was full of shit. But later, a friend from his school invited him to come to a mostly black Baptist church. Something the preacher said reached Saavedra that day.
"It reeked of truth and responsibility," he recalls, picking at a plate of salmon. "And I went up to the pastor afterward and accepted Christ."
After that, he went home and freaked out, worried that he might have just joined a cult. He started reading up on Christianity and religions in general and, apparently, has never stopped. Besides reading the Bible almost daily, he has read the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Buddhist texts and even The Satanic Verses.