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OTTO ALWAYS HAD THE COURAGE TO CALL 'EM AS HE SAW 'EM

John Otto was dubbed "the dean of Buffalo talk radio" and vouchsafed all manner of other compliments, so I don't mean to gild the lily here, though like many, I was certainly happy for his existence. Where I diverged from certain complimenters found in print before his recent death was eschewing a "balanced" approach of giving with one hand, then taking away with the other.

The giving part generally concerned Otto's command of the language; the taking away his sedulous, almost existential, chance-taking attempts to elude the swamp of political correctness. Here, however, there will be no quibbles about his ideological leanings.

The positive thing about those ideological views was indeed the elegance, learning and good humor with which they were framed or packaged, but also the virtue Otto manifested that's now so rare and badly needed: courage.

Right up to his demise, Otto said things on radio that no one under 55 says anymore, or more to the point, dares say. This, I guess, is why I called him existential; and sometimes I worried about the bubbling, violent emotions he stirred up in certain listeners by a relentless ability to call 'em -- ala Bill Klem -- as he saw 'em. On the diving board of a perhaps doomed civilization, and right above the shark pool, he still kept making his moves.

Of course I, like many listeners, also loved the sheer Catholicity of his tastes and his grasp of so many disciplines he knew well -- movies, books, politics, horse racing, you name it.

Otto had that easy American intellectuality I first encountered years ago in the work of Saul Bellow, leading me to a correspondence with the master and several trips to see him at the university where he taught. Otto had that same offhandedness, that same gentle but sure touch, that same command of specifics and of language that truly made him our last intellectual on regional radio.

Because, of course, the wind is now blowing in a different direction. What you mostly get today -- and hey, I listen to them, too -- are radio personalities who, in varying degrees, reveal a kind of oral thuggery. This makes it ironic that Otto was sometimes damned as dangerous in his opinions, when I consider it more dangerous to imbibe as de rigueur this tough, in-your-face, verbal street fighting that is becoming the dominant mode on contemporary talk radio.

Mind you, I'm not speaking from on high here, nor hoping that everyone try to become an Otto, which in any event would be impossible. One does get used to the new fashions, but at the same time, those omnipresent fashions made a dinosaur like Otto all the more precious.

It's the oldest cliche to say that he or his ilk won't be replaced, and I don't suppose he would have enjoyed being included in some ilk-like group anyway -- the best intellectual types being invariably above the herd. But it's still true that nothing even close to "Ottonian" is coming down the pike in generations beneath his.

Otto had become aged for radio, but remained vital until the final curtain came down. As we know, he had many listeners -- including regulars like "Joanne the Just" -- who adored him, and who realized the inevitable would one day happen, leaving them shorn of a daily or nightly comfort.

Now that it has happened, let's again salute the qualities that made Otto a regional treasure: intellectual courage and an inability to be boring. His passing in the 20th century's final year left a genuine vacuum.

B.B. SINGER teaches at several universities, primarily in Southern Ontario.
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