- Saving our smut: Callander (with bullhorn) at the 1997 faux rally.
Craig Callander slouches in Rocky River's Courtroom #2, crammed into a wooden chair too small for his giant six-foot-four, 270-pound frame. Despite his commanding physical presence, framed by a boxy black coat, his radio alter ego -- Sweetass Sassafras -- remains invisible. In this crowded courtroom, Callander's personality is reduced to whispers between him and his public defender, as he waits uncomfortably for his pretrial hearing to begin before Judge Donna Congeni Fitzsimmons.
As Sweetass Sassafras, Callander hosts an early Saturday morning radio show on Cleveland State University's WCSB-FM/89.3, which airs from 1 to 4 a.m. He takes advantage of the odd hours to be loud and obnoxious, foul-mouthed, insulting, and self-deprecating. "I have more hang-ups than a telemarketer with Tourette's," the 30-year-old senior communications major likes to tell listeners.
Unlike his radio shtick, though, Callander's appearance in court last week was no joke. He is facing a criminal charge stemming from threatening phone calls he made to his former friend Rick Gilmour, a weekend talk-show host on WTAM-AM/1100.
According to a report made by the Westlake Police Department, Callander left several messages on Gilmour's voicemail threatening his life. In one message reviewed by police, Callander is quoted as warning Gilmour, "You're a dead man."
Callander pleaded not guilty to the harassment charge. A St. Ignatius High School graduate who lives in Rocky River, Callander says the messages were his way of venting frustration over what he describes as an intellectual property dispute. "Gilmour is ripping my material off and using it on his show," he insists. "He's been doing it for a couple of years."
Callander and Gilmour were once casual friends. They met through WCSB and ran in the same circles, hanging out at bars in Tremont. Gilmour was an occasional guest on Callander's 1,000-watt show, where the two played off of each other. Gilmour even took advantage of his appearances to promote his then self-funded weekly show on WERE-AM/1300. (Gilmour's show was dropped in April of 1997 after he read Allen Ginsberg's controversial Howl on the air.)
Callander says Gilmour began copping his material after Gilmour was hired by WTAM in August of 1997. "He was taking the retarded things I say -- things you wouldn't think you'd want," Callander says, rattling off a string of one-liners he claims have been lifted by Gilmour, including the Tourette's syndrome line. "I spend a lot of time thinking that stuff up."
(Gilmour, 38, says he was advised by both the prosecutor and WTAM management not to comment on the harassment charge or on his relationship with Callander.)
Callander has been hosting his WCSB show since 1995. It's called 669, which he says "doesn't mean anything. It's just a cryptic and sexual buzz code." He spends several hours each week writing one-liners and sampling television and movie outtakes to punctuate his banter, which complements the program's in-your-face selections of hardcore punk and thrash music from area bands like Vowel Movement and Mushroomhead. His guests have ranged from local strippers and porn stars to their not-so-distant relative, Jerry Springer.
Callander spends most of his time on-air using his sharp tongue and often sophomoric wit to berate callers and verbally whip anything considered politically correct. The radio program has earned him a solid following among high school kids, college students, and third-shift workers. "I'm #1 with the dudes over 40 who have no chance of getting laid," laughs Callander.
Off-air, Callander promotes his show like a seasoned professional, à la Howard Stern. In 1997, for instance, he held a mock rally titled "Hands Across Brook Park," ostensibly to show support for the adult bookstores and strip clubs impacted by new and more restrictive zoning laws. For the rally, which was really a promotion for WCSB's annual fund-raising drive, Callander also mounted his own counterdemonstration. Posing as a representative for the Southern Ohio Council of Churches, he gave phony interviews to the local media, including WTAM.
He also records phone pranks for his show, including a call to syndicated Christian broadcaster Bob Larson (no longer heard in the local market). During one call, Callander posed as a Cleveland-area schoolteacher who frequents gay bathhouses, and another time as an entrepreneur proposing to franchise abortion clinics.
Callander has used his show to complain about Gilmour's alleged plagiarism, encouraging his listeners to call Gilmour's show and yell "669." In October of 1998, Gilmour called Callander's show and taunted him on the air about lifting his material.
"I've been borrowing some of your lines there . . .," Gilmour said.
"Seriously, why would you pilfer me?" Callander demanded. "Why would you do that?"
"You crystallized my thoughts eloquently," Gilmour replied.
"Well, I might have done it first, though," Callander said.
"Well, I might have too," Gilmour responded. "But what the hell, I've gone commercial."
"They started out busting each other's balls," says a friend of both men. But it didn't take long for the jibes to escalate. In a later on-air exchange, Gilmour taunted, "You want to start a war with me, pal? I'm going to win. Who's got the F'n wattage?"
"You want to talk about beating me in ratings?" Callander responded a short time after the call. "I'm just going to beat you. I'm just going to beat you. It's as simple as that. It's going to be hard to talk and suck on the big one with a broken fucking jaw, you dumbass. Call me off the air. I want to talk to you -- you dick."
According to Gilmour's statement to Westlake police, he was only "joking" when he called Callander's show claiming to have stolen his material. He went on to say that Callander "has never gotten over the incident," a statement the college jock disputes.
"I have the patience of Job," claims Callander, insisting he has no intention of hurting Gilmour. "I just want to expose him."
Callander says he left the threatening messages after Gilmour used material similar to his own about the Klu Klux Klan's then-proposed visit to Cleveland. "He used my material on the same weekend [Gilmour's] show was broadcast across the country on other stations owned by Clear Channel Communications," he claims. "He was taking advantage of his position." (The station says that show was only broadcast locally.)
Callander admits, however, that none of this will likely justify threatening phone messages in the eyes of the court. "I'll probably get charged," he says. "But it will buy me a lot of "cool points.'"
Callander's trial and sentencing are scheduled for next month -- with no time off for cool behavior.
Mark Naymik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.