In a lifetime, most libertarians would count themselves lucky to speak to a quarter of a million people. Yet one young admirer of Ayn Rand in Boston, Massachusetts, is reaching that number of citizens every working day.
Avi Nelson has become the city's hottest radio talk show host over the past three years, by virtue of his skill in deflating arguments for government intervention and his articulate defense of people's ability to solve problems by themselves. His attacks on busing in particular have fallen upon receptive ears: he has emerged as one of the leading antibusing spokesmen in Boston, and dethroned rival talk show hosts from their top spots in the ratings.
Such an impact is even more impressive in light of Nelson's background. Until four years ago, he had no experience in media whatsoever. Despite a lack of professional coaching or training, Nelson today hosts a weekly television show in addition to the radio program, and writes a twice weekly newspaper column for the Boston Herald American that consistently draws more reader comment than other opinion pieces.
For many years, there were few signs that Nelson would emerge as a prominent anti-busing advocate. He was born 34 years ago to parents with a conventional liberal outlook. Nelson reflected these views until after entering Yale, from which he graduated in 1963. The turning point came when a friend came to him with a copy of Atlas Shrugged and said, "Boy, you gotta read this book—it's just like you."
Nelson became a libertarian, but was determined to pursue a scientific career. After graduating from Yale with a degree in electrical engineering, he entered graduate school at Cornell in a unique joint business-physics program. He moved on to a research and development job with Raytheon, leaving to enter a Harvard Ph.D. program in applied physics in the late 1960's.
Harvard at that time was intermittently paralyzed by students riots and building takeovers. As a result of the agitation, Nelson's thoughts returned to political concerns. He joined the Harvard graduate school Republican club, and sharpened his already impressive verbal skills in frequent debates with student protestors.
His new political orientation prompted a decision to leave the Ph.D. program in early 1972. Nelson was upset by the leftist views of his Congressman, Father Robert Drinan, and dismayed by the liberalism of the prospective Republican candidates. Rather than cede the race to these individuals, Nelson—a complete political novice—decided to campaign for the Republican nomination. His only base at the time was made up of libertarians and members of his father's rabbinate in Brookline.
Despite his inexperience in politics, Nelson made a spectacular showing. He overwhelmed two of the candidates in the four-man primary race (including one former Congressman) and came within 600 votes of upsetting the winner. Newspaper pundits and politicians agreed after the race that Nelson was someone to watch—closely.
Nelson's entry into the media came about as a result of the Congressional primary campaign. Impressed by his speaking ability, an executive of a 50,000-watt radio station invited Nelson to sit in for the then-leading talk show host in Boston, Jerry Williams, who was vacationing. Within hours of Nelson's debut, the audience was in an uproar over his pointed, witty demolition of liberal icons. "The faithful had tuned in to get the gospel according to St. Jerry, and here was this guy who was just giving the wrong gospel," he remembers. "The phone lines crackled. We had threats, people coming down to the station, and the guard had to be doubled."
Soon after, the station offered him a weekly talk show of his own. Nelson has since been hired away by two competing 50,000-watt stations and given a daily show. During the fracas arising over Judge Garrity's mandatory school busing order in Boston, Nelson used his show as a forum for anti-busing advocates and those who proposed setting up private schools in South Boston. As a result, Nelson has become wildly popular in South Boston—and the object of regular death threats.
So solid is Nelson's base in the city that he has received numerous requests, from citizens and some local politicians, to run for mayor. Polls show that his name recognition in the city is above 70 percent, and more than 40 percent throughout the state. At present, however, Nelson is undecided about his plans—he is resuming his Ph.D. studies at Harvard on a part-time basis, and launching a non-profit organization to generate public policy research from a libertarian perspective, and perhaps also to become a "right-wing ACLU." Nelson also wants to continue to be active in sports. He now plays semi-professional baseball in addition to his other activities.
When asked to speculate about his future, Nelson narrows his options to two general fields: politics or a career in the media. He has just begun to syndicate his radio show state-wide, and would seriously consider a network television slot should it be offered. "We are considering politics in 1978 or 1980," Nelson adds, noting that the possibilities then will include a U.S. Senate seat, and the governorship and lieutenant governorship of the state.
Whatever his decision, Nelson is likely to be heard from someday on a national basis. He has no intention of giving up the struggle against collectivist trends in society. "Fighting makes you sleep better," he says. "Second, you're doing a little bit to help solve the problem. And third, there is no alternative. Although we can choose to leave government alone, the government won't leave us alone."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Avi Nelson".