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David Brudnoy
David Brudnoy, shown at home earlier this year, checked himself into Massachusetts General Hospital on Friday, asking doctors to treat his pain, not his cancer. (Globe Staff File Photo / Barry Chin)

Brudnoy, in cancer's grip, prepares for end

David Brudnoy's voice has filled the cars and kitchens of the everyday and the elite for nearly three decades, his thoughts shaping the way tens of thousands of listeners view the world beyond their doors. But yesterday, the radio talk-show host could muster little more than a raspy whisper as he confided that a rare form of untreatable cancer has overwhelmed his body, and he expects to die within days.

''I'm ready," said Brudnoy, 64, in an interview in his room at Massachusetts General Hospital, oxygen tubes in his nostrils and the light from a picture window highlighting deep caverns that have opened on his face.

''I've said innumerable prayers within [the Catholic] tradition and other traditions," he said. ''I think whatever happens I will be able to contend with it."

''I don't believe in pitchforks and harps," added the declared agnostic.

Hours later, his longtime physician, Greg Robbins, confirmed the prognosis in a separate interview, saying, ''He has a terminal condition, and it's a matter of time. How much time is not in our control. It's a matter of hours or days."

As recently as Monday, Brudnoy was hosting his three-hour show on WBZ-AM. Last Thursday, he was still holding classes at Boston University, where he has taught part time for years and was elevated to a full professorship this year.

But exhausted and in pain, he checked himself into Mass. General on Friday, and a battery of tests revealed that the Merkel cell carcinoma that was in remission for the past year had reappeared in his vital organs, and doctors told him there was little they could do. Facing liver and kidney failure, Brudnoy has told doctors to treat his pain, not his disease.

When WBZ announced his dire condition yesterday, the reaction from rank-and-file listeners to fellow academics to the government officials he would gently provoke was one of collective shock. For as long as most people can remember, Brudnoy has been on the radio in what is typically the highest-rated nighttime talk show in town, his appeal slicing through socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines.

And since 1994, he has waged a series of victorious and sometimes miraculous fights against HIV and unrelated cancer, often breaking free from the clutches of death to return to the airwaves, to BU, and to his favored Starbucks on Newbury Street in what seemed a matter of weeks. Last fall and winter he endured ferocious chemotherapy and radiation treatments that sent the cancer into remission.

Yesterday, Brudnoy, his voice slightly slurred by small amounts of morphine and soft from a pain that he said emanates from his ribs, sounded unburdened by sadness or regret as he looked back at a career and the lifetime that encompassed it.

He wore cotton pajamas while slumped in a patterned wingchair on the 20th floor of Mass. General in a private room overlooking the Charles River. He has lost, by his own estimation, about 20 pounds from his already thin frame.

''If you accept, as everyone must, this stage in life, then I do not complain about my 64 years," Brudnoy said. ''I can't evaluate my own life. That's for others to do. But I think it's been OK. I've been nice to people. I can't think of anything more I can do but to accept and welcome this."

Asked to look back at his show, he replied, ''I want readers to know that the business we're in calls for snap judgments, and we often make grievously premature evaluations. What I tried over the years was to be less ideological and more empathic."

Indeed, in an age of radio hosts who try to achieve high ratings by slinging brutal insults against public officials and athletes, Brudnoy has always stood a world apart. A self-described libertarian, he appears as consumed by curiosity as by opinion. He is the rare host who reads the books of his author-guests. And he sheaths his most pointed questions to politicians in politesse.

Last night, WBZ radio paid tribute to him with a three-hour retrospective of his career, including an interview taped earlier in the day. ''I've said to corporate for the better part of a decade that he's the best talk host in America," said Ted Jordan, the station's general manager.

His show was often an eclectic cocktail of modern culture -- a philosopher one hour, a novelist pitching a book or a movie star promoting a new film the next, and maybe a US senator in the last slot of the night.

''David is a Massachusetts treasure," Governor Mitt Romney said in a telephone interview. ''He is an unadulterated voice of truth.

''The two most important days in your life are the day you're born and the day you leave," Romney continued. ''On the day you leave, you measure your life on two things -- what you're taking with you and what you're leaving behind. What he's taking with him is a soul that's pure, honest, and full of character and integrity. What he leaves behind is literally millions of listeners who have gotten new perspectives and insights from his unprejudiced voice."

At City Hall, Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared Brudnoy to be ''a class act, the smartest guy on the radio," then shared the details of a bet that he recently made. Brudnoy wagered Menino a steak dinner that the city could not fix a pothole on Commonwealth Avenue, where Brudnoy lives, within 24 hours. Menino had it repaired immediately. ''He still owes me," the mayor said, his voice falling soft. ''He can't leave yet."

Further up Commonwealth Avenue, in his office at the College of Communication at BU, journalism department chairman Bob Zelnick reached into a file cabinet, pulled out a fistful of student-authored faculty reviews, and randomly began reading from them.

''Quite possibly the best course I've taken at BU." ''Brudnoy encourages controversy and debate, approaching an interest from all sides." ''Brudnoy: A plus plus. Impossible to conceive a better informed or more intelligent instructor."

On Tuesday, Brudnoy was racing through student exams and papers to file final grades before he dies, and he bragged yesterday that he had finished the job.

Still, the braininess usually comes cloaked in an irreverence well known to anyone who has ever sat in his apartment and listened to his duck-shaped phone constantly quack, or been offered a whiskey with a beer chaser as they prepared to appear on his show. Brudnoy was asked yesterday whether he planned to return to die in his Back Bay condominium, where his parties used to teem with students, members of the news media, and politicos. He shook his head no. ''There's something less creepy about your body being taken out of a hospital bed than your own bed," he said with a hint of a smile.

As a visitor prepared to leave, Brudnoy told him, ''If you talk to Mitt or Tom, tell them I have to miss their holiday parties." He paused before adding, ''And tell the governor to upgrade his food."

Brian McGrory's e-mail is mcgrory@globe.com. 

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