It’s 10:42 on a bee-yoo-tiful San Francisco morning and you’re on the air with Ronn Owens.

And you’d better be on your toes, because Owens, the region’s top talk-radio host, is quick on his feet. Sound off on any current event, big or small, and the KGO/AM 810 on-air superstar is one step ahead, deftly cutting the pompous and pig-headed down to size.

One of a handful of Jews behind the mike locally, Owens, 58, is a man of strong opinions, especially when it comes to Israel (he’s unabashedly pro). Lately, given heightened tensions in the Middle East as well as strident Israel critics at home, Owens and his Jewish colleagues have been dodging more bullets than usual in the free-fire zone of talk radio.

“The Bay Area tends to be less supportive of Israel than the rest of the country,” says the personable Owens, “due to this misplaced liberal feeling that you go for the underdog.”

Such analysis is typical of Owens, who prides himself on being open-minded. His book, “Voice of Reason,” is an argument for taking the middle path on most issues. Most, but not all.

“I’ll be blunt,” he says. “I’ll not change my mind on Israel, which is a bastion in a sea of hostility. I’m much more defensive when it comes to Israel.”

Owens’ sentiments are echoed by his colleague John Rothmann, 55, an ardently pro-Israel talk-radio host who handles the weekend overnight shift at KGO, the Bay Area’s No. 1 radio station for the past 25 years, according to the Arbitron ratings.

“When you talk about the Middle East, the board lights up,” says Rothmann. “The majority [of calls] are anti-Israel.”

Some of those calls, like some of his letters and e-mail, are vitriolic to the extreme.

“I get the most horrific anti-Jew and anti-Israel e-mail,” says Rothmann. As evidence, he provided j. with a copy of one sample that reads in part (unedited) : “Get yer jew arse off the air … you facist zionist Mosad scum suck bastid.”

And another: “Your name sounds Jewish to me. Are you a Jew? Jews are powerful because they hold together against us Gentiles.”

Notes Rothmann, “They start out talking about Israel, they eventually take on the Jews. I had a caller who said it was good Hitler killed the Jews. I let him talk on the premise that the more people hear this kind of thing the better, so they know this exists.”

Owens receives hate mail too, but most of it he laughs off. “By and large, it’s from people who want to vent,” he says. “When it appears to be serious, I turn it over to security and they contact the police.” So far nothing has gone beyond the “crank” stage.”

Rothmann and Owens take on the haters with a measure of pugnacious pride. Across town at KQED-FM, however, Michael Krasny tends to dial down the heat. Krasny, 59, is the longtime host of “Forum,” the noncommercial station’s popular mid-morning weekday show, and though he is a proud Jew, he has tried to bring a temperate nonpartisan voice to all sides of the debate.

“I can navigate as evenhandedly as possible,” he says, “but some will still complain I’m either a Zionist puppet or a Palestinian stooge.”

Krasny concedes that political sentiment in the Bay Area tends to skew left, which, he says, means many of his listeners “view Israel as an occupying power. I had a caller say, ‘We wouldn’t have all these problems in Iraq if we didn’t have Israel.’ That doesn’t square with the facts.”

Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said, and Krasny stubbornly pursues them in researching his daily show. When it comes to the Middle East, however, Krasny sometimes wonders if the Adams adage holds up.

“Both sides have their own truths,” he says on Israelis and Palestinians. “But these are two peoples who have known exile, two peoples who should be brothers. Where is the aperture towards peace?”

He describes himself as “a supporter of Israel” but seems unconvinced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s meeting with President Bush a while ago, at which Sharon received American approval of retaining some West Bank settlements, was a step toward peace.

“I’m sympathetic to the idea of Peace Now,” says Krasny, referring to the dovish Israeli-American political organization. “The settlements have been an impediment to peace.”

He may be the only radio talk-show host who dresses in a coat and tie. But Krasny’s dignified attire matches his sober approach to the important topics of the day. “We dare to be dull,” he says laughing.

Krasny actually has two careers, one in radio, the other as a professor of English at San Francisco State University. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, grew up keeping kosher and even harbored ambitions to become a cantor at one point. Today he claims a “strong sense of heritage,” and he gives frequent lectures on topics with Jewish themes.

But his radio persona is one of scrupulous objectivity and universality. The guy also seems to know everything about everything. And, in true FM radio fashion, he wonks on dispassionately.

“John Rothmann is expected to be strong on his positions,” says Krasny, contrasting his own style with his competitors. “He can be an unbridled advocate. That’s the nature of commercial radio.”

No argument from Rothmann, who happily shouts from the rooftops (and the airwaves) that he is “a proud Zionist. I have never put my head down or apologized because I am a Jew.”

A native of San Francisco, Rothmann has a reputation as an Israel advocate that long preceded his radio career. He is a one-time Nixon White House staffer but a registered Democrat, a longtime public speaker, former president of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, a board member of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and an amateur historian with a 150,000-volume library at home.

His radio gig began in 1996 quite by accident. In the middle of a casual conversation with another parent at the Congregation Emanu-El preschool, Rothmann described to her his history as an outspoken advocate. Turned out she was Barbara Lane, former executive producer at KGO. “She said to me, ‘Send me your resume,'” Rothmann recalls.

So far, Rothmann has enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of AM radio, though he is no frothing-at-the-mouth ranter à la far right-wing Jewish talk-show host Michael Savage (who declined an interview for this story). “I’m hard to bait,” he adds. “My reputation is very level-headed, very cool.”

Owens is similarly cool under fire, rarely launching into Bill O’Reilly-style histrionics. “I pride myself on being open and being willing to change my mind,” he says. “Some people seem pretty biased, but I call them on it, or once in a while genuinely argue.”

That’s standard operating procedure for Owens. Born Ron Lowenstein, the son of a Holocaust survivor mother and an Orthodox father, Owens was brought up in the Reform movement. He launched his career in 1968 after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, hosting radio shows in Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia before moving to the Bay Area to join KGO in 1975. In 2003, he was named Major Market Radio Personality of the Year at the annual National Association of Broadcasters Marconi Radio Awards.

Rothmann may not have been at it as long, but he offers a cogent theory as to why pro-Israel arguments get short shrift from callers. He believes anti-Israeli activists use talk radio as a prime forum to express their views.

“The pro-Israel community,” he contends, “is not proactive but response-oriented. They don’t use talk radio.”

Still, he believes strongly in the power of the medium to influence opinion, and, in the case of Jews and Israel, for the better.

“Some people think inflammatory is better,” says Rothmann. “I don’t think that’s true. I find my listeners to be a very thoughtful group.”

Owens concurs. Despite the shrillness of political debate today — personified by the Sean Hannitys and Al Frankens of this world — Owens still prefers the pleasures of honest, respectful discussion.

“I have a goddaughter in L.A,” he says. “She recently sent me a bumper sticker that reads: ‘I Think Therefore I Don’t Listen to Rush Limbaugh.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.