Rheinhardt, a cynical drifter, gets a job as an announcer for right-wing radio station WUSA in New Orleans. Rheinhardt is content to parrot WUSA's reactionary editorial stance on the air, even if he doesn't agree with it. Rheinhardt finds his cynical detachment challenged by a lady friend, Geraldine, and by Rainey, a neighbor and troubled idealist who becomes aware of WUSA's sinister, hidden purpose. And when events start spinning out of control, even Rheinhardt finds he must take a stand.
A radio station in the Deep South becomes the focal point of a right-wing conspiracy.
- Reinhart (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and rescues Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), from a pimp's knife, buys her a steak and they shack up. He gets a job at WUSA, a right-wing radio station as a news, sports and weather reader. Their neighbor, Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is a do-gooder who is doing a survey of welfare applicants without knowing that his boss, Bingamon (Pat Hingle), works for WUSA and the whole study is intended to gather evidence needed to kick people off welfare, not help them as he supposes.
Geraldine wants to be loved but Reinhart is inaccessible, burnt out. She mothers Rainey, a stuttering boy who reminds her of the boy she loved, the boy who shot himself.
When Rainey finds out he's been duped he goes to WUSA and threatens the owner. He confronts Reinhart who tells him in two words to drop dead. Rainey gets a rifle and attempts an assassination of the radio station's owner at a rally festooned with red, white and blue bunting. Reinhart and his friends are onstage. One of them, knowing the police are coming, puts his stash of grass in Geraldine's purse. In the panic, Rainey is shot dead and Geraldine arrested for possession. There, in prison, she commits suicide. The news is delivered by Philomene (Cloris Leachman), Geraldine's friend.