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December 21, 2011

“The Voice of Reason” Silenced

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On Monday night, the venerable longstanding, highly rated, and critically acclaimed 1090 AM WBAL talk radio host, Ron Smith, died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Shrewsbury, PA.


Mr. Smith, 70, was a radio icon and Baltimore media institution for almost four decades. He enlightened multiple generations of Maryland listeners since he first debuted on the 50,000-watt station in 1984. He was often billed on the air as “The Voice of Reason.”


WBAL, which began broadcasting November 2, 1925, was first organized and put on the air by the old Consolidated Gas Electric Light and Power Company.


Even after the station was sold to the American Radio News Corporation in January 1935, it grew in popularity in the Baltimore listening area with a “talk” format until it experimented with a music format from around 1959 up until 1984-1985, when the station reached back to the roots of its success – “news-talk.”


Currently owned by Hearst Stations, Inc., the station’s website notes: “According to the Arbitron ratings service, WBAL Radio is consistently one of Maryland's most listened-to radio stations.”


Since 1985, much of the success of the station is due, in part, to the popularity of Mr. Smith’s work.


David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun’s TV critic since 1989, noted late Monday night that “Mr. Smith spent more than 26 years on WBAL's airwaves, most of it in the afternoon drive-time period until a move to mornings last year, passionately talking politics from a conservative point of view.”


Mr. Zurawik wrote the thoughts of many. “But it is not his politics for which he will likely be remembered as much as the informed conversation he helped create on Baltimore radio — and the way he publicly shared his final days with listeners of WBAL and readers of The Baltimore Sun.”


Mr. Smith was born in 1941 in upstate New York, the son of an assistant school superintendent, according to Mr. Zurawik, who helped fill us in on Mr. Smith’s early years before his legendary success in Baltimore.


He “dropped out of high school at age 17 and joined the Marines,” wrote Mr. Zurawik. “He was in the Marines from 1959 to 1962, his last duty serving at a Navy submarine base in New London, Conn…


“After the Marines, Mr. Smith started working in community theater in Albany, N.Y., near his hometown of Troy, while he ‘tried to figure out’ what he wanted to do…


“Mr. Smith's first broadcasting job was as a disc jockey in Haverhill, MA. He didn't like the station, but he liked being on the air. He returned to Albany and eventually landed a radio and TV reporting job at WTEN. He was at that station five years…”


He first arrived in Baltimore in 1973 to take a job as a reporter and weekend anchor for WBAL-TV “Action News.”


In those days, long before we had a remote control for the television set, I recall sitting as close to the TV set as possible to switch back-and-forth between Mr. Smith on Channel 11-WBAL-TV and Jerry Turner on Channel 13 WJZ-TV.


Here, Mr. Zurawik filled-in the details of the competition for listeners in those days. By 1976, Mr. Smith “was co-anchor on Channel 11's first-string news team, but he was up against the legendary Jerry Turner on WJZ. By 1980, he was unceremoniously dumped in an anchor desk shuffle…”


According to his official biography, “Ron was a TV anchor and reporter for WBAL-TV until 1980, when new management decided to make a change in his department by getting rid of him.


“They parted by ‘mutual consent,’ which is when your bosses decided you’ve got to go and you agree there’s nothing much you can do about it.”


All I remember is that one day he was on the air and the next day he wasn’t. I did not think that much of it and was just as happy to return to a comfortable chair, without having to get up to switch channels, and went on to become a big fan of Mr. Turner.


Then in January or February of 1986, while I was idling-away in the long winter months, I rediscovered his voice – on the radio – and became an avid fan all over again.


In 1980 “Mr. Smith went to work full time as a stockbroker,” explained The Baltimore Sun article. “But he never lost the desire to be on air. And while he claimed to enjoy working in the financial world, it was all prelude for the passion he found as a talk-show host starting part-time in 1984 and full time a year later on WBAL radio...”


Although Mr. Smith has been consistently “billed a conservative,” I do not recall that label as being why I liked his approach to commentary on contemporary events.


Of course, in the last number of years, you are a conservative if you prefer a well-researched, un-biased, and factual-approach to a conversation about the news of the day.


This was a hallmark of Mr. Smith’s approach as exemplified in Mr. Zurawik’s account: “According to Ed Kiernan, longtime general manager of WBAL, ‘a voracious reader, Ron Smith arrived at his opinions after careful thought and research. He arrived early to work always prepared and excited to get behind the microphone.’ ”


Mr. Smith, “died at his home … surrounded by his wife, June, and the rest of his family,” according to a report by WBAL-TV. “Funeral services will be private. A public memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.”


The passing of Mr. Smith leaves a lot of “dead air” in an intelligent, uncomplicated, “everyman” approach to the news and events of the day. He will be missed. May he rest from his labors in peace. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. Semper Fi.


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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