After loss, no rush for replacement

Audience, co-workers need time to mourn radio,TV personalities

July 30, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

When radio personality Bob Lopez died in May 2005, after 27 years on 98 Rock, his bosses knew finding someone to fill his shoes wouldn't be easy.

"We had lost a guy who had been on the air almost since the birth of the radio station," said Dave Hill, at the time three years into his tenure as program director at WIYY-FM (97.9). "After Lopez died, by just playing music and highlights of Lopez's career, it gave the audience time to reflect. It also gave us the chance to step back for a second. ... It was kind of almost like a healing process."

Four months passed before Hill and the management team at 98 Rock slid Josh Spiegel into the station's news slot. By that time, Lopez's fans were ready to move on with their radio lives, and the transition went as smoothly as could be expected.

But replacing a prominent radio or television personality is never easy, especially while the loss is still fresh in listeners' memories. For the staff at Baltimore's 92Q, still grappling with the loss of popular DJ Khia Edgerton, better known as K-Swift, the thought of replacing her remains too painful, too unwieldy.

"None of us have healed enough even to think about it," says Howard Mazer, vice president and general manager for WERQ-FM's parent company, Radio One Baltimore. "Nobody is even interested in dealing with it."

For now, K-Swift's partner, Squirrel Wyde, will be going it alone in the 6 p.m.-10 p.m. weekday slot. Mazer doesn't know when, or even if, Squirrel will get another partner. "We're going to wait," Mazer says, "until we can all look ourselves in the eyes and say, 'OK, it's time to talk about this.' "

In Baltimore, a city famous for clinging tightly to its TV and radio personalities, for cherishing longevity and familiarity above all else, the death of someone we're used to seeing or hearing on the air hits hard. Fortunately, it hasn't happened often, maybe never before as suddenly and unexpectedly as K-Swift, who died of neck injuries July 21, after a pool accident at her home.

But regardless of the particulars, the process of loss and moving on is never easy. "No one writes a book about how to handle this," says WIYY's Hill. "When I went to business school, they certainly didn't teach me how to manage the loss of an on-air personality."

At 98 Rock, Lopez had gone public with his cancer diagnosis more than a year before his death, and remained on the air as long as his illness would permit. Between December 1987 and May 1995, WJZ-TV, Channel 13, lost the twin pillars of their top-rated newscasts, anchors Jerry Turner, still the most dominant news anchor the Baltimore market has ever known, and his longtime partner, Al Sanders. Both men died after their illnesses had been made public.

Replacing such local media giants is never an easy task, nor one undertaken hastily. When Turner died, WJZ quietly slid his colleague and another familiar face, Denise Koch, into the chair alongside Sanders. When Sanders passed away 7 1/2 years later, after a three-month battle with lung cancer, WJZ waited almost six months, until January of the next year, to name Virginia native Vic Carter as Koch's co-anchor.

Jason Loviglio, director of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says radio and TV stations are wise to take their time replacing audience favorites. Waiting a while, he says, does more than help ensure the right person is found. It helps the station and its audience grieve together and heal together. It also helps develop an intimacy and familiarity between the station and its audience, something valued in any media marker, but perhaps especially in Baltimore.

"It gives the station a chance to talk about how they feel with their audience," he says. "Dealing with someone dying is something that is going to become a helpful part of the programming, and of the healing process. Being mourned on the air by others is going to be a really helpful way ... to figure one's way into the next era."

In addition, he says, radio, with its continuing presence throughout the community, creates an intimacy that TV cannot match, making K-Swift's death even more devastating to her fans. "There's a sense of immediacy and localness," Loviglio says. "That's the last thing that the old electronic media still has, that nobody else can duplicate. And the only place people can mourn her death together is listening to 92Q. They're not going to talk about it in any satisfying way anywhere else."

In the end, he says, audiences need to be assured that the memory of people like K-Swift - like Bob Lopez, Al Sanders and Jerry Turner - is being revered. Audiences don't want to dwell on their deaths, he says. But they don't want to see their memories neglected, either. In a sense, its audience will help 92Q decide when the time is right to move on.

"You don't replace a K-Swift," Loviglio says, "but if the listeners feel like [replacing K-Swift] is a problem that is being ... dealt with by the radio station, they are going to be much more open to a solution.

"There's going to have to be a period of appreciation for what she did," Loviglio says, "and then, people will start to think, 'Now, it's time for somebody else.'"

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