Public Radio Pioneer Retires from WEKU

Dec 16, 2011

Today, we celebrate the career of WEKU reporter Ron Smith, which dates back to 1972, making him a public radio pioneer in the Commonwealth.  Ron officially leaves WEKU Radio today, but in his semi-retirement, he’ll remain a fixture at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches.  And, Ron will do the occasional report for WEKU.   We wish Ron Smith good luck as he enters this new stage of his life.

Below is a transcript of a recent interview done with Ron:

Looking back over your career with WEKU, of what are you proudest?

I think for more than three decades I’ve established a reputation with listeners, interviewees and professionals in the field for being trustworthy, dependable, fair, and hopefully competent in what I do.

What one story that you covered is the most memorable and why? 

Choosing a “most memorable” story is as difficult as asking a parent to choose their favorite child or a teacher to choose their favorite student. I’m going to break your ground rules and name two. The first involved an examination of the problems Kentuckians with disabilities have in finding jobs. This story aired soon after passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. You may recall there was a lot of controversy leading up its passage and in the early months of implementation. There were those who strongly supported the measure for ethical and other reasons. On the other side were those who thought the ADA would pose an unfair burden to businesses and lead to a landslide of lawsuits.

A second “most memorable” story focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Kentucky perspective. My reasoning was that airing the opinions of Palestinians and Israelis living in central Kentucky, who had direct ties to family in the Mideast, would bring the emotions and arguments of the conflict home to our listeners in a way that national broadcasts could not.

Among all your interview subjects through the years, who was the easiest? toughest? 

For close to 34 years, I’ve had many opportunities to meet and speak with a wide variety of personalities from all walks of life, from KFC founder Harland Sanders, to the late ABC Television news anchor Peter Jennings, to quirky entertainer Tiny Tim, he of “Tiptoe through the Tulips" fame. But getting to your question, the easiest interviewee was probably the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. He was relaxed but dead serious as he responded to political questions, but he also showed an engaging sense of humor as he joked with reporters.

The toughest interviewee? Probably a former Mafia hit man who claimed to be a “born again” Christian. I admit sweating a bit as I asked him questions, recalling a newspaper article in which he threatened to break a baseball bat over the head a reporter who questioned his newfound spirituality.

What are the ingredients for a good WEKU story? 

Hopefully the ingredients for a good story are the same at WEKU as for any responsible news operation. That is, being topical, i.e., is this a story that gets and keeps a listener’s attention? Is the story produced in a fair and objective way? Is it a story that breaks new ground or updates a previous story? Whatever their length, stories should flow in a logical, compelling way. And they should be brought to life by the proper mix of good writing and use of sound.

How has the news business changed since you started? How do you expect it will change in the years to come? 

The biggest change probably is due to technology. I recall a time when the news staff at WEKU salivated over who would get to use a new electric typewriter, with an erase ribbon that miraculously made mistakes disappear. It was a revolutionary step up from clunky manual typewriters that were standard equipment then. At that time we recorded interviews and programs on “tape”, rolls of magnetized acetate, stored on reels or audiocassettes. Audio quality was many times suspect or downright hard to listen to, and editing was a time-consuming nightmare.

These days, thanks to digital recording and editing software, there’s not much excuse for poor quality, and editing is not only super easy but saves considerable time. Technological advances allow reporters to mix sound and text to produce a listenable, even artistic story, while maintaining the journalistic integrity of the piece. And there’s the internet. Near-instant access to information makes researching facts and figures so much easier and faster for reporters than in the past.

How do I expect things will change?

Better audio quality, especially concerning interviews conducted over the phone, even easier access to information, and who knows what more technology will bring.

From the standpoint of story content, I feel globalization and America’s increasingly diverse society will result in more and more stories that feature multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious viewpoints, including here at WEKU. I see that as being a good thing for our listeners, EKU, and for society in general.