Kansas City just had its last chance to hear Walt Bodine, its most recognized broadcast personality live on the air. Walt has been a presence in the local broadcast market for over seventy years, and in that time he made his way around the radio and TV circuit as advertiser, reporter, talk show host, and restaurant reviewer.
He was like us, even to the point of being the very embodiment of a stereotypical Kansas Citian. At the height of his career, he was the scratchy-throated curmudgeon we loved to see reviewing a restaurant on TV; his reactions to anything non-Midwestern ran something like, “You know, this [non-American cuisine] is interesting, but I’m going to go down the street now and get a steak.” When he interviewed national celebrities, his questions seemed to be less geared toward the weighty matters of their careers – things that were probably well known anyway – than they did about things only someone who (literally) could not see past his own city would ask. Who else could have gotten Jim Lehrer to speak at length about his early years as a Kansas boy, his vintage bus restoration project, and to reenact the announcement of arrivals and departures at a ’60s era Greyhound station?
Would that Walt’s career, such as it was as a quirky, folksy reporter, could have ended more gracefully. Given Walt’s advanced age and poor health, he was barely able to participate in his last show, and this fact alone made for a cringe-worthy affair. The guest co-hosts did their best to engage Walt in conversation, but Walt sounded like he was only marginally aware of his environs, and he could barely form yes or no answers to their questions between loud, gurgly coughs. Adding insult to injury, the show took place during KCUR’s spring pledge drive. So between the impromptu remembrances, a couple of random sound clips, and Walt’s few attempts to say something coherent, they were asking for money. Real classy. And obviously, none of this would have been Walt’s idea were he still capable of deciding for himself how to make a clean exit into retirement.
But that is the problem; last Friday’s goodbye played out as it did because it came many years too late. Walt has not truly hosted a radio show in over a decade, and even as a guest he would have had little to contribute to one for almost as long. (Again, not his fault.) Yet they kept wheeling him into the studio and mic’ing him up every weekday at 10am (although not as often toward the end). While the real moderating was handled by someone else, Walt was left pretty much to his own to say whatever he wanted, whether it had anything to do with the show topic or otherwise. That could not have been an enjoyable experience for any prospective listener, and certainly not for those in the studio.
Of course, it is not as though no one at KCUR recognized many years ago it was time for Walt to call it quits while he was still able to sign off for good on his own and with some dignity. But instead of granting him that chance, the show was abruptly canceled ca. 1996 with no explanation at all. Walt still had an active fan base at the time, and they appeared at least as insulted at the brushoff as he. After several days of protests outside the station and TV news reports that covered the whole thing and gave Walt a chance to voice his own reaction, his show was reinstated indefinitely. No doubt there was concern that any subsequent attempts to cancel the show would be even trickier in light of the fiasco. And while there may well have been more to the story of that first cancellation than was made public, from the outside it sure looked like Walt was really the one getting the raw deal, even after they brought him back. Given how he fared as a talk show host over the next 16 years, I think that is not far from the truth.
In any case, it’s done. I am certain Mr. Bodine will ultimately be remembered for his earlier work, especially by many of the current crop of local journalists who considered him a mentor. Walt was never a celebrity who would have caught the attention of the whole nation, and that was largely his appeal to those of us who ‘knew’ him as a member of our own community. Probably every mid-size city in the nation like ours has had someone like Walt at some point since the birth of mass media, i.e., a public figure whose life seemed to revolve solely around celebrating local culture and due to whose ubiquity everyone comes to feel they know well. Hopefully at 92 that is how he remembers things.
That’s what I have to say to that.
***Edit: This is definitely my favorite WB report, admittedly because it’s about my favorite spot on the planet